Sierra Club Home Page   Environmental Update  
chapter button
Explore, enjoy and protect the planet
Click here to visit the Member Center.         
Take Action
Get Outdoors
Join or Give
Inside Sierra Club
Press Room
Politics & Issues
Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Books
Apparel and Other Merchandise
Contact Us

Join the Sierra ClubWhy become a member?

Planet Main
In This Section
  September Features:
Army Burns, Club Fumes
Energy Madness
Explore, enjoy, and PROTECT!
Feds Say Let the States Do It...
Not above the Law
Unprotected Waters
From the Editor
Who We Are
One-Minute Activist
PDF version of the planet
Search for an Article
Free Subscription
Back Issues

The Planet
Explore, enjoy, and — everybody now — PROTECT!

Pointing the Way
Club activist and outings leader Vicky Hoover, above, points out a landscape feature in Great Basin National Park, Nevada. One of the nation's newest national parks, Great Basin was established in 1986 with strong support from the Sierra Club.
Imagine you're on a Sierra Club outing in the Marin Headlands, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area just north of San Francisco. It's a gorgeous day, the other hikers on your outing are good company, and you revel in the feel of the trail underfoot and the vista of undeveloped rolling hills meeting the sea and sky. You feel pleasantly tired and invigorated after your ten-mile hike, but you go home without hearing anything about how this wild landscape, within spitting distance of seven million people, came to be protected from development.

Now imagine the same hike, but your trip leader takes time to tell the story of how 40 years ago a planned city of 80,000 called Marincello was set to rise on these same hills. An access road and gates to the city had already been built, but the Sierra Club helped organize existing local opposition to the project and preserve the area as public parkland.

Participants on a Sierra Club outing pause to listen to the trip leader 
and admire the view of Donner Lake, near the Club's Clair Tappaan Lodge 
in the northern Sierra Nevada.
Participants on a Sierra Club outing pause to listen to the trip leader and admire the view of Donner Lake, near the Club's Clair Tappaan Lodge in the northern Sierra Nevada.
Now, instead of subdivisions and power lines blanketing these hills, there are hiking trails, open space, and wildlife habitat. The Marin Headlands stand as one of the most stunning examples in the country of wildlands abutting a major urban area, and the Sierra Club helped make it a reality. And before your hike is over, the trip leader tells you about another local conservation battle that has yet to be won, and offers suggestions as to how you can participate in that campaign.

It should be no surprise that the Sierra Club Outdoor Activity Governance Committee (OAGC) prefers that Club outings, of which there are approximately 10,000 each year, hew more closely to the second scenario. What might be a surprise is that many Club outings are more like the first.

"It's true," concurs Vicky Hoover, chair of the National Outing Committee's activist outings subcommittee. "Even on national outings, it's not done as often as you might think."

More than a quarter million people – members and non-members – participate in Sierra Club outings every year, a huge pool of potential activists to fight the seemingly never-ending threats to the environment. Club membership continues to grow steadily – it currently stands around 750,000 – but grassroots involvement hasn't kept pace. An outing is the first contact with the Club for many people, and it is estimated that one in four Sierra Club members have been on a Club outing. That's a big pool of potential activists who can be engaged, enlightened, and energized.

"For several years there has been a requirement that national outings include a conservation component," says Kathy Wells, a trip leader and conservation officer for national outings. "I'd like to see more contact between outings leaders and conservation activists. Cooperation between these two entities will greatly benefit both, and further our mission of 'enjoy, explore, and protect.'"

The OAGC, the Outings Department, and the Conservation Task Force are working to encourage and facilitate this contact through the new Outdoor Outreach program. And although the OAGC and others feel the outings program on the whole could be more effectively harnessed to reinvigorate the Club's activist base, many chapter and group trip leaders are already doing just that.

"We're here to celebrate and protect Tampa's most precious resource – water," says Hadrian Alegarbes, Outings Chair for the Club's Tampa Bay Group. A small flotilla of canoes and kayaks had gathered in early June for a waterborne outing on Florida's Hillsborough River. The major spring that feeds the river is threatened with a tripling of water withdrawals because the owner of the spring hopes to sell the water to a local bottling company. The river currently supplies nearly 90 percent of the water used by the city of Tampa.

"Every time you take water out, you affect the aquifer and everything that's connected to it," Alegarbes tells the group as they prepare to set off. Energized by the beauty of the riverscape and Alagarbes' pitch, several trip participants subsequently write letters and speak out against the water withdrawals at public meetings.

"It's important to be exposed in a hands-on way to what we're fighting for," says Carole Mehlman, a Club member who joined Alegarbes' outing. "You get much more passion if you realize what we're trying to preserve."

From the outset, Club outings were designed with conservation in mind. In 1889,

John Muir joined a group at the University of California that was interested in promoting recreation by making the Sierra Nevada – and especially the Yosemite region (not yet a national park) – better known. This group teamed up with others in the San Francisco Bay Area to create an alpine club. Three years later, the Sierra Club was founded.

Early Club outings were never simply hiking trips. Participants were advised to read Muir's The Mountains of California and Joseph LeConte's Ramblings Through the High Sierra prior to the trip. Once the outing was underway, leaders would lecture on forestry, biology, geology, history, and other topics of relevance. Other organizations, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, engaged in outings, but unlike the Sierra Club, their aims were purely recreational.

One of the more dramatic illustrations of the power of outings to influence public policy came in the early 1950s, when a federal dam project on the Green and Yampa Rivers threatened to submerge large portions of Dinosaur National Monument. The Club's Outings Department organized a series of river trips to Dinosaur's spectacular canyons, each one taking 65 people into the heart of the monument.

Families with young children went on these expeditions, demonstrating that rafting could be a safe recreational experience. In 1950, fewer than 50 rafters floated down the monument's canyons; by 1954, the number was nearly 1,000. The following year, bowing to public pressure that Club outings had helped galvanize, the Department of Interior announced that the Echo Park Dam project was being scrapped.

Over the next four decades Sierra Club membership boomed, but many new members were not activists per se. In 1995, then-Club President Robbie Cox started Project ACT, which sought to reinvigorate conservation activism at the local and group level. One of the projects that arose from this effort was the San Diego Chapter's "One Club" project, in which volunteers planned and carried out conservation outings to threatened places, with the goal of establishing a connection with a place and educating participants about the threats posed to it.

According to San Diego Chapter leader Camille Armstrong, who coordinated the project, One Club trips always included experts and educational materials explaining the natural history of the area and background information on the issue at hand. "The outdoor experience is much richer this way, more complete," she says. "On one outing, for example, we visited a proposed gold mine in the Imperial County desert and heard from Native Americans, representatives from the BLM, and archaeologists."

"A lot of people want to protect the places they love; they just don't know how to do it," says Ivy Gordon, who became so inspired by a One Club outing that she attended town hall meetings, networked with other groups, wrote action alerts to fellow activists, and put together a traveling slide show of places the Club had helped protect.

The One Club San Diego effort was followed five years later by a grant- funded One Club program that reached four groups or chapters each year. That program is now finishing up its 4-year run. "It was a tremendous success," says OAGC Chair David Simon. "Now we're trying to replicate it on a larger scale with the Outdoor Outreach program."

Outdoor Outreach has three objectives: (1) identify ways to incorporate a strong conservation message into Club outings, and identify whom to get on board; (2) train outings leaders, using a module that has been "road-tested" and refined over the last three to four years; and (3) write and distribute conservation literature for Club outings, such as fact sheets and "conservation scorecards" that allow trip participants to evaluate an area's ecological well-being.

"We've been running an outings training program that includes conservation training six to eight times a year to audiences of 50 or so people," Simon explains, "and outings leaders love it. With the literature, we want to reach two audiences – outings leaders and trip participants. Outings leaders have to be convinced to hand it out, and then participants have to be convinced to join the Club, become active, or become more active."

Simon suggests thinking of outings as a fleet of fishing boats, trolling for activists. "The outings leaders are the captains of these boats. To catch some fish, the first step is for the OAGC to ensure that our captains know something about fishing. If outing leaders don't throw the nets into the water, we won't catch any fish."

It's more than education, Simon says. "Educating trip members about the area in which they are traveling isn't a bad idea, but we should remember it is not the goal. The Sierra Club motto is 'explore, enjoy, and protect,' not 'explore, enjoy, and educate.' You will not read in The Planet: 'Great Victory: We lost the vote, and they built the Legacy Highway, but polls show that everybody knows all about the issue.' The goal is to inspire outings participants to take action."

Dan Fuller, an outings leader in the Kansas City area, says outings in his chapter are regularly used to increase both awareness and activism on local and regional conservation issues. He cites the example of a Kansas wetland, owned by a Native American tribe, through which a planned highway development was to be routed. In addition to being a productive natural area, the wetland contained Indian sacred sites, so the Sierra Club's opposition to the highway dovetailed with the tribe's opposition to the project.

"I led outings to the wetland at three different times of the year to illuminate how natural areas change with the seasons," he explains. "I invited a tribal member to piggyback onto these outings, which were promoted both by the Club and the tribe." Public opposition to the project has since grown, and court injunctions have been filed against the proposed highway routing.

Fuller has also led outings to a drinking water plant and a sewage treatment plant to educate people about drinking water and wastewater. "In both cases I had a designer of the plant come along to explain what they had been doing to improve the performance of their facility," he says.

Hadrian Alegarbes, the Tampa outings leader, says that when he first started going on outings, he felt the conservation content was conveyed inconsistently.

"We'd go to beautiful places," he recalls, "but if we didn't ask the guide questions, not much was offered. The trip leaders were extremely well-informed, but I find many outdoorsy people – including myself – like to hang out in the woods rather than in crowds because we're sort of introverts. The seclusion and gentle sounds of a wild place play to our natural strengths and leanings."

Now, as outings chair, Alegarbes has made an effort to come out of his shell. "I have set stories and 'raps' for ecosystems in the area, including longleaf pine forests, hardwood swamps, cypress forests, oak scrub, and others. For example, I'll tell people that 'the story of the longleaf pine ecosystem is the story of fire, and we're going to look at this system from the point of view of two of its main inhabitants, the longleaf pine and the gopher tortoise.'"

Alegarbes says his group's outings program generated 50 letters to legislators on various topics in June alone, including a request for Senators Graham and Nelson to authorize the purchase of Pinhook Swamp in northern Florida – a critical wildlife corridor and water recharge area for the Floridan aquifer.

Rita Beving, a Lone Star (Texas) Chapter activist who heads up the Outdoor Outreach effort in the field, has led numerous Club outings, both locally in the Dallas area and to places further afield. "I find that people really want to learn about and understand the area where they'll be hiking," she says. "I like to talk about the history and the geology of the places we're visiting, and I just incorporate conservation information into that discussion – I try not to beat people over the head with it."

On longer trips where the group travels by bus, Beving regularly distributes handouts on the area they'll be visiting. Recently, she asked trip participants to fill out postcards urging the reintroduction of the Canadian lynx to Colorado's San Juan Mountains, and designation of large areas where the cats could reproduce. "You have a captive audience on bus trips," she explains.

Not all Club outings leaders are comfortable with these methods. Andy Westbom, who has led Club outings for 15 years for the San Francisco Bay Chapter, favors a subtler approach. "I don't try to sell or promote anything," he says. "I do share conservation ethics, and in a low-key manner I share conservation information about the area we're in. I help identify unique flora and fauna. I ask people to help clean up the site before we leave, disassemble illegal or inappropriate fire rings, to not create paths in sensitive meadow areas where new trails can easily be formed by people tramping the same route.

"I've found that people become more conservation-oriented by doing – participating, learning, and enjoying themselves in the wonderful wilderness," he asserts. "They bring that home with them, and they bring that to the ballot box."

Teri Shore, who also leads trips for the Bay Chapter, is comfortable with both approaches. "I do like to pitch people on issues like wilderness," she says, "but on standard backpack trips I find giving a conservation spiel at the beginning or end of the trip doesn't work very well because people are either getting ready to go, or they're ready to go home. But if you advertise a trip as a wilderness campaign trip, people know when they sign up that they'll be getting 'educated' on the issue and maybe asked to sign postcards."

Further down the coast, Andrea Leigh recently led a series of Angeles Chapter outings in connection with the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brings water to the city from the Owens Valley, 200 miles away. "At best," Leigh says, "there are some Angelenos who have a vague idea that there's an aqueduct that brings water to Los Angeles from somewhere else. But the L.A. aqueduct is often confused with the California Aqueduct. And there is even less of a sense that the main reason Los Angeles exists as a megalopolis is because of this water supply."

Another Angeles Chapter trip leader, George Denny, says his fellow chapter outings leaders consistently disseminate conservation information as part of their trips. "I try to research both the conservation issues and the geology of the areas into which I lead people," he says. "We might discuss development in the Santa Monica Mountains, air pollution issues, and actions to purchase wild areas by organizations such as the Nature Conservancy. I always welcome informed botanists and others with specific areas of expertise on my trips, and I encourage them to share their knowledge with the group."

There are currently about 5,000 chapter and group outings leaders, 750 national outings leaders, and 500 inner city outings leaders. That's an impressive delivery system, the potential of which is nicely summed up by Hadrian Alagarbes:

"I have the best job in the world," he says. "I take people out to beautiful places and tell them stories about it."

Up to Top