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Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Making of a President | Gold And Grizzlies | Home Front

The Making of a President

When Chuck McGrady joined the Sierra Club in 1979, he was looking for wilderness adventures and like-minded souls. But through Club outings, the Georgia attorney realized the best way for him to show his appreciation for wild places was by acting to save them.

He got involved with the Georgia Chapter, and volunteered to help visiting Canadian clean-air activists organize a local rally. He also offered them a place to stay. When the activists left some flyers and informational packets at McGrady's home, he quickly digested them, becoming his chapter's clean-air expert.

Seeing the value of electing environmentally responsible candidates to win key protections, McGrady turned his attention to politics and made his way to the Sierra Club Political Committee in 1985. He joined the Board of Directors in 1997, when he was appointed to fill the retiring Dave Foreman's seat, was re-elected by the rank and file this year, and named president in May.

McGrady, a Republican, sees building bipartisan alliances as crucial to advancing the Club's agenda. After all, every American-regardless of class, race, gender, or political affiliation-has a stake in a clean, healthy planet. The Club's strength lies in cultivating this common ground. "We need to translate the electorate's intuitive support for protecting the environment into electing candidates who are good on our issues and defeating those who are not," says McGrady.

And it's never too soon to start nurturing that support. In 1993, McGrady left his law practice behind and moved to North Carolina to run a summer camp for boys. He teaches them not only to respect the earth but how to act to protect it.

Rich in Gold And Grizzlies

Kamchatka, that remote peninsula in the Russian Far East, is one of the wildest places on the planet-thanks to the cold war. A giant nuclear-submarine base at the southern port city Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky made the entire California-size region a closed military zone until the end of the Soviet period. As a result, Kamchatka boasts the world's largest grizzly population, some of its healthiest wild salmon stocks-and up to 1,000 tons of gold. Thanks to the Sierra Club, it may not need to trade its natural riches for its mineral wealth.

The collapse of the Soviet Union finally opened Kamchatka to adventurous visitors eager to see its 29 active volcanoes, geyser fields, and spectacular wildlife. The Soviet breakdown also opened the area to Western-style private investors eager to exploit its large reserves of precious metals. In 1994, a consortium of Russian, Canadian, and U.S. firms formed a joint venture called Kamgold to develop the Aginsky mine, which the company hoped might contain as much as 30 tons of gold. To finance the project, Kamgold's U.S. and Canadian partners went to OPIC, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a quasi-governmental U.S. development bank.

Around the same time, Sierra Club activist Susan Holmes (later elected to the Club's Board of Directors) visited Kamchatka. Meeting with local ecologists and representatives from indigenous groups, she learned that the Aginsky mine site was on traditional Native lands on the edge of the proposed Bystrinsky Nature Park, then under consideration by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. After learning about the multiple threats the mine would pose to wilderness, biodiversity, and Native culture in the area, she says, "I had to get involved."

That meant diving into the complex world of international trade, which Holmes did with the help of a few key Club staff and volunteers, plus the Environmental Defense Fund and the Pacific Environment and Resources Center, an advocacy group focusing on protecting ecosystems of the Pacific Rim. Together they wrote a letter to OPIC-with copies to Vice President Al Gore and other top U.S. officials-asking that funding for Aginsky be denied. If the mine's toxic holding ponds were to fail, they pointed out, Kamchatka's vital salmon industry could be irreparably damaged. "The proposed mine area is situated in the high headwaters of one of the most important salmon spawning regions not only in Kamchatka but in all of Russia," they wrote. "Seventy percent of all the salmon-catch spawn in rivers potentially impacted by the mine."

The group's lobbying efforts appear to have made an impression. In August 1996, Arthur Ditto, the president of Kinross, one of Kamgold's U.S. partners, wrote to the U.S. National Mining Association complaining about "the usual badgering from an [sic] preservationist coalition fronted by the Sierra Club." Ditto says OPIC told him that Kamgold's application was "in trouble" and that "follow-up at a political level...tells us that OPIC and the administration is [sic] responding to coercion from the Sierra Club et al."

The funding was denied that same month. In October, the World Conservation Union approved a Sierra Club-sponsored resolution opposing any U.S. funding for the mine. The resolution was endorsed by 70 governments and 600 nongovernmental organizations. Two months later, UNESCO officially recognized the Bystrinsky Nature Park as part of the "Volcanoes of Kamchatka" World Heritage Site.

But the would-be gold miners refused to give up. Last October, they mounted a challenge to OPIC in Portland, Oregon, where Russian and U.S. business and political leaders were meeting under the auspices of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation. In the back of the hall sat Susan Holmes, who stood up and addressed a "sea of dark suits" in support of the salmon, grizzlies, and indigenous people of Kamchatka. As a result, Kamgold never got its needed show of support from the assembly. "I don't think I fully understood the power of the Sierra Club until that moment," says Holmes.

In a final blow, the United Nations recently earmarked $20 million to protect biodiversity and salmon fisheries in Kamchatka, the result of lobbying by-who else?-Holmes and her allies.

Holmes sees the fight against the Aginsky mine as "one small effort with huge repercussions." It is also a demonstration of anthropologist Margaret Mead's famous dictum that "a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world."

Home Front

by Tracy Baxter

In 65 chapters and hundreds of local groups spanning 21 ecoregions and two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work protecting our natural heritage.

American Southeast: SARASOTA SUCCESS

The Manatee-Sarasota Group has taken the lead in alerting the public to the threat of orimulsion, a cheap, dirty experimental fuel (see "Ecoregion Roundup," September/October 1996). Unlike oil, the tarlike substance disperses throughout a body of water-making cleanup of Tampa Bay problematic if a spill occurred during the fuel's transport. Moreover, burning the gunk would dramatically increase soot- and smog-causing emissions in Manatee County.

By holding informational meetings at local libraries, volunteers Mary Sheppard and Gerry Swormstedt organized citizens to successfully petition Governor Lawton Chiles to deny Florida Power & Light's fuel permit. The group countered the utility's subsequent appeals by lobbying at the state capitol and staging media events. After six years of struggle, FP&L finally threw in the towel this summer. But Sheppard knows the fight isn't completely over. "All Sierrans be prepared," she warns. "Orimulsion could come your way."


As reported in this column (July/ August 1997), the Alabama beach mouse had won federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1985, but was still losing large chunks of its 350-acre scrub dune habitat to development projects sanctioned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The Alabama Chapter set out to reverse this trend last year in a lawsuit challenging two habitat conservation plans that would have allowed developers on the Gulf Coast of southern Alabama to kill an unspecified number of the mice in exchange for feeble conservation measures. This August, a federal court granted the imperiled creature a reprieve by rejecting the plans.


An 85-mile-long stretch of petrochemical facilities between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has earned the nickname "Cancer Alley." According to a new report by the Sierra Club's Midwest office, another area is on a similar road to notoriety. Great Lakes States, America's New Cancer Alley, reveals that the region leads the nation in dumping carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals and places second in releasing substances known to cause birth defects.

The report presents a top-ten list of carcinogen-spewing plants, their rationales for using toxic chemicals, and their varying cleanup records. Readers will also find tips for reducing their own exposure to industrial poisons and negotiating "good neighbor agreements" with dirty companies. For a free copy of the report, contact the Midwest office at or (608) 257-4994.

Atlantic Coast: THE ROTTEN APPLE

The last thing the Greenpoint-Williamsburg neighborhood needs is another waste-transfer station. Occupying only 4.9 square miles, it already contains 23 such facilities, handling more than half of New York City's decomposable garbage. Yet the community might soon be saddled with the East Coast's largest station, located on a 20-acre parcel along the East River where residents have wanted a waterfront park for years. Working with Neighbors Against Pollution and the Watchperson Project, the environmental-justice committee of the New York City Group helped turn out 1,200 residents to a public hearing. Citizen objections to the noise, traffic, and diesel exhaust expected from the facility persuaded Governor George Pataki to order an environmental impact statement. Now the activist coalition is lobbying the state to buy the property with state Clean Air/Clean Water Bond Act funds.


"I grew up in the District and really didn't think of the environment as an issue of economic development," says Danilo Pelletiere, a graduate student in public policy at Washington, D.C.'s George Mason University. Pelletiere now shows others the connection through his work on Restore the Core, the New Columbia Chapter's campaign to limit sprawl by revitalizing existing urban communities. Highlighting green opportunities, the chapter conducts walking tours of areas that people frequently overlook or downright avoid.

A trip to D.C.'s African-American Anacostia neighborhood, settled by free slaves, was especially eye-opening. "We rediscovered a wonderful nature trail there. Now nonresidents know there's a wilderness and a neighborhood worth defending." Developers are also invited on these treks, laying the groundwork for later collaboration. Although the program is only a year old, Restore the Core boasts a strong volunteer base. "People seem attracted to the mix of walks and activism. We've organized river and school cleanups, voter- registration drives, and lobbied Congress on the siting of federal facilities," Pelletiere says. "The involvement means that communities have a voice in how development happens."


Because Indianapolis' sewage system combines waste and storm runoff, as little as a quarter inch of rain causes raw sewage to pour into the White River and its tributaries. For too long, City Hall seemed content to go with the overflows. Then the Heartlands Group of the Hoosier Chapter publicized its canoe outing on the troubled waters. By the time the 100-person Ride the River flotilla was launched, Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith had proclaimed a simultaneous White River Appreciation Day and announced a plan to cut river pollution by 20 percent in five years. But the waterway's sullied condition warrants more than a piecemeal approach, insists the group.

"Children are playing in streams where fish are dying," says Sandy Miles, Heartlands Group chair. "We need to convince Indianapolis to adopt a unified plan to fix the whole problem, not just parts of it."

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