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The Planet
January/February 1999 Volume 6, Number 1

Margin Notes

by John Byrne Barry

The Sky is Falling?

All too often, Sierra Club activists get branded as doomsayers. "Disaster is around the corner unless..."

And then it turns out that disaster is deflected, or delayed.

Did we overstate the threat? Maybe now and then. Mostly, however, it's because our call to action helped halt or mitigate the potential consequences.

Doom Deflected: For example, in Tampa, Florida Power and Light was pushing to generate electricity by burning orimulsion - a cheap but polluting sludge fuel from Venezuela. But Mary Sheppard, Gerry Swormstedt and other chapter volunteers sounded the alarm, warning the public about the potential increase in air pollution and the threat of a spill in Tampa Bay.

Their predictions didn't come true because - thousands of petitions, dozens of letters to the editor and countless hearings and demonstrations later - the governor and cabinet denied the utility a permit.

Mines Nixed: In Wisconsin, Caryl Terrell, David Blouin and the John Muir Chapter did more than just spearhead a coalition to block Exxon's proposed copper mine in the headwaters of the wild-and-scenic Wolf River. They pressured the legislature and governor to enact a statewide moratorium on hardrock mining. Just three years ago, said Terrell, such an outcome would have been unthinkable.

Missouri Mayhem: Ozark Chapter volunteers Tom and Angel Kruzen and Becky and Don Horton helped stop a proposed mine in Missouri. Doe Run Mining wanted to start exploratory drillings for lead near the wild-and-scenic Eleven Point River.

The campaign got ugly. One Club activist was beaten, duct-taped inside her van and left overnight - with the chapter's anti-mining brochure taped in her mouth. The chapter also received a dead cat in the mail.

But the chapter helped generate thousands of letters to Interior Secretary Babbitt urging the strongest protection of this area. In October, Doe Run Mining withdrew its applications.

Border Battle: In Texas, the nuclear industry wanted to build a nuclear-waste dump in rural Hudspeth County, near the Mexican border. But an international effort - featuring a hunger strike by a Mexican city council member, a blockade of an international bridge by 3,000 schoolchildren, a 76-mile march from El Paso to the proposed dump site and dogged organizing by Club activists like Lea Terhune and Steve Crowley in Vermont and Scott Royder and Fran Sage in Texas - made the political cost too high. The Texas Natural Resources Committee turned down the dump permit.

Sometimes the threat we're fighting isn't as specific as a proposed mine. It might be corporate power or anti-environmental riders on appropriations bills or sweeping international investment pacts. Or just a bad idea.

Sludge Soup: Like the USDA's proposed "organic" rules, which would have allowed food that is genetically engineered, irradiated or fertilized with toxic sludge to be labeled organic. Working with organic food stores and organic farmers, Iowa volunteer Debbie Neustadt, a member of the Club's Agriculture Committee, teamed up with letter-writers and phone-bankers from California to New York to turn back this flawed proposal. Agriculture Secretary Glickman received more than 200,000 public comments before he withdrew the proposed rules.

Bad Science: Global Warming team member Steve Pedery helped expose the "Petition Project," a pseudo-scientific attack on efforts to curb global warming. Pedery's blurb in "SC-Action Daily," the Club's electronic newsletter, helped mobilize scientists like Nobel Laureate Dr. Sherwood Roland - who discovered the hole in the earth's ozone layer - to fight the industry-backed sham.

Loopy Lingo: Know what "dairy nutrients" are? Neither did John Rosapepe, Club lobbyist in Washington.

It's a euphemism for cow manure, he learned, coined by the dairy industry, one of the major water polluters in the state.

"Listening to one legislator extol the virtues of dairy nutrients, I half expected him to say he threw a spoonful of it into his cereal every morning," said Rosapepe, who helped expose the dirty reality of dairy waste and push the legislature to require inspections of dairy-waste plans.

We don't always agree with other Club members about what's a bad idea.

Immigration Verdict: After a seven-month debate, Sierra Club members voted by a 60 to 40 percent margin in April not to take a stand on the U.S. immigration policy. Instead, the Club will continue pursuing its goals to stabilize world population, rein in the overall birthrate, slow the spread of pollution and curb our consumption of the earth's resources.

No, We're Not Naysayers

We didn't just raise a ruckus about threats. We also built grassroots support for protection of wildlands, advocated for "smart growth" to combat sprawl and helped pro-environment candidates win elective office.

Not All Demonstrations Are Noisy: On Little Tupper Lake in upstate New York, Roger Gray, Susan Holmes and other members of the Atlantic Chapter's Adirondack Committee joined more than 230 canoeists and kayakers for a quiet "canoe-in" demonstration. They took to their boats to ensure that Little Tupper remains one of the few lakes in the Adirondacks off-limits to motorized watercraft. The chapter wants the state Department of Environmental Conservation to make the lake's interim wilderness designation permanent.

Northeast Corner Wilds: In September the New Hampshire Chapter, led by Tom Elliott, Elaine Eakes, Jon Barrows, Nick Cohen and David Ellenberger launched a campaign to turn the White Mountain National Forest into a national park. Their strategy is similar to the one under way in the Maine Chapter where volunteers Carole Haas, Joan Saxe, Ken Cline and others are working to create a Maine Woods National Park and Preserve on land that is now privately owned.

Utah's Nine Million: After two years of reinventory work, hundreds of volunteers and thousands of photographs, the Utah Wilderness Coalition announced a new wilderness proposal - for 9.1 million acres. In the 106th Congress, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) will introduce the new legislation based on the reinventory.

Wolf Recovery: In the northern reaches of the Midwest, gray wolves have recovered enough so that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has recommended they be removed from the endangered species list. Of course, this didn't happen by accident, said Ginny Yingling, director of the North Star Chapter in Minnesota. "The recovery of Minnesota's wolves was due largely to lawsuits brought by environmental groups to fight off efforts to open a hunting and trapping season on wolves."

Clean Cars: Environmentalists won a tremendous victory in November when the California Air Resources Board adopted new standards requiring sport-utility vehicles, pickups and minivans to meet the same tough air-pollution requirements as cars. The agency rejected the "can't do" arguments of the auto manufacturers.

Next step, said Ann Mesnikoff of the global warming team in Washington, D.C., is to push the Environmental Protection Agency to close this pollution loophole in all 50 states.

Most Effective

This kind of success has not gone unnoticed. The Aspen Institute conducted a survey of Congress and the administration which named the Sierra Club the most effective environmental group in Washington, D.C. The Club was named more than twice as often as the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which ranked second, and three times as often as the next environmental group, the Environmental Defense Fund.

Local Hero: The Aspen Institute was not alone. In North Carolina, volunteer Gordon Smith was honored in the Charlotte Observer's "Guardians of the Environment," a two-page spread on local heroes. Smith was credited with protecting 1,300 acres along the western side of Mountain Island Lake.

Clean Mountain Air:Even the federal government recognized our contributions. The EPA's regional office in Denver gave the Rocky Mountain Chapter its Clean Air Citizen Award for its work cleaning up the Hayden power plant. (This was after the chapter sued the agency to make it enforce the law.)

A Full Life: Board Director David Brower won the Blue Planet award for his lifetime of environmental advocacy.

Awards are nice, but concrete victories are even better. The Club had more of those on Election Day than anyone expected. Of the Club's 43 top priority races, all of which had been too close to call earlier in the year, we won 38.

Photo Finish: One of the tightest of those races was in Nevada, where Sen. Harry Reid (D) didn't just win re-election once, but three times. His opponent, Rep. John Ensign, demanded two recounts, but Reid prevailed. The final victory margin was just 428 votes.

Louise Bayard de Voll, Dennis Ghiglieri, Ellen Pillard, Marge Sill, Rose Strickland, Randy Harkness, Dave Brickey and many other Toiyabe Chapter volunteers made clean water a statewide issue and Reid picked up on it in his campaign.

Did the Club effort make that 428-vote difference? Reid thought so, and credited environmentalists after the first of his three wins.

Power of the President: One of the many volunteers working to elect pro-environmental candidates was Chuck McGrady, elected Club president in May. In the fall, he stumped for three weeks on behalf of our endorsed candidates in the Midwest and East. He appeared with EPA Administrator Carol Browner in support of Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) and New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone (D), who both won re-election, and New York Rep. Charles Schumer, who knocked 18-year veteran Al D'Amato out of the Senate.

Playing Hardball: The Club got a backhanded compliment from Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith (R).

Smith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "[The Sierra Club is] an organization with a warm and fuzzy name that engages in real brass knuckle tactics."

Open Space: New Jersey voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin an ambitious $1.4 billion land preservation program that would buy undeveloped land, restore historical sites and preserve farmland.

Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Chapter exulted: "We've taken the first step to try and save a million acres of land in New Jersey and stop sprawl."

But now that the referendum - which would allow the state to repair historic sites as well as buy land - has passed, the battle over what gets funded is just beginning. One politician wants several million to convert the U.S.S. New Jersey, a World War II battleship, into a floating museum.

Suburban Scare: Our efforts kept us in the news too. The biggest splash came in September with the release of "The Dark Side of the American Dream," a report highlighting the nation's most sprawl-threatened cities.

It earned a front-page spot in USA Today, appeared in scores of other newspapers and at last report, garnered 96 radio and television hits

Atlas Shrugged: Two Club-produced maps also generated tons of coverage. "Storm Warning," the Club's weather map/report depicting extreme weather events in the United States from Nov. '97 to July '98, grabbed headlines from coast to coast. Coverage included the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Examiner.

A cartoon map exposing the pollution problems caused by waste from huge hog and chicken factories helped propel this problem into the public spotlight.

Hat Trick: On April 22, the Sierra Club appeared in three separate stories in the Washington Post. A story on the front page chronicled our voter education program in western Illinois and its focus on waste from hog factories.

Al Kamen's "In the Loop" column told of our blowing the whistle on the National Association of Manufacturers' attempt to take credit for cleanup of the environmental messes their member industries created.

In the Metro section was a story about the Club's "Tour de Sprawl" of Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.

Tricks of the Trade

Getting noticed took hard work. But some creative strategies and attention-grabbing gimmicks helped.

Extra Protection: In March, population program activists passed out condoms to congressional offices to call attention to a bill that would bar U.S. funding for any family-planning organization that - with its own funds - provided abortions or even talked about abortion publicly. The letter accompanying the condoms said, "Family Planning and Free Speech Deserve Extra Protection."

Squeals of Laughter: In Dallas, an activist with a "Tickle Me Elmo" doll upstaged Texas Gov. George Bush at a press conference where he was touting the state's "voluntary" air pollution program for industry. The woman squeezed the doll letting loose a cackle of canned laughter every time Bush said the word "voluntary."

Block That Kick, Save That Land:

When the West Virginia football stadium is packed, it becomes the most populated city in the state. To reach those fans during the West Virginia vs. Tulsa game, Club organizer Jim Sconyers hired an airplane to fly overhead pulling a "Save the Blackwater Canyon" banner. Cost to rent the plane: $245.

More Members: We can't prove it, of course, but it appears that all this visibility has helped boost Club membership.

"Our membership renewal rates are at a record high, said Director of Development Debbie Sorondo. "Clearly a strong economy is a major factor, but almost certainly we've been helped by our increased presence in the media and our growing reputation as being the nation's most effective environmental organization."

Oahu Group Membership Chair Marilyn Gates thinks there's a connection too. The Club's voter education program tabled at a local fair and engaged many fair-goers in dialogue about state environmental issues. Most had never heard of the Club or knew very little.Since the fair, membership has jumped, said Gates. "Sixty-four this month and eighty-eight last month. I can't help but think our increased visibility is the reason."

Goldman Gift: The Human Rights and Environment Campaign got a huge boost in November with the announcement of a $900,000 grant from the Goldman Fund.

Stock Tip: The Inner City Outings Program received $85,000 from the sale of stock from a Silicon Valley donor.

With a Little Help From Our, Er, Friends: The Club also built alliances to get the job done - not always with the usual suspects. For example, the Houston Group worked with the National Rifle Association to protect the wetlands of Katy Prairie from becoming airport runways. Surfers in Southern California teamed up with Club volunteers to help stop a proposed development by the Hearst Corporation. And in Maine, Susan Sargent, chapter vice chair, helped link up with the Maine Council of Churches to work on protecting the Damiriscotta watersheds and other wildlands.

From Snarls to Smiles: Here's what Russ Roach, a state representative in Oklahoma, said of the Club's outreach to small farmers threatened by huge hog operations: "The same people that are now political allies with the Sierra Club before could never say the words "Sierra Club" without snarling. Now they're best friends."

Seeking Justice: Speaking of friends, residents of Moody, Ala., teamed up with the Sierra Club through the Training Academy program when they needed tools to fight the major expansion of a landfill in "this poor, mostly black, working-class town," according to Aaron Head, chair of the Alabama Chapter's Environmental Justice Task Force.

The Club launched a partnership with the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Hispanic Radio Network to beam Spanish language broadcasts on pesticide spraying of farm fields and other environmental concerns to 15 nations, including the United States.

We even teamed up with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Taking advantage of a rare opportunity when he needed some green veneer, Club activists in New York and New Jersey gained his support for purchase of Sterling Forest, a pristine preserve 40 miles from New York City.

A Loss, a Legacy: The Sierra Club mourned the passing of former Congressman and environmental hero Morris K. Udall, who died on Dec. 13.

Among his many accomplishments, Rep. Udall authored the Alaska Lands Act of 1980, which preserved millions of acres of land in Alaska. "We hope the 106th Congress will join us in recognizing Rep. Udall's memory by designating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the Morris K. Udall Wilderness Area," said Club Executive Director Carl Pope.

Go on to the next article, "Where We Go Next."
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