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Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Making Democracy Work | New Directors | Member Memo | Volunteer Spotlight | Ecoregion Roundup

Making Democracy Work

Doorhangers, bird dogs, and truth squads.

by J. Robert Cox

Former Sierra Club President Sue Merrow liked to say that the Club "makes democracy work for the environment." It's an idea dating back to John Muir that has been cultivated by Club members for a century. Soon after I took office as the Club's 45th president in 1994, however, that guiding principle came under severe challenge. Given the November electoral coup by polluters' allies in Washington and many state legislatures, how could we hope to make democracy work for the environment?

I needn't have worried. Today, as I step aside after two years as president, the Club is fulfilling Muir's vision in new, innovative, and far-reaching ways. Beginning with our own internal democracy, we've put grassroots activism to work as never before. The results have been as dramatic as Yosemite's Half Dome-- and as subtle as the Everglades.

Begin with Congress. Flushed with their 1994 victory, anti-environmental chest-thumpers in the House and Senate boldly proclaimed their plans to tear down a quarter century of environmental protections. The Sierra Club led the opposition, aiming at first to blunt the damage that many viewed as inevitable. Two years later, the 104th Congress' War on the Environment is in strategic retreat.

It's a resounding triumph of people over polluters. In the week leading up to Earth Day, for example, thousands of volunteers--many of them recruited via the Environmental Rights Network, our information- rich web of e-mails, faxes, phone banks, an Internet home page, and the Club's activist newsletter, The Planet--delivered doorhangers to more than a million homes in cities throughout the United States. Attached were postcards exhorting elected officials to "Protect America's Environment: For Our Families, For Our Future," and alerting residents and politicians alike to specific regional threats. And while the scope of the mobilization was extraordinary, its character was in keeping with other Club efforts of the past 18 months, from our nationwide Environmental Bill of Rights campaign to our regionally targeted "truth squad" radio ads, to our bird-dogging of presidential candidates trying to dodge environmental issues as they stumped in New Hampshire.

We are making democracy work for the environment. Since the November elections, the more we focused on our grassroots activists, the less we focused on lobbying Washington. We talked to our neighbors, and they talked to one another. As word spread about the War on the Environment, the media at last took notice, adding pressure on Congress to respond. By the end of 1995, once-arrogant hard-liners were struggling to explain how their votes against clean air, safe water, wetlands, endangered species, forests, wilderness, and national parks qualified them as "green."

Beyond Congress and state legislatures, the Club's revitalized grassroots activism is having a deeper, less obvious effect. In an era when "citizenship" too often equals "consumption," and the public interest is eclipsed by special interests, we're seeing signs of a change. As Club members speak out in local forums about new threats to wilderness, or increased risks of cancer and birth defects from pollution, they're also raising a fundamental question in the minds of their neighbors: How can we wrest control over our lives from the powerful few who would overrun our public institutions and defy the people's will? We're recovering the civic spaces where we make democracy work, where our vision for the earth can be shared.

It's no accident that Muir, the Club's founder, urged us to "speak a word for wilderness." Democracy demands that citizens speak out, both with reason and with passion. The strengthening of our civic life is still our best strategy for protecting the wild places of our earth and the health of our communities.

New Directors, New Directive

Sierra Club members have re-elected to the Board of Directors two sitting members, added three new ones, and put the Club on record as advocating an end to all commercial logging on U.S. public lands.

In the 1996 balloting, J. Robert Cox--who is stepping down as president after two years--cruised to a second three-year term, while Roy Hengerson won a third consecutive term. They'll be joined on the 15- person board by Anne Ehrlich, associate director of Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology, who, with her husband, Paul, has written extensively on environmental issues; Lois Snedden, an editorial consultant from Reno, Nevada; and forest activist Susan Holmes, environmental program director at Columbia University.

The ballot proposition on logging carried by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, winning 39,000 votes. The Club's new, more sweeping position, said Cox, commits the Sierra Club to support federal legislation that bans all commercial logging on public lands, when and if it is introduced. But the new posture will not change the Club's continued advocacy for new wilderness areas, national parks, ancient-forest preserves, and other incremental legislative approaches to protecting environmentally sensitive public forests.

Member Memo

Calling (and Calling) on the Sierra Club

Since the dark days of the 1994 elections, the Sierra Club has had remarkable success in getting the once- reluctant news media to cover the War on the Environment. But when people want the real lowdown on legislators' efforts on behalf of polluters, they don't tune in CNN. They ask the Club.

Specifically, they ask the Sierra Club Information Center, which has been as busy as a Gingrichite trying to paint himself green by next election day. How busy is that? In 1995, the Info Center fielded some 39,000 phone calls--an increase of nearly 50 percent over the previous year--or an average of one call every three minutes.

When staffers weren't on the phone, they were responding to e-mail inquiries--4,809 last year, more than twice the number in 1994--or sending out information packets to members, students, and the general public (more than 5,000 in the last three months of 1995).

The upward trend shows no signs of abating, but the Info Center takes pride in its ability to handle all comers. If you have a question about the Club, its policies and positions, membership, or the War on the Environment--or, for that matter, just about anything else related to the environment--contact the Center at (415) 977-5653 or via e-mail at

Volunteer Spotlight:
Mrs. Robinson's Neighborhood

by Tracy Baxter

Florence Robinson's demeanor is calm and reserved. But her friends swear that the bespectacled, soft- spoken biology professor at Southern University is nothing short of a firebrand. "And when I get angry about exploitation, I guess I can be a little fiery," she says.

And inventive. Testifying at a 1995 hearing on Louisiana's "takings" legislation, Robinson heartily endorsed the anti-environmental measure. Twisting the economic arguments of its corporate backers, Robinson commented that the bill's subsidies for polluting industries would diminish her property values.

"Gentlemen," she promised, "just as soon as this bill becomes law, we citizens who live within four miles of any environmental hazard or nuisance are going to hire more New York lawyers than you can shake a stick at to receive just compensation from the state for our devalued property."

The sponsor of the soon-to-fail proposal, Representative Noble Ellington (D-Winnsboro) chuckled in spite of himself. "I don't know how much of this support I can take."

Robinson purchased her two-acre property in 1971. She saw Alsen, Louisiana, a small, rural community a few miles north of Baton Rouge established at the end of the Civil War by emancipated slaves, as an ideal setting in which to raise her son and to indulge a lifelong passion, the study of nature. She especially enjoyed exploring the bayou wilderness of Devil's Swamp, a short walk from her door. What she didn't realize was that she and her neighbors were unusually vulnerable to pollution.

Since the 1940s, cheap labor, cheap land, and lavish tax breaks have invited the befouling of Louisiana's environment. Consequently, the state consistently ends up near the bottom in national surveys of environmental quality. Many African-Americans have been especially hard hit because they didn't have the right to vote polluters out of their communities during the critical boom years. As petrochemical and other dirty industries crowded into what became known as "Cancer Alley," the 85-mile corridor stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, they targeted places like Alsen, confident that the largely black, agrarian population would be unable to fight back.

These corporations operated with impunity, keeping communities in the dark about air, water, and soil contamination. But eventually they could not hide the respiratory ailments, immune system disorders, and birth defects that compelled Alsen's residents to file a 1981 lawsuit against one of the worst polluters, Rollins Environmental Services. After the suit was settled out of court, however, the activist base crumbled.

Robinson was instrumental in rebuilding that base when Rollins sought to expand in 1986. Incredibly, the company had operated its hazardous-waste facilities for 19 years on temporary permits, and had been cited for more than 100 state and federal violations without paying any penalties.

Rollins' environmental track record and the prospect of its operating two new incinerators and three new landfills horrified the community. Robinson and other Alsen residents prepared press releases outlining the state's history of discrimination in siting polluting operations. They held demonstrations, and sent busloads of protesters to the permit hearings.

"We had people all the way from great-grandmothers to young people testifying," Robinson says. "And we had wonderful environmental friends, like the Sierra Club, standing with us." It was enough agitation to produce what she terms "a little victory." "Rollins got the permanent status, but they didn't get to expand. They were also allowed to build a new incinerator, but the old had to shut down."

Robinson rose to other challenges, too. Her testimony before the Louisiana legislature helped put the brakes on Supplemental Fuels' plans to locate in predominantly African-American St. Gabriel, Louisiana. In a half-dozen appearances before Congress, she's championed disenfranchised people living near Superfund sites. And, working with Bill Redding of the Sierra Club's Midwest office, she helped shape the Club's Mississippi Ecoregion program.

At times, the enormity of living in what's been called "America's Third World" stuns her. Years of exposure to harmful chemicals have left her without a sense of smell and subject to chronic fatigue and anxiety. "One night I came home and just started shaking. I was surrounded by three empty homes where people had died. I thought, 'My God, what's going to happen to me?' " Yet she was busy last April 21 combating the industry cooptation of Earth Day in Baton Rouge Parish. Costumed as "Mutants for Toxics" at the celebration, Robinson and ten others distributed Toxic Release Inventory data on the event's corporate sponsors. As usual, she's on her way to another "little victory."

Ecoregion Roundup

In 65 chapters and hundreds of local groups spanning 21 ecoregions and two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work protecting the environmentˇfor our families, for our future.

by Tracy Baxter

Great Lakes: Last call for sprawl
Overturning the myth that environmental protection spells financial ruin for property owners, the Sierra Club's Midwest office helped prepare an eye-opening report that puts a price tag on haphazard growth. According to "$prawl Costs Us All," Wisconsin taxpayers can expect to pay up to $4.5 billion for new public services over the next 15 years while developers contribute only a pittance in impact fees. With the damning data in hand, green candidates in the Dane County, Wisconsin, elections convinced voters to elect a new pro-environment majority to the county council.

For our families
Laurel Hopwood of the Northeast Ohio group is not one to leave children's health to chance. In numerous letters to the editor and testimony before the Cleveland Heights city council, she condemned the use of pesticides like 2,4-D, a component in Agent Orange, in killing dandelions and clover on public property. When challenged on the practicality of organic repellents, Hopwood informed skeptics of a success right under their noses: the groundskeeper at Cleveland Municipal Stadium had already quietly switched to nontoxic pest controls. Hopwood's yearlong effort resulted in a 1995 city ordinance banning synthetic pesticides on the grounds of schools, libraries, parks, and day care centers.

Atlantic Coast:A wetland win
Combating the Maine Department of Transportation's plans to build a cargo port at Sears Island made the last 13 years busy ones for Maine Sierra Club activists. Though the 940-acre island in Penobscot Bay provided habitat for 70 percent of the state's wetland species as well as an important flyway for neotropical birds, the agency rejected an alternative site at industrialized Mack Point. The agency flouted environmental law by neglecting to prepare an environmental impact statement and then, when forced by a Sierra Club lawsuit, delivered an EIS that ignored 200 acres of freshwater wetlands on the island. Each time the agency submitted redesigns for the port, Sierra Club lawsuits showed them to be inadequate. Club activists rejoiced when the Army Corps of Engineers finally rejected the project this February.

Counterpunch to propaganda
Whoever says that today's youth are slackers has obviously never spent any time with the Sierra Student Coalition of the South Carolina Chapter. When coalition members heard that Governor Jim Beasley, who recently reopened a radioactive-waste dump in Barnwell County, would present a prestigious regional environmental prize, they organized a counter-award ceremony. With posters protesting the governor's ploy to gain public support for the landfill by funding education projects with dump fees, the students named Beasley "Nuclear Father of the Year." The governor decided not to pick up his prize, but the local media picked up the story and ran with it.

Preserving watery wilds
In 1972, the Clean Water Act directed states to set pollution limits to ensure that rivers, lakes, and streams were safe for swimming and fishing. Twelve years later, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division had managed to establish water quality standards for just two sections of one of the state's 340 polluted water bodies. Hopping mad, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations sued the EPA to force the agency to order Georgia's immediate compliance with federal law. Noting that at its current pace it would take Georgia more than a century to clean up, a U.S. District Court judge in March 1996 gave the EPA 30 days to present a plan to enforce the clean-water mandate.

Great North American Prairie: Giving Newt the boot
With less than two weeks' prior notice of Newt Gingrich's appearance at a $1,000-a-table fund-raiser for Oklahoma Republican Congressman J. C. Watts, the Sierra Club took a major role in orchestrating a "Sack J. C. and Boot Newt!" rally. Nearly 400 people from 30 groups representing the environment, indigenous peoples, and labor turned out in Norman, Oklahoma, for an afternoon of acoustic music, Native American drumming and prayers, and rousing speeches from environmental leaders, including one from the Sierra Clubˇendorsed candidate for Watts' seat, Ed Crocker. At a press conference, Newt labeled the ralliers "misinformed" and "without a work ethic." All three Oklahoma City TV stations covered the event.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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