By Marie Dolcini
Tucked among three old Rhode Island mill towns along the Blackstone River just north of
Providence, the abandoned and flood-prone Lonsdale Drive-In buckles with sprouting grasses
and small trees. What distinguishes this 27-acre asphalt-choked wetland isn't its
neglected state as an artifact of autocentered Americana, but its resiliency, its
potential as a healthy marsh and its centrality to the Sierra Club's ecoregion
conservation campaign vision.
Adjacent to some of the state's best wildlife habitat and a stopover on the Atlantic
Flyway for rare and threatened bird species, the deserted drive-in has been for sale for
years. Its owner would like to see it developed, but Club activists like Rhode Island
state lobbyist and Blackstone River Project organizer Karina Lutz have other ideas.
They've been working for its purchase and management not only to restore a healthy,
high-functioning wetland, but to link fragmented open space and repair a highly damaged
"Lonsdale is a classic great wetland because it has high potential for habitat,
water purification, recreation and flood prevention," said Lutz, who also envisions
canoe ramps and wildlife viewing platforms for community use. "When we formed a
chapter four years ago, the restoration idea brought us together. Since then, our efforts
have catalyzed expansion of the campaign along the entire Blackstone watershed." That
includes 48 miles of the Blackstone from its headwaters near Worcester, Mass., to its
Atlantic confluence in Pawtucket, R.I. as well as its riparian corridors, valleys,
meanders, tributaries and coastal estuary. Lutz is now aiming to coordinate restoration
efforts with Massachusetts Chapter volunteers by pursuing an interstate bike path designed
to link public lands to the river corridor.
This principle of starting out small and planning big is at the heart of the
ecoregional conservation model, and is being pursued by Club activists from the Gulf of
Maine to Florida's interior (see map).
What makes the Atlantic Coast an ecoregion, as opposed to just one big stretch of sea
coast? Atlantic Ecoregion Task Force Chair Barb Postles says it comes down to thinking in
terms of a healthy and biologically diverse living system defined by the waters feeding
into the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Canada to the Virgin Islands, and relied upon by
resident and migratory species, like the black bear, Atlantic sturgeon and piping plover.
"The idea excites so many people because we have the tools to pursue it, it
involves them and you really see results," said Postles. "It goes back to the
Club's early tradition of protecting places and connecting those that are already
protected and building on existing initiatives."
The ecoregion strategy consists of a three-point approach to environmental restoration
and protection of the eastern seaboard: improving water quality, fighting sprawl
development and, most exciting to Postles, establishing an Atlantic bioreserve by linking
restored and protected areas. As task force chair, her charge is to put activists like
Lutz in touch with others pursuing related conservation efforts in their home watersheds
and to encourage cooperation among private and public land owners. Postles and Atlantic
Ecoregion Coordinator Joy Oakes are communicating this broader vision by helping groups
removing asphalt from a neighborhood wetland make connections with chapter volunteers
upstream fighting sprawl and group activists working for clean water downriver.
Before the ecoregion program, conservation activists across borders didn't have the
support to work in concert as much as they were encouraged to focus on traditional
lobbying methods. The Club adopted the ecoregional conservation model in the early 1990s
to address environmental problems that transcended political boundaries; the effort to
restore the contaminated, border-jumping Blackstone is a case in point. "We're
researching key properties, contacting land trusts and getting local people talking to
their local agencies," said Lutz. "Cleanup has been magnificent considering the
extensive development along the whole Blackstone corridor, but a hundred years of toxic
sediments are left to clean up behind the dams. We're looking at the potential of wetlands
to help heal America's oldest rust belt by acting as a buffer and purification
Chapter Chair Helen Tjader moved to Rhode Island four years ago and attended a Club
meeting as a way to meet people. "I never went on a hike or anything and got involved
on a whole other level when I saw how excited everyone got just brainstorming on this
project. It's a fantastic opportunity to show people that we can turn it back into what it
was like before. It's been overlooked because no one has considered restoring land that's
so badly damaged." Tjader organizes seminars focusing on freshwater wetlands
featuring slide shows on the Blackstone produced by volunteer Jim Turek. So far, she's
helped convince Sen. John Chafee (R) to call for a study by the Army Corps and alerted the
state to the fact that federal funding is available for restoration and protection of
critical wetlands along the corridor.
"We're maximizing the potential of this project by activating more members along
the length of the watershed," said Tjader, who regularly schedules chapter meetings
at a different locations along the river.
Several watersheds to the south, Sierra Club activists on the Delmarva
(Delaware/Maryland/Virginia) peninsula prefer to further the ecoregional agenda by boat.
Instead of focusing their time and resources on rewriting laws to protect the Chesapeake,
Delaware and coastal bay drainages, they take state and federal decision-makers out in sea
kayaks to view threatened areas up close.
"Outings as a conservation tool are a Club tradition," said field organizer
and Project Water Watch Coordinator Mike D'Amico. "By taking the regulators out
there, you can show them a migration phenomenon that not a lot of folks know about or
expose them to an endangered species. You just can't make that kind of an impact at a
public hearing." Project Water Watch was born over two years ago when the state of
Delaware proposed to dredge the Assawoman Canal to create an intercoastal waterway
facilitating motor boat traffic. Project concerns ranged from degraded water quality to
destruction of critical finfish nurseries and coastal forest habitat. Club volunteers
didn't just invoke the Clean Water Act to protect the place they invited the agency
official in charge of dredging the canal into a kayak. "You could see the wonder in
his eyes when he paddled up to within five feet of a foraging great blue heron," said
D'Amico. Soon after the trip, participating officials issued new comments based on the
information Water Watch volunteers provided and halted the project with calls for further
D'Amico said that activists are starting to pay closer attention to natural boundaries
and it's translating into greater collaboration between the Delaware Chapter and
Maryland's Eastern Shore Group, Virginia's Chesapeake Bay Group and, most recently, the
Southeast Pennsylvania Group. "Because of our work, it's not unheard of for folks in
these parts to go into a town hall and question a local development project by asserting
that the area is important for the migration of a species," he said.
That approach is also helping Water Watch activists build stronger alliances with
regional commercial fishers. D'Amico was recently asked to join fishers, scientists and
fellow conservationists on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Advisory
Panel for Atlantic Sturgeon. He said participants have already begun to find common ground
around this keystone species, which may be bordering on the brink of extinction. Now the
former electrician wants to develop a training kit to help activists read blueprints and
be better positioned to understand and cross-reference public notices.
"We're making great strides," said D'Amico, "but many of us feel we
still have a long way to go given that our region leads the nation in cancer mortality
rates and many of our fish species are unfit to eat."
Atlantic Ecoregion activists don't limit themselves to stemming threats to thousands of
miles of coastline. These stalwarts know that the only way to begin restoring the health
of the place they call home is by viewing their neighborhood marsh in a broader natural
context. They know that with the greatest number of North Americans residing along the
eastern seaboard, setting out to save the backyard creek doesn't just mean ensuring water
quality and strong, enforceable environmental laws. It also means working to fight sprawl
by creating more livable cities, and by looking beyond state lines to places upstream, and
points in between.
"The biggest challenge is getting people to get their feet wet," said
D'Amico, "but once we reach them, we're on our way to restoring and protecting the
whole seaboard, one watershed at a time." For more information: Contact Ecoregion
Task Force Chair Barb Postles at (803) 732-0077; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
or Joy Oakes in the Appalachian Regional Office at (410) 268-7411; e-mail: <email@example.com>
Gulf of Maine
Maine Chapter Chair and Ecoregion Task Force member Joan Saxe is building support for
the establishment of "a ribbon of green" linking wild and damaged coastal areas
in the Gulf of Maine. Saxe speaks at chapter and group meetings from Cape Cod to Nova
Scotia about how people can protect ecosystems beyond political borders. She's also
soliciting volunteers to coordinate a mapping project of the over-3,000-mile regional
coastline to show what's protected now and how to connect existing areas by expanding
state and federally designated reserves. Once linked, these areas would form a buffer and
corridor for species and help ensure the long-term health of the ecosystem. "Our
first victory here will be the first pearl on the ribbon of green extending from the
Canadian provinces to the Florida Keys," says the Maine native and 20-year Club
For more information: Contact Joan Saxe at (207) 865-3648; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Club activists are working locally to liberate the wetland beneath the Lonsdale
Drive-In along the Blackstone River in Rhode Island. If they have their way, they'll soon
be able to improve neighboring human and wildlife communities, benefit an entire watershed
by removing 27 acres of asphalt from the site and score a major victory for establishing
an Atlantic bioreserve.
For more information: Contact Karina Lutz at (401) 521-4734; e-mail: <email@example.com>
Volunteer Bonnie Bick works for more livable cities in the Washington, D.C., area by
fighting the sprawl development that continually pressures natural areas and contributes
to disinvestment in existing neighborhoods.
Last year, the Southern Maryland Group conservation chair and other smart-growth
advocates succeeded in staving off final approval of a proposed new city that would
destroy a 2,250-acre ecosystem encompassing a critical fishery, a rich wildlife habitat
and a historic landmark along the lower Potomac River at Chapman's Landing. She's now
working to permanently protect Chapman Forest as an integral part of the Chesapeake Bay
ecosystem and as a source of Mattawoman Creek -- a key spawning habitat for anadromous
fish species and a habitat corridor for migratory and resident birds such as wood thrush
and bald eagles.
"Our wilderness is still at risk," says Bick. "Commitment to
revitalization of decaying urban areas and preservation of sensitive natural areas adds up
to long-term investment for city residents and regional wildlife."
For more information: Contact Bonnie Bick/Friends of Mount Aventine at (301) 283-2948;
Under the aegis of the Sierra Club's Mid-Atlantic Water Quality program, Project Water
Watch volunteers are using existing environmental laws to end threats to local waterways.
Project activists have halted dredging operations in endangered piping plover habitat and
prevented a proposed bike path from encroaching upon two wetlands of international
significance. They've also taken full advantage of portable video and phone technology to
document and call in environmental violations.
"People enter the program monitoring their backyard," says volunteer Carl
Solberg, "and then eventually spill over to monitoring the watershed and thinking in
terms of protecting the larger ecosystem." For more information: Contact project
coordinator Mike D'Amico at (302) 644-0627, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In South Carolina, where black bears wander the Waccamaw from Myrtle Beach all the way
up to its North Carolina headwaters, Ecoregion Task Force Chair Barb Postles is
coordinating a conservation campaign to restore and protect bear habitat along the length
of the entire watershed.
"The bear is a great focal point for local and regional work," says Postles,
"and even though the watershed is highly developed, the river stem is still very wild
and has a high potential for land protection." For more information contact Barb
Postles at (803) 732-0077; e-mail: email@example.com
A vast bog and biologically rich ecosystem, the Okefenokee swamp forms the headwaters
of the Suwannee and St. Mary's rivers dividing Georgia and Florida. The refuge encompasses
438,000 acres, 80 percent of which is designated wilderness, and is home to endangered and
threatened species such as the red cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake, parrot pitcher plant
and Florida black bear as well as migratory herons, hingas and woodstorks. But the
Delaware-based Du Pont Corporation has designs to stripmine this wetland for titanium
dioxide (see November 1996 Planet).
"This is a critical refuge along the Atlantic flyway," said Georgia Chapter
leader Judy Jennings, "and mining could destroy habitat, alter air quality and
groundwater and put all residents at risk."
For more information: Contact Judy Jennings at (912) 352-0122; e-mail:
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