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Planet Main
In This Section
PDF January/February 2006
e-mail December 20, 2005
e-mail October 28, 2005


The Power of Many
How We Saved the Arctic Refuge (For Now)
Getting Somewhere on the Bridges to Nowhere
Cities Get Cool
Measuring Mercury
Fighting for the Valle Vidal
Building Trust
There's No Limit to Colorado's Power
Finding Common Ground
Trickle-Down Activism
‘Hey, I Can Do This’
I Can Smell for Miles and Miles
Building Environmental Community One Canyon at a Time
Paper to Pixels
Sierra Summit Soars
‘Why Live If You Don't Have Something to Struggle For?’
Expanding Excom
Club Charts Direction for Next Five Years
Big Easy to Beltway: ‘Where's the Beef?’
2005 Timeline
Faces of the Sierra Club


Hope Surfaces in Katrina's Wake
Snapshots from the Summit
Democracy Breaks Out
Rally for the Arctic
A Better Legacy
Thoroughbred Power Plant Blocked
John Swingle
Betsy Bennett
Larry Fahn
Is Your City a Cool City?
Endangered Species Act Endangered
Smithfield Shareholder Resolution
Owens Valley Victory
New Energy Bill Exploits Katrina
From the Editor: Wake of the Flood
Search for a Story
Back Issues

The Planet
How the Arctic Refuge Was Saved
(For Now)

Polar bear sightings abound, but it's not about the bear. It’s about targeted grassroots organizing across the country.

by John Byrne Barry

NOTE: While it may appear that polar bear habitat is restricted to the northern regions of the nation, in fact, that's not the case. It is moderate Republicans whose habitat is so limited.  

She’s been spotted in Washington, D.C. and Washington State, Portland, Oregon, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Or is it a he?)

The Concord Monitor published a photograph of her outside New Hampshire Congressman Charlie Bass’ office holding a sign reading, “Thank you for saving my home.”
She’s even shown up here in the pages of the Planet, twice, once with her detached head upside down slung over someone’s shoulder.

Though seemingly everywhere, this white-furred creature, known as the Alaska Coalition Polar Bear, has been (not coincidentally) seen mostly in those states and districts represented by Republican moderates, who, on November 10, forced the House of Representatives leadership to strip Arctic Refuge drilling from the budget reconciliation bill.

But to paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the polar bear, it’s about targeted grassroots organizing across the country. The bear is only the tip of the iceberg, a costumed manifestation of a concerted and coordinated groundswell.

The pressure on elected representatives takes a variety of forms. Tens of thousands of concerned citizens signed the Sierra Club’s online petition to House leadership, lobbied their senators or representatives, attended a rally, or told friends to tell their friends.

In Concord, New Hampshire, says Kurt Ehrenberg, relentless pressure paid off. Both representatives, Charlie Bass and Jeb Bradley, said they wouldn’t vote for the budget unless Arctic drilling was stripped. Bass didn’t just stick his neck out, says Ehrenberg, “He wants to take credit for his vote.”

After the vote, Club representatives met with Bass to thank him for his leadership. (The day after the vote, they also posted a couple of high school volunteers outside Bass’ office, one in the bear costume, to share their appreciation with passersby.)

Ehrenberg says more than a dozen presidential hopefuls have already visited New Hampshire checking out the landscape in anticipation of the January 2008 primary. “I make sure to tell the candidates that New Hampshire citizens care about the environment, almost to a person, regardless of their political party, and that our elected officials are responsive to those concerns.”

The polar bears may attract the cameras, but what makes the difference between winning and losing these votes is convincing these elected officials, most of whom are being courted and/or coerced by the Bush administration and Congressional leadership, that their constituents care enough that they can’t afford to ignore them.

Another Republican moderate the Sierra Club targeted, Dave Reichert of suburban Seattle, was deluged with phone calls, photo petitions, postcards, and polar bear embedded rallies. He said he received more than 1,600 calls, 95 percent in favor of protecting the Refuge, and that he had to “listen to the people” he represented.

Similar scenes played out in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Maine, and Oregon. In New York’s Hudson Valley, Sierra Club ran phone banks urging its 2,000 members in Representative Sue Kelly’s district to call her or send her postcards. Longtime Club volunteer George Klein jumped on the train to Washington the first week of November to meet Kelly. Staffer Bob Muldoon shepherded the polar bear and a group of volunteers to the Oktoberfest festival at Bear Mountain (yes, it’s really called Bear Mountain) to collect signatures. The efforts paid off. Kelly refused to support the budget bill that contained Arctic drilling.

In Portland, Oregon, the day before the Senate vote, Club organizer Erica Maharg and allies staged a waffle breakfast for Senator Gordon Smith outside his office (with that hard-travelling polar bear), urging him not to “waffle” on his promises to Oregonians to protect the Arctic Refuge. He did waffle, supporting the Senate budget bill, which passed. But a week later, it stalled in the House.

The battle over the Arctic is not over, of course. Senators Ted Stevens and Pete Domenici, members of the House-Senate conference committee that will reconcile the House budget bill (without drilling) and the Senate bill (with drilling) have stated they will not agree to any budget that doesn’t contain Arctic drilling.

As the Sierra Club’s Melinda Pierce says, “For them, they win once, and it’s all over. For us, we win, and we just live to fight another day.”

But for the moment, it’s a huge win and a testament to the power of targeted grassroots lobbying.

(The polar bears come courtesy of the Alaska Coalition, of which the Sierra Club is one of dozens of member organizations. Shoren Brown, the coalition’s outreach director, says that they had the bear costumes made for them and have about four out in the field, one that shuttles between Oregon and Washington, another in New England, and a couple in the Great Lakes states. “And we keep a couple here [Washington, D.C.] just in case.”)

Concord, New Hampshire  
Bear Mountain, New York  




photos: Seattle (Jennifer Nance Rudolph), Oregon (Erica Maharg),

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