Requiem for a heavyweight

Published January 1, 2001

Editor’s note: People for the USA closed its doors on December 31. Its leaders, chief among them executive director Jeff Harris, have our sincere thanks for their yeoman’s work over the past decade, and our best wishes for success in whatever new challenges they undertook. They will be sorely missed. What follows is Harris’ final message to PFUSA members, reprinted here with permission.

People for the USA began with the spotted owl fight in the Pacific Northwest. We were born fighting for people and communities against a powerful tide of environmental excess. We fought a very good fight for over a decade; we were the engine of the environmental backlash movement. In many ways PFUSA happened because it was necessary.

PFUSA was a glorious triumph, a victory that defied all the odds. We were a grassroots organization that grew across county and state boundaries to have members in every state. We had political clout with hundreds of elected officials as members and respect from the media.

Organizing grassroots is a contradiction in terms. It’s like herding cats, only harder. Typical grassroots types are irascible and independent, but they heard PFUSA’s message and joined, and they did it on a scale unmatched by any other organization in our movement.

Not only did PFUSA manage to unite the grassroots types, but we also brought the business community to our table. I fondly remember our Board meetings, where we would set up a large conference table in a U-shape to seat our 40-odd members. As they filed in, the grassroots types in jeans and corporate types in slacks, they would invariably sit on different sides of the U. You see, it’s not natural for grassroots folks and corporate executives to trust one another’s motives. It was amazing, but it worked for PFUSA.

It’s also quite a challenge to bring together a large group when you are essentially opposing something that is wildly popular. Americans have embraced the environmental ethic; it is a part of our value system like motherhood and apple pie. It was an unpopular and difficult task to battle what we termed “environmental extremism.” The public generally does not go for hair-splitting nuance: to them it’s all black or white.

What did we accomplish? Well, I believe we can fairly take credit for fighting the environmentalists to a standstill in Congress in recent years. That’s no small matter considering how financially outgunned we were. I also think we hastened the time when Americans would no longer blindly follow any suggestions made by environmentalists. We shot big holes in their arguments and the public listened.

Why then, is PFUSA closing its doors? The short answer is that we ran out of money, but behind that reality is the undeniable fact that we were also losing our relevance. Unfortunately, organizations do get old and lose their vitality, just as people do.

When our organization was in its formative days, the environmental movement was at its zenith and concern for the environment was a top-five issue on every public opinion poll. At the same time, unemployment levels were high and jobs scarce. Consequently, when the environmentalists managed to shut down a timber mill or mine, the affected employees were in dire straits. They joined us and were passionate and effective warriors.

Contrast that scenario with circumstances today. Our economy and employment levels are at record highs. If you lose your job you can find another one tomorrow. The environment, as an issue of national concern, has moved off center stage. It no longer makes even the top two dozen in most surveys.

The public appears to believe that if the environment was ever in peril, it has been saved. The environmentalists have been reduced to desperate strategies like global warming to terrify the multitudes . . . and the multitudes are not buying.

The environmentalists’ time in the spotlight is coming to an end.

And so has ours.

Jeffrey Harris served as executive director of PFUSA.