Saturday, August 1, 2015

Jim Britell: Rules For Wilderness Campaigns

Wilderness around Fulton Chain from Castle Rock above Blue Mountain LakeToday’s forest protection advocates are the sixth generation of wilderness activists. This is an attempt to abstract the rules, lessons and insights from successful and unsuccessful wilderness campaigns of the past and particularly the Adirondack wilderness campaigns of the 1930’s through 1950’s which were waged with a fire seldom seen since.

If we are to return to a world where the preservation of roadless, motorless Wilderness has the enthusiastic, informed support of a majority of the population, I think the following rules can guide us there.

Rule Sets (Fr. T.Barnett) – A collection of rules that delineates how some activity normally unfolds. Rule set reset – When you realize that your world is woefully lacking certain types of rules, you start making up those new rules…

General rules

  • Never try to lead a campaign to save anyplace you haven’t hiked over, camped on and photographed.
  • To organize is to “wake people up”.
  • Wilderness preservation is human rights advocacy.
  • Every Wilderness campaign is a political campaign and has clear winners and losers – it is more win–lose than win–win.
  • A major Wilderness Campaign is a complex project so you need people with experience in public relations, management, media and organizing.
  • You can conduct a major, successful, decade–long wilderness campaign without foundation grants.
  • If you need money to save Wilderness get it directly from rich people. The best source of money for a multi–decade campaign is a rich Republican.
  • Promulgating elaborate wilderness plans or imposing wilderness designations without simultaneous coordinated grassroots organizing and media merely gathers fuel for anti–wilderness organizers.

Politics and Politicians

  • Politicians, environmental groups and laws don’t protect wilderness, voters do.
  • If the voters of the political entity with jurisdiction over the wilderness area are educated to personally understand the wilderness values involved, then and only then, will their representatives support Wilderness proposals.
  • Neither Democrats nor Republicans are intrinsically pro–wilderness or anti–wilderness.
  • The citizens and legislators who happen to live near a wilderness area should have no more say about it than the neighbors of the statue of liberty would have a special voice on what happens to it.
  • Most legislators, public and civic officials and people near a wilderness tend to favor its commercialization, commodification and development.
  • Once you identify the legislators to target, you know the voters you must educate: the voters who elect the politicians who sit on or chair the legislative committees with jurisdiction over your issue.
  • Administrative agencies do what their political overseers tell them, so focus your lobbying on their political leaders.
  • Campaigns for Wilderness in rural counties are won in urban areas. Most of the energy, concern and money in a campaign come from large cities. The focus of any campaign should be where the population of the controlling political entity is, not where the resource happens to be located.
  • Mapping the political ecology of your campaign is as important as mapping its physical ecology because in Wilderness campaigns you must master both the political and physical ecosystems.
  • A legislator who thinks his constituents are pro–wilderness will support wilderness.
  • Never assume that because successful wilderness campaigning occurred in a legislator’s district that they necessarily heard about it. Verify that your message was actually seen by its intended target.
  • Don’t assume you know why a particular vote was cast no matter how obvious it may appear. If you fail in a vote, immediately go to the legislators who voted against you and ask them why they voted as they did and exactly what you did wrong.
  • Serious wilderness advocacy usually means passing legislation and working to remove bad legislators at election time so don’t rely entirely on non–profits.
  • To save the mountains in the headwaters of a watershed understand the politics, politicians and people in its floodplain.

Media and Message

  • This is the message urban voters understand. Wilderness solitude and its silence is the average citizen and his children’s most valuable, personal, deeded asset; ease of access to wilderness obliterates its awe and destroys it; roads and motors will steal their wilderness from them; and wilderness preservation is important for its intrinsic sake.
  • At the outset of every campaign create “The Basic Media Piece”. Find an experienced media professional to write or help write a powerful, narrative that is easy for the average person to grasp. Cover the issue from all angles; ethical, legal, political, economic, historical, natural and ecological. If the area is beautiful – say so and show it in pictures. Persuade reader to feel as you do about the place you seek to protect.
  • Place appropriate versions of your media piece in every daily, weekly and monthly publication in the state many times in diverse iterations. Put your basic pamphlet into every citizen’s hand.
  • The key words to proudly and loudly use in every wilderness fight are “preserve” and “preservation”.
  • Development is not necessarily good, it can be tragic and horrible – say so.
  • Every big issue needs a movie about it. Show it everywhere through a barnstorming speakers bureau who holds community meetings. A campaign without a professionally created video or movie is not serious.
  • If you justify Wilderness on economic or commercial arguments like tourism promotion, you legitimize and invite jobs–based counterarguments. It is always easier to quantify the advantages of development than preservation. There are often compelling cost–benefit arguments in favor of preserving wilderness but they should be secondary.
  • A wilderness or a wild thing is never merely a “resource” so don’t refer to it or think of it as one. A mountain is not a “resource” to be protected—it is a mountain to be protected. The language of utility or commodification implicitly reduces sacred places to an input or variable in an equation. Nothing important should be trivialized by calling it a “resource”.
  • If an environmental disaster occurs due to industry overreach or non–regulation and you have an massive event like a landslide from over logging or the failure of a huge manure lagoon, you have media attention and public interest it would cost millions in paid advertising to create. Use these opportunities to relentlessly place blame on the real cause. Appropriate the public concern and focus it on your solutions.
  • The capability of writing inspirational wilderness paeans is a critically useful skill but it is never a substitute or alternative to organizing. It is not “doing politics”. Media alone seldom creates action; it supplements organizing.

Grassroots Organizing

  • Splits and conflict during campaigns are normal and probably desirable for the same reason you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. (Compared to civil rights or woman’s suffrage, wilderness advocacy has been fairly conflict–free internally.)
  • People who use an area like hunters, paddlers and hikers are the easiest to organize to save an area and have enormous veracity. If organized hunters and fishermen enthusiastically support a Wilderness proposal it will have a far better chance.
  • A Wilderness grassroots organizer’s job consists of continuous, exhausting barnstorming. A person who is not constantly traveling and dealing with different groups of people may be doing useful things but he is probably not a grassroots organizer.
  • In wilderness campaigns all environmental groups must work together but a new campaign usually needs a new organization devoted specifically to it.
  • The most motivated people in any campaign are the volunteers. Paid professionals are hired help; volunteers are the genius, spirit and heart of a wilderness campaign.
  • Successful business people – Rotary and Chamber of Commerce members and average soccer moms make effective, reliable and aggressive wilderness activists.
  • An ally in a campaign is anyone who might share your short–term strategies. Don’t expect all your allies to share your ultimate goals or even sympathize with them.
  • The preparation of complex maps and plans is absolutely essential to any campaign but only one of many essential components.
  • It is possible to win a campaign with a very small group of organizers who agree on goals, but not with a large group who doesn’t.
  • Some people are excellent mentors and developers of organizers and activists but are poor grassroots organizers themselves.
  • If you soundly win a campaign primarily with grassroots organizing you may not have to fight it again for a longtime – if ever.
  • Wilderness campaigns can often take ten years or longer.


  • Be careful when your adversary “gives up” they may be getting ready to try something worse with the public support of one of your current allies.
  • Sometimes campaigns end in a deal that displaces development to places where there is less resistance. If in fact, you have created the “less resistance” by promising to keep quiet, then you are not doing grassroots activism. You are merely assisting developers with their planning, by identifying places they can ruin with impunity.
  • When a wilderness campaign begins to succeed it may be offered a compromise to trade something you want over here in exchange for agreeing to allow something bad to occur over there. This challenge will strengthen a grassroots–driven campaign and weaken a media-driven campaign.
  • Sacrificing one jewel to save another is not win–win or smart tactics; it’s just an indication of poor organizing.
  • A strong grassroots–driven campaign will excel in follow–on campaigns and recovering from setbacks and double–crosses.


  • The biggest obstacles to wilderness preservation are often other wilderness activists who think you can’t succeed.
  • When faced with a threat to develop or road a wilderness, defeat it, and then use your momentum to push your opponent back behind the line of scrimmage and secure more protection than you had when you began. Do this once or twice and developers don’t come back.
  • All wilderness preservation is about who controls trails since any trail invites eventual motorized use.
  • The word “trail” properly refers to an unplanned path made by feet, for the use of feet. A path for the use of things with motors is a “road.” A path used by motors that connects two human settlements is a “highway”.
  • Adirondack Wilderness protection was sustained by the votes from the large cities created from the close bonds of preservationists in the mountains, engineers and managers from research laboratories and factories across the state, and workers in “sister” or large cities.
  • Don’t make a wilderness fight personal. Call out your supporters by name for praise, but not your adversaries. If you want to find something to heap abuse on, pick real targets like roads, motors and commercial development.
  • In a campaign you should organize sufficiently that you can fill a hall with wilderness supporters in every city in the political jurisdiction involved. State campaigns should generate a thousand organizational endorsements and tens or hundreds of thousands of letters.
  • Wilderness activists are not bound to forgo opposition to a bad project by the promises, commitments or the presumed ethical constraints or “honor” of other activists.
  • A small organization with a handful of “stand up” people is more effective than a huge one with none. A very small core of campaign strategists is better than a large one.

 Photo courtesy John Warren.

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Jim Britell is a native of Utica and a retired federal manager who served as a long range planner, Management analyst, Chief of Management Information Systems and Chief of Systems Operations. He was a leader in the West Coast ancient forest campaign, has organized on behalf of wilderness in 30 states, and is author of the handbook on grassroots organizing, Organize to Win. He was formerly President of the Malone Public Library and board member of the NYS Library Trustees Association. He maintains a web site for grassroots organizers at


10 Responses

  1. David says:

    Thanks for this very timely article. The federal wilderness system contains only 104 million acres of federal lands. Out of 3.5 million acres of forest preserve and easement lands in the Adirondacks, only 1, 1 million acres are protecting wilderness. So wilderness is grossly underrepresented.
    NYS has a very developed state park system. There are also privately developed facilities, both state wide and within the park.
    So we need to get back to basics. In the interest of “balance” I’m seeing mountain bike and snowmobile routes being cut through wilderness areas, under the guise of Wild Forest Corridors. We’re also seeing a less committed APA.
    But, I’m hopeful. The Essex Chain Land hearings generated 3,500 comments, with 2,700 advocating for wilderness, with 800 wanting wild forest.
    So we have the numbers. It’s just harnessing them.
    IF we don’t it’s bad news for Wilderness both state wide and nationally

    • Paul says:

      Mt. bike and snowmobiles routes are not being “cut” through wilderness areas. This is new forest preserve land, land that was commercial timberland until just recently. The alternative is to classify it all as Wild Forest so no “corridors” are required. It is called a balanced approach. Some of the 800 may be “wanting” Wild Forest specifically so a corridor doesn’t cut thorough wilderness. Also, some of the 2700 may support the wilderness classification because it allows the corridor.

  2. Lakechamplain says:

    Please, everybody, read this article from the NY Times posted online on Sunday, August 2nd.

    The DEC has BETRAYED the people of New York who believe it will help protect the Adirondacks.

    • Hawthorn says:

      The NY Times article about the NYCO disaster illustrates how some of our wilderness advocates violated one of the principals outlined in the article: “Sacrificing one jewel to save another is not win–win or smart tactics; it’s just an indication of poor organizing.”

    • Paul says:

      What the article illustrates is that special interest groups have too much sway over state agencies. This includes ones related to corporations and environmental protection.

      I guess this is just how things work around here. The bottom line for the DEC is that they followed the principal that this will in the end be a net gain for the Forest Preserve so I don’t think much of this other stuff really matters.

  3. Avon says:

    Here in NYC, the Times article was prominently located in the newspaper, with a huge photo of the freshly-gouged Park land. People I know who voted for Prop5 that year (mostly because of the promised “remediation”) are appalled now. I see increased skepticism of Albany and development, and more interest in preservation. Had the NYCO effort followed some of Britell’s principles, it might not be backfiring so badly since its “victory.”

    I actually like only some of the principles, though. Getting serious about (natural) “resources” and about “trails” is a great reminder that we need to pay attention to language. But we also need to pay attention to trends! It’s folly to rely on such 1970s-vintage “Media/Message” and “Grass-roots” guidelines in this era of social media, instant outrage, and quick burnouts of everything. Mr. Britell, the internet exists, and an entire generation spends its life on “devices,” not “pamphlets”! (I know, I’m old myself; but it’s true.)

    So let’s get nimble, and involve the kids who know how. Luckily, young people can fall passionately in love with the Adks really hard and really fast!

    • About the absence of high-technology or social media references in my article

      This is the second article in a series..The first one explained that historically effective forest activists have always not only used the latest technologies but pioneered them. see :

      In my own campaigns I always try to use the most advanced technology possible.

      But I agree that I should probably revise this to add an item on the importance of social media – however the issues facing Adirondacks advocacy don’t require complex, sophisticated or high tech solutions.

      Also my handbook on how to do organizing “Organize to Win” has lots of specific examples of how to actually organize and it can be downloaded at

  4. ADKerDon says:

    The comments show just how socialistic the environmentalists are. It also shows the need to amend Article XIV to restrict the forest preserve to those lands above 3,000 feet elevation so jobs, recreation, tourism, etc. can have a place here in the Adirondacks.

    • John Warren says:

      You mean socialistic like public highways and public schools? Or are you thinking socialistic like public fire departments and police?

      Perhaps socialistic doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  5. Ed Zahniser says:

    This is wonderful and important information — and compactly put — for all those who will advocate for the wilderness and wildness of the Adirondacks. It harks back to the Black River Wars and other campaigns of that time, during which the principles that Jim outlines so well were applied so effectively by leading advocates of that time. Those campaigns were the grassroots training ground for the surprising national victory in the early 1950s that saw the removal of the Echo Park Dam scheme from the Upper Colorado River Storage Project. And it was that victory that created the first-ever national conservation coalition that was then turned to the eight-year campaign for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964, whose language now defines designated wilderness areas in New York State. Congratulations to Jim for such a clear outline of the principles of such effective advocacy.