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The Planet
Web Site First Stop for Information:
A Tour of the Sierra Club's Web site

By Jenny Coyle

Surfing the Chapter Web Sites | Don't Have a Computer? | Cool Things on Our Site

In seven years, the Sierra Club's site has gone from nonexistent to hosting more than 10,000 visitors a day

It started like any good backpack trip: A group of ambitious folks with the appropriate skills and ample curiosity decided they wanted to explore a piece of wilderness. Only in this case, the wilderness was the World Wide Web.

It was early 1994, and while volunteer Dan York and the Sierra Club's Information Technology Committee were already guiding the organization's communication systems, databases and other technology, there was no Sierra Club Web site.

That is, until www.sierraclub.org was hatched in the spring of 1995. Since then, the site has grown to more than 20,000 pages and keeps a staff of seven busy. It has also become one of the key communication tools used by the Sierra Club in its organizing and outreach. Just about every major report, fact sheet, press release or newsletter the Club produces can be found on the Web.

"They don't call it the World Wide Web for nothing," says Club Web site manager Mike Papciak. "People everywhere - and at anytime of day or night - can use the Sierra Club's Web site. It's vital that we take advantage of such a cheap, widespread and effective communications channel."

The Sierra Club's Web site was "admirably run by a dedicated group of volunteers" in the early years, according to Dave Simon, who was its first overseer, and who directs the Club's Information Technology and Outing departments.

"Its main focus was outings," says Simon, "because Outings Director John DeCock saw the value and promise of the Web." (DeCock is now executive director of The Sierra Club Foundation.) The Club initially posted trip descriptions and background information but not much else.

In early 1996, the Club hired its first webmaster, John Kealy, and in 1996 a member signed up online for the first time. A second Web staffer was added in 1998, by which time the Club was seeing $10,000 a month in online membership sign-ups.

By 1999, Simon says, the Outings department was saving about $30,000 a year in brochure printing and distribution costs and other business associated with getting folks signed up. "We now take more than 50 percent of our trip bookings online," he says, "which isn't bad for a 101-year-old bricks-and-mortar program. The Web is vitally important to our business operation."

In 2000, the Sierra Club's Web site was nominated for a Webby Award in the travel category, and in January 2001 the site underwent a major redesign to improve its look and navigability.

And the number of visits to the Web site has ballooned. In 1996, the Web site hosted 1,000 visitors a day; in 2002 it's about 10,000 a day.

"The Web puts visitors in the driver's seat so they can find the resources they want, when they want, rather than wait until we hold an event, or run an ad or go door-to-door," says Jon Zilber, the Sierra Club's Web director since March 2001.

Zilber's mission is to make the Sierra Club Web site a place that "surfers" and activists alike will come back to again and again. The way to do that, he says, is to make the site interactive in a way that engages the visitor, to constantly add new features and new information to the site and to make the information easy to find.

Gwyn Jones, the Web site's liaison to the national Communications and Education Governance Committee, says the site is a boon to conservation-minded folks with limited time. "We're there for the professional who just got the kids in bed and who is hitting the computer, before hitting the hay himself, to answer e-mail and look at a few Web sites," says Jones. "He can even fax a letter to his senator, no matter what time it is."

In late 2001 the Club launched its national Action Alert System, which lets registered users automatically send an e-mail or a fax to their decision-makers. All a visitor has to do is choose from a list of issues, customize a sample letter or approve it as it is, then hit "send." The system keeps track of a visitor's members of Congress, as well as issues he or she has already taken action on.

For example, the alert system generated 7,432 messages asking senators to support the Kerry/Lieberman filibuster to prevent Arctic drilling. It also recently sent 3,810 messages urging protection of Yellowstone National Park from snowmobiles. Nearly 16,000 people have registered to take action, and more sign up every day.

Not only can activists send letters online, but they can sign up for e-mail alert lists, order reports, request a Lewis and Clark map, find out how their senator voted on a recent environmental issue - and vote themselves: Of the Sierra Club members who cast a ballot in the last board election, 15 percent did so online.

It appears those early Web backpackers were onto something.


Surfing the Chapter Web Sites

By Jenny Coyle

Charlotte Gardner's background is in computer programming. A couple of years ago she got a hankering to learn Web site development and design so she volunteered to be the webmaster for the Savannah River Group of the Sierra Club's Georgia Chapter.

Now Gardner is a professional Web site developer. And the webmaster for the entire Georgia Chapter Web site, which she refers to as "my baby" and checks in on every day. Gardner, who won the Sierra Club's "Electronic Communications Award" in 2000, is one of many volunteers who proclaim the value of the Web in environmental outreach and activism. All but four of the Club's chapters have their own Web sites, and hundreds of groups and activity sections maintain sites as well.

Charlotte Gardner, Webmaster for the Club's Georgia Chapter
Charlotte Gardner, Webmaster for the Club's Georgia Chapter

"It's great visibility for the work we're doing," says Gardner. "When I moved here and was interested in Sierra Club news, I didn't hear that much. With the Web and e-mail, you can push information out to people instead of expecting them to go get it."

Charlie Oriez, chair of the Colorado (Rocky Mountain) Chapter's Information Technology Committee, puts it a bit more emphatically: "Not having a Web site is like telling the public you're not active," he says.

On the Colorado site, visitors can not only learn about the issues but also buy tickets to chapter events and contribute during the March fund appeal. They can pose a conservation-related question online and have it answered by experts. Visitors can read the chapter newsletter online, check on local outings, see what the Sierra Singles group is up to and find out who to contact on various conservation issues.

On the Georgia site there are action alerts and information on local activities of the Sierra Student Coalition and Inner-City Outings. Visitors can even take the "Environment Quiz" to find out how much they really know.

The North Star Chapter in Minnesota has installed the chapter version of the national Action Alert System, allowing visitors to register online and then send electronic mail or faxes to decision-makers.

According to chapter webmaster Sam Garst, "We post no more than one alert a week, and about 25 percent of the registered users take action. Ninety percent of them do it within 24 hours of the posting. We know exactly how many contacts each decision-maker receives. Right now we have 800 e-mail subscribers and we have a goal of getting 2,000 by summer of 2003."

Meanwhile, the San Diego Chapter Web site boasts a feature to get folks away from the computer and into woods - or up on mountain tops.

"Our Peaks List came about as a printed list a few years ago when some peak baggers came together to promote getting out into new destinations," says Brad Buffet, chapter webmaster. The online version is more than a list, however. Beyond showing the coordinates and elevations for each peak in the region, some of the profiled peaks have links to photos from hiking trips or even aerial views of the summit.

Cool stuff, to be sure. But many chapters and groups have a hard time just recruiting a webmaster or finding folks to provide material for the site, let alone implementing features like the Peaks List.

"Every active committee we have is assigned to keep its Web page current," says Oriez in Colorado. "And we recently had a kid who learned web page design at a local community college and wanted some practice building a page, so we gave him a page to work on that was crying for an update."

Oriez says the chapter needs to make its Web site needs very public. "You'll find there are members out there who send in their dues every year and are technical people, but aren't savvy about the issues or aren't experts on wildlife or forests, so they don't volunteer. You've got to let them know you need technical people, and they don't have to be experts on the issues."

To see various chapter pages, go the www.sierraclub.org, choose a state from the "My Backyard" pulldown box, and then follow the chapter link. Questions about national and chapter sites should go to Jenny Coyle, jenny.coyle@sierraclub.org, (415) 977-5533.


Don't Have a Computer?
How You Can Learn to Love (Or At Least Maybe Sorta Like) the Internet

By Pat Joseph

It's probably fair to say there's a little bit of the Luddite in all of us.

After all, it's hard not to resent the constant complexifying of our world. To be sure, all those wires running through our lives, (not to mention the infrared beams, the transoceanic cables, the radio waves and satellite signals) are delivering more information than anyone can put to good use, faster than anyone can digest it.

And yet, kept in its place, the Internet is an undeniably useful tool - a vast resource that can save us trouble in innumerable ways and maybe (a big maybe, admittedly) even help the environment. All of which is to say that if you haven't yet ventured online, you might want to try it. Certainly, there's no need to feel left out or intimidated.

Here are five simple ways to ease your way online:

  1. Go to the library or an Internet cafe. Don't have a computer or Internet connection at home? No worries. Nearly all public libraries have at least a few machines devoted to the task of surfing the Web, with users generally limited to between 15 and 30 minutes online. Just ask the librarian to get you started. If your library isn't convenient, maybe there's an Internet cafe nearby. In cities and towns around the world, such places are increasingly common, with online access available for an hourly rate.

  2. Recruit a guide. Some folks just cotton to technology. They're born tinkerers and button pushers who are often enthusiastic about helping you along without ever stopping to question your intelligence. And then, of course, there are kids. Kids have grown up on this stuff and often as not they're happy to show you all the neat tricks involved in getting around online.

  3. Get a free e-mail address. There may not be any free lunches, but there are plenty of free e-mail services. Two of the most common are Yahoo Mail (www.yahoo.com) and Microsoft's Hotmail (www.hotmail.com). Just go there and sign up for an address and, in two shakes of the lamb's tail, you'll be able to send instantly deliverable messages around the globe. Just don't expect to get your own name in the address.

  4. Use a search engine or Web directory. Search engines like Google (www.google.com) and Lycos (www.lycos.com), to give just two popular examples, are the key to unlocking the unbelievable vastness of the World Wide Web. Think of them as the Internet's front door. Just type in the words you're looking for and see where it takes you. For searches by category, try a Web directory, which arranges sites under broad subject headings, more along the lines of a library card catalog. In Yahoo, to cite the most prominent example, you'll find www.sierraclub.org slotted under the Outdoor category as well as Environment and Nature.

  5. Learn as you go. Don't know your RAM from your ROM, your IP from your ISP? Don't sweat it. With the Internet you can learn just as much as you need on any given day and you'll be fine. That said, one acronym that might be helpful to know from the outset is FAQ for Frequently Asked Questions. FAQs are online tutorials that offer up quick-and-dirty answers to most common questions about a site. Between FAQs and Help files, you can usually find your way out of most any thicket. Good luck and happy surfing.


Cool Things on Our Site

By Jim Bradbury

The Sierra Club's Web site presents an enormous amount of information, and in a multitude of formats: everything from maps to interactive quizzes to slide shows to animated movies.

Just posting a bunch of plain text on a Web page turns off readers faster than a pop-up ad for SUV trips to the Arctic. To communicate effectively online, you need to make it pithy, interactive, graphical and, not least of all, fun for Web audiences.

A quick tour of the national site shows how the Web can be fun and informative at the same time.

The Slide Show

The Web is an excellent medium for presenting photos and other graphics, but they're often more effective when pictures appear in a constantly changing slide show. Check out these photo galleries, part of the Lewis and Clark and Ansel Adams pages. See:
www.sierraclub.org/lewisandclark/slideshow_np/
www.sierraclub.org/ansel_adams/slideshow.asp

The Pointed List

Short pages that present points in an easy-to-digest format, with links to the supporting information for those who want to dig deeper, are more fun and easier for people to share with their friends than a multi-page report. See:
www.sierraclub.org/currents/fuel_economy_popup.asp

The Interactive Quiz

The interactivity of the Web makes it easy to present information in the form of a quiz, which can be surprisingly entertaining as well as educational. (But all you Men's Health and Cosmo readers already knew that....) See:
www.sierraclub.org/currents/quiz.asp
www.sierraclub.org/freedompackage/quiz.asp

The Info Map

Users can click on pre-defined areas that take you to information on anything from threatened wildlands to factory farms. See:
www.sierraclub.org/ecoregions/index.asp
www.sierraclub.org/factoryfarms/states/map.asp

The Reader Submission

Web visitors can provide their own content. A Special Place, for instance, invites people to submit their own stories and photos of places in nature that have personal significance for them. See:
www.sierraclub.org/specialplace/

The Online Journal

Serial publishing started in the days of Charles Dickens, and it still works on the Web. If someone provides regular updates to an online journal, it gives people a reason to keep coming back for more. One example is a road trip following a couple "racing" across Florida - one in an SUV, the other in a hybrid. See:
www.sierraclub.org/roadtrip/index.asp

The Survival Guide

The Holiday Survival Guide uses characters to represent the different types of viewpoints one might encounter at a family gathering (reactionary Uncle Burt, for instance) and offers examples of how to respond effectively to their arguments. See:
www.sierraclub.org/talk/index.asp

Attention Webmasters and leaders: If any of the above examples give you some ideas about how you might want to present something on a chapter or group Web site, the national Web team is more than happy to help out with advice, templates, code and moral support.


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