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The Planet

Forging Non-Traditional Alliances

The Planet, January 1997, Volume 4, number 1

by Marie Dolcini

Sierra Club activists broke new ground in 1996 by reaching out to nontraditional organizations and forming coalitions with those who aren't ordinarily allies -- from national hunting and fishing associations to family farmers. Just ask Elyssa Rosen, associate regional representative in the Calif./Nev./Hawaii field office. Thanks to her and alliance-minded Toiyabe Chapter activists, we've built a broad, precedent-setting coalition for the cause of conservation in Nevada's Great Basin.

"When you're working on mining issues in remote areas of Nevada," she said, "it only makes sense to reach out to ranchers, Native American communities and the few independent prospectors who remain." Now that more than a dozen big mining companies in the area are pursuing massive dewatering projects as part of their operations, locals fear that the hundreds of thousands of gallons pumped per minute to access marketable hardrock minerals is destroying northern Nevada's precious aquifer.

Enter Great Basin Mine Watch, a coalition of ranchers, independent prospectors, Shoshone community representatives, scientists and Toiyabe Chapter volunteers working to counter attempts by Canadian mining corporations such as Placer Dome and American Barrick to force locals off the land.

"We go to meetings with ranchers who used to hate our guts," said Rosen. "Now we're working together. We don't always agree, but when land is literally disappearing as a result of mining by outside corporate giants, we recognize we all have a stake." Despite scarce funding, the year-old alliance has appealed two mine projects and rallied over 60 people to attend a hearing that persuaded one company to withdraw a mine proposal. It's also sponsoring groundwater studies in the absence of government analysis, pursuing reform of the 1872 Mining Law (which allows anyone interested in pursuing a claim on public land to purchase mineral rights for as little as $2.50 an acre) and working to get mine waste listed as toxic. Participants now plan to bestow an annual "Golden Pit Award" to the region's worst mining operation.

"It's an uphill battle when rivers and springs are already drying up and the government keeps issuing mine permits," said Rosen, "but together -- and project by project -- we're doing baseline education about the impacts of mining on communities and wildlife." To the east, state lobbyist Bill Craven said the alliance he's helping create in rural Kansas isn't just teaching family farmers about the Club, it's teaching the Club about family farming. Under the name Stewards of the Land, this Club-backed coalition aims to assist farmers increasingly threatened by corporate hog farms that have little to lose by despoiling their surroundings with operational wastes.

"Several years ago, it was common in almost every farm newsletter or talk radio program for farmers to be told over and over again that the only thing wrong with their industry was these environmental extremists," said Craven. "There's been a lot of anti-environmental propaganda, but after we got past that, it turned out we had a great deal in common."

Now staff and volunteers from Wyoming to the Carolinas are pursuing common cause with affected families and helping them stop new factory operations and ensure that existing ones comply with state regulations. In North Carolina, a region plagued by hog and poultry waste lagoon overflows, the response of hunters and fishers to Sierra Club clean water outreach has been overwhelming.

As Clean Water Project coordinator, Kathie Dixon was on the road for the past year visiting and recruiting leaders of fishing, hunting and fellow conservation organizations ranging from Ducks Unlimited and the state federation of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society to the Atlantic Coast Conservation Association. She's also become a habitué of angling "expos," which afford an opportunity to inform citizens about the risks posed to their region by a weakened Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Thanks largely to her efforts, this coalition of "rediscovered allies" inspired over 700 anglers to send postcards to the governor to clean up state waters and helped realize the Clean Water Trust Fund, a recurring conservation commitment from the state legislature that could put as much as $50 million into river cleanup in the next decade. "One-on-one contact has allowed us to move past the skepticism and on to productive discussion," said Dixon. "And now there's an expressed interest in establishing long-term working relationships to address issues beyond clean water."

Club leaders look to the North Carolina example as a highly successful model for outreach to other communities -- like small woodlot owners, who are potential allies in our campaign to end subsidized logging on public lands.

"Building trust between groups that have traditionally viewed each other as opponents will take time," said Ozark Chapter staffer Ken Midkiff. "The key is working with local folks to identify shared issues. Based on our experience, the more we help, the more we are sought by others who are being assaulted by corporate opponents. After a while, 'their' agenda and 'our' agenda become the same."

For more information: Contact Elyssa Rosen at (510) 654-7847, e-mail:; Kathie Dixon at (215) 247-5877, e-mail: <>; or Kanza Group Conservation Chair Craig Volland at (913) 334-0556 for Stewards of the Land. Contact Great Basin Mine Watch at P.O. Box 10262, Reno, NV 89510.

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