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  November/December 1999 Features:
On Thin Ice
The Polluters' President?
Earth in the Balcony
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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Arms Race | Land of the Fee | Bang, Bang, You're Green | Mythbuster | Enviro Updates

Arms Race on the Highway

Crash testing the myth of SUV safety

The most dangerous part of almost any outdoor activity is driving there in your car. Car crashes are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, killing some 43,000 people a year. Many of those deaths are entirely preventable. Automakers could save thousands of lives by, for example, installing side air bags in every car, strengthening frames to withstand side impact, and standardizing bumper heights.

Instead, they build bigger and heavier sport-utility vehicles and market them as safe transportation alternatives. "One of the most common reasons people give for choosing a sport utility vehicle," says Land Rover's Authoritative Guide to Compact Sport-Utility Vehicles, "is the feeling of command and security they get in driving an SUV." Implicit in the pitch is the promise that in an accident, mass rules. When your two tons of four-wheeling fun slams into that little Toyota at window level, someone might die-but at least it won't be you.

This deeply cynical doctrine-you might call it "survival of the fattest"-is abetted by misleading stories such as the one in USA Today on July 2 ("Death by the Gallon" by James R. Healey) that claimed that small cars were the killers. Since the 1975 adoption of corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards to improve fuel efficiency, Healey claimed, "46,000 people have died in crashes they would have survived in bigger, heavier cars."

True, passengers in a vehicle struck by another twice its weight are ten times more likely to die. When an SUV strikes a passenger car on the driver side, the driver of the car is 30 times more likely to die than the SUV driver. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than half of all traffic fatalities in 1996 involved collisions between "light trucks" (SUVs, minivans, and pickups) and passenger cars-and four out of five of those fatalities were car passengers. But blaming the car in this situation is like blaming a shooting victim for getting in the way of a bullet. "Any mass-related protection of a heavier vehicle's occupants," warns John DeCicco of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, "comes only at the brutal expense of greater harm to others."

Gigantism, of course, is a crude approach to automotive safety. The General Accounting Office studied the same basic data as USA Today and declared that "it is not true that cars become more dangerous simply by becoming lighter." Nor is that the main reason they're becoming more fuel efficient; rather, 86 percent of fuel-efficiency improvement is the result of technological innovation."CAFE does not dictate vehicle size, weight, or safety," says Dan Becker, head of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy campaign. "Automakers do." Cars have become twice as fuel efficient since CAFE was instituted, he points out, but automobile death rates have been cut in half.

Crashworthiness is determined "not by size itself, but rather by how well a given vehicle design protects its occupants," says DeCicco. "Many of today's small cars offer better occupant-protection systems than most large cars of the past and much better protection than even many light trucks of today." If you crash a 16-miles-per-gallon Ford Expedition and a 40-mpg Saturn SL1 subcompact into a wall, the Saturn's driver and passengers will have a better chance of surviving because of its superior safety features. And the 31-mpg VW New Beetle, for example, beats the 21-mpg Jeep Grand Cherokee in three out of four NHTSA safety tests.

Then there is the unfortunate tendency of SUVs to flip over. According to the NHTSA, "In fatal crashes, SUVs are twice as likely to have rolled over than other cars." Rollovers cause 22 percent of car fatalities, but 62 percent of SUV fatalities. Of course, Detroit could reduce the risk of rollover death to its customers by lowering the height and therefore the center of gravity in its sport utility vehicles. Instead, the same companies that opposed seatbelts and air bags offer the opportunity to be the biggest thing on the highway.

The dangers caused by SUVs are not just to their own drivers and to others on the road. Half of all cars sold these days are gas-guzzling sport utes, minivans, or pickups, and the more fossil fuel consumed, the more global-warming gas is added to the atmosphere. In its lifetime, a fuel-efficient Honda Civic emits 40 tons of carbon dioxide, a Ford Excursion 134 tons. The reason is the huge loophole in the CAFE law that requires fleets of passenger cars to average 27.5 miles per gallon, but allows light trucks an average of 20.7 mpg.

Currently, CAFE saves 3 million barrels of oil a day. But stopping world climate change, with its droughts, floods, hurricanes, and epidemics, will take much greater savings. At presstime, 40 senators had signaled their support for tougher CAFE standards-and for giving President Clinton the power to order them. It's now up to Clinton to require Detroit to make vehicles that are safe not only for everyone on the road but for the planet.—Paul Rauber

The Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy campaign is currently working for tough fuel-economy standards for all motor vehicles. For information on how you can get involved, visit the campaign's Web site at or call (202) 547-1141.

Maybe the Feds will subsidize Fido?

Despite years of complaints from environmentalists, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management continue to offer cut-rate grazing for private livestock on public lands. In addition to the cost to taxpayers (as much as 20 times what ranchers are charged), overgrazing denudes landscapes, pollutes rivers and streams, and drives out native species.

A cost comparison of America's most-pampered animals:

Grazing a sheep on federal land for a month: $.27
Grazing a sheep on private land for a month: $2.24

Grazing a cow and calf on federal land for a month: $1.35
Grazing a cow and calf on private land for a month: $11.22

Feeding a cat for a month: $24
Feeding a medium-size dog for a month: $30

Land of the Fee

You'll need a $15 "summit pass" next time you head up Mt. Shasta.

When Congress allowed federal agencies to start charging "user fees" on public lands, it didn't expect a backpacker rebellion. The Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, now in its fifth year, promised to bolster the recreation budgets of the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service by charging to enjoy the agencies' lands. By 1999, "pay to play" schemes were in effect in 81 locations nationwide. The program is scheduled to expire at the end of 2002.

But the Clinton administration is now trying to make user fees permanent-over the protests of outdoor recreationists and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. Instead, they say, Congress should provide adequate annual appropriations to address the parks' maintenance and upkeep needs. "Fee demo" adds only $20 million per year to the Forest Service's total budget of $3.3 billion, much of which goes to subsidize extractive industries like mining, grazing, and logging.

Some critics even argue that fee demo is a step toward commercialization of public lands. In its 1998 report, "A Strategy for Recreation," the Forest Service imagines itself "a market-driven agency" dependent on public/private partnerships. To succeed, the report says, the agency must "evolve from a steward of natural resources and custodian of recreation services to a provider of wildlands and legacy experiences." In 1997, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck lamented to ski-industry executives that recreation and tourism on public lands have been perceived as "an amenity-something extra that we are privileged to enjoy" rather than as "a revenue generator."

So it's no surprise that environmentalists shuddered when "The Recreation Roundtable," an offshoot of the American Recreation Coalition, a lobbying group composed mainly of motorized recreational interests and resort developers, boasted that the fee-demonstration program was "a direct result of our efforts." The industry says it promotes user fees simply to aid the parklands on which its customers depend, but environmentalists' worst fear is that industry's involvement is a "partnership" that will eventually hand public lands to the richest bidders. After a barrage of letters from angry hikers and other recreationists, outdoor retailer REI, one of the few Roundtable members not dependent on motorized recreation, resigned from the panel in March.—Reed.McManus

Write your representatives and urge them to oppose the fee-demo program and focus instead on restoring adequate annual recreation budgets. For more information, contact Scott Silver, fee-demo issues coordinator of the Sierra Club's Oregon Chapter Conservation Committee, at (541) 385-5261. Or visit the Web site of his organization, Wild Wilderness, at

Bang, Bang, You're Green

The U.S. Army has a problem: Its bullets are deadly. Each year our soldiers use 300 million to 400 million rounds of ammunition (most in training, not combat) and all that lead, along with 15 other toxic substances, can be swallowed by critters or leak into nearby civilian water supplies. (In 1997, the EPA stopped live-fire training at the Massachusetts Military Reservation when lead was discovered in Cape Cod's water sources.)

The solution? The Army is starting to use bullets made from a nontoxic tungsten alloy. Already facing a $9 billion cleanup bill for its lead-contaminated sites, the Army considers the $12 million investment in Earth-friendly ammo a good deal. Marching in double-time, military officials hope to get the lead out of bullets in all branches of the armed forces by 2003.

Save energy...and bucks, too

The industry-sponsored Global Climate Coalition claims that efforts to meet the requirements of the Kyoto climate change treaty will cripple the booming U.S. economy. But according to the World Wildlife Fund and the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Tellus Institute, reducing greenhouse gases is not only essential but will also be profitable. The country could save up to $43 billion by 2010 through the use of more efficient autos, buildings, and appliances powered by alternative energy sources-along the way producing 870,000 new jobs that would offset losses in the coal and electric-utility industries.

Using a mix of financial incentives, regulatory changes, and market measures, the report says, the United States could reduce emissions by 14 percent from 1990 levels, double the goal mandated by the Kyoto pact. And last year the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that the United States can meet its emissions-reduction goals with no net impact to the economy and actually stands to prosper from "technologies that will become increasingly important in the 21st century."—Reed McManus

Enviro Updates

Lights Out! In several metropolitan areas, professional and amateur astronomers have championed municipal ordinances to restrict outdoor lighting and preserve the pleasures of a starry night. But the Canadian province of Ontario has gone a step further by establishing the world's first dark-sky preserve. The 4,900-acre Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve on the shores of Lake Muskoka is now a designated lights-out zone, and it's just 150 miles from one of North America's most densely inhabited regions. "It's good to know there is now a small place in Canada set aside for people to gaze in wonder upon the star-filled infinity of creation, instead of just gawking at the infinity of McDonald's," says Robert Gent, spokesman for the International Dark-Sky Association.—Katherine Jacob

VICTORY! Home Depot, the world's largest lumber retailer, has announced that it will stop selling old-growth forest products by 2002. The company has been the target of demonstrations and public outrage around the globe for carrying wood products made from ancient trees, including British Columbia's endangered coastal rainforest. More than 15,000 Sierra readers sent postcards to Home Depot earlier this year calling on the Atlanta-based chain to "stop trading in wood that is destroying the world's forest heritage." (See "Canada's Forgotten Coast," March/ April 1999.)

CLEAN AIR WHEN? In the summer of 1997, a major Club campaign helped convince President Clinton to sign off on an EPA proposal for tough new standards for soot and smog emissions. This summer, though, a three-judge D.C. Circuit Court panel threw out the new standards, ruling that Congress-by directing the EPA to write the rules necessary to implement the Clean Air Act-had unconstitutionally delegated power to a federal agency. The EPA has appealed the decision, which could go to the U.S. Supreme Court. (See "Big Win for Little Lungs," November/December 1997.)

BOMBS, AWAY! Conservationists and the U.S. Air Force have signed a truce in the decade-long war over the fate of Idaho's Owyhee plateau. A variety of outdoor and environmental groups hammered out an agreement in July with the Air Force, which has used the fragile canyonlands-home to elk, deer, and bighorn sheep, and beloved by river rafters-as a bombing range. Roger Singer, conservation coordinator for the Middle Snake Group and the Sierra Club's representative in the talks, says the settlement "puts real, court-enforceable limitations on the Air Force's maneuverings in the air above nearly 2 million acres of public land, and on ground-disturbing activities affecting wildlife and recreation." It is, he adds, "a real victory for our side." (See "Their Own Private Idaho" in "Homefront," May/June 1999.)

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