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Natural Resources Defense Council: Activities and Agendas

By Jacob Laksin
Discover The Networks

Founded in 1970 on a $400,000 seed grant from the Ford Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is today one of the most influential environmentalist lobbying groups in the United States. It claims a membership of one million people, including some 400,000 Internet activists. The organization's President is Frances Beinecke, a co-founder of the New York League of Conservation Voters, a Board member of the World Resources Institute, and a former Board Chair of the Wilderness Society

NRDC identifies ten program areas as its priorities:

(a) Clean Air and Energy: "[E]lectric power plants and motor vehicles are by far the biggest sources of air pollution and its myriad effects, from lung damage to acid rain to global warming."

Global Warming: "Higher temperatures threaten dangerous consequences: drought, disease, floods, lost ecosystems. And from sweltering heat to rising seas, global warming's effects have already begun."

(c) Clean Water and Oceans: "NRDC fights to safeguard drinking water, to protect, preserve and restore our oceans, rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands and coastal waters, and to promote conservation and better water management in the arid western states."

(d) Wildlife and Fish: "The threats vary, from pollution to logging to harmful development, but the effect on wildlife is the same: shrinking habitat and the inability to survive and reproduce."

(e) Parks, Forests, and Wildlands: "[P]ollution, neglect and skyrocketing attendance have taken a toll on national parks … while the livestock, logging, mining and oil and gas industries keep up the pressure to use our last remaining public wildlands for their profit. NRDC works to secure permanent protection for millions of acres of wildlands … and reduce wood consumption and damaging forestry practices."

(f) Health and Environment: "When toxic contaminants -- such as pesticides, mercury pollution and diesel exhaust -- are released into the environment, their effect on human health can be profound. … We educate the public about the health threats …"  

(g) Nuclear Weapons, Waste, and Energy: "Our overarching goal is the reduction, and ultimate elimination, of unacceptable risks to people and the environment from the exploitation of nuclear energy for both military and peaceful purposes."

(h) Cities and Green Living: "City dwellers face a wide range of environmental challenges: dirty air and water, … traffic, the impacts of industry. … We work to preserve open space and help create plans for new urban parks and incentives that revitalize central cities."

(i) U.S. Law and Policy: "NRDC's legislative team … press[es] for vital new programs to meet such difficult challenges as global warming, urban sprawl, air and water pollution, depletion of our fisheries, pesticide threats to children's health, and … disappearing wilderness and wildlife."

(j) International Issues: "Global warming pollution from power plants and cars in the United States increases the risk of floods in Europe and droughts in Asia. … [I]intense demand in the United States and other developed countries for natural resources combines with the long reach of multinational corporations to threaten forest and marine ecosystems throughout the Americas."

To help communicate its message on these matters to a wide audience, NRDC publishes a quarterly environmental magazine called On Earth and an online bulletin titled Nature's Voice.

NRDC's most notorious campaign to date was its 1989 assault on apple growers. In a joint effort with Fenton Communications, a Washington-based public relations firm headed by David Fenton, NRDC claimed that growers who treated apples with the pesticide Alar were creating a serious health threat to consumers. For five months, NRDC flooded media outlets with accusations that Alar was a dangerous carcinogen. Eventually the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that the fear campaign was unfounded, explaining that a person would have to eat 50,000 pounds of Alar-treated apples per day over the course of a lifetime in order to ingest enough of the substance to develop cancer. For apple growers, this revelation came too late: the NRDC scare campaign had impelled customers to reject the ostensibly fatal fruit, thereby inflicting $250 million in losses on America's apple farmers and driving many smaller growers out of business.

NRDC fared much better. According to an internal memo written by David Fenton and later published in the Wall Street Journal: "We designed [the anti-Alar campaign] so that revenue would flow back to the Natural Resources Defense Council from the public, and we sold a book about pesticides through a 900 number and the Donahue Show. And to date there has been $700,000 in net revenue from it."

In 1998, NRDC again teamed up with Fenton to promote an initiative called "Give Swordfish a Break!" Billed as a grassroots effort to raise awareness about the over-fishing of endangered species and to tighten federal fishing regulations, the campaign was bankrolled by grants from 270 frightened food merchants. It was eventually learned that swordfish were not actually endangered. Moreover, even if they had been endangered, NRDC's campaign would have done little to revive swordfish numbers, since it targeted only the U.S. fish market. "Give Swordfish a Break!" was part of a larger strategy to cast federal regulations over numerous varieties of seafood, whether they were endangered or not. Toward that end, NRDC claimed that, in addition to swordfish, seafood species like cod, scallops, sole, sea bass, sturgeon, redfish, red snapper, and monkfish should now be classified as "over-fished."

With a Republican administration in power, NRDC has denounced the Bush White House's alleged intimacy with corporate interests and its purported hostility to the environment. In particular, NRDC characterized a March 2002 meeting between energy industry lobbyists and the Bush administration's Energy Task Force officials -- a routine occurrence in any administration -- as prima facie evidence that corporate interests wield inordinate influence over the Bush energy policy. NRDC did not mention that Task Force members had also met with environmentalist groups and had accepted many of their suggestions for energy policies.

By contrast, in the late 1990s -- a Democratic era -- NRDC was an outspoken booster of Enron Corporation, which has since become synonymous with corporate malfeasance. For its support of environmentalist legislation like the Kyoto Protocol (a tactical move by the company aimed at eliminating its competition in the energy industry), Enron earned the praise of NRDC and other environmentalist groups. "When the infant 104th Congress went to town on the nation's environmental laws," said NRDC's Ralph Cavanagh in 1997, "we appealed for help from [the] corporate community. Many former friends were conspicuously silent. [Enron CEO] Ken Lay was [an] extraordinarily honorable—and initially lonely—exception, and he is part of the reason why the bad guys ultimately failed at most of what they attempted. … On environmental stewardship, our experience is that you can trust Enron." In April 2000, NRDC listed Enron as one of several "progressive companies" that "support responsible global warming policy."

When Enron later declared bankruptcy, however, NRDC environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., in a December 2003 Rolling Stone article titled "Crimes Against Nature," assailed the Bush administration's energy plan as a sop to corporate interests. As proof, Kennedy cited the administration's alleged ties to Kenneth Lay.

NRDC opposes the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" initiative, dubbing it "The Bush Administration's Air Pollution Plan." "Despite mounting evidence of the urgency of this problem," says NRDC, "the President's plan fails to include a single measure to reduce or even limit the growth of carbon dioxide, the chief pollutant causing global warming." In fact, the federal government has never regulated carbon dioxide.

As a tax-free corporation under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, NRDC is subject to limits on the amount of money it can disburse for the purposes of lobbying Congress. But it has found a way around such restrictions by establishing a separate lobbying arm, the NRDC Action Fund. Operating under a different section of the tax code, section 501(c)(4), the Action Fund is exempt from similar restrictions. Under the banner of "environmental action", NRDC lodges lawsuits to impede the construction of everything from highways and hydroelectric dams to nuclear power plants. The NRDC Action Fund complements this work, launching advertising campaigns to arouse grassroots support.

Philanthropic support for NRDC has risen dramatically in recent years, from just over $36 million in 1999 to more than $55 million in 2004. As of 2004, the organization had assets of $93,525,812. NRDC receives financial backing from Pew Charitable Trusts, the Tides Foundation, the Bauman Family Foundation, the Beldon Fund, the Blue Moon Fund, the Bullitt Foundation, the
Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the Columbia Foundation, the Compton Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Energy Foundation, the Vira I. Heinz Endowment, the Heinz Family Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New York Times Company Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Scherman Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, the Turner Foundation, and many others.

Moreover, it is estimated that NRDC received $2.6 million from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the first three years of the Bush administration. NRDC, which accused President Bush of attempting the "rollback of almost every major environmental law on the books," subsequently used the EPA money to finance anti-Bush radio spots in battleground states prior to the 2004 presidential election. 

NRDC recently endorsed a document called the Earth Charter, which blames capitalism for many of the world's environmental, social, and economic problems. The Charter maintains that "the dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species. The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening."

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