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October 2000 Planet Main
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The Planet
State Lobbyist Profiles

Sandy Bahr - Arizona
Caryl Terrell - Wisconsin
Rebecca Cochran - Washington
Jeff Mikulina - Hawai'i
John Stouffer - New York

Never a Boring Moment

From shark costumes to nature walks in New York City, Sierra Club state lobbyists do it all.

by Kim Todd

Speak nicely to your opponent. Organize a nature walk downtown. Become an expert on three complex issues before lunch. These are just a few of the tasks that may comprise the occasionally frustrating, often exhilarating, job of Sierra Club state lobbyist.

"The intensity, volume and rapid pace of information coming from the state legislature is just unreal," says lobbyist Rebecca Cochran in Washington state, recalling the number of e-mails and phone calls she logs from the capital in Olympia, trying to keep activists in the field updated on bills, amendments and motions.

Filling the gap between those at the national level who lobby the U.S. Congress and federal agencies, and the groups and chapters that have a local or regional focus, state lobbyists make their case to governors as well as state legislatures and agencies.

Each state has its own nuances. Some are hostile to environmental groups; others are welcoming. In some regions, the Sierra Club lobbyist provides the only voice for ecological concerns. In others, the Club's advocate is one among many. In states with a full-time legislature, like California, the Club may have several staff members working with the legislature and state agencies. In others, the Club may hire a contract lobbyist for just a few months of the year. And in many states, the lobbyist also serves as chapter director or conservation director.

Coordinating the state lobbyists' efforts is Paula Carrell, state program director, based in the Club's San Francisco office.

"My job mirrors those of the front-line state government lobbyists I serve - it's diverse," she says. "I research emerging environmental issues, find money for activist outreach, untie organizational knots, offer a knowing ear to a colleague who's had a lousy day in local politics, develop training programs, nurture the state-to-state lobbyist network, and try to stay connected inside and outside the Club to state government-level trends in environmental protection."

The work lobbyists do is hard to define, ranging from Jeff Mikulina, writing editorials to protest shark finning in Hawaii, to John Stouffer, storming the capitol with an army of grade-school kids in New York.

Carrell sums it up this way: "Never a boring moment."

Special thanks to Sarah Clusen and Nithin Akuthota for their contributions to this article.

State Lobbyist Profiles

Deterring Desert Sprawl
Sandy Bahr - Arizona

Thirteen years ago, when Sandy Bahr first arrived in Arizona, she was drawn to the Superstition Mountains, a range marked by acres of cholla cactus and wind-carved rock. "You used to be able to drive not that far and you could get out into the desert," she recalls.

But these peaks and canyons no longer seem so remote as sprawl laps against the foothills. Many patches of cactus have been replaced by Bermuda grass lawns. "It's just house after house after house all the way to the wilderness areas," Bahr says.

Today, as Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter lobbyist, she is tackling sprawl head on. Bahr, who once helped design subdivisions working for a small civil engineering firm, now leads the fight against the houses that creep farther and farther into the remaining open space, driving up taxes and creating a brown cloud of smog that hovers over her home in downtown Phoenix.

Despite Arizona's abundance of sweeping vistas and ecological diversity, the Sierra Club is one of the few environmental organizations lobbying in the state. And the political climate is downright hostile. Early this year, the state's entire congressional delegation protested President Clinton's designation of the Grand Canyon-Parashant and Agua Fria national monuments, despite surveys showing that the majority of Arizonans supported the designations.

But the issue of sprawl looms large enough in Arizona that residents have bucked the politicians and introduced a growth-management initiative - on the ballot this November - that would require cities and counties to write growth-management plans, consider the need for open space and factor in the effect of growth on air and water quality. New developments would have to fund necessary services such as schools, police and roads, instead of relying on cities and existing taxpayers to fork over the cash.

Though developers are raising millions to defeat the proposal, the initiative has been carried along by a rush of popular support. Citizens for Growth Management, a coalition of more than 40 groups, including the Sierra Club, is working on this issue, and recent polls have shown that 70 percent of the voters are in favor of it.

In a job peppered with setbacks, the initiative represents a concrete accomplishment. "This is something that will really make a difference for Arizona," Bahr says. Filing the petition with all the signatures requesting the initiative was one of Bahr's most satisfying days on the job in recent memory.

But she anticipates even happier ones.

"Probably the very best day will be on Nov. 7 - when we win," she says.

Tracking Toxic Tommy
Caryl Terrell - Wisconsin

The political environment in Wisconsin makes working as a state lobbyist for the Sierra Club a steep uphill trek. Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) has been in office for 14 years and remains popular despite his active role in eroding environmental protections. During his tenure, he's been the champion of polluters, shoving through a succession of bad laws. In addition, he eliminated the office of public intervener, a position formerly dedicated to bringing lawsuits against agencies and companies that violated environmental laws.

"We call him Toxic Tommy," says Caryl Terrell, the Club's Wisconsin lobbyist.

But as long as Thompson has been in the capitol, Terrell has been there longer. She got her start with the League of Women Voters, where she learned to lobby and write position statements. Since 1983, she has served as a Club lobbyist, and her years on the job give her a richness of experience with the issues, as well as credibility.

This became clear recently when she confronted the Department of Natural Resources about a forest plan that, while supposedly in accordance with a new statute taking biodiversity into account, fell short. Terrell wasn't happy with the plan and was able to give the department a strong list of reasons why.

"I was there when the law got changed; I was there when the administrative rule got changed; I was there at planning meetings," she says. "I could provide a historic context."

But with so many issues to stay on top of, Terrell can't personally master them all. On a typical morning she might attend meetings or make presentations on vertical integration of the livestock industry, mercury emissions and a new technology for groundwater protection. Forming coalitions with other groups is one of the ways she's found to extend the Sierra Club's reach.

These partnerships paid off in 1998 with the passage of a mining moratorium. A massive grassroots lobbying effort that pulled together 60 organizations including Native American nations, anglers, union members and environmental groups forced the legislature to pass the bill, and the governor to sign it. The moratorium blocks permits for sulfide-ore mines until the state locates a North American mine that has operated for a decade without causing ground- or surface-water pollution. It amounts to a virtual ban; no mines in North America have such a clean record.

And coalition-building is proving to be a two-way street. During the mining controversy, Terrell attended a debate featuring three Republican legislators and organized by hunters and anglers. She expected to be just an audience member. After a politician fielded the first question, the moderator pointed to Terrell in her seat. "He turns to me and says, 'Caryl, we think there's another side to what this legislator just said. Can you come up and explain it?'"

Alliances like these give environmental groups the clout to thwart the governor and polluters. "It sends a powerful message that there is a political will to protect the environment in Wisconsin," Terrell says.

Targeting Grassroots Activism
Rebecca Cochran - Washington

Standing knee-deep in the Duwamish River, working on restoration with a group of city kids, Rebecca Cochran could see that no body of water was too damaged to try saving. Even in this industrial river, awash with pollutants for more than a century, eagles, herons, osprey, salmon and otters found livable habitat.

But while she loved being outside and educating kids, both on urban riverbanks and in alpine meadows, Cochran found herself pulled away from environmental education and drawn to the political landscape.

"I realized that's how you change the process," she says. "It's really empowering to get involved with the system and make things better."

These days, instead of sloshing into the Duwamish's current, Cochran is more likely to be wading through a flood of e-mails or drafting a letter to the editor. As conservation director for the Cascade (Washington) Chapter, she works on water-quality issues from the office, organizing volunteers from the Club's Seattle headquarters and lugging her laptop to the capitol in Olympia.

One major focus this year is on updating the Shoreline Management Act, which addresses more than 20,000 miles of shoreline in the state, including most lakes, streams, wetlands, floodplains, and marine shorelines and waters. The Sierra Club wants the update to protect open space, public access and habitat. "This is the best tool we have to protect our water, salmon and communities," says Cochran.

Her strategy involves tapping the 20,000 chapter members in the state and linking them with the legislators who might be swayed by hearing their voices.

"I call it 'targeted grassroots organizing,'" says Cochran. "If I need to gain influence with a particular legislator, I find a volunteer who was a donor to his or her campaign or I find someone with common interests." As a result, a senator who is an avid birder receives visits from the Sierra Club volunteers who are also active with the local Audubon Society.

Last year, Cochran gathered a contingent from the suburbs and rural areas to tell their stories in front of a house legislative committee considering the Shoreline Management Act. After 50 tales of streams too dirty to play in, kids made ill by drinking creek water and restoration efforts undone by poor management, committee members began to see the issue as one concerning people, not just salmon.

Cochran has high hopes that the resulting update will be good for lakes, rivers and creeks throughout the state. "It looks like this will be a big step forward - on paper," she says. "Then we'll need to fight to see that it's properly implemented and enforced."

Surf's Up, But Watch Out for Sharks
Jeff Mikulina - Hawaii

Jeff Mikulina grew up in Wisconsin, along the banks of the Mississippi River. But he is quite at home in his new role as Hawaii state lobbyist - surfboard, ponytail and all.

He has become adept at working on issues that never came up in the Midwest - like shark finning, a practice in which sharks are caught and killed for their fins. After the fins are cut off, the sharks are thrown back in the sea to die; last year an estimated 60,000 sharks were finned in the ocean surrounding Hawaii.

Another unique issue Mikulina faces in Hawaii is that, unlike any other state, the island chain is planning to build new oil and coal-fired power plants.

In response, Mikulina and others pushed a bill requiring 10 percent of all energy generated in the state to be derived from renewable energy sources by 2010. The state has great potential for wind and solar power, and Hawaii should be taking the lead to promote renewable energy because of its vulnerability to sea-level rise from global warming, he says. "While Hawaii's contribution to the global balance of greenhouse gases is minor, we can't ignore our influence on developing countries," says Mikulina. "If we continue to build fossil-fuel plants, how can we expect anything different from China or Indonesia?"

Unfortunately, the renewable-energy bill lost by a narrow margin.

It's not just the issues that make lobbying in Hawaii different from the Midwest. With such a small state government - only 76 legislators - Hawaiian politics are an intimate affair. Lobbying happens at after-work fundraisers and deals are made as legislators lean against a railing overlooking a courtyard in the capitol. Everyone knows everyone else. "It's like high school sometimes at the capitol," Mikulina says, citing the hearings, which are like classes, and the recesses when everyone chats in the halls. "There's always gossip. The big finals are the floor votes. And there's a lot of homework," he adds.

The homework paid off last summer with a victory in the effort to ban shark finning. On June 22, Gov. Benjamin Cayetano (D) signed into law a ban on the practice in Hawaiian waters, and delivered an impassioned speech about protecting the natural resources of Hawaii.

Mikulina and the Hawaii Chapter had worked hard on the shark-finning issue, making their case to the citizens, politicians and the media, rallying popular support and employing techniques that work from the Mississippi to Maui. "I was ready to put on a shark costume with bloody fins, but it never got to that point," says Mikulina.

Taking Inner-City Kids to the Beach - And the Capitol
John Stouffer - New York

In New York, lobbyist John Stouffer faces a different kind of dilemma. "In some states, the Sierra Club lobbyists are practically alone in their endeavors," he says. "But in New York, the playing field is crowded with 12 to 15 influential groups." So Sierra Club activists had to carve out a niche. They decided to focus efforts on securing open space, parks and waterfront access for poor communities.

Environmental justice was a natural avenue for Stouffer. In college and graduate school, he worked on farm-worker issues and ending U.S. involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In 1988, Citizen Action hired him to help fight an incinerator slated for Broome County, N.Y. During that fight, he had many contacts with the Susquehanna Group of the Sierra Club and eventually joined as a member. By 1994, he was the Club's state lobby director, still pursuing his twin commitments to social justice and the environment.

In South Queens the differences between well-off and poor neighborhoods are stark. "Some people have the bike paths or Gateway National Seashore between them and the bay; others have JFK Airport or the New York Port Authority in the way. There are kids who have grown up within walking distance of the shore, and have no idea what a horseshoe crab looks like," Stouffer says.

That's starting to change. Samara Swanston, vice chair of the New York City Group, discovered a hidden jewel. Nestled between Howard Beach and the airport lie 15 acres of open space called Bergen Basin. It contains a freshwater pond that has become a major stop on the Atlantic Coast migratory bird flyway. The first group of kids Swanston took to Bergen Basin were participating in a summer camp about three miles away. They piled onto a school bus and made their way to an amazing world of natural treasures.

Now the kids that Swanston took to the beach are walking the halls of the New York state house. As part of an "inner city lobby day," organized by Stouffer and Swanston, the kids took a bus up to Albany and met with legislators and the governor's staff.

"I'll never forget the look of nervousness - if not terror - on their faces," Stouffer says, referring to the legislators, not the kids. "The kids were well-briefed on the issue and spoke eloquently. The message: 'Our parents pay taxes and vote, too. We deserve parks and open space.'"

As a result of these efforts, sympathetic legislators like House Speaker Sheldon Silver (D) - who grew up in Manhattan and remembers not having enough places to play and no way to get to the shore - helped secure approximately $15 million in the budget to acquire open space for under-served communities.

Stouffer stresses that the chapter doesn't want its environmental-justice program to focus just on blocking blights like incinerators. "We want to actively work to provide amenities - such as open space and shoreline access - that improve the quality of life for disadvantaged communities."

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