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Big Win for Little Lungs | It Takes Money | Home Front

Big Win for Little Lungs

by B. J. Bergman

By some estimates, corporate polluters recently coughed up more than $20 million for an extraordinary, six-month marketing campaign. The megabucks blitz was designed to sell not a product but an idea-namely, that U.S. industry can't afford to spew less filth into America's air. The pitch worked, at first. For months, White House economic advisers wrung their hands on behalf of carmakers and smokestack industries, while Al Gore held his tongue over the fate of the nation's asthma sufferers, including some 5 million kids. By late June, President Clinton seemed poised to ignore the findings of thousands of scientific studies and the desire of his top clean-air cop, Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner, to get tough on pollution.

But the polluters' airwaves war proved no match for the on-the-ground efforts of the Sierra Club and its allies. Gore found his voice, and Clinton located his backbone; in July, the more stringent rules Browner had unveiled last November formally became law. The changes mean that the EPA, the agency charged with enforcing the 1970 Clean Air Act, can finally crack down on companies that release dangerously high levels of smog and soot into the nation's neighborhoods. The emissions reductions are expected to prevent as many as 15,000 deaths each year, and to provide badly needed relief to millions of victims of asthma, emphysema, and other respiratory ailments.

"This victory represents what's best about the Sierra Club," exulted Bruce Hamilton, the Club's conservation director, following Clinton's endorsement of the new standards. "We set our sights high, never lost faith, worked our hearts out, and ultimately prevailed against tremendous odds."

Why didn't the corporate pitch play in Peoria-or anywhere else beyond the climate-controlled boardrooms of the industrial elite? How did nonprofits like the Sierra Club fend off the deep pockets and political muscle of the National Association of Manufacturers?

"We made it personal," explains Kathryn Hohmann, who directs the Club's environmental quality program in Washington, D.C. In Peoria, Bangor, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and points between, Club activists brought home the human costs of air pollution by telling their neighbors about others in their communities whose lives are affected by air pollution: children trapped inside on hot summer days, elderly unable to breathe without an oxygen tank, people down the block who have lost loved ones to respiratory illness. But they also made clear that everyone pays for excessive levels of smog and soot in the form of lost productivity and long-term and emergency medical care.

The Club took that personal message everywhere. As soon as Browner announced the proposed new regulations in November, Club leaders joined forces with other organizations-notably the American Lung Association-in a high-profile show of support. When the EPA scheduled public hearings around the country, Club activists mobilized scientists, kids, mothers, and others to speak out.

While Club President Adam Werbach and Executive Director Carl Pope tackled the national media, hundreds of grassroots activists penned letters to the editors of their daily newspapers, and others staged rallies and other public events. Staff and volunteers collaborated on a series of radio and television ads that ran in strategic media markets. Political committee chairs leaned on their members of Congress to sign letters to Clinton. In April, clean air was the focus of the Club's Earth Day celebrations in cities throughout the country; in May, staffer Victoria Simarano organized a demonstration in front of the White House by mothers of asthmatic children. And when it looked as though Gore's influence would be pivotal, Hohmann launched the "Where's Al?" tour, in which Club members hounded the vice president to get on the team.

He did, and so did the president. "Lives will be saved, and a legacy of cleaner air will be left to our children and future generations," says Pope. Polluters are still fuming. But thanks in large part to the Sierra Club, millions of kids-and millions more adults with respiratory problems-can breathe easier.

It Takes Money

Are Americans willing to pay to protect the environment? Judging by the success of the recently completed Sierra Club Centennial Campaign, the answer is yes. Organized eight years ago around the theme of the Club's 100th birthday in 1992, the Campaign celebrated a century of environmental victories and raised $101 million-$10 million over its target-to help the Club prepare for the next hundred years.

A joint effort of the Sierra Club and The Sierra Club Foundation, the Campaign was piloted by a core network of volunteers and staff. But longtime Club member Harry Dalton, who cochaired the Campaign with Allan Brown, says the project might never have gotten off the ground without Brown's leadership. "Allan invested his own funds to get this thing going, and he's been with it the entire way."

Brown, a Palo Alto, California, developer who opposes urban sprawl and a Club member since 1963, and Dalton, a retired converted products manufacturer from Rock Hill, South Carolina, know that it takes money to keep a national grassroots organization up and running.

They also know that when high-profile executives talk, congressmen listen. By involving movers and shakers from communities across the country in the Club's conservation efforts through the Foundation's National Advisory Council, they made the most of these political facts of life. The NAC turns donors such as Juan Metzger, cofounder and former CEO of Dannon Yogurt, into skilled environmental lobbyists who travel to Washington each year to meet privately with congressional and administrative leaders to advocate Club positions on key conservation issues before Congress.

"Through the Campaign, donors became activists. People saw not only that their money could make a difference but that because of their position their very presence could advance the Club's agenda," says Steve Stevick, executive director of The Sierra Club Foundation. The Campaign reaffirmed what the Club's grassroots activists have always known: conservation takes commitment, action, and cash. - Liza Gross



Congress phased out the manufacture, processing, and distribution of polychlorinated biphenyls back in the 1970s, and new evidence links the chemical coolant and lubricant to birth defects and sexual abnormalities. So when the EPA gave incinerator companies the green light to import and burn PCBs from other countries last year, Club volunteers were aghast. The Club sued to halt the measure, and an appeals court judge struck down the EPA's bad call in July.


The U. S. Forest Service racked up a $500 million debt selling timber in 1996. But, as a new Sierra Club report reveals, that's not unusual-the public has been getting bilked for decades. Released on the centennial of the federal statute allowing commercial logging on national forests, Stewardship or Stumps? highlights 12 management debacles-from Idaho's Panhandle, where clearcuts and industrial-waste dumping result in toxic floods, to Alabama's Bankhead, where hardwood takes a backseat to strip mines. According to the report, by the year 2000 recreation in the national forests will generate 31 times more income and create 38 times more jobs than logging. At the Club's urging, thousands of people have written President Clinton urging stronger forest protection. For a copy of Stewardship or Stumps? call (415) 977-5536.


Twenty years ago the Alaska Chapter, with other concerned groups and citizens, thwarted a widely ridiculed proposal to construct a domed city and golf course on the south side of Denali National Park and Preserve. Now Club activists find themselves in an unlikely alliance with hunters, trappers, and miners to fight another south-side tourist development. Their Coalition for Responsible South Denali Development is opposing a plan approved by the National Park Service and the state to build a visitors' center and access road 43 miles into pristine backcountry. The coalition argues that a tourist center along the highway from Fairbanks to Anchorage would afford essentially the same views of Denali's splendor as the authorized Petersville project-without the $70 million price tag or disruption to wildlands and local communities that 250,000 seasonal tourists would bring. Though state funding has been blocked, the coalition needs help to stop federal financing of the project. Write to Bruce Babbitt, Department of the Interior, 1849 C St. N.W., Washington DC 20240, and ask him to keep gridlock out of the world's only subarctic rainforest.


As a childhood asthma sufferer, Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) knows firsthand the value of clean air. At a ceremony honoring the freshman congressman for supporting the EPA's proposed new standards to reduce soot and smog levels, Ohio Sierrans also celebrated some of clean air's best uses. With kites aloft, bubbles adrift, and Frisbees gliding overhead, nearly 100 activists and their children gathered to present Kucinich with a huge homemade card of thanks and, in a symbolic poke at polluters who claimed that tougher standards meant an end to the backyard barbecue, hot grub fresh from the grill. A pink cake in the shape of healthy lungs capped the festivities.

Rocky Mountains: SQUALL OF THE WILD

After preparing a dud of an environmental impact statement for a euphemistically termed "enhanced training range" in the Owyhee Canyonlands, the U. S. Air Force is taking its fourth stab since 1989 at grabbing land in southwest Idaho. Now, it's proposing a 12,000-acre dummy bombing range -half its previous request-but as Edwina Allen of the Middle Snake Group points out, "the main problem is the constant, ear-splitting noise." Recreationists, as well as shrinking populations of California bighorn sheep and sage grouse will find the canyonland quiet shattered by the deafening booms of supersonic flights. The group's public-awareness campaign, including hard-hitting radio ads, TV appearances, and door-to-door campaigning, has prompted many hunters and anglers to join the activists. "If the Air Force doesn't let this go, we'll start lobbying the Clinton administration," says Allen. "We'll keep it up until the Air Force loses-again."

Pacific Coast: FRIEND OF FISH

"When I was a boy," recalls native San Franciscan Jim Royce, "it was possible to catch a striped bass off Muni Pier." Nowadays, in the unlikely event that a bass appeared on his line, he'd regard it with suspicion-and throw it back into the bay. "Dredging stirs up polluted sand and waste," says this Bay Chapter volunteer, "and local fisheries have been affected by the contamination." To tally the environmental cost of making way for freighters, Royce, with Congressman Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), is tracking down funds for the Port of Oakland's long overdue study of the bay's ecology. It's a tough job, made even harder by the degenerative-disc disease Royce has endured for over 20 years. But he insists on keeping up the pace. "Without service, my life would be less enjoyable. Volunteering gives as much to me as I do to it."

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