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The Planet

Keeping the Giant Awake in '98

The Planet, April 1997, Volume 4, number 3

Club's Conservation Strategy to Capitalize On Attentive Electorate

For anti-environmentalists in the last Congress, public opinion turned out to be a sleeping giant. An aroused populace, polluters' allies found, can cut short a political career faster than you can say "Dirty Water Act."

By hiding their hostility to safe water, clean air and wild places, many enemies of the environment managed to save their skins and return as members of the 105th Congress. So the Sierra Club's conservation strategy starts with a simple premise: Keep the giant awake.

"To make progress during the next two years," explained Bruce Hamilton, the Club's conservation director, "we need to keep our issues in the public spotlight, and continue to hold decision-makers accountable." Using the successful campaign against the War on the Environment as a model, Club leaders are launching the 1997 Public Education Campaign with an eye to defining environmental issues on the Club's and its allies' terms, and then, with broad citizen support, "taking delivery" on specific items on the conservationist agenda.

National priorities such as clean air, clean water, forest reform, protecting endangered species, fighting sprawl, stabilizing population and promoting environmentally responsible trade will take center stage during the next year. The Club will also be fighting regional and local battles. No matter what the issue, though, the first step will be public education.

As outlined by Club leaders, the 1997 campaign is essentially message-driven. Focusing on 40 strategic media markets, Club volunteers and staff -- in concert with activists in like-minded organizations -- will hammer home broad environmental themes that resonate not just with environmentalists, but with other sympathetic members of the community. Constant repetition of simple, easily understood stories via news coverage, letters to the editor, advertising and high-visibility events will aim -- in a phrase borrowed from last year's War on the Environment campaign -- at "changing the politics" at the national, state and local levels.

"Every letter to the editor that gets into print," said Hamilton, "is worth 100 private letters to a politician."

Activists learned the power of coordinating the Club's national agenda with varying state and local ones in the trial-by-fire of the 104th Congress. A culmination of those efforts came during Earth Week of 1996, when staff and volunteers hit the sidewalks in 100 communities, distributing doorhangers to their neighbors. The doorhangers included postcards with both a national message -- "Protect America's Environment: For Our Families, For Our Future" -- and a local call to action, customized according to the issues facing each particular region.

This year, a similar effort will be made to galvanize citizens' interest in protecting our children's heritage. In many areas, Earth Week events will be focused on the battle for clean air. Some chapters and groups, however, may choose to also highlight such issues as toxics or clean water. But whatever the issue, expect to find Club activists armed with both educational materials and action items including tens of thousands of postcards addressed to President Clinton urging him to protect our children's health by adopting tough new air pollution standards.

Clean air is expected to be the biggest battle of this congressional year, as polluters gear up to torpedo the tough new rules for smog and soot proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency last December. Before the gavel came down to begin the 105th Congress, Sierra Club activists were getting citizens to urge the EPA and President Clinton to resist industry pressure to weaken the standards. Those efforts, which later included mobilization around EPA field hearings, will continue through September, when final action is expected on the proposals.

While the clean air campaign goes forward, the Club will also be launching other national campaigns as well as addressing issues of local and regional interest. Rather than try to kill anti-environmental bills in committee -- an unlikely prospect in this Congress -- Club activists will use committee votes to publicize these issues and to hold elected officials accountable. Come summer, many will be passing out leaflets on wetlands at local fishing derbies, staging press conferences to highlight the effects of smoggy days on asthmatic kids, or drawing attention to water pollution at local beaches.

Few federal bills on the environment now seem likely to make it to floor votes until the 1998 congressional session. If the 105th Congress does move on the environment, say Club leaders, it will probably do so via riders and budget items in agency spending bills, expected to come up in September. Potential surprises in appropriations bills could include EPA enforcement cuts, special deals for timber, mining and oil companies, and provisions for developing Utah's wilderness.

On the proactive side, the Sierra Club and its allies are hoping to cut wasteful anti-environmental spending for subsidized logging roads, environmentally destructive water projects, taxpayer giveaways to mining companies and the energy industry, and similar examples of "corporate welfare." We also hope to boost funding for public land acquisition and environmental protection programs.

But by keeping the environment in the public eye, Hamilton and other Club leaders hope not only to block the polluters' agenda, but also to advance our own -- if not through legislation, than through popular administrative initiatives that Congress won't dare oppose.

"If we play our cards right in '97," Hamilton said, "we can think about taking delivery in '98 on a whole range of issues: reform of the Forest Service, preserving wetlands, improved clean air standards, expanded Right to Know programs, maybe even another new national monument to celebrate."

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