Big-name sophisticates like Jean-Michel Cousteau and Robert Kennedy Jr. rejoiced when it was announced last year that a controversial salt plant proposed in Mexico had been stopped. As news reports crackled across Japan, North America and Europe, environmentalists celebrated the unprecedented victory that saved the gray whale.
The globe-encircling crusade had aimed to stop the Mexican government -- in partnership with corporate giant Mitsubishi -- from building a sprawling facility to evaporate salt from the sea off Baja's Pacific coast. The campaign hit a nerve unlike any environmental battle before it, inspiring one million people to bury Mitsubishi in protest mail, and even sweeping through America's grade schools, where children protested with crayon drawings and pleas to "stop killing Namu."
Movie stars Pierce Brosnan and Glenn Close issued dramatic appeals for compassion toward the gray whale, warning that the proposed salt evaporation plant threatened the pristine lagoon that the once-endangered leviathan uses to give birth. The United Nations sent an international team to investigate. The California Coastal Commission decried the project. And 34 renowned scientists, nine of them Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, put their names on full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, International Herald Tribune and La Reforma condemning the saltworks.
In this issue, four New Times writers examine the truth behind a controversial proposed salt plant near the calving lagoons of Baja and how a misguided campaign to save the whales benefited two of the world's largest environmental groups. While government and academic whale researchers struggled to raise the few hundred thousand dollars needed to investigate central problems with the grays' Arctic food supply, green groups raised and spent $15 million to fight the salt plant, even though a panel of leading whale experts found the plant would not harm the whales.
The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.
In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sent out 30.4 million mailers -- unprecedented for a single environmental battle -- and collected $7 million in donations from anxious Americans who had been convinced the whales were in danger. Because NRDC heavily promoted itself as protector of the gray whale to attract new members, its size skyrocketed from 175,000 members in 1996 to more than 450,000 this year. New membership fees directly attributable to the gray whale campaign added a $20 million windfall to NRDC's coffers since 1996.
Americans opened their checkbooks because of disturbing mass mailers such as a February 11, 1997, letter from NRDC president (then executive director) John Adams, which promised to "focus worldwide attention on this new threat to gray whales." The fund-raising letter included a form citizens could sign and forward to corporate giant Mitsubishi, promising a boycott and warning that "North Americans will stand united against this reckless endangerment of our continent's most spectacular wildlife."
With plenty of money at the ready, the environmentalists spent freely. NRDC's partner in battle, the cash-rich International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), did no fund raising but spent $3.5 million on lobbying and media campaigns focused heavily on environment-conscious California. It hired crack Democratic consultants who traveled the breadth of the state, persuading 46 California municipalities and 14 pension funds to boycott Mitsubishi.
IFAW bought a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, lauding the pension money managers who had agreed to boycott Mitsubishi. Beneath an enormous photograph of a gray whale, IFAW stated, "When these money managers make a killing in the stock market, it's not at the expense of an entire species."
In addition to IFAW's $3.5 million lobbying effort that implied that the species was at risk, NRDC spent $12 million on the saltworks war. Much of that $12 million went to a mass public protest campaign and to continued expansion of the group's red-hot membership drive. Together, NRDC and IFAW spent a combined $15.5 million and mobilized nearly two million people globally to protest, write, donate or otherwise act to stop the salt plant.
When former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo abruptly canceled the joint public-private project in March 2000, the conventional wisdom was that David had stopped Goliath.
Although Mitsubishi was one of the world's largest corporations, it had been defeated by environmentalists. There would be no salt harvesting on the heat-baked El Vizcaino Desert salt flat in Baja, a desert whose toes dip into Laguna San Ignacio, the Pacific nursery where up to 300 gray whales migrate from Alaska and Siberia to give birth each January.
"It was the biggest single environmental battle ever in North America, the mother of battles and an incredible journey," says Jacob Scherr, a top NRDC lawyer involved.
The victory at the warm blue lagoon fringed with dense mangrove thickets and alive with dolphins and seabirds catapulted the relatively obscure NRDC and IFAW to the forefront of global environmental warfare.
So, too, was the barnacled gray whale, known fondly to biologists simply as "The Gray," suddenly vaulted up the list of the world's charismatic species.
Word spread about the spiritual connection humans experience at the lagoon, where sofa-size whale infants poke their curious, gigantic, rubbery noses right inside whale-watching skiffs, lingering there to be petted and kissed by delighted tourists.
Clearly, most people thought the idea hammered home in the U.S. in glossy mailers, public service announcements, theater previews, bumper stickers and newspaper ads was to save whales.
Press coverage underscored the message by focusing almost exclusively on the proposed plant's effect on gray whales. When Zedillo stopped the plant, media headlines trumpeted a new era of global environmentalism that had saved a marine mammal only recently removed from the endangered species list.
"A decision Mexico never expected to make," said the New York Times. "Changed the shape of environmental policies in Mexico," declared the Boston Globe. "Handing a stunning victory to environmentalists," wrote the Washington Post. "The most significant victory of their generation," summed up Cox News Service.
Yet the real victory was a triumph of public relations over public policy.
In a yearlong investigation on both sides of the border involving extensive interviews, on-site inspections and review of published and unpublished scientific studies and documents, New Times has found no scientific basis to suggest the salt plant proposed at Laguna San Ignacio represented even a mild threat to the baby grays or the adult whales.
"We who study the gray whale suspected there would not be much," says biologist Jorge Urban, Mexico's leading gray whale authority. "First, whales already co-exist with salt plants. Second, we know the gray whale is quite adaptable because its population has recovered even though it spends much of its life traveling through a world of industry and humans, from Alaska to Baja and back. I participated in the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment), and my confidence is high that there would be no ill effects."
The truth dwelt quietly for half a century just up the road from Laguna San Ignacio.
About 100 miles north, an existing Mitsubishi-Mexico partnership known as Exportadora del Sal (ESSA) operates a huge salt plant in the town of Guerrero Negro. The ESSA saltworks is of the very same design as proposed at Laguna San Ignacio, utilizing thousands of acres of natural salt flats in the Baja desert to create vast, shallow ponds of evaporating seawater and miles of snow-white, salt-harvesting fields.
These are the crucial facts few Americans ever heard: The ESSA salt plant sits directly on the shore of stunning Scammon's Lagoon -- the world's largest gray whale nursery, and by far the most popular with pregnant gray whales. One thousand of them return every year to calve in the deep waters of the lagoon, which is more than double the size of Laguna San Ignacio.
During the nearly five decades the saltworks has operated next to Scammon's Lagoon, gray whale babies -- known as calves -- have prospered and cavorted in its clear blue waters. Indeed, the population of calves and mothers who live in Scammon's waters from January to March each year before heading home to Alaska and the Arctic has steadily increased over 40 years.
But few among the public, especially Americans, ever heard about Guerrero Negro.
Even the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), persuaded during an intense global lobbying effort by NRDC and IFAW to send a team to Baja to examine the threat to whales by the proposed saltworks at San Ignacio, found the existing salt plant at Scammon's was compatible with whale calving and breeding.
Indeed, its team concluded that the proposed salt facility at Laguna San Ignacio appeared to create only one major environmental concern -- dramatic transformation of the desert landscape on the north side of the lagoon by huge tracts of manmade salt ponds.
Undeterred by UNESCO's report or by decades of existing studies conducted by whale experts at Scammon's Lagoon dating back to the '60s, environmentalists insisted the whales were at risk. Key environmentalists began to savage the ethics of top scientists, who had agreed to conduct the most massive environmental impact study in Mexico's history into the proposed saltworks.
With the passage of time, environmental leaders -- while continuing to insist the whales were in danger -- have become quite candid that the save-the-whale battle cry was a tool, campaign rhetoric to achieve their principal goal, the cessation of development.
"Anyone who believes this was ever a debate on the science of gray whales is naive," says Vermont humpback whale researcher Roger Payne, the sole whale expert among 34 award-winning scientists named in ads opposed to the plant. "This was only about politics and stopping the world's largest corporation from ignoring legal protections on land where nothing should ever be built, no matter how many jobs it brings."
The anti-salt plant groups were indeed out to stop a slippery slope phenomenon they saw as more important than any threat to whales: development of lands in the buffer zone of a presidentially decreed biosphere reserve that also contained a UNESCO World Heritage site, whale preserve and bird sanctuary.
Mark Spalding, the top consultant NRDC hired, says, "Early on, I was clear in saying the whale biologists could be right, it won't hurt the whales, but this project was an illegal precedent. It was going to be too complex to explain all these legal issues to people, and everyone knew the gray whale would impact with the American public."
Spalding may have warned his employers, the NRDC and IFAW, internally that the marine biologists might be proved correct, but that is far from the message the environmentalists fed to the public.
The solicitation for donations and support sent out in the winter of 1997 by NRDC president John Adams, was typical of the genre:
"Our continent's most spectacular wildlife nursery is in grave danger . . ."
"Giant diesel engines will pump six thousand gallons of water out of the lagoon every second reducing the precious salinity that is so vital to newborn whales . . ."
"A mile-long pier will cut directly across the path of the whales causing potential injury and death to those whales that attempt to navigate under it . . ."
"Have failed to investigate fully the threat to whales . . ."
"The Mexican government will not reject this latest threat to whales . . ."
"Focus worldwide attention on this new threat to gray whales . . ."
"If you endanger whales you will pay a heavy price in the US marketplace . . ."
Adams' letter went on for five single-spaced pages, a length that suggests there was ample room to explain complex legal issues, had that been the goal.
Saying that the legal issues and "illegal precedent" were too complicated for the public to embrace doesn't wash with some independent scientists who were close to the battle but never took sides.
Whale expert Steve Swartz says: "To say, look, we don't have that many wild areas left and this one is already protected and it's worth more as an undeveloped area like a national park than anything man could put there, the public readily understands that."
Swartz sat on a committee of marine biologists from the U.S., Europe, South America and Mexico who, at the request of the Mexican government and with the blessings of the environmentalists, hammered out a lengthy list of studies that Mitsubishi was required to complete in the environmental impact study.
Today he works for the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. But speaking as a private citizen, he says: "Whales get people's attention because they are sexier than park rangers in uniform. The environmentalists did not want to make the more difficult argument for leaving the land untouched, so they used the gray whale. There was a lot going on in this battle, but it had nothing to do with risk to whales."
Once the plant was canceled, the environmental study that Swartz helped shape -- though completed -- was never released.
The research, several thousand pages, was the most detailed examination of the gray whale's lagoons ever and Mexico's most comprehensive environmental impact assessment.
The EIA concluded that the proposed saltworks posed no threat to gray whales or any creatures in Laguna San Ignacio. "The EIA concludes that from an environmental standpoint, the project is feasible and compatible with the biosphere reserve's objectives and with the objectives of the World Heritage site system. The project would not adversely affect gray whales or other marine or terrestrial species of plants and animals and it could actually benefit species by creating ponds that are attractive to birds and other species."
The exhaustive EIA confirmed existing, if incomplete, research that had been conducted over decades at the salt plant at Guerrero Negro. Independent scientists, staff at the Biosphere and, more recently, Jorge Urbana under contract to ESSA, had all examined the whale population -- primarily to do head counts -- in Scammon's Lagoon.
Globally respected conservationist Exequiel Ezcurra, president of Mexico's National Institute of Ecology, who has been called the "Mexican Bruce Babbitt," commented about the environmentalists and their tactics: "What they did was morally incorrect and politically incorrect. . . . They squeezed money out of Americans by promoting borderline racism that Mexico is a place without laws, that the gray whale was in trouble, and that Americans were the only ones to the rescue. I beg to differ."
The environmental groups hoped to, in effect, change the rules involving the boundaries and protections of Baja's El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, already Latin America's largest land preserve. The Biosphere -- a designation of specially protected land granted by UNESCO -- is divided into two zones: a core and a buffer. Development is allowed in the buffer zone -- so long as it does no serious harm to the plants or animals -- and is forbidden in the core.
Both the existing and proposed salt plant are located in the vast buffer zone, but the environmentalists wanted the proposed saltworks at Laguna San Ignacio treated as if it were going to be plopped into the sensitive core area. They opposed development anywhere around Laguna San Ignacio.
Payne, the humpback whale specialist who led the charge against the salt plant by scientists in nationwide newspaper ads, opined that it was "land where nothing should ever be built."
Yet the land is hardly wilderness. The Biosphere's guidelines describe the area as containing "40,000 people . . . mainly concentrated in the towns. . . . Inhabitants are dependent upon intensive agriculture, fishing, extensive livestock grazing, mining and tourism."
One Biosphere administrator says it is wrong to suggest that people inside the buffer zones should not have access to productive jobs. Indeed, the international management plan for the Biospheres, known as the Seville Strategy '95, contemplates that the world's Biospheres should have a mix of economic and social activities including "agriculture, forestry, hunting and extracting, water and energy supply, fisheries, tourism, recreation and research" to ensure benefits to local peoples.
Mexico itself said much the same when the El Vizcaino reserve was first created.
According to the environmental impact study, the executive order that created the Biosphere "expressly allows productive activities within the buffer zone and acknowledges the importance of solar evaporation salt extraction" -- or saltworks.
Because salt plants rely upon solar and wind power and use a renewable resource -- ocean water -- they have relatively little impact on the environment. They have some impact, but are usually not seen as an enemy of nature.
It's the assault upon the eyes that sullies their reputation, even as the salt plants play a role in the planet's health.
The world's evaporation salt facilities, including one in San Francisco Bay, pull seawater into massive, diked evaporation ponds to dry. Saltworks are ugly and unworldly places, filled with vast pools of drifting beige wads of foam, and blocks and blocks of crunchy, snowlike crystals.
Despite their looks, they create a major seabird habitat rich in brine shrimp and other tiny edibles. In the Bay Area, environmentalists are unhappy their unattractive saltworks may close, since its loss will hurt the seabird ecosystem.
The existing saltworks in Baja is equally important.
The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network has designated the Guerrero Negro saltworks owned by ESSA as a site of "international importance" because nearly 200,000 migratory birds annually utilize its salt ponds as a sanctuary.
"ESSA has had a very important role in the conservation efforts in this area for many years," said Victor Sánchez Sotomayor, director of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, in a statement distributed by the salt plant. "The company has been very cooperative in its studies of land, whales and in particular birds, sponsoring works, and building structures to protect falcon and peregrine nests."
The Brilliant Campaign
If you destroy a home, they call it vandalism. Terrorize a neighborhood and you're a menace. Threaten a life and it's assault. Unless the victims are whales. Then it's just business. Laguna San Ignacio is the last pristine birthing site for the gray whale. . . . The last one.
-- public service announcement widely heard in the U.S., 1998
The very friendly lawyer Joel Reynolds was pretty clear, in his meeting with the very affable lawyer Jim Brumm. NRDC was not going to let anybody build a giant salt facility in the buffer zone of a nationally protected biosphere on the shores of a lagoon filled each winter with baby whales.
"I told him I didn't care what any studies showed, we were going to oppose it to the end," Reynolds recalls.
Brumm, a vice president of Mitsubishi International who was making a new habit of flying to Baja from New York to deal with salt plant troubles, thought Reynolds was bluffing: Mitsubishi was willing to live with any decision the Mexican government made once an extensive environmental impact assessment was complete. Why wouldn't Reynolds?
From the beginning, back in 1995, the salt plant crowd thought the fight should be about science. But the environmental crowd thought the fight should be about ideas.
Brumm conceded that if the research showed any danger to the whales, the plant should be scuttled. But Exportadora del Sal, the joint Mexico-Mitsubishi company that owned the salt plant up north at Guerrero Negro, said if a safe plant could be designed for the El Vizcaino Desert at Laguna San Ignacio, it should be allowed.
Environmentalists said it shouldn't be done at all. Aesthetically, politically and ecologically, it was a bad way to go.
That's when the environmental crowd's brilliant backroom strategy began to jell. The environmentalists would encourage ESSA to fight out an exhausting battle on the science side, by baiting the company with charges of ecological wrongdoing and demanding scientific studies, while they launched a punishing campaign on the political side.
"It was just very important, from an international law and policy viewpoint, that we succeed and prevent such a precedent," says Reynolds. "We were happy to watch Mitsubishi spend $2 million on environmental studies while we made sure the project never happened."
NRDC was one-third of the troika that launched the salt plant battle, after being alerted by Homero Aridjis, respected co-founder of Mexico's Group of 100, a committee fighting, among other things, for cleaner air in Mexico City. Aridjis and his wife Betty had reached out to NRDC. Reynolds in turn brought in IFAW, with its international influence and $60 million budget.
Together, the groups stopped the first proposal for the plant in 1995, which lacked serious environmental mitigation and was rejected by the Mexican government.
The second battle, however, promised to be a doozie. Mitsubishi was not backing down, and it was suddenly agreeing to all manner of tough environmental requirements not even the U.S. laws would mandate.
The green coalition hired consultant Mark Spalding, who launched a negative research operation to ferret out anything that could throw a dark shadow over ESSA, which had for decades operated the existing salt evaporation ponds 100 miles north of San Ignacio next to Scammon's Lagoon.
Spalding, a sharp biologist who speaks fluent Spanish, spent several days meeting villagers, talking to salt plant people and fishermen, snapping photos from the air, digging up research, chatting with scientists and poring over the laws.
Among his first moves, he suggested to NRDC that the company was secretly conspiring to close down the salt plant at Scammon's Lagoon, and essentially shift the population of the dusty town of Guerrero Negro -- with its untidy strip malls and bright lights -- down to the tidy, proud village of Punta Abreojos.
Spalding, lacking so much as a single company memo to that effect, didn't need proof. This was politics, not science. The rumor spread throughout the region. "The battle was to mold vivid impressions, not to prove some piece of data about the world market for salt," he says.
One of his cohorts was Alberto Szekely, a top environmental attorney in Mexico City paid by IFAW, who ratcheted up the political attacks by filing numerous claims of wrongdoing against ESSA and the government. Szekely thought the government did indeed want to grow a town around the proposed plant at San Ignacio, "and that is precisely what we feared, the chaotic disastrous nightmare that Guerrero Negro is -- the entire town is dirty."
Numerous on-site interviews with ESSA managers and employees, from vice presidents to job trainers to union leaders, all contradicted the rumor of a plant closing or the establishment of a new town.
The plant-relocating rumor made ESSA look bad in the small fishing village of Punta Abreojos. Many of the town's residents oppose any growth, and are proud of the fact they can be reached only by a kidney-jarring 90-minute ride over washboard and blowing sand.
While environmental groups fanned the plant relocation rumor, they scored a more direct hit with an allegation that made headlines and inspired the first big public outcry against ESSA, the great turtle die-off of 1997.
Just before Christmas that year, 94 endangered sea turtles were found dead, floating in the sea off the Pacific coast. The environmental groups quickly blamed the Guerrero Negro saltworks for killing the turtles with an accidental spill of brine -- a thick, mineral-laden, toxic byproduct of salt evaporation.
"It was the most dramatic evidence to show that Guerrero Negro was not environmentally benign," says NRDC's Reynolds.
"We documented several environmental crimes, including the release of brine that killed turtles and fish," says Szekely.
Officials at ESSA, however, said there had been no spills, and their records support this. While the skeptical had every right not to accept company paperwork without further proof, ESSA had a logical explanation for the dead turtles, an explanation it would eventually buttress with a scientific probe.
The company blamed local fishermen, whom salt plant officials said had illegally killed the protected turtles because they are popular fare at Christmas. ESSA suggested the fishermen dumped them as inspectors approached.
The turtle die-off went international and badly bruised ESSA. Reynolds debated the issue against Mitsubishi's Brumm on KCET Public TV's Life and Times political talk show in Los Angeles, and came away crowing.
"No matter what audience we came before, or what the topic, I could always convince everybody that ESSA was wrong and we were right, because fundamentally that was true," Reynolds says.
But in the science wars over the salt plant, the truth was hardly ever clear.
The turtles are an endangered species because local fishermen have harvested them to the point of extinction and continue to poach them -- despite the law -- because of lax enforcement.
"Almost nothing happens to those who take the turtles," biologist Sánchez of El Vizcaino Biosphere, told New Times. "They pay a small fine but there is no jail time. We look to catch them three or four times so that a judge can get them a very high fine or jail time."
When the turtle kill became a story in the international press, it was ultra-sensitive because Mexico was at the same moment trying to negotiate a tuna fishing quota with the United States, after a ruinous nine-year boycott that targeted Mexico's fishermen.
The last thing the Mexican government wanted just then was a scandal that made their fishermen look like high-seas scofflaws.
Instead, the Mexican government investigated the turtle die-off for seven months, and ultimately theorized that a brine spill from the salt plant at Guerrero Negro must have made its way to the sea and poisoned the turtles.
Furious, ESSA promptly appointed a panel of scientists who found that brine did not kill the turtles. Some of the dead turtles had been found frozen, a good trick in balmy Baja. And the turtles had blood accumulated in "the ventral region or plastron," according to the ESSA panel -- suggesting they had stored on their stomachs in a freezer, in the traditional practice of a fishing vessel.
The report also noted: "Analysis of the liver, kidneys and stomach contents of the turtles did not detect lead and nickel," and the concentrations of magnesium, sodium and cadmium were all normal. "These are common elements in brine, and should have been present if a release of brine had been a factor in their deaths," the panel said.
And there was plain common sense. Marine biologist Steve Swartz and other independent scientists not hired by ESSA toured the salt plant and saw brine being stored relatively close to the shore. Nevertheless, he says, "I don't know what happened, but I do know that turtles do not group together in the sea, and it's very unlikely they would have been together or gotten into a brine spill together that killed them. Turtles don't congregate."
Furthermore, had there been a brine spill, the turtles would not have been the only creatures found dead. A visible fish kill would be expected, as well as the death of other marine life in the immediate area.
Only dead turtles were found.
In the spring of 1999, nearly two years after the turtle scare, environmental organizations in Mexico opposed to the new salt plant filed a criminal complaint accusing ESSA of killing whales. Homero Aridjis, with the watchdog Group of 100, publicly accused ESSA of killing 18 whales in the lagoons of Guerrero Negro.
It turned out to be a wild allegation.
In fact, more than 600 gray whales did die in 1999 and 2000 -- an unprecedented number. But the carcasses were scattered from Baja all along the migratory route along the continental United States, Canada, Alaska and the Arctic. The die-off was not centered in the lagoons near the salt plant.
Scientists are investigating evidence that the whales starved. They are focused on the gray whale's food source, shrimplike amphipods that live in the mud on the bottom of the Bering Sea, at the opposite end of the Earth from Guerrero Negro ("Conundrum," Patti Epler, October 25).
There is not a single, credible whale scientist who has suggested brine contamination caused the die-off of whales in Baja, or that the 18 dead whales were anything other than local evidence of a hemispheric problem facing all grays. But that did not stop the media from printing Aridjis' allegations, unaware that a worldwide die-off of gray whales was under way.
Had journalists done a simple, two-minute Internet search, they would have uncovered numerous articles from December 1998 through the winter of 1999 documenting a gray whale die-off stretching across a vast habitat from Siberia to Baja. But reporters didn't attempt to put things in context. As a result, the vehement denials of guilt by Mitsubishi and ESSA left them sounding like perpetrators caught with a smoking gun.
Urged on by environmental groups, members of the public sent the Mexican environment ministry 20,000 letters demanding that Mexico stop killing whales. The agency head, Julia Carabias Lillo, saying NRDC was responsible for the letter-writing campaign, told Mexico's Chamber of Deputies that the smear was "offensive and unacceptable."
If cabinet ministers in Mexico were outraged, the employees at the salt plant in Guerrero Negro were shell-shocked.
"We had always gotten great press," says Joaquin Ardura, technical director of ESSA. "Every year during whale season the Mexican media would come and see our salt ponds filled with migrating birds, and go far out to the lagoon to see the baby whales. We patrol to make sure no unauthorized boats disrupt the habitat. We have the most strict protections of any lagoon in Baja. But after the Mexican environmental groups joined the Americans, the media turned on us. They started attacking us over the whales. For years it was whales, whales, whales."
Some employees at ESSA could hardly bear the criticisms. Years before, ESSA had adopted a gray whale as its logo. Employees prided themselves on protecting against human encroachment at Scammon's Lagoon. They took ESSA's well-heeled customers from Asia and the U.S. on special trips to the deep waters, where they would await the prized close-up visits from curious baby whales.
But now employees were crying in hallways, baffled. "We would go somewhere for a business trip, and people would say, 'Oh, you're the whale killers,'" Edmundo Elorduy, vice president of marine operations at ESSA, laughs bitterly.
ESSA's president, the brash Juan Bremmer, had no idea how to respond to an American-style media blitz. Here he was, offering an extremely rare chance for more than 200 middle-class jobs in Baja, and people were angry. He could not grasp why.
"What did they want?" asks Bremmer today. "I never could get them to explain what they wanted."
Had Bremmer understood the breadth of the forces gathering against him, he probably would not have gotten any satisfaction.
The environmental effort grew exponentially. The three original groups brought in the highly activist Baja-based estuary and wetlands protectors known as Pro Esteros, plus 50 groups including Greenpeace Mexico and the World Wildlife Fund. Local environmentalists like the Martinez sisters of Ensenada helped lead the ground forces who organized protests and influenced Mexican media coverage.
Poet Aridjis recruited famous Mexican citizens including Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. A huge boost came when Andreas Rozental, one of Mexico's most revered diplomats, joined the cause and brought his substantial international clout with him.
As part of a 10-element plan to stop the plant, attorney Szekely began issuing dramatic charges that the whales were in danger -- stories that were fed to the Mexico City press by a topflight public relations firm Rozental had brought in.
Part of their core strategy was to divert ESSA and the Mexican authorities on science issues and environmental claims while they mounted a global political attack.
Environmental groups demanded, for example, that the scope of ESSA's environmental impact assessment not be set by Mexico's Institute of Ecology (like the EPA), since ESSA was 51 percent owned by the Mexican government. They demanded that a panel of topflight, independent international scientists decide what environmental issues should be studied. That blue-ribbon panel spent months holding "scoping hearings" to hammer out "terms of reference" -- the questions that had to be researched and mitigated if a salt plant were ever built at San Ignacio.
With ESSA thus busied, the environmentalists ramped up their efforts to create mass opposition to the saltworks in the public and press.
Membership vice president Linda Lopez at NRDC launched a direct mail campaign in September of 1996 to 2.9 million Americans in the environmental and animal rights communities. In the world of direct mail, the response was fantastic. Some 42,000 people sent NRDC money, and 120,000 signed petitions to Mitsubishi opposing the saltworks. NRDC membership exploded, growing from 175,000 to 350,000.
"We worked with a consulting team, and this one creative consultant did the genius work," says Lopez. "He told us our mail should say, 'There is this whale nursery down in Baja, and we have to preserve paradise for this species.' It so perfectly captured the imagination of people, those whales traveling 5,000 miles, this whole mythic thing of them going to this quiet lagoon. I could cry even now, as I talk about it, and that's how our members felt."
In what is believed to be the most successful direct mail campaign ever conducted by environmentalists, Lopez and the team struck gold.
In 1997, 8.6 million letters went to the public, while 857,000 pieces of mail went to members. They got back checks averaging $15 each and raised $2.3 million that year -- not including sizable individual bequests inspired by the fight and $1,000 donations from the group's Council of 1000. NRDC membership rolls shot up again, from 350,000 to 458,000. Directed by NRDC to sign petitions to blast Mitsubishi, 300,000 people demanded that the stunned company stop the project.
In 1997 and following years, the nonprofit NRDC board agreed to revolve the new membership funds right back into the direct mail campaign.
"NRDC -- it's not well-known or the greatest name in the world, because it was chosen by a bunch of lawyers," says Lopez. "But we had a huge name in Bobby Kennedy, who is an attorney for our board. When we put his cover letter into our package, and he is totally into the idea of leaving a pristine area pristine, it made people feel totally confident in us."
Joel Reynolds, who even detractors at ESSA concede is a brilliant strategist, meanwhile was orchestrating an incredibly detailed political drive behind the scenes.
"For example," says Reynolds, "when Bobby Kennedy went down and spent time diving with the abalone fishermen of Punta Abreojos . . . that was to provide political cover to the fishermen who were going to side with us and say no to local jobs. On environmental battles, you have to have the locals, or you don't win."
American environmentalists were not above playing serious hardball with locals who didn't get with the program. Raul Lopez, a fisherman who co-manages Kuyima, one of three $120-a-night and up "fish camps" for whale watchers, found the claim absurd that the whales might be hurt. Pointing to the thriving whales near the salt plant in Guerrero Negro, Lopez refused to back the environmentalists' plan to toughen Mexican law to make the salt flats protected from all development. He believed such a blanket law could hurt the area's economic future, and his own fishing.
"I was pressured to agree to a completely protected zone, and I refused, so they wrote letters that Kuyima was no good because we are not in the whale war," says Lopez. "They would not deal with us to our faces, so we did not trust or respect them. The environmental groups behaved the worst in this fight, because we did not follow them like sheep. Ba-aaah!"
But on the local political scene, Mitsubishi and ESSA were nevertheless hopelessly outfoxed. They were mired in a growing debate over science issues that the environmental groups were only too happy to fuel.
In a widely accepted practice that Mexico copied directly from U.S. standards, ESSA was expected to finance the research for the environmental assessment. The company surprised its critics by gathering a topnotch team of North American gray whale experts from places like Scripps Institute, University of California at Santa Cruz, University of California at San Diego and the University of Mexico at La Paz.
Roger Payne, who from his country home in Vermont was trying to draft world-renowned scientists to oppose the salt plant, grew furious that ESSA was trying to look like a responsible organization. Payne and Spalding began lashing out at the respected scientists who had agreed to conduct the salt plant/gray whale research.
"These scientists were taking money from a major corporation, globally huge, so I don't think you should have much respect for them," Payne snaps even today. "If you want to confuse things, you do exactly what Mitsubishi did, and pull in some scientists who are good, but are paid. And that is a disgrace to those scientists. Nobody in our case was paid or offered to be paid, and it never came up."
But in fact, New Times has learned that Payne himself was being paid -- by NRDC, according to Reynolds -- and his job was to lobby top scientists and Nobel laureates to join the ad, written largely by Payne, that opposed the salt plant. Payne, who did not disclose publicly that he was on hire, was hardly an outside observer.
"My disgust is complete," says Paul Dayton, a Scripps Institute biologist who Payne criticized.
"Roger Payne attacked us again and again for being paid by one of the sides in the battle," says Dayton, "yet now I learn he was being paid by the other side specifically to go on the attack -- something we were never asked to do."
In one particularly nasty incident, Spalding claimed at a public forum that the director of Scripps Institute was distancing himself from Dayton and oceanographer Cliff Winant because the two scientists had been tainted by agreeing to do the salt plant research.
"We were supposedly two renegades who'd suddenly sold out our careers for a year's worth of research funding," says Dayton, who was determining the effect on wetland worms of taking saltwater from the lagoon. "When he first popped into my office, I was very open with Spalding, showed him my work, opened the files. The research was looking like no harm was going to come to creatures in the lagoon. So suddenly, I was evil incarnate."
One pivotal victory during this time came when the California Coastal Commission ignored its staff recommendation to do further research into the science debate, and voted to oppose the saltworks. The ESSA crowd was furious, because Sara Wan, chairwoman of the commission, was an active member of NRDC and a close friend of Joel Reynolds, and did not disclose her connection despite joining in the passionate debate.
Wan says she sees "no problem" with her dual roles. Months later, when President Zedillo canceled the salt plant project, Reynolds recalls, "Sara left a message on my machine, and she was crying, she was so happy."
That's how the gray whale affected people, and those emotions proved far too powerful for research or technical debates to overcome.
Of the 10 elements in the coalition's strategy to stop the salt plant, Reynolds believes "our idea of creating a debate among scientists was one of the most effective. A lot of people think the full-page ads in the New York Times and L.A. Times turned the tide and put us on the road to victory."
For that ad, the heavy hitters came out. The ad condemned the saltworks as "an unacceptable risk" to gray whales. Scientists named included, among others: E.O. Wilson of Harvard, a dual Pulitzer Prize winner; Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens; David Baltimore, president of Cal Tech and Nobel Prize winner in medicine; Roger Guillemin of Salk Institute with dual Nobel Prizes in medicine and physiology; Mario Molina of MIT, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry; John Terborgh, director of Duke University's Center for Tropical Conservation; Paul Ehrlich, head of Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology; George Woodwell, director of Woods Hole Research Center; and Sir Aaron Klug, Nobel Prize-winning president of the Royal Society.
Scientists directly involved in the research saw their reputations being tarnished and fought back. Dayton and Winant of Scripps, as well as Burney Le Boeuf of UC-Santa Cruz, sent protests to several of the most renowned scientists in the ad, and asked them to take a second look.
"Those guys in the ad were opposed to the idea of the salt plant," says Dayton. "Look, I am also personally opposed to the idea of changing this relatively untouched area, but you don't put your name as a scientist on something that's a lie."
Dayton and other researchers pointed out that claim after claim by the environmental groups was gradually being disproved by research.
For example, the coalition said noise from the power pumps used to draw seawater from San Ignacio Lagoon would bother the gray whale mothers and babies, some of whom lived in the lagoon from as early as late December until late March.
But researchers at the University of California at San Diego found that the pumps, on the edge of the salt flat, would be so distant from the deep waters of the lagoon where whales lived that the faint sounds would be drowned out by the normal background noise of the ocean.
Le Boeuf, an expert on gray whale feeding who was hired as an adviser to Mitsubishi early on, says angrily, "Snapping shrimp make more background noise than those pumps!"
Le Boeuf was appalled that the science-based attacks by the coalition had little factual basis, and he made a stink about it. He was particularly irritated that the environmental groups claimed that ESSA was a bad company that had "298 environmental violations" at Scammon's Lagoon in Guerrero Negro.
As Le Boeuf points out, the company joined a government-sponsored "clean company" program. Firms qualified for a clean rating by inviting a government inspection, getting a list of things to fix, then fixing them. The 298 supposed violations touted by the environmentalists, Le Boeuf notes, were in fact a list of problems ESSA had asked the government to identify so that ESSA could voluntarily fix them and earn the "clean company" rating.
"That's how the nonprofits played the game -- dirty, dirty, dirty," says Le Boeuf. "They played the cheapest kind of warfare I can think of."
The environmental leaders, for example, suggested that the milelong pier that ESSA proposed just off the village of Punta Abreojos would kill, injure or scare off gray whales trying to enter Laguna San Ignacio. They did not inform supporters that the location of the pier was not near the lagoon but was, in fact, 15 miles to the west.
New Times obtained a list of predigested responses Payne wrote up for the famous scientists to utter if they were challenged on the pier or other hotly disputed science issues. He recommended that the 32 researchers use the following rebuttal regarding the pier: "Where the entrance to the lagoon stops and the open sea begins is just a matter of opinion. Many people, when shown a map . . . commented that [the pier] is located in the mouth of the lagoon, an area of particularly frequent whale sightings." Moreover, Payne told them to claim, "It is obvious that brine disposals and fuel spills would be entrained in tides entering the lagoon."
Ultimately, few of the renowned scientists backed off. And those who did, did so in private.
E.O. Wilson, for example, wrote to Le Boeuf that he regretted not looking more deeply into the issue before agreeing to lend his name to the advertisement that ran in the New York Times and other publications. "Many thanks for your detailed and obviously firsthand, expert letter on gray whales and the Laguna San Ignacio saltworks," Wilson wrote. "Needless to say, I wish I had this memo in hand when responding to the protest against the saltworks. At the very least it would have caused me to question and dig deeper. It is an illustration of the need for environmentalists to cast a wide net for expertise on issues before committing their goodwill capital, so as to have maximum effect on urgent cases where scientific data and opinion are decisive."
Wilson, Woodwell, Baltimore, Kennedy, Terborgh, Raven and Ehrlich all failed to return phone calls and e-mailed requests for interviews from New Times. Ehrlich's secretary at Stanford insisted, "You cannot name him in an article about gray whales if he will not speak to you."
Direct mail expert Linda Lopez remembers that the U.S. media were slow to pick up the salt plant story in far-off Baja. It wasn't until March of 1999 that the New York Times ran its first major piece. The scientists' ad hit four months later, in July.
Not that the environmentalists didn't try. U.S. media were openly wooed. Several journalists were invited along on the costly $60,000 retreats sponsored by NRDC and IFAW that airlifted Pierce Brosnan, Glenn Close, Robert Kennedy Jr. and other prominent Americans to the parched fishing village of Punta Abreojos or to the whale-watching "fish camps" along Laguna San Ignacio.
Pampered journalists were even personally chauffeured in trucks by NRDC staffers over the washboard dirt roads, sand dunes and ancient volcanic floes that separate the tourist areas on the far southeastern side of the lagoon from Punta Abreojos, four hours northwest by land.
Joaquin Ardura, a vice president at ESSA, says he realized they could never win with the media, when the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO came out with its long-awaited report on whether the salt plant would harm the World Heritage site and other protected land and water at San Ignacio.
"UNESCO said we were a safe industry, that we had not hurt the whales, that only the landscape would change if we opened our plant at San Ignacio," says Ardura. "But somehow, the media twisted it to say UNESCO had found against us."
In fact, although they never admitted it in public, the UNESCO findings were a big blow to the environmental groups.
The UNESCO investigative mission wrote, in a nod to the rich bird environments promoted by saltworks: "production of salt in coastal lagoon systems constitutes one of the most well-integrated and best-adapted of all human activities that involve these environments." The team also found that, at the existing saltworks, "the whale population is not endangered and continues to increase."
But UNESCO found one problem, and the environmentalists used it -- and the media -- to their advantage:
The scrubby El Vizcaino Desert, a desolate place crisscrossed with impromptu truck routes, its dry washes and hillocks dotted with blowing litter that is ubiquitous to Baja, would be dramatically altered by a salt facility the size of the city of San Francisco. None of the evaporation ponds, conveyor belts or harvesting machines would be visible from the waterfront or main roads, but it was more than enough for the environmentalists.
"UNESCO was manipulated by the Mexican government into putting a number of Mexicans on the UNESCO team to water down their report, but we got what we needed," says Spalding. "We had a world-level group saying there was a problem."
Tom Knudsen, a Baja expert with the Sacramento Bee, wrote one of the few stories in the heavily slanted U.S. press that emphasized UNESCO had found the whales to be flourishing near an existing salt plant, and in no apparent danger. Reynolds says Knudsen "was the one reporter who bought all the garbage from ESSA." Knudsen retorts: "Journalists worldwide were stuck in serious group-think on Laguna San Ignacio."
With that August 1999 victory over media spin to cheer it on, IFAW ramped up a boycott and disinvestment campaign against Mitsubishi.
If the controversial "unacceptable risk" newspaper ads were the turning point in this war, some say the California-based Mitsubishi boycott and disinvestment campaign was the clincher. The campaign was crafted just like a political election, using a team of seasoned Democratic political consultants from Boston, Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
IFAW had already paid for a poll which showed that Americans on the West Coast and in the Northeast were by far the most pro-animal welfare and pro-environment. And as Boston political consultant Michael Shea noted in a case study he wrote for 2000 Campaign & Elections, Inc., "Californians viewed the Gray whales as theirs."
Phil Giarrizzo, a Democratic campaign consultant from Sacramento, devised a plan to convince California public pension funds to disinvest in Mitsubishi. That effort was expanded to include socially conscious mutual funds. And Giarrizzo set about convincing 46 city councils and county boards of supervisors to condemn Mitsubishi.
Tom Ammiano, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was typical of political leaders who believed -- and still believe -- the whales faced grave danger.
Says Ammiano: "The environmentalists came to my office and presented a case that the whales in particular were in trouble because of the salt plant, which would interfere with breeding. There were many problems, and it certainly made sense to me. We passed a resolution urging them not to build it. It was a good resolution."
Having won over so many adults in the business and political sectors, in early 2000 NRDC prepared to dramatically increase the involvement of school children in the "Don't Buy It!" attacks on Mitsubishi. It was a tactic, concedes Linda Lopez, that "might make some people uncomfortable."
Lopez had completed a new mass mailing filled with colorful stickers so kids and schools could get involved in the boycott. "We got kids and classrooms so involved in this campaign -- the kids were just nuts about saving the whales," says Lopez. "One high school kid, one of those amazing kinds of kids, even brought in Joel to debate Mitsubishi."
But one early March day, a surprise call came to Lopez's New York office. Out of nowhere, the salt plant was being canceled. Choked up, Lopez hurriedly made arrangements to alter millions of mailers. They were stamped over with the words, "We Won!"
The Debate on Ethics
With debates heating up over global warming, energy policies and nuclear waste disposal, some argue that the public must be able to trust science for impartial assessments that are crucial to democratic decision-making.
The tactics employed in the gray whale fight raise the question of the role of scientific research in the decision-making arena. How much should public policy be shaped by the data and findings provided by research, and how much by public fears and beliefs shaped by political campaigns and the media?
Today, IFAW, NRDC and other groups are claiming threats to the health of another charismatic species, the caribou, in the pitched battle against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The caribou may indeed be in danger. But if environmentalists are seen as crassly manipulating the science that underlies such claims, their battles could begin to backfire.
Mitsubishi International vice president Jim Brumm says the world essentially accepted the "An Unacceptable Risk" claim made by scientists named in the New York Times, and the U.S. media accepted without much digging the environmental degradation accusations against ESSA.
"It makes me scared for pure science," says Brumm. "We know science isn't perfect because there are things we cannot know, but we rely on scientists to be objective. What happens when scientists lose that ability?"
Jacob Scherr, of NRDC, who has worked on environmental campaigns all over the world, says that broadly shared feelings against development should be enough to stop a project, whether scientific proofs of actual damage are available or not.
"I have no question that the technical people who did the individual studies on the salt plant were honorable men and women who did a very good job," says Scherr. "But I have never seen an environmental impact statement that did not conclude that the project should go forward. They always conclude it can be mitigated. So society has to ask the larger question, 'Yes, but do we want it?'"
That, of course, is a reasonable question to ask of "society." But Scherr, Reynolds, Payne and others inside the movement, once they agreed amongst themselves to kill the project, essentially asked the public a different question: Should the gray whale's health be jeopardized?
Ethicists and others who follow many of the raging debates over technology, the environment and development disagree on how far environmentalists should go in order to win.
William Vitek, an environmental philosopher and applied ethicist at Clarkson University in New York, says, "The public and the insiders do not benefit from hyperbole on either side, and it is unethical to knowingly distort the facts. But I actually think, though I can't support this with proof, that most corporations and most environmental groups actually believe what they are saying, so to accuse them of purposely misleading might not get to the heart of what is going on."
Corporations tend to be in a hurry to build or produce things, and prefer to look at short-term proofs that their plans will cause no major damage. The mindset of environmentalists, he says, is nearly the opposite, and is motivated by what is known as the "precautionary principle." This principle says that "we are pretty sure this development is bad, or we don't know for sure that it's safe, so we are going to tell you there are problems even if we don't have data and we are going to play it safe and wait as long as needed for that data."
Vitek points to the use of lead in gasoline for decades to control the pinging in engines as the classic example that shapes environmentalists' heavily precautionary nature.
"A lot of people said we know lead is bad, but Ethyl Corporation and Standard Oil said society needed lead in its gas," says Vitek. "So they went out and studied garage mechanics who worked around leaded gas every day and said, 'Look, they are fine.' But the truth was, lead's effects were cumulative and eventually profound. Now we have lead even in deep snow in the Arctic, and you could make the argument no pristine places are left because of leaded gas."
Environmentalists argue that they have been forced to lie or mislead because they are fighting corporations that have been shown to lie and obfuscate in order to sway public opinion.
Brian Smith, West Coast media spokeman for Earthjustice and a veteran of battles to save forests in California and elsewhere, points out how the timber companies claimed the economy of the Northwest would be crippled if old-growth forests where the spotted owl lives could not be logged. But, Smith says, "Nothing of the sort has happened." In fact, a new study, "The Sky Did Not Fall," by a Eugene, Oregon, economic consulting firm, argues that the region responded to the job losses by creating a healthier and more diversified job base.
"Do environmentalists use politics to win public debates? Yes," says Smith. "Do we sometimes overstate the case? Yes. Did we invent hyperbole? Hardly. And, in a media system controlled by for-profit companies, sometimes we have to scream to be heard."
But ethicists say that justification is not only bad ethics, it's bad for society. Robert Lawry, a law professor and director of the Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University, says, "You often hear the argument that we don't know for sure if this plan will damage the environment, but the other side doesn't know, either, and if we don't take steps to stop it now, it will be too late once we find out."
That kind of argument is stronger if "you have a little bit of science on your side." But, Lawry says, "to say that industry must be brought up short because maybe in the future some problem will erupt -- that's just crazy. Think how crazy that is. How do you know when you have a particular set of conditions that make a project a bad one? If you have no factual, solid basis for your list of fears, then any set of conditions can be created and industry can be stopped from doing almost anything."
Lawry believes environmentalists can jeopardize their goodwill with the public, many of whom are on the fence when it comes to environmental battles.
"There's a vast audience out there of potential votes and citizens who want to know enough to exercise their vote properly," he says. "Any group who is playing fast and loose with the truth, if it gets out, they are not going to win that great, vast middle group. And that's whether we are talking about oil drilling in Alaska or the whales or whatever."
These issues are coming back to haunt the salt plant victors.
Some of Mexico's leading environmental reformers are severely critical that NRDC and IFAW forced their "precautionary principle" environmental views on San Ignacio before Mexico itself could flex strict new laws that protected the area against most development.
Had congressional hearings on the salt plant gone forth in Mexico City in 2000, Mexico's very tough 1995 environmental laws would have been tested for the first time. Many Mexican environmentalists have been hoping for a major, public test of the laws in order to cement them in a country not known for protecting the environment.
"They stole that chance from us, to make the right decision with our own laws," says Lorenzo Rojas Bracho, president of a Mexican marine mammals society and a member of Mexico's delegation to the International Whaling Commission. "They would not wait for answers that our process, here in Mexico, I strongly believe would have produced."
Privately, a handful of the 34 eminent scientists have expressed regret for decrying the "unacceptable risk" to gray whales in newspaper ads. But other scientists named in the ad pooh-pooh the complaints that they somehow interfered in Mexico's self-determination, or that they helped create the impression that science had proved a risk to the whales.
"Many of us who signed are not environmental scientists, and we had no data at all, and we did not have to prove it was worse for whales, because we were saying this is just a bad idea politically," says prize-winning biologist Masakazu Konishi, a professor at Cal Tech. He argues that such projects are the right of any citizen -- whether a resident of Mexico or not -- to try to stop.
"Our message was, 'This is a pristine area. Do not touch it, period,'" says Konishi.
Ironically, in a chapter for an upcoming book, Andres Rozental and Mark Spalding admit that President Zedillo's decision to pull the plug on the plant "is a bad precedent for Mexico, even if most believe that not building the facility was the right decision, because once again the legal process for project review was subverted and the competent authority sidelined."
Spalding is hardly apologetic for the environmental groups' short-circuiting of Mexico's environmental review process. Using the whale was the only way, he says, "Because I just don't know if it would have worked, arguing that we have to protect it because it's a World Heritage site."
To this day, he believes the studies showing no effect on the gray whales, conducted by numerous scientists for the EIA, "cannot be believed. The only way I would trust any of it is if they had created a trust fund and gotten an independent body to put contracts out to bid so that ESSA was not directly paying for the outcome."
While several top North American scientists not involved in the EIA studies told New Times that the studies were solid and the scientists who conducted them were ethical and above reproach, Spalding insists those scientists' reputations are ruined.
"ESSA put at risk some really good scientists, like Jorge Urban, an absolutely wonderful guy, and Paul Dayton at Scripps, who is well-liked throughout the conservation community for his work on coral reefs and eel grass. It's a horrible thing for his reputation and Jorge's reputation to have gone through that."
So this is where things sit, uncomfortably, today.
One side insists the salt plant battle gave the environmental movement a vital new people-based global political strategy for saving threatened "biological gems," even in the daunting Third World.
The other side insists the battle is a classic study of how environmental powerhouses can manipulate the public fear about threats to charismatic species, even when no serious threat can be found.
In fact, in the complex human struggle that arose over the salt plant at San Ignacio, both views may turn out to be correct.
Where Things Stand Today
There can be little question that, as a result of the salt plant battle, the mechanisms for waging environmental wars have been fundamentally changed at a national and even global level.
These days, the NRDC and IFAW and dozens of other groups are using the Internet to hammer Washington, D.C., over its energy and environmental stands, especially over President George W. Bush's proposal to drill for oil in the migrating range and calving grounds of the porcupine caribou herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In the fight in the Arctic, Robert Redford has signed on as the angry celebrity for NRDC. "Robert Redford's letter says, basically, 'I have never done this before but I feel it's very important, please take this letter and send it to your family and friends,'" says Lopez. "That is opening up a whole new world of people."
By late summer, she says, 148,000 non-members of NRDC had visited the NRDC Web site and taken action, such as sending an e-mail to Congress opposing oil exploration in the refuge. Moreover, 250,000 of their members had swamped Washington with letters and e-mail, and NRDC is still growing fast.
"We just went over the 500,000 mark on our membership, and I am banking on staying over half a million, depending on how dopey Bush is," about drilling for oil in the Arctic, says Lopez.
The group has launched a new campaign it calls BioGems, in which it urges non-members and members alike to take action, mostly via the Internet, to protect special species and ecosystems from development around the world and demand immediate action on problems such as children exposed to lead paint.
Their reach is potent, and can be lightning-fast.
"We got a call from a guy about a road development in Chile, this horrible thing that was going to happen basically right now, like on a Friday," says Lopez. "We sent out a message to our BioGems defenders, telling them we had this desperate vote coming on Tuesday, so 'Could you please click here and enter your e-mail address?'"
When the activist entered his or her address, the NRDC software sent a fax from that person's e-mail address to the other end -- in this case, to amazed officials in a town in Chile who received 2,000 faxes from the United States, and stopped the road project cold.
Big changes have come to grassroots activists in Mexico as well. Under the now-ousted PRI, the government had controlled every aspect of development and job creation, often with little regard to the environment. But just a few months ago, local Baja activists stopped a luxury hotel development on an untrammeled twin lagoon two hours south of Ensenada.
"One of the things the environmental movement gives people, when it wins in a place like Laguna San Ignacio, is the belief that you can fight city hall," says Mark Spalding.
Even though the environmentalists won at San Ignacio, plenty is still on the line in Baja's coastal battles.
The NRDC, IFAW and Mexican environmental groups have promised residents of the sandblown Punta Abreojos fishing village, a 20-minute truck ride from the mouth of Laguna San Ignacio, that in lieu of 200 blue-collar jobs promised by the salt plant, they will jump-start sustainable industries such as oyster farms. NRDC has pledged $100,000 toward those projects, but is finding it a tough go in a region lacking paved roads, telephones, and, in many settlements, even fresh water.
President Vicente Fox, meanwhile, is pursuing an ambitious $240 million "Escalante Nautica" (Nautical Steps) plan to develop a chain of marinas all along Baja to attract American boaters. His planners want a marina near San Ignacio or Punta Abreojos. Homer Aridjis, the famed Mexican poet who was the first to decry the salt plant at San Ignacio, has called the Nautical Steps project "a monster."
Environmental reformers face a schism borne of the battle to stop the salt plant. The question is whether jobs and development should be largely discouraged in the name of protecting Baja's vast emptiness, widely seen as Mexico's last frontier.
Many activists want to see little development of sparsely populated Baja, a land dominated by rugged volcanic formations and endless desert that sees rain only a handful of times each year. Nevertheless, some regional Baja politicians want to try again to open the salt plant, citing the taxes and jobs such a facility would bring.
But the reality that the plant will not be built seems to have settled in, and the gray whales continue their migratory lives blissfully unaware of the human struggles they have inspired.
Last spring, when 1,700 mothers returned to Scammon's Lagoon, Laguna San Ignacio, and Magdalena Bay to bear their young, Americans might have been surprised by the scenes that unfolded there.
At Scammon's Lagoon in Guerrero Negro -- the town icily dismissed by poet Aridjis as a "chaotic nightmare" -- local civic leaders have continued to expand their program to protect the lagoon from environmental degradation.
The use of dune buggies and four-wheel drives is barred in the fragile dunes ecology that surrounds the coast at Scammon's. And in the lagoon itself, the number of whale-watching boats is strictly controlled at just 12 -- for an area larger than Santa Monica Bay in Southern California.
ESSA has a deep corporate interest in making sure the gray whale co-exists and thrives in the presence of its longtime salt plant -- giving ESSA both a major public relations payoff, as well as satisfying the intense personal interest ESSA leaders have developed toward "their" whales. For that reason, ESSA funds long-term research by scientists at Scammon's Lagoon.
"In Scammon's Lagoon, we are trying to determine birthrates, migration habits and many other issues that are largely unknown about the gray whale in general," says Jorge Urban, considered the top gray whale expert in Mexico. "It's too bad nobody is studying the whales in Laguna San Ignacio -- but nobody is financing that."
Marine biologist Steve Swartz, the whale expert who was on the international panel that devised the studies for the environmental impact report at Laguna San Ignacio, says, "There's a problem with not having scientists develop a baseline for the health of Laguna San Ignacio, then watching it over time -- you won't know you have a problem until it is upon you."
In spite of conventional wisdom fanned by the media, it is Laguna San Ignacio that seems to face the most potential for environmental troubles.
Overfishing in and around the lagoon has steadily reduced the abalone take by fishermen at the village of Punta Abreojos, whose fishermen were key opponents of the saltworks. Twenty years ago, the abalone season brought in 1,250 tons, and now it is down to 250. The villagers and their nets have wiped out several species of fish. Only lobster is dependably productive.
Moreover, local ignorance about the delicate sand dune and sagebrush ecosystem that surrounds the point on which Punta Abreojos is perched has led to severe degradation. The fishermen of the village use their trucks and SUVs to cut dozens of impromptu, litter-strewn roads between the town, the lagoon, the fishing launch and other settlements in the area.
The dunes ecosystem fringing the town's beach, where members of the fishermen's cooperative launch their motorized skiffs and drive their launch trucks directly over bushes and grasses, is badly damaged. If the practice is not stopped, eventually lifeless dunes will encroach around the almost treeless village.
But the worst environmental problem might be the decrepit village of Cardon, sitting on an important southwestern wetland flank of Laguna San Ignacio, a 20 minute drive from tourist "fish camps." Cardon is inhabited by illegal "pirate" fishermen who do not belong to the fishermen's cooperative that dominates civic and political life in the area.
Cardon is an ugly eruption of tiny ramshackle structures, which, like Punta Abreojos, has no fresh water. While Punta residents buy their water from the all-powerful fishermen's cooperative, which controls the town's desalinization plant, Cardon villagers pay for water delivered in 55-gallon drums by trucks that make the long drive over rough roads.
Cardon has no sewers, no telephones, and no pollution controls. Already, children cannot swim in the shallow waters off the sandy banks of Cardon because they get hives. A local biologist says the water is being severely polluted, mostly by "fishermen gutting their catch, tossing fish heads and tails in, whatever trash they have, and letting the tide take it away."
Some resource-management and environmental practices common in the U.S. have made their way to the region, however. Raul Lopez, who fishes and also co-manages one of the lucrative whale-watching fish camps, is among the leaders who have worked hard to control their own fishing and other human activities at Laguna San Ignacio.
But the pressure for profits is strong. For example, substantially more whale-watching boats are allowed into the water of San Ignacio than are permitted at Scammon's Lagoon.
San Ignacio, which is less than half the size of Scammon's Lagoon, licenses twice as many whale-watching boats, 25. This crowding occasionally causes the whale-watching boats to chase the whale mothers and babies in an eager competition to get closest.
In March, New Times witnessed frantic whale mothers forcing their 1,000-pound babies underwater as they fled again and again from callous boat operators at San Ignacio, the entire scene being cheered by hooting, life-jacketed tourists. Such terrorizing of whale pairs is not allowed at Scammon's Lagoon at Guerrero Negro.
Fishing cooperative leader Isidro Arce, who is credited with bringing many economic and resource-management reforms to the area, insists that Laguna San Ignacio protects its whales, while Guerrero Negro does not.
"Of course we are more careful here, more respectful of the whales, and much more clean," Arce says.
But Juan Bremmer, president of ESSA, has tired of such claims. Guerrero Negro is indeed a scruffy, one-horse town of 12,000. Its poorest residents live on dirt streets lined with slapdash houses and broken-down cars. But it also boasts a large middle class with neat, tree-lined streets, suburban homes, a community college and a bustling bank -- all because of the salt plant.
"We are proof that Baja can pursue modest development that does not hurt our whales," Bremmer insists. Federal officials who want to build numerous marinas along the Baja coast are making the same argument.
The only way to know if modest development of Baja will hurt the gray whale is to understand the species itself. Today, a robust population of 26,000 migrates along North America's Pacific coast. Their population was made nearly extinct before whaling was belatedly banned in the U.S. in the 1970s. (Ferociously anti-whaling Mexico banned whaling in the 1960s.)
Whale scientists who were stung by Roger Payne's and Mark Spalding's criticisms of being sellouts for doing research funded by ESSA point out that NRDC is reaping millions of dollars from paid membership rolls fattened to 500,000, largely because of public interest in "saving" the gray whale in Baja California. But despite its huge new membership and the permanently fatter budget those members create, NRDC has not invested in substantive study of the gray whale.
Joel Reynolds points out, "We're not research groups, we are environmental advocacy groups trying to wake up the public to the laws and protections for these wonderful animals."
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But the singular battle over the salt plant at San Ignacio has spawned a fundamental change in how these major advocacy groups do business. They can now turn on the public spigot, using a vast, Internet-connected work force ready to believe and act, even if the facts the environmentalists provide are wrong.
The question now is whether environmentalists should take responsibility for their expanding influence, by moving beyond the bomb-lobbing that marked their victory in Baja.
Santa Cruz biologist Burney Le Boeuf points out that his recent study with Oregon scientist Bruce Mate suggests that a mysterious die-off of gray whales was caused by a severe lack of the protein-rich amphipods which whales feed on in the Arctic. Gray whales generally do not feed once they head south to Baja.
"I am actually trying to find out what threatens these beasts and what we can do about it, and I have been doing that for much of my life," says the still-angry Le Boeuf. "When I see the environmental groups use their millions of dollars for gray whale research instead of slick mailers, then I will believe they want to save whales."