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The Planet

Protecting the Environment is Patriotic

Georgia Chapter leader Sam Booher, a military veteran, a registered Republican, and a former chapter chair, delivered this talk about patriotism and the environment to a Rotary Club in Atlanta the week before Memorial Day.

by Sam Booher

The war in Iraq is in all of our thoughts. As I drove here today from Augusta I saw American flags everywhere. Americans seem united by a strong love of country — the land that is home to us all, that shapes our character and nourishes our spirit. But I’m left with a sense that something is missing — caring for America, our natural resources, drinking water, clean air, wild places.

Some people believe that the only patriots are military veterans who have fought in wars for their country. But I spent two and a half years fighting in Vietnam, and I know there are other ways to love and support our country. My dictionary says a patriot is one who guards his country's welfare. I don’t believe one can be a patriot by waving our flag on July 4 and then polluting a stream on July 5.

I'm a retired soldier trying to give something back to my country that has been awful good to me. That’s the reason I joined the Sierra Club — to make a difference.

Twenty years ago, when I worked as a trainer for the Army, would arrive early for work every morning and read the paper until others arrived. One day I saw a photograph of three cowboys standing with their rifle across their arms in front of three piles of dead golden eagles. At first I thought it was a historical photo but no, the article said the cowboys, who grazed their stock on public land, thought eagles were killing their lambs and calves and they petitioned Interior Secretary James Watt, who gave them permits to shoot all the golden eagles they could find.

I was mad. Those were my eagles living on my land. Our eagles. Our public land. I wrote my senator, Sam Nunn, who said he would establish a 30-day study. The study found that eagles’ talons are so weak they can only hunt rabbits, but they also feed on animals that are already dead. Nunn got Watt to withdraw the permits.

Since then I have been trying to teach others that if you care and are willing to step forward and do something, you too can make a difference. 

For much of my youth my father worked in a coal mine in West Virginia. You probably have heard the expression “canary in a coal mine.” Well, I remember my father taking a yellow canary along with his lunch pail to work. If the canary fell off its perch the miners knew there they had opened a methane gas pocket and had to leave the mine.                    

Many Georgia politicians see the Sierra Club efforts the same way — as an early warning signal that something is wrong. The Georgia Chapter has 13,000 members and ten groups, and this year, we hope to establish our 11th. That’s a lot of yellow canaries all over Georgia.

When everything is going well, the Sierra Club is not needed. Only when corporations or government entities aren’t acting responsiby do people come to us.   I would love nothing more to say at our next executive committee meeting, “We have no calls for help, Georgia legislators are voting as if they really do care and state agencies are doing their jobs. Let’s take a hike.”

As we look at Iraq on our TV sets, we see bare rock mountains, sand, dry river beds. We don’t see lush forests, fields of green grass, healthy streams. It’s easy to forget that this is the place referred to in the Old Testament as the "fertile crescent."

Iraq allowed short-term economic gains to override long-term sustainability and their once fertile lands became bare rock and dry river beds. We don’t want to be handing down such a legacy to our children and grandchildren.

Here at home, our public lands are by far the largest and perhaps most important water provider in the United States. Eighty percent of all drinking water in America flows off of our national forests. But do our politicians recognize water quality and protected watersheds as a vital part of national security? All too few do. 

At one time, we viewed our public lands as a vast storehouse of inexhaustible resources. Fortunately, we've learned from our mistakes. Forests can regenerate. Rivers and lakes can clean themselves if we stop pouring poisons in them.

Before I finish, I’d like to take a short poll. Please raise your hand if: (1) You have never had a meaningful connection with nature, or visited a some magical place you’d like to take your grandchildren to; (2) you feel noresponsibility to pass that experience on to your grandchildren; and (3) you believe ourenvironmental problems are too daunting tosolve.

If you didn’t raise your hand, your views mirror those of Sierra Club members. A recent survey of our members found we have three core beliefs in common: getting out into nature, a responsibility to share it with others, and an optimism that working together we can get things done.

At the 1973 signing ceremony for the Endangered Species Act, President Nixon said: "Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans."

I hope you agree — concern for the environment is an integral to our national security as a prepared military. Without it, we lose sight of what we ask our men and women in uniform to fight to protect.

So next time you hear someone refer to the Sierra Club as extremists — and people do, though I would bet they don’t actually know who we are and what we do — I remind you to think of us the way I think of us, as patriots, devoted to guarding our nation’s heritage of clean water, clean air, and wilderness.

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