Love of nature isn't an emotion dictated by one's profession. But environmental activism among car dealers, on the surface, seems unusual. After all, these people sell gas-guzzling and polluting vehicles, many of which are targets of those who wish to protect the air and the earth's resources.

“It certainly is not the norm, but the more I promote the Sierra Club and the issues, the more I find people in all kinds of walks of life, including the car business, who support what we're trying to accomplish,” says Chicago dealer Chuck Frank, president of Z Frank Chevrolet.

Perhaps it's not so surprising. The industry in general is becoming more “green,” mostly at the insistence of governments in California, New York and other high-pollution states, which are trying to legislate acceptable emission levels.

Every automaker is working on cleaner-burning engines and vehicles that run on alternate fuels such as methanol, compressed natural gas and electricity. But the average buyer isn't enough of an environmentalist to deal with the high costs and lack of convenience associated with “green” automobiles.

“It doesn't appear consumers' demand for environmentally friendly vehicles is anywhere near the consumers' ‘eco-consciousness,’” says Rik Kinney, senior vice president of the Dohring Co., citing his firm's 2001 survey of American car-buying preferences.

“The more I promote the Sierra Club, the more I find people in all kinds of walks of life, including the car business, who support what we're trying to accomplish.”
— Dealer Chuck Frank
Z Frank Chevrolet

“We're for improving and working to have a more environmentally friendly car,” says Tracy Farmer, who operates Star Ford and Oxmoor Toyota in Louisville, as well as Banner Ford in Atlanta and Port Charlotte (FL) Honda.

“A lot of people in the automobile business are as interested in the environment as I am,” adds Mr. Farmer, who donated $2 million to an environmental cause.

Ultimately dealers must sell what sells, but that doesn't stop Mr. Frank and Mr. Farmer from harboring deep feelings about the environment, and putting their money where their mouths are in support of their beliefs.

Mr. Frank is reluctant to say how much money he gives to environmental causes. But he supports and is active in the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the National Parks Conservation Association and Earth Justice, a group of lawyers that tries to enhance environmental protection through legal remedy.

“We are so lucky in this country to be able to stand up for the environment,” says Mr. Frank. “In other countries around the world, people can't.”

Mr. Farmer gave that $2 million (the state matched the amount for a total of $4 million) to establish the Tracy Farmer Environmental Center at the University of Kentucky. The center will assist public and private organizations in addressing environmental issues and developing solutions.

“What we do about the environment is the legacy we leave for our children,” says Mr. Farmer, who also is president of the Lexington-Frankfort Scenic Corridor, a Kentucky preservation committee. “I've always had (environmental leanings). Coming from rural Kentucky, I've always wanted to leave here with it in as good a condition as I found it. Most people want the same thing.”

When he's not selling cars, Mr. Farmer stays close to nature by raising thoroughbred racing horses on his Midway, KY farm, 46 miles away from his Lexington dealerships.

“It's a great life,” he notes, speaking on his cell phone with birds chirping in the background.

Mr. Frank traces his environmentalism to his childhood when his father, legendary Chicago dealer Zollie Frank, took him on fishing and camping expeditions.

“There are a lot of people who've gone fishing and hunting and camping as kids who don't do it as adults,” says Mr. Frank. “I've always loved just being outside and camping. I just remember really loving the whole experience.”

He became an active environmentalist during his college years in the early 1970s.

He recalls, “It was a very activist time and a very confusing time with the war going on — I had the long hair and the beard and everything — and a lot of people were trying to figure out what was going on in life. I found it very therapeutic to be able to get out and walk. I found that what was real and what was important to me was the natural world.

“I consider the natural environment the real world, the lasting world, the one that sustains all of life. Without maintaining that and keeping it healthy, we can't as a race expect to have a healthy and vibrant future. The roots of that are very deep to me.”

While many of the '70s-era activists have moved on and turned their backs on their earlier beliefs, Mr. Frank has become more committed to saving the environment.

“I've been to so many gorgeous places,” he says with emotion. “I've really become enamored with the terrain of southern Utah. If anyplace has had some impact on me as far as trying to save an area, that would be it. I think that area is the most vulnerable to mining of all the places I've been.”

Another dealer Sierra Club member is Tim Ciasulli of Planet Honda in Union, NJ. He's the fourth-best U.S. Honda dealer by volume, the best in terms of CSI and a presidential award winner.

When a customer buys a vehicle from Planet Honda, they enter a spaceship simulation that includes a multimedia new-owner's orientation and a Sierra Club pitch.

“After people buy a car on Planet Honda, we have to send them back to earth,” Mr. Ciasulli says.