SPECIAL REPORT- Big Green: Environmentalists left David behind long ago

Environmentalists habitually present themselves as public-spirited Davids courageously doing battle against special-interest corporate Goliaths, but the reality is the roles often are the exact opposite.

“Taken as a whole, the environmental movement appears to have grown in number of organizations, members, and in total revenues almost every year since 1960,” according to a 2008 report from the National Center for Charitable Statistics, with the most up-to-date figures available.

Total revenue for environmental and conservation groups grew from $1.9 billion in 1989 to $8.2 billion in 2005, the latest year for which data was available. The rate of growth between 1989 and 2005 was 50 percent higher than the average for all public charities. 

According to NCCS, 8,078 of the estimated 26,000 environmental nonprofits received enough income to require them to file an IRS Form 990 tax return.

Some 40 percent of the 26,000 environmental groups are dedicated to land trusts, protecting natural resources and water resources/wetlands conservation. About 9 percent are dedicated to political advocacy, and another 9 percent to the highly politicized world of environmental education.

The remaining 42 percent are devoted to narrower issues like specific species, fisheries, botanical gardens, beautification projects and recycling, to name only a few of the thousands of environmental causes.

Still, political activity consumes vast amounts of the movement’s resources. Of the $8.2 billion in annual revenue collected by the country’s 26,000 environmental non-profits, 32 percent of it goes to 285 that are based in the Washington, D.C., area.

From 1996 to 2005, 105 new environmental nonprofits were started in metro D.C. — a 62 percent increase. And the share of total revenue rises to 43 percent if organizations are included from the mid-Atlantic region, within easy striking distance of the nation’s capital.

The regional demographics also suggest a large political disparity in the environmental movement between the grass-roots and the D.C.-based activists. Of the 26,000 environmental organizations nationwide, the region with the most registered environmental organizations is the South, where Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation have more than 7,000 chapters alone. 

At the local level south of the Mason-Dixon Line, conservation and environmentalism efforts are very active, but are sometimes less politicized. This “reflect[s] the region’s more traditional approach to conservation, which values resource conservation not as an end in itself but for the purpose of benefiting hunters, fishermen, and other users,” according to the NCCS. 

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