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The Planet

April 1998, Volume 5, Number 3


Strange Bedfellows Are Natural Allies  

by Jenny Coyle


    When Sierra Club staff member Mark Massara grabs a surfboard and paddles out to where the big waves break, he’s not just having a good time — he’s building a coalition, California style. Volunteer Marge Hanselman is doing the same thing when she observes waterfowl on a Texas wetland with a director for the National Rifle Association. Staffer Ken Midkiff works his magic over coffee in farm kitchens, and volunteer Susan Sargent turns to the Maine religious community for allies. 

    It raises no eyebrows when the Sierra Club forms coalitions with the Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy or The Wilderness Society. But the Club can often be even more effective when it closes ranks with unlikely allies who live and breathe the same issue in a different way, whose voices may bend the ears of decision-makers who otherwise are unlikely to listen or who are unreceptive to a narrower range of constituents. 

    Such alliances aren’t always easy. Sometimes it means learning a different terminology or putting aside personal differences. But those who’ve succeeded say the results can be powerful. Here are some of their stories. 

    High Noon on the Katy Prairie 
    I knew when I started working with the National Rifle Association and the Houston Safari Club that we weren’t going to be able to talk about handguns, politics or shooting big game in Africa,” says Marge Hanselman, conservation chair for the Lone Star Chapter’s Houston Group in Texas. 

    But Hanselman and others in her group knew that their work to keep the Katy Prairie wetland from being turned into an airport would be bolstered by support from the big guns in so-called hook and bullet organizations. So in 1996, the group set up its first booth at the annual Houston Hunting and Fishing Show and handed out reprints of a Sierra magazine piece by Ted Williams called “Natural Allies,” about how environmentalists and sporting organizations should work together. That’s how Hanselman met Bob Baer, one of 76 national NRA directors. She handed him the article and asked him to read it. 

    A few days later, Hanselman and Baer met, along with the Houston Group’s wetlands chair, Bill Stransky, and NRA Director Sue King. They found common ground: They would work together to protect the Katy Prairie, a resting stop for geese and ducks on one of the principal wildlife migration routes in the country. 

    King, a straight shooter who says, “If it’s legal to hunt it and shoot it, I’ve hunted it and shot it,” sees the connection with the Sierra Club as a logical one. “It’s perfectly obvious to anyone with half a brain that if you’re going to enjoy the fruits of the outdoors, you’re going to have to take care of it. 

    “I don’t have a problem with people who don’t like to hunt,” says King, “as long as no one is being extreme and saying no goose or duck should ever be killed.” 

    Does King take flak from NRA members? “Oh yes,” she says, with hearty laughter. “Some people say, ‘Are you stupid? Working with a bunch of tree huggers?’ But I think the exchange of ideas is the best prophylactic against ignorance and stupidity that I know of.” 

    King felt the heat when she decided that the Sierra Club and the Katy Prairie Conservancy would receive the proceeds of “the world’s largest — and richest — women’s clay shoot,” held near Houston. 

    In addition to that support from the organization, the NRA wrote a letter to the Houston City Council and mayor on behalf of its 200,000 Texan members in support of protection for Katy Prairie and has testified along with the Sierra Club in hearings to oppose the construction of the airport. 

    “The Sierra Club is not against hunting,” says Hanselman. “And while I probably disagree with many of the other NRA issues, Sue King is a strong woman and one of the most avid conservationists I know. We work on a one-on-one basis and stick to the topics where we agree. Together we’re working to preserve wildlife habitat.” 

    Surf on Their Turf 
    When it comes to working with surfers as allies to protect the California coast, the Sierra Club has an advantage: Mark Massara, director of the Club’s California Coastal Program, grew up surfing in Santa Barbara and later became legal counsel for Surfrider Foundation. He also founded Surfers Environmental Alliance and the National Association of Surfing Attorneys, and writes on coastal and environmental legal issues for surfing magazines and other publications. With his long, blond hair and a tan, he’s the perfect interface. 

    Massara gained a stellar reputation in the surfing and environmental communities when, as an attorney for Surfriders in 1991, he won a lawsuit against two pulp-mill companies near Eureka, Calif., that were dumping 40 million gallons of toxic effluents per day into the ocean. 

    “That effort gave me a working knowledge of coastal activists,” says Massara, and that includes surfers, farmers and Native Americans from coastal tribes. 

    Surfers may seem like unlikely partners for the Sierra Club, and even Massara admits that organizing them “is like herding cats.” 

    “But surfers bring to the cause of protecting the coast  an intimate knowledge of the California coastline and its many resources, along with a zeal for recreation,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is get surfers to occasionally leave the beach and go into city halls throughout the state and demand coastal protection. You know, ‘Gidget Goes Environmental.’” 

    How does he do it? It’s an exchange of energy, in a way. He’s there for them, and they’re there for him. When a hotel moved ahead on controversial plans to build a seawall that would destroy not only the surf, but a nearby ecosystem as well, surfers in San Luis Obispo called Massara, and he is fighting the battle with them. 

    Likewise, when the California Coastal Commission held a hearing on whether to approve a Hearst Corp. proposal to build a series of resorts on one of that last untouched stretches of coastline, the surfers were there. Massara and other Club activists had organized aerial photos, obtained damning documents about significant Native American resources that would be disturbed by the project and rounded up a crowd of 1,500 to show up for the hearing. Surfers like Todd Cardiff, a welder, provided signs for protesters and wore wetsuits to testify against the plan. 

    “In general, surfers are apathetic about the environment. When they get sick from polluted seawater, they say, ‘Oh, that’s the price of surfing.’ We’re trying to tell them, ‘No, that’s the price of pollution, and we can do something about it,’” says Cardiff, vice president of the San Luis Bay Chapter of Surfriders. 

    “Mark won that case against the pulp-mill companies, and because of that he’s become a person of mythological stature to us,” he says. “He knows the people to get in touch with. He has history on the issues. He knows how to work the political angles.” 
    “Whether I’m working with surfers, farmers or Chumash Indians, I listen to them, go to their meetings and immerse myself in their perspective and genuinely empathize with their viewpoint,” says Massara. “It helps to walk a mile in someone’s shoes.” 

    Finding Friends in Farm Kitchens 
    For Ken Midkiff, walking in the shoes of his allies means wearing coveralls and mudboots. About four years ago, Midkiff, the Club’s Missouri state director, was asked for help by rural family farmers to work against the pollution wrought by hog and chicken factories, also called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which house and dispose of  the waste of thousands of animals. 

    To pursue partnerships with family farmers and respond to requests for assistance, Midkiff hightailed it out of Columbia and headed to the hinterlands. 

    “I didn’t have these farmers and their neighbors come to my office where I’d sit behind my desk in a suit and act like I’m the person with all the answers,” says Midkiff. “I’ve sat in a lot of farm kitchens drinking coffee and listening to their concerns.” 

    Mind you, Midkiff is a vegetarian, and the people with whom he works in these partnerships are raising cows, pigs and chickens for slaughter. 

    “When they offer me a big plate of fried chicken I say, ‘No, thanks, but I’ll have some potatoes and gravy.’ I don’t impose my values on them.” 

    In these meetings, Midkiff and the farmers developed mutually agreeable solutions and strategies to implement.  They started forming local action groups of rural residents and farmers. They dove in, writing letters, lobbying state politicians and congressional delegates in the capitals and testifying at hearings, persistently calling for stricter rules governing these corporate operations and the waste they produce. A crowd of farmers working with him on the CAFO issue recently showed up at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife hearing to support protection for a minnow called the Topeka shiner. (See Midkiff’s story

    “Ten or 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have cared anything about the Topeka shiner,” says Terry Spence, who runs a cow/calf operation on his 400-acre farm. “But I stood up and testified to protect it, because when something disappears, even though it’s just a minute little fish, something else will disappear, and it just keeps going up the ladder. Someday it will affect humans. 

    “About one and a half miles from my property line is a CAFO with 80,000 head of hogs on 3,000 acres,” he says. “Sometimes it takes reality to put things in perspective. Those of us who work with Ken and the Sierra Club come to realize we’re all looking for the same thing: We want to preserve our land for future generations. Some people were skeptical about working with the Sierra Club because we didn’t agree with them on everything in the past. But now I think you could call any farmer out here and they’d say the Sierra Club has become a good friend, cares about us and wants to do something about the problem.”

    “It doesn’t happen overnight,” says Midkiff. “There may be some initial skepticism and paranoia, but you work through that. You show them this is not a one-shot deal, that you’re there for the long haul, that you’re not going to make a big splash and get headlines, and then disappear. When the trust is there, powerful things happen.” 

    Pursue and Persevere 
    It took two years and plenty of persistence for Maine Chapter Vice Chair Susan Sargent to link the Club with the state’s religious community. The way Sargent sees it, “Elected officials, the public and the media all know the Sierra Club will support environmental legislation. You’re more convincing when you show depth for an issue, and prove that a diverse group backs something. The Maine Council of Churches is highly credible and they’re a wonderful voice to add to ours, especially as the conservative wise-use movement picks up speed in our state.” 

    So two years ago, armed with materials on the need to protect endangered species, Sargent met with the council’s executive director, Tom Ewell. She came away without a commitment, but Ewell started inviting her to events and workshops organized by the council — and Sargent made it a point to attend. 

    Sargent, a non-churchgoer, kept in touch with Ewell. Finally, after two years, while both were working booths at a fair, Ewell asked Sargent to be part of the council’s newly formed Spirituality and Earth Stewardship Program. She serves on the outreach committee, researching environmental legislation the council can support from a faith-based stance. 

    Ewell saw the logic of having the 670-church organization fight for the environment, but he needed a compelling issue to organize around. Watershed protection was it. 
    The new program began with a celebration at the Damariscotta Watershed and included a nature walk, sledding and skiing, a light meal, slide presentations and a reading. Participants from across the region brought water from local wells, rivers and other sources to combine in a symbolic ceremony. 

    “We believe that stewardship of the earth and its natural resources is essential to the survival of all living things, including humans, and that the destruction of the environment reflects a breakdown in the way people relate to God’s creation and to each other,” says Susan MacKenzie, the council’s program director. 

     “Through this I’ve learned that sometimes you have to persevere in order to bring a group on board, and keep communications wide open,” says Sargent. 

    “Also, it’s important to consider every group a possible ally, because when you start thinking about the environment and who’s affected by it, it’s hard to rule anyone out. By finding that common ground, we can build powerful partnerships.” 


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