Ambassadors to an Alien Country
by Jennifer Hattam
"You could talk about walking through the canyons, and past the cool streams," Matt Bybee sighs, "but you can't describe what it's like." The high school senior from Farmington, Utah, is preparing to lobby his congressional representative to protect 9.1 million acres of Utah wildlands. Bybee knows he loves his state's wide-open spaces, but doesn't quite know how to articulate his concern.
Erika Neely, a sophomore at Utah's Logan High, is nervous. "I don't feel eloquent enough to describe what I'm feeling," she admits. But out of their tongue-tied attempts, they begin to create a story--about their family trips into redrock country, and about the need to preserve this colorful land so others can experience its splendor firsthand.
It's the beginning of March, and Bybee and Neely, along with 150 other high school and college students from 36 states, are in Washington, D.C.,
for the five-day Public Lands Action Summit. Organized by the Sierra Student Coalition, the student-run arm of the Sierra Club, the yearly event
offers budding activists a chance to learn how wilderness legislation is made--and to inject their voices into the debate. "It's one thing to hear about the halls of Congress; it's another thing to walk down them," says Elizabeth Hagen, a Harvard University junior who helped plan the first summit in 1999. "The students start to see that these political decisions are really based upon interactions between people."
This year the students are lobbying for an end to logging on national forests, protection for the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and wilderness designation for Utah's canyon country. ("There's a hundred and fifty people here fighting for my backyard," Kris Homel, a senior at the University of Utah, exults one evening. "That blows me away!") Over two long days of training, they learn the political terrain, discuss lobbying techniques, and practice their pitches. Lobbyists from the Sierra Club's D.C. office help them formulate talking points, and Chris Arthur, a former staffer for Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), gives them an inside peek at what they're up against on the Hill. ("Think of yourselves as ambassadors to an alien country," Arthur says. "You have to learn about the culture of these 'aliens'--how their minds work, what their days are like.") The students are reminded to speak from the heart, and not to worry about knowing all the answers.
"What's really important is your passion," SSC conservation director Patrick Murphy tells the group. "That's why we're here; that's what matters when you go into the offices to lobby." This personal approach
renders the students' relative political inexperience less significant and capitalizes on one of their key strengths: boundless energy. They're up into the wee hours each night--dancing and socializing one evening; rehearsing their lobby visits the next, still hard at work at 2 a.m., their position papers spread out on the hotel room tables.
Snow falls before their first lobbying day, causing delays on the Metro ride to Capitol Hill. Chaos continues up until the last minute, as the students put the finishing touches on their presentations right outside the congressional doors. "I've done a lot of sales," Beatrice Meizoso, a University of Utah junior, confides before her first meeting, "but this is different . . . it matters."
Despite their nervousness, the students help win six new cosponsors for a pair of bills to protect the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain, and garner praise from Hinchey's office, which received 20 calls from representatives wanting to sign onto his Utah wilderness bill after the SSC visits. Perhaps most important for the participants, the political process has been demystified. "I didn't know you could just call up, make an appointment, and go do it," Meizoso says after her first lobbying meeting. "I'm definitely going to spread that message around!"
The students have also gotten a glimpse of how their recycling clubs and local campaigns fit into the larger environmental movement. At a time when their own worlds are expanding from family and hometown to college and careers, their experiences on the Hill helped crystallize their environmental beliefs and
"The trip motivated a lot of the students," says Sara Schooley, a sophomore at Michigan Technical University who is encouraging her senator, Debbie Stabenow, to
support Utah wilderness. "They were giddy to be there in D.C., meeting people from across the country who care just as much as they do." Now, with the students back in their home states, the lobbying experience itself becomes a part of the tale they can
tell to inspire new people, who will then go out and create activist success stories of their own.
While best known for his dramatic photographs of the Sierra Nevada, Ansel Adams was also a longtime activist and member of the Sierra Club Board of Directors from 1934 to 1971. The energetic Adams played a pivotal role in the Club's publication department, delighted High Trip participants with his campfire theatrics, and was a passionate defender of wilderness.
The Sierra Club is planning a variety of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Adams's birth on February 20, 1902. Highlights include a new Sierra Club Web gallery of his photographs (www.sierraclub.org/ansel_adams) and a documentary film on his life that will air nationally on PBS in early 2002. Sierra Club Productions is coproducing the film with its writer and director,
Ric Burns, in association with the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. This
August, a retrospective exhibition of Adams's work opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which will cohost related events with the Club. The
exhibit, Ansel Adams at 100, will later travel to Chicago, London, Berlin, Los
Angeles, and New York. Sierra will join the celebration with articles on Adams's legacy in our January/February 2002 issue. --J.L.H.
To make your voice count on environmental
issues, write or call your U.S. senators and
Washington, DC 20510
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
U.S. Capitol Switchboard
Contact President Bush at:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20500
Comment line (202) 456-1414
Fax (202) 456-2461
To join the Sierra Club activist network, write to the Office of Volunteer and Activist Services, 85 Second St., San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Members of the network receive a free subscription to the Planet, our monthly activist newsletter, and the Sierra Club Action Daily, an e-mail update.
For a guide to our electronic mailing lists and newsgroups, go to www.sierraclub.org/takeaction/lists.
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