A clearcut prevented in Georgia. A golf course blocked in Hawaii. A mining claim denied
in Wisconsin. Local victories like these are the bread and butter of the environmental
movement. Sometimes, however, it's nice to work on changing the world on a larger scale.
For this millennial issue of Sierra, we present a few of the Sierra Club's Big Dreams
for America's environment. While we're fighting the crucial local battles, we're also
working on these goals: vast stretches of protected wildlands, national forests without
logging, natural river flows, an end to pollution, and sustainable cities. Instead of just
fighting to keep what we already have, we're envisioning the way things ought to be.
Enacting these big visions won't be easy--but then neither was felling the forests or
building the dams. Adversity didn't stop previous generations from "conquering"
the natural world, and it can't stop ours from saving it.
Big Wilds: Protect One Hundred Million Acres
On the eve of the new century, little remains of our nation's original wildlands. More
than 95 percent of America's old-growth forests has been logged. Over 90 percent of our
native prairies has been plowed under or grazed away. Half of our wetlands has been
drained, and 100,000 acres more is lost each year.
To save what's left, the Sierra Club's Wildlands Campaign aims to protect or increase
current safeguards for 100 million acres, including imperiled treasures such as the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge and Alaska's coastal rainforest, the Maine Woods, the Everglades,
the Northern Rockies, Utah's redrock wilderness, and the giant sequoias of the southern
Included in the campaign are dozens of smaller special places, locally beloved
landscapes such as Arizona's San Francisco Peaks, New Hampshire’s White Mountains, North
Dakota's National Grasslands, and Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin.
Some of these wildlands are part of other initiatives that seek to connect and preserve
entire ecosystems. The Northern Rockies, for example, are vital to Y2Y, a U.S./Canadian
effort to preserve an 1,800-mile arc from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon
Territory. They also figure in the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA),
which would link wild areas in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming with
wildlife migration corridors for grizzlies and other far-ranging animals otherwise trapped
in dead ends of genetic isolation.
"We can look at what's left of our natural heritage and see a spiritual element,
rather than a frontier to be conquered," says Melanie Griffin, coordinator of the
Wildlands Campaign. "It connects us to our ancestors and future generations."
How to Help
For more information about the Sierra Club's effort to secure lasting protection for 100
million acres of America's vanishing wild heritage in the next decade, see www.sierraclub.org/wildlands/.
National Forests: End Commercial Logging
People often assume that federal ownership automatically saves wildlands from being
plundered. Sadly, that's not the case, as is shown by the scars of clearcuts and logging
roads on our 191 million acres of national forests. "We're doing an incredible amount
of damage to the last, best fish-and-wildlife habitat in the country, and we receive so
little for it," says Sean Cosgrove, the Sierra Club's associate Washington
representative. "Only four percent of the wood and wood products that Americans use
each year comes from the national forest system."
The Club is lobbying for the passage of the National Forest Protection and Restoration
Act, coauthored by Representatives Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa). The
measure would eliminate commercial logging on federal public lands, promote restoration,
and aid economically stressed logging communities.
A logging ban is just the first step. "To recover species like salmon in the
Pacific Northwest or songbirds in the Southeast, it's not enough to protect the last
remaining scraps of intact habitat," Cosgrove says. "We need to start restoring
damaged habitat to bring back naturally functioning ecosystems." Doing so would
guarantee clean water for our cities, tourism and recreation opportunities, and jobs for
"We're changing the debate in America about how we manage our national
forests," says Cosgrove. "The question used to be, 'How much can we log?' Now
people are asking, 'Should we even log at all?'"
In Edward Abbey's eco-classic The Monkey Wrench Gang, a band of nature-loving
malcontents plots to restore the Colorado River by blowing up Glen Canyon Dam. The Sierra
Club has the same goal of rescuing rivers across the country (minus the outlaw
Along with the Glen Canyon Institute, the Club wants to decommission Glen Canyon Dam
and drain the Lake Powell reservoir, eventually restoring 180 miles of river upstream.
"Glen Canyon could provide prime breeding habitat for endangered fish, as well as a
connection between isolated habitats along the Colorado River all the way down to
Mexico," says Rob Smith, director of the Club's Southwest office. At present, so
much water is sucked from the Colorado that the river often fails to reach the Sea of
Cortez, dooming species like the endangered desert pupfish and the Yuma clapper rail.
"Our use of the Colorado River is unsustainable," says Steve Glazer, chair of
the Club's Colorado River Task Force. "We've turned the river into a plumbing
Many interests like it that way. "Lake Foul" provides water and electricity
for burgeoning western states, as well as fortunes for Jet Ski merchants and party-barge
owners. But an Environmental Defense Fund study has shown that the region’s water and
power needs could be met by Hoover Dam and more energy conservation. "Dams are a
political decision," Smith says. "If people want to build one, we build one. If
we want to stop using one, we can do that too." Another prime candidate for
retirement is O'Shaughnessy Dam, built in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1923 over the
ardent opposition of John Muir and the young Sierra Club. "We want to restore this
beautiful valley," says Ron Good, chair of the Club's Hetch Hetchy Task Force, which
proposes re-engineering Don Pedro Reservoir downstream to meet San Francisco's water
The tide is turning against dams across the country. In 1997 Quaker Neck Dam in North
Carolina became the first large dam to be removed in the United States solely for
environmental reasons. Last year, Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River met the same
fate, and the Club is spearheading an effort to save salmon in the Pacific Northwest by
breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington.
Good is encouraged: "Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is going around the country
with a sledgehammer, giving speeches about preserving wild rivers," he says.
The passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, which clamped down on air pollution, was a
milestone victory for environmentalists. Since that time, we’ve learned that even limited
amounts of such poisons as PCBs (banned in the United States in 1977), mercury, and dioxin
are too much. These substances have been linked to cancer and neurological, reproductive,
and developmental disorders. Once released into the atmosphere (medical-waste incinerators
are a leading source of mercury and dioxin emissions) they disperse around the globe,
where they persist for decades. High concentrations of dioxins, for example, are found in
Greenland, northern Canada, and the Great Lakes region, where cool temperatures prevent
the poisons from vaporizing and moving on. Persistent pollutants accumulate as they travel
up the food chain, finally settling in the fatty tissue of humans—where they can be
passed on to fetuses and breastfeeding infants.
"These pollutants have an entire 'death cycle' as they move from smokestacks to
fish and wildlife to fish sticks to mother's milk," says Marti Sinclair, vice chair
of the Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Strategy Team. The Club is working to establish
a zero-discharge zone, starting with Lake Superior, the least polluted of the Great Lakes.
Since pollution freely crosses borders, Club activists are also lobbying the U.S.
government to negotiate a strong global treaty that would phase out persistent organic
pollutants. Current federal policy merely advises Great Lakes and subsistence anglers to
eat less fish. "The industries that have caused this pollution ought to pay for
cleaning it up," says Emily Green, director of the Club's Great Lakes Ecoregion
Program. "People should be able to eat the fish out of the nation’s waters, which
belong to everyone."
How to Help
To aid the Sierra Club in its global efforts to ban persistent bioaccumulative poisons
such as mercury, dioxin, and PCBs, contact Marti Sinclair at (513) 674-1983 or
firstname.lastname@example.org. To help clean up the Great Lakes, contact Emily Green at (608)
257-4994 or email@example.com.
Livable Cities: Halt Urban Sprawl by Aiding Urban Areas
Ultimately we can't protect wild places and wild creatures without improving the places
where people live. "Suburbs are growing outward because people don't find the
quality of life that they should in our urban centers," says Sierra Club Southern
California representative Jim Blomquist. "We need to attack sprawling development
when it destroys open spaces, but we also need to address the reasons why people want to
leave the city."
The sickness of sprawl-pollution and traffic congestion, lost open space, high taxes,
and deserted downtowns-infects communities across America. But nowhere does the Club's
Challenge to Sprawl Campaign face a bigger battle than in California, where the population
is expected to increase nearly 50 percent by 2020. Southern California alone will gain
almost 7 million new residents.
"People look back on the seventies, when California had about twenty million
people and Orange County still had orange groves, as if it were nirvana," Blomquist
says. "I don't want to look back on the 1990s and say, 'Ah, those were the great
California Vision 2020 lays out an agenda to make the future better than the past.
"California subsidizes poorly planned growth in the outer suburbs and discourages
development in the inner cities and older suburbs," says Blomquist. "These
communities don't have sufficient funds to improve their environment. We want to get urban
California a fair share for transportation, water quality, and parks." The Club's
anti-sprawl campaign calls for more local, state, and federal money to buy open space;
stronger land-use planning; funding for urban development; and better mass transit.
"The success or failure of Los Angeles as a nice place to live affects wildlands
all over the West," Blomquist says. "Unless we want to see our big urban areas
become human centrifuges, flinging people out into every rural and wild area, we need to
make cities livable."
How to Help
Tired of traffic jams, smog, and the rapid destruction of open space? Then join the Sierra
Club's nationwide Challenge to Sprawl Campaign. For more information visit www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/.