The Foundation for Global Sustainability Seeks New Focus

One of East Tennessee's most important environmental groups is at a turning point

Change is afoot for the Foundation for Global Sustainability, which has arguably been the staunchest proponent of environmental awareness in the region. And where it initially seemed that FGS might close its doors after 22 years of activism in the Southeast, it now looks like the organization is merely at a turning point, looking for new leadership and new focus.

"As an organization, we've been important as a fiscal agent for other new non-profits," says Amanda Womac, chairman of the FGS board of directors. "But as more of those non-profits have created their own 501(c)(3) status, how can FGS remain relevant? That's been the question. Because so many have benefited over the years, we've tried to continue and to refine our mission. But over the last two years, there don't seem to have been a lot of opportunities for projects that would work for us. One of the questions has been to fold or not to fold. Some felt the Foundation could stay and have relevance into the future."

Womac, for her part, is stepping down as chair, probably to be replaced, at least in the interim, by longtime board member Wolf Naegeli. Board member James Gooch is also departing, moving out of state. As full-time executive director of the Hearing and Speech Foundation and also president-elect of the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as a volunteer, Womac says she doesn't "have the time to devote to see FGS become what it can be."

One notable effect of FGS' apparent crisis is that its publishing arm, the environmental newspaper Hellbender Press, hasn't seen print since the end of 2009. Womac, editor and publisher of Hellbender, says the paper is undergoing a shift to an online-only format, and that she will remain with the publication in her current roles "until I move, die, or become uninterested in environmental journalism, which I seriously doubt will happen."

"What I do need is more help," she says, noting the paper's overall lack of resources, both editorially and otherwise. "I need about 20 extra hours in the week. Maybe from a business standpoint, someone can step in and develop Hellbender into its own non-profit, community-supported newspaper."

Womac says the online version of Hellbender should launch in early 2011.

According to probable new board president Naegeli, FGS is experiencing the rough end of a cycle that many non-profits experience; enthusiasm wanes or dilutes as board members leave or assume new responsibilities.

"There are certain dynamics to non-profit boards," says Naegeli. "People join for a few years, then move on. In the early years, our board had a lot of energy, young people with a lot of time on their hands. Many of them moved out of town, or they went on to other issues. John Nolt [became] faculty senate president at UT. Michael McKinney, who's also on the UT faculty, works with the student environmental group over there."

FGS was founded in June of 1988 in Owensboro, Ky., by Stephen Smith and Jeff Werner; it incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization about a year later. Some of its accomplishments and involvements over the years include helping found the Clean Water Project, and organizing clean-ups along the Tennessee River; hosting Tennessee's first Rainforest Awareness Week in 1989; hosting a series of activist-oriented cable-access television programs known as Green Television for three years through the early '90s; taking part in or organizing numerous Hiroshima Day events in Oak Ridge; taking part in actions against Champion Paper and the Watts Bar nuclear plant.

Naegeli notes that FGS also plays a watchdog role, of sorts, and has published two state-of-the-bioregion reports, one in 1995 titled What Have We Done?, and another in 2005 dubbed A Land Imperiled.

Naegeli says FGS' organizational progress seemed to hit a marked rut around 10 years ago, the agency having at that time recently shepherded the then-fledgling non-profits the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, and the Tennessee Clean Water Network. It was around that time that the Nine Counties, One Vision effort was also taking off.

"When Nine Counties began, we thought we could take a role, and several board members were active on task forces," Naegeli says. "Unfortunately, there wasn't too much coming out in the way of on-the-ground change overall in terms of sustainability for the region."

It's still unclear what the future holds for FGS. The organization has taken some noteworthy stances—in Oak Ridge, for example, where as a member of the Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation, it helped secure the preservation of 50 acres of greenspace near the former K-25 reservation, a threatened area rife with wildlife and rare birds and determined to be vital to the local ecosystem.

"Most of the Department of Energy reservations across the country have done environmental impact statements," Naegeli says. "Oak Ridge never has. We'd like to see that happen.

"It's true that some board members have lacked the time to dedicate our purposes at FGS," Naegeli says. "There's been an ebb in our level of activity. But others of us still feel there is a need in the region. We need to find a cause to rally around."