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  November/December 1996 Features:
Native Environmentalism
First People, Firsthand Knowledge
Return of the Sinkyone
Native Tongues
Saying the World Alive
Ways & Means
Food for Thought
Hearth & Home
Way to Go
Sierra Club Bulletin
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Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Corporate Citizens | Volunteer Spotlight | Ecoregion Roundup

Good Buy, 104th Congress

by B. J. Bergman

By the time you read this, the nation's voters may well have already chosen the 105th Congress of the United States. Pundits, pols, and private citizens alike will be asking the $64,000 question: have they chosen well?

Regardless of November's election returns, though, it's the long-term, increasingly cozy affinity between money and politics that has environmentalists most worried. This unseemly union not only breeds corruption, many say, but undermines such values as healthy air, clean water, and untrammeled wilderness. And that raises a larger, more disturbing question: how can ordinary Americans protect the environment when their elected officials are snugly nestled in the deep, deep pockets of corporate polluters?

"As long as money is allowed to talk in the form of millions of dollars in campaign contributions, the saga of the 104th Congress will be told over and over again," warns Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director.

In essence, it's the story of a War on the Environment waged by the Republican congressional leadership, and backed by well-heeled corporate polluters. As The New York Times Magazine said in July: "In the past three years, companies and political action committees [PACs] intent on rolling back environmental laws gave more in congressional campaign donations than any other cluster of interest groups."

Now the precise relationship between polluter PACs and their friends in Congress is coming into sharper focus--and it's not for the squeamish. A new Sierra Club report, Take the Money. . . and Run, documents in graphic detail the "dash for cash" in the nation's capital. And it confirms many enviros' worst suspicions. In Washington, D.C., you get exactly what you pay for.

Club researchers followed the trail of money from 660 PACs with a clear interest in gutting environmental protections. Specifically, they tallied contributions between December 1993 (the midpoint of the 103rd Congress) and June 1996 to members of both major parties who served in the GOP-controlled 104th. Then they looked at those representatives' voting records on four of the Gingrich/Dole team's anti-environmental initiatives. The money was well-spent. Polluter PACs contributed nearly $46 million to U.S. representatives. Three- quarters of the total--$29 million--was snatched up by 37 Democrats and 192 Republicans who voted for at least three out of four of their benefactors' pet bills. Among the Club's findings:

More than 400 PACs associated with industry coalitions pushing for rollbacks of environmental standards ponied up over $32 million in campaign donations. Roughly three dollars in four went to congressmembers who helped pass the House version of "regulatory reform," which would have blocked or effectively repealed an array of environmental safeguards.

House members received almost $19 million from 272 PACs intent on gutting the Clean Water Act. Of the total, more than $13 million went to representatives who voted for the 104th Congress' "Dirty Water Act," which would have lowered pollution standards and opened half of the nation's remaining wetlands to development.

An attempt to cripple the Environmental Protection Agency was funded by 212 PACs that doled out some $18 million in contributions--$11.4 million of which went to 209 members who voted for 17 riders aimed at limiting the agency's ability to implement and enforce environmental laws.

Of the nearly $1.2 million in donations from 51 PACs affiliated with the nation's largest timber companies, more than $1 million bolstered representatives who voted in favor of the devastating "logging without laws" clearcut rider. Efforts by special interests to influence policy are nothing new. But rarely have the links between polluter-PAC dollars and pro-polluter legislation been as blatant as in the 104th Congress. The lesson is simple: if we hope to advance the environmental agenda in the years ahead, we need to do more than get polluters' friends out of Congress. We need to get polluters' money out of politics.

Volunteer Spotlight:
Reviving the Spirit

by Tracy Baxter

From the podium to the pulpit, retired Presbyterian pastor and university counselor John Wade has spent nearly 40 years encouraging public service. His older granddaughter, Katie, heeded the spiritual call, and has just finished a two-month service trip in Ecuador doing health education. Wade was less successful with a former student who became secretary of the interior under Ronald Reagan. "A jerk," he recalls.

Anti-environmental zealot James Watt probably doesn't remember Wade with great fondness, but many others do--the young men he guided as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War and the University of Utah students who attended the first celebration of Earth Day on their campus, which Wade organized.

Wade's sense of civic responsibility has long included protection of the natural world. After retiring to his native Colorado, he joined the Sierra Club's newly formed Sangre de Cristo Group in Pueblo in 1987. Impressed by his many years of social and environmental activism on university campuses in the Southwest, the group asked him to be its conservation chair. Recalling the many peach orchards and open spaces in Utah lost to housing developments, he took the post as a way to help cap urban sprawl from Denver along Colorado's Front Range.

He took his Sierra Club involvement along when he and his wife moved to Englewood, Colorado, four years later. Again his reputation led to an invitation to leadership, this time to reinvigorate the Rocky Mountain Chapter. As chapter chair he helped establish a strong foundation for learning, networking, and organizing. Focusing on ecosystem protection and toxics cleanup and creatively delegating authority made chairing the chapter more manageable, and encouraged greater participation. In four years, chapter membership grew from 11,000 to 14,000.

Developing new strategies that restore the Club's grassroots culture is one of Wade's chief interests. "In the Seventies, we got the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act through grassroots campaigns," he says. "Then we relied too much on Washington to keep things going." Wade lauds the Club's grassroots organizing initiative, Project ACT, as a smart way of reviving the spirit of volunteer action. Similarly, he gives the Earth Week "doorhanger" event held in April high marks. "A lot of people did more than write a check for the environment, they walked their neighborhoods." Ten thousand volunteers, in fact, took to the streets in 100 cities.

Wade also hopes to bring more people into the environmental fold. As a national committee member of Presbyterians for Restoring Creation, his goal is to place an environmental educator in each of the nation's 175 Presbyterian leadership groups. "Conservation is an integral part of Christian discipleship," he says, "and the scriptures teach us to both till and keep the earth." As chair of the Colorado Council of Churches' Environmental Commission, he's helping to form an environmental coalition of 14 denominations.

Ross Vincent, chair of the Club's Environmental Quality Strategy Team, says of his longtime friend's vision, "John has an understanding of moral imperative that few can match. He doesn't just lead and inspire people, he changes them."

The trim 77-year-old has the vigor of a man who has seen the top of a number of peaks--32 of Colorado's 14,000-footers, he says with quiet pride. When he looks to the future he's candid and earnest. "The developers, the extractive-industry people, the conservative extremists, looked up and saw what environmental activists had accomplished in getting people involved and for a while they out-organized us. But now we're ready to do the job again.

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 environment--for our families, for our future.

by Tracy Baxter

Rocky Mountains: Public Property, Keep Out!
It's true: Wild West legend Butch Cassidy hid out near Wyoming's Gardner Mountain. But with little to fear from banditry these days, ranchers in Johnson County are citing vandalism as a reason to keep outsiders from 10,000 acres of public land near Gardner. The seven-mile hiking and horseback trail proposed by the Bureau of Land Management and endorsed by the Sierra Club's Wyoming Chapter would provide free access to habitat rich in mule deer, blue grouse, elk, and eagles, and offer long views of spectacular forest and canyons. But ranchers, who will no longer be able to charge hunters thousands of dollars in fees once the trail is built, have decided that uncontrolled entry will mean an exponential increase in litter and grafitti. With most public opinion pro-trail, the chapter expects the BLM to approve the project soon.

American Southeast: Winged Victory
Represented by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Georgia Chapter and five other environmental groups have won a historic victory on behalf of migratory songbirds. Three years ago, Club activists sued to protect the biodiversity of Chattahoochee National Forest in southern Appalachia, citing the Forest Service's failure to protect the birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This May a federal judge curtailed the destruction by halting logging during the mating season. The injunction will safeguard up to 9,000 songbirds this year.

Atlantic Coast: Et tu, Blute?
With a 38 percent League of Conservation Voters rating, Massachusetts Republican Representative Peter Blute got the lampooning he deserved from the Massachusetts Chapter. To protest a $5,000-a-plate fund- raiser for the National Republican Congressional Committee that featured an appearance by Newt Gingrich, two costumed activists outside Boston's famed Bull & Finch Pub played out a scene of the House Speaker pulling Blute's strings, while Blute whacked away at a globe pinata filled with play political action committee money. As polluter playola poured, activists detailed Blute's record as a supporter of the War on the Environment. The imaginative bit of street theater snared full coverage on the nightly news.

Great North American Prairie: Getting the Word Out
Undeterred by rain, a hundred Oklahoma Chapter activists and others, including Boy Scout Troop 245, staged a regional kickoff of the Sierra Club's nationwide environmental education campaign this June. Mobilizing in Norman to spread the word about congressional assaults on the natural world, by afternoon the volunteer green squad had delivered an impressive 15,000 doorhangers emblazoned with the message, "Protect America's Environment: For Our Families, For Our Future." A rally and scout-inspired weenie fest followed the event.

Well Watchers
Despite the verdant lawns in San Antonio, 2 million people in central and southern Texas are perilously close to draining their underground water supply. Unregulated pumping of the Edwards Aquifer is also threatening the survival of endangered species native to the southern part of the state, including the Texas blind salamander. According to reports from a monitor appointed after Lone Star Chapter litigation, well levels should already have triggered mandatory water rationing under the aquifer's management plan. But the politically torn Edwards Aquifer Authority, weathering the worst drought in four decades, recently voted against declaring an emergency. The chapter filed suit against all pumpers of the aquifer in June, calling for crisis conservation measures.

Pacific Coast: Gold fever, headaches
Improbable promises of wealth unleashed a scramble to develop 7,000 acres of farmland outside Lathrop, California, and the Mother Lode Chapter is betting that haste will ultimately defeat the project. Visions of millions in sales-tax dollars and 20,000 jobs prompted Lathrop officials to give the green light to build Gold Rush City, a complex of four Disneyland-size amusement parks and 11,000 suburban homes. There are at least two problems, however. The city ignored the impacts of the complex on the area's groundwater supplies and the fact that, by state law, the site is reserved for agricultural use. A private citizen, the chapter, and an unaccustomed Club ally, the Farm Bureau, are challenging the boondoggle in court.

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