Sierra Magazine


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

Hawaii | California | Florida | Massachusetts | Nebraska | Bulletin

by Elisa Freeling

Green Hospitality
When Hawaiian tourism plummeted after September 11, many of the islands’ workers were abruptly laid off. In what Oahu Group chair Howard Wiig calls a "potent and unusual alliance," the Hawaii Chapter and a local hotel employees’ union teamed up to fashion a "green deal for Hawaii’s economic recovery." The coalition proposed to create jobs and improve the environment with an updated version of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Last November their proposal convinced the entire state legislature and the governor to create an emergency environmental workforce of some 450 laid-off hotel workers. They’re being retrained to clean up mosquito breeding grounds, which will help fight dengue fever, and to eradicate harmful invasive species like miconia, a plant that, according to Wiig, has "destroyed two-thirds of Tahiti’s native rainforest and is now trying to make inroads here." The workforce contracts last for only three to six months, but "this is basic resource management that the state has been neglecting to fund for decades," says chapter director Jeff Mikulina. "Hopefully our legislators will recognize this and keep the program alive."

Each summer, as smog levels rise with the temperature in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Kevin Hall wonders, "Should we leave? Are we being irresponsible parents by raising our child here?" According to the Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, the region has the highest rate of asthma deaths in the nation, and some 20 percent of the population suffers from a respiratory ailment. Hall is a lifelong resident of the valley, where poor air quality is second only to that of Los Angeles. "From an epidemic of human disease and death attributable to air pollution, to the most ozone-polluted national parks in the country, my home is a disaster zone," he says.

But instead of relocating, Hall became the Tehipite Chapter’s air-quality issues chair and rallied the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, the Latino Issues Forum, and the Medical Alliance for Healthy Air to go after the region’s Air Pollution Control District for its slack oversight. Threatened with a lawsuit, in October the agency agreed to adopt and enforce stricter measures to control ozone emissions, eliminating more than six tons of pollution each day. "It’s a profoundly important moral victory," says Hall. "Until now, clean air in the San Joaquin Valley has been DOA—developers, oil, and agriculture."

Oil and Water
Blood may be thicker than water, but it seems that oil trumps both. Last summer, the Bush administration opened a 1.5-million-acre swath of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil exploration, despite long-standing opposition from the president’s brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush. The threat of a catastrophic spill looms over coastal communities, but the day-to-day pollution from the rigs is equally worrisome. Operations in the western Gulf are already causing problems: Tar balls wash up on beaches or wind up in the throats of endangered sea turtles, sometimes causing them to starve to death. Tons of "drilling muds" containing arsenic, lead, chromium, and other toxic metals are routinely dumped from the rigs, harming seagrass, coral, fish, and marine mammals. The contaminants jeopardize coastal estuaries and fragile wetlands as well as the state’s tourism and fishing industries.

"Off-shore drilling platforms are like industrial facilities plopped into wilderness," says Florida Chapter conservation organizer Joe Murphy. The most immediate peril is Chevron’s push to plant a rig fewer than 30 miles from the white-sand beaches of Florida’s panhandle. The chapter has launched a campaign to stop the new drilling, pressuring their congressional representatives and Governor Bush to get the leases canceled, and holding community forums to expose the adverse effects of offshore oil exploration on the environment and the economy.

Every Dog Has Its Day
For 91 years, Nebraska state law decreed that black-tailed prairie dogs be eradicated annually. Labeled as pests, they were inaccurately accused of competing with cattle for grass, and the holes they dug were wrongly blamed for breaking bovine legs. Nebraska Chapter conservation chair Buffalo Bruce helped get the law repealed in 1994, but ranchers continue to poison the animals. Now that the species seems destined to be declared threatened (it occupies less than one percent of its original range), Bruce is trying to convince his fellow Nebraskans of its benefits. "Walking into a healthy prairie-dog town is like walking into a zoo," he says. "There are insects, salamanders, turtles, swift foxes, and lots of birds." Other rodents, snakes, and burrowing owls use the holes for homes, and ungulates are attracted to the young fresh grass, a result of the prairie dogs’ constant clipping. Bruce has begun a program to move prairie dogs to federal land, state parks, and private property where owners welcome them. Much of his revival effort is educational: He lectures at colleges to explain how cattle and prairie dogs complement each other. "To livestock, the grasses in prairie-dog towns are like candy; they’re more succulent, but also more nutritious and easier for cattle to digest." Prairie dog colonies once nourished land from Texas to Canada, so Bruce is working with an 11-state coalition to return them to a portion of their former range.

A Trick Without a Treat
There were caribou in Cambridge last October. No, the arctic herd didn’t get lost. It was the Harvard Sierra Student Coalition dressed up for Halloween, going door to door to drum up support for protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Explaining the detrimental impacts of drilling in the sensitive region, the antler-adorned activists told their fellow undergrads that "oil from the refuge may seem like a treat, but it’s really a trick."

Harvard SSC co-chair Eve Schaeffer was surprised at how many students were unaware that oil exploration could disrupt caribou calving and the way of life of the Gwich’in, who use the animals for their food, clothing, and culture. "We were making such fools of ourselves, people figured it must be an important cause," says Schaeffer. "We were able to reach out to people who wouldn’t normally come to our events." Once informed, more than 400 students signed postcards to their senators to urge preservation of the refuge, after which they received a bag of candy.

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