by Pat Joseph
What a difference an administration makes.
In January 2001, the Sierra Club's Wildlands Campaign was celebrating enormous gains in land protection efforts. But the rest of the year, staffers and volunteers spent most of their time scrambling to hold the line on that progress.
White House efforts to roll back Clinton-era advancements began on Inauguration Day when the president froze the wild forest roadless area protection policy. With the nomination of James Watt-protégé Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior, the die was cast: here was an administration hostile to the environment.
As head of Interior, Norton appointed a number of lobbyists from the mining, grazing and oil industries to key posts. The secretary began her tenure by soliciting ideas from local politicians on ways to allow more resource extraction from the new national monuments designated by President Clinton. She proceeded to reverse plans to protect America's national parks from the damage caused by snowmobiles and Jetskis, then scrapped an effort to recover grizzly bear populations -- now reduced to 1 percent of their ancestral range -- in parts of Idaho and Montana.
The Interior Department isn't the only agency that has abandoned its charge to protect America's natural resources. Under new chief Dale Bosworth, the Forest Service has been busily dismantling forest protection laws in favor of logging interests.
Public enthusiasm for wildlands protection remains. In September the Sierra Club joined with other environmental groups to deliver 500,000 public comments in support of wild forest roadless protections to the federal building in Salt Lake City. Club President Jennifer Ferenstein was on hand for the event. She told the assembled press: "Americans were asked if they wanted strong protection for our last remaining roadless area, and they responded with a resounding 'yes.'"
Perhaps the greatest threat to wild America, however, is the Bush energy plan, which has set its sights on oil deposits in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other fragile ecoystems.
The Refuge has come under renewed pressure in the wake of the tragic events of Sept. 11. Under the guise of "national security" some lawmakers have been attempting to cloak the issue in patriotism, claiming that drilling is the only way to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil and insure our energy security.
As if to underscore the flaws in that argument, a vandal recently shot a hole in the trans-Alaskan pipeline, shutting it down for 60 hours and spilling thousands of barrels of crude across the tundra. What's more, the Army, Senate Judiciary Committee and the General Accounting Office have declared the pipeline indefensible.
Meanwhile, the Club has achieved important progress protecting wildlands in the courts. In October, the U.S. District Court dismissed a challenge from logging and off-road vehicle interests to the designation of Giant Sequoia National Monument in California. The following month, the justices refused to hear a case challenging a ban on drilling and mining in Montana's Rocky Mountain Front.
And on Capitol Hill, the Club successfully lobbied Congress to secure monies for wildlands protection through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (The fund takes royalties from offshore drilling and puts them toward land acquisitions.) Dana Wolfe of the Club's Wildlands staff polls local chapters annually to draft a list of wildlands in need of protection, then knocks on legislators' doors to make sure the Sierra Club has a say in how LWCF monies are allocated. For 2002, she reports, funding has been set aside for nine areas named by Sierra Club chapters, including lands attached to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park.
Congress has also responded to administrative threats by placing a one-year ban on mineral and energy development in national monuments. Environmentally minded House members are working to gain support for a number of bills that would also protect many of the treasures highlighted by the Club's Wildlands Campaign, including the Chugach and Tongass national forests in Alaska and more than 9 million acres of wilderness in Utah.
But even in the newly designated national monuments there are continued challenges. As Julie Sherman, wildlands organizer in Arizona, points out, most of the new monuments are operating under interim management plans. With regard to her state's five new monuments, Sherman says, "We're fighting a hundred little battles that in the long term will be resolved in the new management plans. But in the meantime, we're concerned about permissive language on things like predator control and rights of way for power lines and recreational vehicles. For example, under the current language, washes might be considered roads."
Also in the news: As the 2003-2006 Lewis and Clark bicentennial draws near, the Club's Lewis and Clark Campaign, headed by Seattle staffer Mary Kiesau, moves closer to its conservation goals. Club staff and volunteers in eight states are currently working to commemorate the anniversary by protecting the lands explored by Lewis and Clark. In 2002 the campaign will launch magazine and TV ads, a "virtual gathering place" on the Website, a "What's Lost, What's Left" species report, while also hosting local tours.
The battle continues, and the outcome is tenuous. Says Melanie Griffin, director of the Club's Land Protection Program, "If the first year of this administration is any indication, it's going to be a long and difficult time for America's natural heritage. But I'm optimistic. The Bush administration is trying to weaken our laws quietly, but once the public is alerted to the threats, I believe they will act to save the best that our country has to offer."
More on Wildlands.
Photos courtesy Jennifer Rudolph: (top) Decked out in an oil-barrel costume, Julie Monahan, Cascade Chapter volunteer, and Northwest field staffer Kathleen Casey, protest the Bush administration's anti-environmental policies at the "First 100 Days, Worst 100 Days" rally in Seattle. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) spoke at the April event. (bottom) Stacey Mitchell, also from the Northwest field office, lets her sign do the talking.
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