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Green guard

Portland's eco-initiatives earn votes and a nationwide reputation

Since the 1970s era of the late Gov. Tom McCall, few politicians have gotten far in Portland without courting the green vote.

In the 2000 general election, the political action committee for the Portland-based Oregon League of Conservation Voters spent $162,445.94 Ñ more than PACs for the Oregon Auto Dealers Association, the Oregon Business Leadership Council and the Oregon Association of Realtors, but less than Oregonians in Action, Oregon Forest Industries and the Association of Oregon Industries.

Portland's elected officials are quick to tout the city's high recycling rate and its ahead-of-the-curve initiatives on growth management, salmon protection and global warming. They also point to Money and Bicycling magazine articles lauding Portland as the nation's most livable, bike-friendly city.

City Commissioner Erik Sten argues that as far as City Hall goes, the green battle has been won.

'Even our most vocal critics will start off by saying, 'Now don't get me wrong. I want a clean river, too,' he says. 'The dispute isn't whether we should be doing things for the environment, but how.'

Indeed, it often seems as if there are more environmentalists on the inside in Portland than on the outside. That's got some business leaders and developers worried that the greens are going too far, given the economic downturn.

Jon Chandler, an attorney for the Oregon Building Industry Association, says: 'To pretend that a green agenda is all benefits and no costs is ludicrous. É You can't be oblivious to economic realities. All of these (environmental groups) can add up to a very unfriendly business climate.'

It's hard to pin down one united green agenda in Portland because the city's 50-plus green groups are hardly heterogeneous.

Some are loaded, others broke. Some meet with governors, others sit in trees. Some work with corporations, others give them complications. Some choose not to register with the government at all.

The fringe groups have been known to slam the mainstream groups as sellouts, just as the players sometimes dismiss the idealists as naive. All compete for funding, members, publicity, credibility and turf.

But they must be getting something done. Many consider Portland the epicenter of the U.S. environmental movement.

'It's not just because of hype that people from around the country come here to see how we do things,' says Tom Novick, a former state legislator and lobbyist who today runs Portland-based Conservation Strategies, a consulting firm that helps environmentally minded candidates win office.

'There's a general environmental consciousness among the population here. It's an ingrained ethic. You see it both in voter behavior as well as in general behavior.'

Brock Evans, an environmental activist who has worked at the national level since the 1970s, credits Portland with 'leading the way in recycling' and instituting a land use system that is a 'true model.'

'Portland used to be much worse than Seattle as far as city planning and care for resources go,' he says. 'Now it's a lot better than Seattle.'