In 65 chapters and hundreds of local groups spanning two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work protecting our natural heritage.
by Elisa Freeling
Desperate to find a lost ring, Lisa Heller leapt into a dumpster at the University of Syracuse in New York one day in 1993. Instead of her jewelry, the graduate student found perfectly good clothing, lamps, and furniture; enough canned food to feed a family of four for a week; and a cigar box filled with rare stamps--one worth $400. Astounded by the waste, Heller rescued all she could and held a yard sale. A few years later, while teaching at the University of Richmond in Virginia and acting as the faculty advisor to the Student Sierra Club, Heller rounded up help from the young activists and the Fall of the James Group to intercept lamps, futons, and clothing at the end of the spring session--before they reached the school’s dumpsters. The sale she held for incoming students in the fall filled the university’s gym and resulted in a $1,200 donation to the two groups.
These recycling ventures have grown into Dump & Run, a nonprofit Heller started last year to recycle students’ castoffs. Thanks to the group, the amount of stuff sent to the landfill during the last two weeks of the academic year at the University of Richmond was cut almost in half. “The average student throws out 640 pounds of trash a year,” Heller says. “My ambition is to start a nationwide movement to solve this problem.”
This year, Heller is teaming up with the Sierra Student Coalition and the Canadian Sierra Youth Coalition to recruit campus organizers. And next year she’ll pursue a doctoral degree in environmental communications. Her thesis topic? “The rhetoric of trash.”
To get involved in visit Dump & Run's web site.
After 20 years of battles with the Bureau of Land Management and off-road vehicle groups, the Sierra Club and other organizations settled a lawsuit in January to protect 24 species of endangered plants and animals on 11 million acres of the California Desert Conservation Area, which stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border to Death Valley and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The BLM admitted that since the land was designated in 1976, it had done nothing to protect this imperiled wildlife. Under the agreement, the agency will close 49,000 acres of the Algodones Dunes, the largest dune ecosystem in North America, to preserve the only U.S. home of Peirson’s milk vetch. (Previously, 77 percent of the dunes were being managed strictly for intensive off-road vehicle use; now less than half will be open for such recreation.) The BLM will also hire five “sheep ambassadors” to educate hikers in the San Jacinto Mountains on the needs of peninsular bighorn sheep during lambing season. And the agency must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about protecting the fragile desert ecosystem. “It’s a hell of a victory,” says Elden Hughes, chair of the Sierra Club’s California/Nevada desert committee. “It’s forcing the BLM to take action.”
An indefatigable defender of the desert, Hughes is now holding the BLM to its promises. In March he encouraged the Club and its allies to file a contempt motion against the agency, which had done little to comply with the January agreement. No cattle or sheep had been removed from the habitat of the threatened desert tortoise, even though the livestock eat spring plants the tortoises need and trample their burrows. “I don’t know that I love the desert more than I love the ocean or the mountains,” Hughes says, “the desert just needs more friends.”
The Navy wants to put a practice bombing range near Big Sur, California, and for the Ventana Chapter, that means war. Supersonic jets would swoop as low as 500 feet over Fort Hunter Liggett, nine miles from the spectacularly rugged coast, at the rate of 3,000 flights a year. “These are the same fighter planes flown by the Blue Angels. We’re talking an earsplitting 140 to 150 decibels when they pull up after dropping their dummy bombs,” says chapter member Tom Hopkins. The roaring aircraft would assault not only explorers of the Big Sur coast, the adjacent Ventana Wilderness, and historic Hearst Castle, but bald eagles, recently reintroduced California condors, and Benedictine monks, whose hermitage is not far from the proposed bull’s-eye.
Hopkins and other chapter members are joining forces with the Ventana Wilderness Alliance and other environmental organizations to raise an army of ranchers, land owners, hunters, and religious and Native American groups to fight the plan. They’ve already won their first battle: In March the Navy agreed to conduct a rigorous study of the proposal’s environmental impacts.
If they can defeat the Navy, the activists want to demilitarize Hunter Liggett. Hopkins thinks the 165,000-acre site is worthy of national park status. “There are painted caves, Native American middens, a Spanish mission, potential bald eagle and condor nests, and the largest, most intact valley oak savannah in California,” he says. “The area has a mystical quality. It’s a spiritual place.”
El Paso Group member Sue Watts can often be found in the gutter. And she’s been taking her fellow Sierrans, students, and other Texans with her. As part of her participation in Frogwatch USA, a project of the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey, Watts leads outings to drainage ditches to look and listen for amphibians like Texas toads, Rio Grande leopard frogs, and bullfrogs. An ecologist and lecturer in biology at the University of Texas at El Paso, Watts teaches the volunteers the Frogwatch protocol and provides tapes of frog calls--sounds made by males during the breeding season. Then her frogwatch trainees visit their own nearby ditch, pond, swamp, or river twice a week at dusk, listen for three minutes, note the weather conditions, and record the number of frogs they see and hear. They add their results to a national database on the Frogwatch USA Web site.
Because frogs are so sensitive to habitat loss, contaminants, ultraviolet radiation, and introduced species, “they are important indicators of ecosystem health,” Watts says. “People can get involved by going to any place there’s water, any place they can return to regularly. All you really need is an interest in amphibians and a recording of local frog calls. Once you have that, you’re on your way, and it’s a lot of fun.” To become a frogwatcher yourself, visit FrogWatch or call the Frogwatch USA coordinator at (301) 497-5819.
Our New Directors In April, Sierra Club members reelected three incumbents and chose two new representatives to the Board of Directors. The winners of the election are:
Members also rejected one measure that would have called for a ban on livestock grazing on all public lands, and another that would have mandated emphasis on population stabilization in all sprawl-related campaigns. Ten percent of Club members participated in this year’s election; of the 67,468 votes cast, 13 percent were submitted online. To recommend a nominee for next year’s Board election, contact Susan Heitman at email@example.com or (213) 740-7896.
To spotlight Sierra Club activism in your area, contact Elisa Freeling at Sierra, 85 Second Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; fax (415) 977-5794.