by Sarah Clusen
When the Red River broke its banks last year, flooding much of Grand Forks, N.D., few people understood the connection between wetlands preservation and the muddy mess in their homes.
When Utah's Gov. Michael Leavitt (R) started pushing for the Legacy Highway, no one expected that the powerful Mormon Church would end up publicly criticizing the state leadership for "causing a transportation crisis and failing to use innovation in land-use planning."
And, when giant corporate hog farms started slipping into Oklahoma, no one guessed that the Sierra Club and the Oklahoma Family Farm Alliance would work together to turn out scores of activists for a permit hearing on pig manure - in the middle of the growing season.
With help from the Club's Environmental Public Education Campaign efforts, these things did happen. EPEC, which began in 1996, places paid organizers in sites across the country to work with volunteers on local campaigns. In 1998, there were 19 EPEC sites working on issues from suburban sprawl and wildlands conservation to water pollution and wetlands preservation.
While many of these campaigns made progress toward their stated goals, something else happened. Some organizers report that they were successful at turning an underdog issue into a no-brainer. Other organizers and volunteers did such an effective job of creating public demand for their projects that other environmental issues got some unexpected attention. Environmental awareness increased across the board.
Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope found that out firsthand at a recent meeting in Salt Lake City. "When I met with Gov. Leavitt of Utah to talk about Utah wilderness, it was clear that he took the Sierra Club more seriously, in part because of our effectiveness on Legacy Highway."
The same ripple-effect holds true in Florida, where the EPEC program is engaged in a classic open-space preservation fight. Developers would like to see condominiums where mangrove stands allow bald eagles and otters to thrive. Impressive strides toward protecting Clam Bayou combined with the addition of 827 acres to the Cypress Creek Preserve are giving local activists a lot to celebrate. As Florida EPEC organizer Beth Connors put it, "Taking land out of the developers' hands is like taking meat out of a shark's mouth - and we did it."
By investing resources in Florida, the EPEC program revitalized volunteers and gave a boost to long-standing issues. "I can't tell you what a difference it makes to have a Sierra Club office in Florida," said Connors, "a place where volunteers can meet or get 50 copies made if that is what they need."
This energy spilled over to help swiftly kill a monster that volunteers Mary Sheppard, Gerry Swormstedt and dozens of others had battled for six years. Florida Light and Power was trying to get a permit to burn orimulsion, a toxic tar-like mixture, to generate electricity. It was a difficult fight against a powerful corporation, but the re-energized troops successfully petitioned the governor to deny FL&P's fuel permit.
A similar story is told in Texas. Activists across the country and in Mexico rallied against the proposed low-level nuclear-waste dump at Sierra Blanca. Many said that the dump - which would store waste from Texas, Maine and Vermont - was being forced on the poor border town because the nuclear industry figured they wouldn't fight back. But they were wrong. On October 22, after months of effort by dedicated activists from Maine to Mexico City, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission denied the permit by a unanimous vote.
Meanwhile, the EPEC clean-air campaign in West Texas faced politically-tricky challenges because it appeared the pollution in the Big Bend region of Texas was coming from the Carbon I and Carbon II coal-burning power plants near Piedras Negras in Mexico. But Mexican officials insisted that these power plants not be implicated in any reports on studies of the Big Bend area air quality, thus stalling a planned study to trace the sources of pollution. In November, Mexican officials agreed that each country may have to do its part to cut air pollution.
The work that the Sierra Club and other organizations did to stop the Sierra Blanca nuclear-waste dump helped Mexican officials realize that a coordinated effort is better for the people of both nations. In the Dallas Morning News, Jim Marston, head of the Environmental Defense Fund's Texas office, said, "The outcome to the Sierra Blanca fight helped open the door to progress on border air pollution."
Go on to the next article, "Even Cowgirls Get the Freeway Blues."
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