|When Sierra Club staff member Mark Massara grabs a surfboard and paddles out to where
the big waves break, hes not just having a good time hes building a
coalition, California style. Volunteer Marge Hanselman is doing the same thing when she
observes waterfowl on a Texas wetland with a director for the National Rifle Association.
Staffer Ken Midkiff works his magic over coffee in farm kitchens, and volunteer Susan
Sargent turns to the Maine religious community for allies.
It raises no eyebrows
when the Sierra Club forms coalitions with the Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy or
The Wilderness Society. But the Club can often be even more effective when it closes ranks
with unlikely allies who live and breathe the same issue in a different way, whose voices
may bend the ears of decision-makers who otherwise are unlikely to listen or who are
unreceptive to a narrower range of constituents.
Such alliances arent always easy. Sometimes it means learning a different
terminology or putting aside personal differences. But those whove succeeded say the
results can be powerful. Here are some of their stories.
High Noon on the Katy Prairie
I knew when I started working with the National Rifle Association and the Houston Safari
Club that we werent going to be able to talk about handguns, politics or shooting
big game in Africa, says Marge Hanselman, conservation chair for the Lone Star
Chapters Houston Group in Texas.
But Hanselman and others in her group knew that their work to keep the Katy Prairie
wetland from being turned into an airport would be bolstered by support from the big guns
in so-called hook and bullet organizations. So in 1996, the group set up its first booth
at the annual Houston Hunting and Fishing Show and handed out reprints of a Sierra
magazine piece by Ted Williams called Natural Allies, about how
environmentalists and sporting organizations should work together. Thats how
Hanselman met Bob Baer, one of 76 national NRA directors. She handed him the article and
asked him to read it.
A few days later, Hanselman and Baer met, along with the Houston Groups wetlands
chair, Bill Stransky, and NRA Director Sue King. They found common ground: They would work
together to protect the Katy Prairie, a resting stop for geese and ducks on one of the
principal wildlife migration routes in the country.
King, a straight shooter who says, If its legal to hunt it and shoot it,
Ive hunted it and shot it, sees the connection with the Sierra Club as a
logical one. Its perfectly obvious to anyone with half a brain that if
youre going to enjoy the fruits of the outdoors, youre going to have to take
care of it.
I dont have a problem with people who dont like to hunt, says
King, as long as no one is being extreme and saying no goose or duck should ever be
Does King take flak from NRA members? Oh yes, she says, with hearty
laughter. Some people say, Are you stupid? Working with a bunch of tree
huggers? But I think the exchange of ideas is the best prophylactic against
ignorance and stupidity that I know of.
King felt the heat when she decided that the Sierra Club and the Katy Prairie
Conservancy would receive the proceeds of the worlds largest and
richest womens clay shoot, held near Houston.
In addition to that support from the organization, the NRA wrote a letter to the
Houston City Council and mayor on behalf of its 200,000 Texan members in support of
protection for Katy Prairie and has testified along with the Sierra Club in hearings to
oppose the construction of the airport.
The Sierra Club is not against hunting, says Hanselman. And while I
probably disagree with many of the other NRA issues, Sue King is a strong woman and one of
the most avid conservationists I know. We work on a one-on-one basis and stick to the
topics where we agree. Together were working to preserve wildlife
Surf on Their Turf
When it comes to working with surfers as allies to protect the California coast, the
Sierra Club has an advantage: Mark Massara, director of the Clubs California Coastal
Program, grew up surfing in Santa Barbara and later became legal counsel for Surfrider
Foundation. He also founded Surfers Environmental Alliance and the National Association of
Surfing Attorneys, and writes on coastal and environmental legal issues for surfing
magazines and other publications. With his long, blond hair and a tan, hes the
Massara gained a stellar reputation in the surfing and environmental communities when,
as an attorney for Surfriders in 1991, he won a lawsuit against two pulp-mill companies
near Eureka, Calif., that were dumping 40 million gallons of toxic effluents per day into
That effort gave me a working knowledge of coastal activists, says Massara,
and that includes surfers, farmers and Native Americans from coastal tribes.
Surfers may seem like unlikely partners for the Sierra Club, and even Massara admits
that organizing them is like herding cats.
But surfers bring to the cause of protecting the coast an intimate
knowledge of the California coastline and its many resources, along with a zeal for
recreation, he says. What were trying to do is get surfers to
occasionally leave the beach and go into city halls throughout the state and demand
coastal protection. You know, Gidget Goes Environmental.
How does he do it? Its an exchange of energy, in a way. Hes there for them,
and theyre there for him. When a hotel moved ahead on controversial plans to build a
seawall that would destroy not only the surf, but a nearby ecosystem as well, surfers in
San Luis Obispo called Massara, and he is fighting the battle with them.
Likewise, when the California Coastal Commission held a hearing on whether to approve a
Hearst Corp. proposal to build a series of resorts on one of that last untouched stretches
of coastline, the surfers were there. Massara and other Club activists had organized
aerial photos, obtained damning documents about significant Native American resources that
would be disturbed by the project and rounded up a crowd of 1,500 to show up for the
hearing. Surfers like Todd Cardiff, a welder, provided signs for protesters and wore
wetsuits to testify against the plan.
In general, surfers are apathetic about the environment. When they get sick from
polluted seawater, they say, Oh, thats the price of surfing. Were
trying to tell them, No, thats the price of pollution, and we can do something
about it, says Cardiff, vice president of the San Luis Bay Chapter of
Mark won that case against the pulp-mill companies, and because of that hes
become a person of mythological stature to us, he says. He knows the people to
get in touch with. He has history on the issues. He knows how to work the political
Whether Im working with surfers, farmers or Chumash Indians, I listen to them,
go to their meetings and immerse myself in their perspective and genuinely empathize with
their viewpoint, says Massara. It helps to walk a mile in someones
Finding Friends in Farm Kitchens
For Ken Midkiff, walking in the shoes of his allies means wearing coveralls and mudboots.
About four years ago, Midkiff, the Clubs Missouri state director, was asked for help
by rural family farmers to work against the pollution wrought by hog and chicken
factories, also called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which house and
dispose of the waste of thousands of animals.
To pursue partnerships with family farmers and respond to requests for assistance,
Midkiff hightailed it out of Columbia and headed to the hinterlands.
I didnt have these farmers and their neighbors come to my office where
Id sit behind my desk in a suit and act like Im the person with all the
answers, says Midkiff. Ive sat in a lot of farm kitchens drinking coffee
and listening to their concerns.
Mind you, Midkiff is a vegetarian, and the people with whom he works in these
partnerships are raising cows, pigs and chickens for slaughter.
When they offer me a big plate of fried chicken I say, No, thanks, but
Ill have some potatoes and gravy. I dont impose my values on
In these meetings, Midkiff and the farmers developed mutually agreeable solutions and
strategies to implement. They started forming local action groups of rural residents
and farmers. They dove in, writing letters, lobbying state politicians and congressional
delegates in the capitals and testifying at hearings, persistently calling for stricter
rules governing these corporate operations and the waste they produce. A crowd of farmers
working with him on the CAFO issue recently showed up at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife hearing
to support protection for a minnow called the Topeka shiner. (See Midkiffs
Ten or 20 years ago, I wouldnt have cared anything about the Topeka
shiner, says Terry Spence, who runs a cow/calf operation on his 400-acre farm.
But I stood up and testified to protect it, because when something disappears, even
though its just a minute little fish, something else will disappear, and it just
keeps going up the ladder. Someday it will affect humans.
About one and a half miles from my property line is a CAFO with 80,000 head of
hogs on 3,000 acres, he says. Sometimes it takes reality to put things in
perspective. Those of us who work with Ken and the Sierra Club come to realize were
all looking for the same thing: We want to preserve our land for future generations. Some
people were skeptical about working with the Sierra Club because we didnt agree with
them on everything in the past. But now I think you could call any farmer out here and
theyd say the Sierra Club has become a good friend, cares about us and wants to do
something about the problem.
It doesnt happen overnight, says Midkiff. There may be some
initial skepticism and paranoia, but you work through that. You show them this is not a
one-shot deal, that youre there for the long haul, that youre not going to
make a big splash and get headlines, and then disappear. When the trust is there, powerful
Pursue and Persevere
It took two years and plenty of persistence for Maine Chapter Vice Chair Susan Sargent to
link the Club with the states religious community. The way Sargent sees it,
Elected officials, the public and the media all know the Sierra Club will support
environmental legislation. Youre more convincing when you show depth for an issue,
and prove that a diverse group backs something. The Maine Council of Churches is highly
credible and theyre a wonderful voice to add to ours, especially as the conservative
wise-use movement picks up speed in our state.
So two years ago, armed with materials on the need to protect endangered species,
Sargent met with the councils executive director, Tom Ewell. She came away without a
commitment, but Ewell started inviting her to events and workshops organized by the
council and Sargent made it a point to attend.
Sargent, a non-churchgoer, kept in touch with Ewell. Finally, after two years, while
both were working booths at a fair, Ewell asked Sargent to be part of the councils
newly formed Spirituality and Earth Stewardship Program. She serves on the outreach
committee, researching environmental legislation the council can support from a
Ewell saw the logic of having the 670-church organization fight for the environment,
but he needed a compelling issue to organize around. Watershed protection was it.
The new program began with a celebration at the Damariscotta Watershed and included a
nature walk, sledding and skiing, a light meal, slide presentations and a reading.
Participants from across the region brought water from local wells, rivers and other
sources to combine in a symbolic ceremony.
We believe that stewardship of the earth and its natural resources is essential
to the survival of all living things, including humans, and that the destruction of the
environment reflects a breakdown in the way people relate to Gods creation and to
each other, says Susan MacKenzie, the councils program director.
Through this Ive learned that sometimes you have to persevere in
order to bring a group on board, and keep communications wide open, says
Also, its important to consider every group a possible ally, because when
you start thinking about the environment and whos affected by it, its hard to
rule anyone out. By finding that common ground, we can build powerful