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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Practical Visionaries

We need dreamers to inspire us, and pragmatists to show us the way to win.

by Carl Pope

The recent decision by Sierra Club members to oppose all commercial logging on federal lands highlights a dilemma that faces all of us laboring to hand on to our children a planet as diverse and beautiful as the one we inherited.

Before the vote, the Sierra Club was already on record opposing clearcutting, logging of old-growth and roadless areas, and other destructive forestry practices. This amounted to opposing more than three- quarters of the logging on federal lands. Some members argued that going the final step and opposing all logging on federal lands would clarify the issue for the public, and give us a clear and simple objective. "If we can't stop logging on the public forests," asked Director David Brower, "what can we do?"

Other members complained that halting logging on public lands would increase the pressure to cut on private lands that might be more ecologically sensitive. And going beyond what the public demanded or Congress was willing to enact, they argued, would marginalize the Club, and actually make it harder to protect wilderness areas, establish old-growth preserves, and eliminate clearcutting.

It is true that Americans are pragmatic; they dislike rigid positions, and appreciate common sense. Yet they are also moved by grand visions, by the promise that their efforts can achieve wonderful ends. A recent Sierra Club poll shows that half of the public supports a ban on commercial logging on federal lands--not that much less than the 65 percent who voted yes in the Club's election. On the other hand, when asked in focus groups about the wisdom of weeding out dead and diseased trees in old-growth stands (the way the Forest Service describes "salvage" logging), many of the same people think it sounds like a good idea.

Visionary political leaders are rare these days. Most politicians tend to move forward cautiously, step by step. On environmental issues, they are consistently much less farsighted than is the public at large, which means that they often end up following rather than leading. Or, as pollster Celinda Lake told me, "The Sierra Club's new logging policy is a lot more popular with the American people than it is with the elites."

For 30 years Sierra Club activists have debated the merits of vision versus pragmatism. Some believe that the Club should put all of its energy into pursuing our ideals. Let the politicians, they say, craft the compromises.

Others argue that to effect change we must be directly involved in the give and take of the political process. If we don't, they warn, politicians will never deliver environmental protection, no matter how popular it is, just as they have failed to deliver tax reform or better schools.

Both sides have a point. The environmental movement needs both dreamers and pragmatists. We need David Browers to articulate the vision, but we also need Phil Burtons (seeIn Print ) to get the job done.

We also need organizations that can combine the best of both, and the Sierra Club is uniquely suited to that role. We have a history of visionary leaders like John Muir, Brower, and Edgar Wayburn, and have always been out ahead of the American political system. Better yet, due to our sprawling network of informed and dedicated grassroots volunteers, our vision is solidly based on experience on the ground.

At the same time, we have mastered the craft of politics, and have also shown that we can realize our goals over the long term. When Muir sketched the map of Sequoia National Park on an envelope, for example, he included the Valley of Mineral King. It took 70 years, but the Sierra Club realized his dream- -pragmatically, step by step.

We can use the same "visionary incrementalism" to save the national forests. We need our activists to tell the stories of the watersheds they live in, and how salvage sales have ravaged them. We need to show people pictures of inspirational beauty and tragic devastation in our magazine, calendars, and books, and take them to these places through our outing program. After inspiring them to action, we need to show how and where to apply the pressure to move our political system.

And when the moment comes, as it came this year, to push for an end to all road building in the national forests, our public education, our network of activists, and the information and relationships of our volunteer leaders and staff lobbyists can all be brought to bear on Congress. This year we lost--but only by two votes. Next year we will be back, to protect at a single stroke the remaining roadless areas. That's how we will restore North America's wild forests--one step at a time, guided by a dream.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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