Double Cone Quarterly
Spring Equinox 2003-- Volume VI, Number 1

Lobbying Washington
for Wilderness

Lobbying Washington for Wilderness

By Kelsey Jordahl, Ph.D.
US Capitol
California Wilderness activists at work in Washington

After the introduction of Sam Farr's Big Sur wilderness bill and Sen. Barbara Boxer's 2.5 million acre California wilderness bill last spring, the California Wild Heritage Campaign organized California volunteers to go to Washington, DC, and lobby Congress for California wilderness. I got to go along and represent our area in this group from all around the state.

We spent our first day in DC at the Wilderness Society offices. The morning was devoted to a review of the statewide campaign. Not much new to me, but it didn't hurt to see it again, and to freshen up on some of the statistics before meeting with congressional offices. In the afternoon, we had some great talks about how the House & Senate offices work from staff members, and a great seminar on how to lobby. It's all about salesmanship. In fact, it's probably not that different from a talk on how to sell vacuum cleaners. But it was effective, and I thought it prepared us well for the week.

We were split into lobbying teams of 3 or 4. Most of them consisted of one of the paid campaign staff members and 2 or 3 local volunteers like myself. Our teams were each assigned a list of offices to set up meetings with; my team had Sam Farr, Lois Capps, and Barbara Lee from the California delegation, along with a number of friendly offices from out of state. They tried to send a team with at least one constituent to each of the California representatives, and Farr, Capps and Lee represent the three districts of our team members. Our targets were every member of the California delegation, along with out of state offices that we expected to be receptive to our cause, including cosponsors of the Roadless bill and those who had voted for ANWR wilderness or other recent wilderness bills. There is a great summary of environmental voting records called the "Wild Card" published by the American Wilderness Coalition.

Our next three days were mostly taken up with team lobbying meetings, but we also had some group activities, including meetings with Hilda Solis, Mike Thompson, Barbara Boxer, and Diane Feinstein's office. We also attended a tea with Senator Boxer and a breakfast with Senator Feinstein. These events are open to any constituents, so contact your Senators' offices if you're taking a trip to Washington and you can get your voice heard personally!

I was impressed with the staff members that we met with. They were smart, interested, and asked good questions. Their questions about the substance of the bills were straightforward. The harder questions were the political ones, most commonly: "Is Feinstein on board?", "Where does the rest of the California delegation stand?", "What is Gray Davis' position?", and "Do you really expect this to pass?"

Most impressive to me was how accessible the process is. It really isn't that hard to get 20 minutes of time from a congressional staffer, even from outside your own district. Sure, some of them were pretty low-level staff, but most were legislative assistants who the primary people working on wilderness issues in the office. The popular picture is that you need money to buy access, but there is one thing that matters even more: votes. The environment matters to people, especially in California, and wilderness is one of the most popular environmental issues. It may not be one of the highest-profile issues, but it has very broad support, and when we go in to talk to a congressional office. they know that we represent a whole lot of voters back in California, and that doing something to protect wilderness will make them look good to voters in their districts. Of course, they don't all feel that way, and the current Congressional leadership huge barrier for us, but at the time of our trip we were mostly meeting with friendly offices, so they were very receptive.

Sam Farr's bill and Barbara Boxer's statewide bill had already been introduced a couple months before we were there, and we were hoping that the Solis & Thompson bills (the House counterparts to Boxer's) would be introduced while we were in DC, but they were delayed due to some technical difficulties in the language and they didn't come out until the following week. They had gathered 13 original cosponsors, partly due to our work, and more signed on later.

Finally, I think that one of the biggest benefits for me from the week was the connection to the rest of the statewide wilderness campaign. It was great to see how all of our local work fits into the bigger picture at the state and national level. Now it is a lot easier for me to know who to talk to, say, in the CWHC office, or about river issues, or if I need to reach someone working in San Luis Obispo.

I found the whole experience energizing and inspiring, and I just had a whole lot of fun. Honestly, I didn't know how much I would enjoy the political end of things going in, but it was a lot more interesting than I expected. I still try to spend a good part of my time with the wilderness effort actually out there on the ground getting to know these places better and sharing them with people, but now I'm a little more familiar with the political end of things, too, which is where it finally has to happen to protect them permanently. It was inspiring to me to learn that Congress really does listen to the concerns of ordinary citizens! There aren't enough of us wilderness lobbyists compared to the many other interests represented in the halls of Capitol Hill, but we can get access and be heard.

We won a great victory locally with the passage of the Big Sur Wilderness and Conservation Act of 2002 by Sam Farr's outstanding efforts. The rest of the state awaits the reintroduction of the other California wilderness bills in the current session of Congress, which will hopefully be able to build on some of the momentum we have generated in this area.


Dr. Jordahl sits on the Board of Directors of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance.


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