Imagine you're on a Sierra Club outing in the Marin Headlands, in the
Golden Gate National Recreation Area just north of San Francisco. It's a
gorgeous day, the other hikers on your outing are good company, and you revel in the
feel of the trail underfoot and the vista of undeveloped rolling hills
meeting the sea and sky. You feel pleasantly tired and invigorated after
your ten-mile hike, but you go home without hearing anything about how
this wild landscape, within spitting distance of seven million people,
came to be protected from development.
|Club activist and outings leader Vicky Hoover, above,
points out a landscape feature in Great Basin National Park, Nevada. One
of the nation's newest national parks, Great Basin was established in
1986 with strong support from the Sierra Club.
Now imagine the same hike, but your trip leader takes time to tell the
story of how 40 years ago a planned city of 80,000 called Marincello was
set to rise on these same hills. An access road and gates to the city
had already been built, but the Sierra Club helped organize existing
local opposition to the project and preserve the area as public
Now, instead of subdivisions and power lines blanketing these
hills, there are hiking trails, open space, and wildlife habitat. The
Marin Headlands stand as one of the most stunning examples in the
country of wildlands abutting a major urban area, and the Sierra Club
helped make it a reality. And before your hike is over, the trip leader
tells you about another local conservation battle that has yet to be
won, and offers suggestions as to how you can participate in that
|Participants on a Sierra Club outing pause to listen to the trip leader
and admire the view of Donner Lake, near the Club's Clair Tappaan Lodge
in the northern Sierra Nevada.
It should be no surprise that the Sierra Club Outdoor Activity
Governance Committee (OAGC) prefers that Club outings, of which there
are approximately 10,000 each year, hew more closely to the second
scenario. What might be a surprise is that many Club outings are more
like the first.
"It's true," concurs Vicky Hoover, chair of the National Outing
Committee's activist outings subcommittee. "Even on national outings,
it's not done as often as you might think."
More than a quarter million people – members and non-members – participate
in Sierra Club outings every year, a huge pool of potential activists to
fight the seemingly never-ending threats to the environment. Club
membership continues to grow steadily – it currently stands around
750,000 – but grassroots involvement hasn't kept pace. An outing is the
first contact with the Club for many people, and it is estimated that
one in four Sierra Club members have been on a Club outing. That's a big
pool of potential activists who can be engaged, enlightened, and
"For several years there has been a requirement that national outings
include a conservation component," says Kathy Wells, a trip leader and
conservation officer for national outings. "I'd like to see more contact
between outings leaders and conservation activists. Cooperation between
these two entities will greatly benefit both, and further our mission of
'enjoy, explore, and protect.'"
The OAGC, the Outings Department, and the Conservation Task Force are
working to encourage and facilitate this contact through the new Outdoor
Outreach program. And although the OAGC and others feel the outings
program on the whole could be more effectively harnessed to reinvigorate
the Club's activist base, many chapter and group trip leaders are
already doing just that.
"We're here to celebrate and protect Tampa's most precious
resource – water," says Hadrian Alegarbes, Outings Chair for the Club's
Tampa Bay Group. A small flotilla of canoes and kayaks had gathered in
early June for a waterborne outing on Florida's Hillsborough River. The
major spring that feeds the river is threatened with a tripling of water
withdrawals because the owner of the spring hopes to sell the water to a
local bottling company. The river currently supplies nearly 90 percent
of the water used by the city of Tampa.
"Every time you take water out, you affect the aquifer and everything
that's connected to it," Alegarbes tells the group as they prepare to
set off. Energized by the beauty of the riverscape and Alagarbes' pitch,
several trip participants subsequently write letters and speak out
against the water withdrawals at public meetings.
"It's important to be exposed in a hands-on way to what we're fighting
for," says Carole Mehlman, a Club member who joined Alegarbes' outing.
"You get much more passion if you realize what we're trying to
From the outset, Club outings were designed with conservation in mind.
John Muir joined a group at the University of California that was
interested in promoting recreation by making the Sierra Nevada – and
especially the Yosemite region (not yet a national park) – better known.
This group teamed up with others in the San Francisco Bay Area to create
an alpine club. Three years later, the Sierra Club was founded.
Early Club outings were never simply hiking trips. Participants were
advised to read Muir's The Mountains of California and Joseph LeConte's
Ramblings Through the High Sierra prior to the trip. Once the outing was
underway, leaders would lecture on forestry, biology, geology, history,
and other topics of relevance. Other organizations, such as the
Appalachian Mountain Club, engaged in outings, but unlike the Sierra
Club, their aims were purely recreational.
One of the more dramatic illustrations of the power of outings to
influence public policy came in the early 1950s, when a federal dam
project on the Green and Yampa Rivers threatened to submerge large
portions of Dinosaur National Monument. The Club's Outings Department
organized a series of river trips to Dinosaur's spectacular canyons,
each one taking 65 people into the heart of the monument.
young children went on these expeditions, demonstrating that rafting
could be a safe recreational experience. In 1950, fewer than 50 rafters
floated down the monument's canyons; by 1954, the number was nearly
1,000. The following year, bowing to public pressure that Club outings
had helped galvanize, the Department of Interior announced that the Echo
Park Dam project was being scrapped.
Over the next four decades Sierra Club membership boomed, but many new
members were not activists per se. In 1995, then-Club President Robbie
Cox started Project ACT, which sought to reinvigorate conservation
activism at the local and group level. One of the projects that arose
from this effort was the San Diego Chapter's "One Club" project, in
which volunteers planned and carried out conservation outings to
threatened places, with the goal of establishing a connection with a
place and educating participants about the threats posed to it.
According to San Diego Chapter leader Camille Armstrong, who coordinated
the project, One Club trips always included experts and educational
materials explaining the natural history of the area and background
information on the issue at hand. "The outdoor experience is much richer
this way, more complete," she says. "On one outing, for example, we
visited a proposed gold mine in the Imperial County desert and heard
from Native Americans, representatives from the BLM, and
"A lot of people want to protect the places they love; they just don't
know how to do it," says Ivy Gordon, who became so inspired
by a One Club outing that she attended town hall meetings, networked
with other groups, wrote action alerts to fellow activists, and put
together a traveling slide show of places the Club had helped protect.
The One Club San Diego effort was followed five years later by a grant-
funded One Club program that reached four groups or chapters each year.
That program is now finishing up its 4-year run. "It was a tremendous
success," says OAGC Chair David Simon. "Now we're trying to replicate it
on a larger scale with the Outdoor Outreach program."
Outdoor Outreach has three objectives: (1) identify ways to incorporate
a strong conservation message into Club outings, and identify whom to
get on board; (2) train outings leaders, using a module that has been
"road-tested" and refined over the last three to four years; and (3)
write and distribute conservation literature for Club outings, such as
fact sheets and "conservation scorecards" that allow trip participants
to evaluate an area's ecological well-being.
"We've been running an outings training program that includes
conservation training six to eight times a year to audiences of 50 or so
people," Simon explains, "and outings leaders love it. With the
literature, we want to reach two audiences – outings leaders and trip
participants. Outings leaders have to be convinced to hand it out, and
then participants have to be convinced to join the Club, become active,
or become more active."
Simon suggests thinking of outings as a fleet of fishing boats, trolling
for activists. "The outings leaders are the captains of these boats. To
catch some fish, the first step is for the OAGC to ensure that our
captains know something about fishing. If outing leaders don't throw the
nets into the water, we won't catch any fish."
It's more than education, Simon says. "Educating trip members about the
area in which they are traveling isn't a bad idea, but we should
remember it is not the goal. The Sierra Club motto is 'explore, enjoy,
and protect,' not 'explore, enjoy, and educate.' You will not read in
The Planet: 'Great Victory: We lost the vote, and they built the Legacy
Highway, but polls show that everybody knows all about the issue.' The
goal is to inspire outings participants to take action."
Dan Fuller, an outings leader in the Kansas City area, says outings in
his chapter are regularly used to increase both awareness and activism
on local and regional conservation issues. He cites the example of a
Kansas wetland, owned by a Native American tribe, through which a
planned highway development was to be routed. In addition to being a
productive natural area, the wetland contained Indian sacred sites, so
the Sierra Club's opposition to the highway dovetailed with the tribe's
opposition to the project.
"I led outings to the wetland at three different times of the year to
illuminate how natural areas change with the seasons," he explains. "I
invited a tribal member to piggyback onto these outings, which were
promoted both by the Club and the tribe." Public opposition to the
project has since grown, and court injunctions have been filed against
the proposed highway routing.
Fuller has also led outings to a drinking water plant and a sewage
treatment plant to educate people about drinking water and wastewater.
"In both cases I had a designer of the plant come along to explain what
they had been doing to improve the performance of their facility," he
Hadrian Alegarbes, the Tampa outings leader, says that when he first
started going on outings, he felt the conservation content was conveyed
"We'd go to beautiful places," he recalls, "but if we didn't ask the
guide questions, not much was offered. The trip leaders were extremely
well-informed, but I find many outdoorsy people – including myself – like to
hang out in the woods rather than in crowds because we're sort of
introverts. The seclusion and gentle sounds of a wild place play to our
natural strengths and leanings."
Now, as outings chair, Alegarbes has made an effort to come out of his
shell. "I have set stories and 'raps' for ecosystems in the area,
including longleaf pine forests, hardwood swamps, cypress forests, oak
scrub, and others. For example, I'll tell people that 'the story of the
longleaf pine ecosystem is the story of fire, and we're going to look at
this system from the point of view of two of its main inhabitants, the
longleaf pine and the gopher tortoise.'"
Alegarbes says his group's outings program generated 50 letters to
legislators on various topics in June alone, including a request for
Senators Graham and Nelson to authorize the purchase of Pinhook Swamp in
northern Florida – a critical wildlife corridor and water recharge area
for the Floridan aquifer.
Rita Beving, a Lone Star (Texas) Chapter activist who heads up the
Outdoor Outreach effort in the field, has led numerous Club outings,
both locally in the Dallas area and to places further afield. "I find
that people really want to learn about and understand the area where
they'll be hiking," she says. "I like to talk about the history and the
geology of the places we're visiting, and I just incorporate
conservation information into that discussion – I try not to beat people
over the head with it."
On longer trips where the group travels by bus, Beving regularly
distributes handouts on the area they'll be visiting. Recently, she
asked trip participants to fill out postcards urging the reintroduction
of the Canadian lynx to Colorado's San Juan Mountains, and designation
of large areas where the cats could reproduce. "You have a captive
audience on bus trips," she explains.
Not all Club outings leaders are comfortable with these methods. Andy
Westbom, who has led Club outings for 15 years for the San Francisco Bay
Chapter, favors a subtler approach. "I don't try to sell or promote
anything," he says. "I do share conservation ethics, and in a low-key
manner I share conservation information about the area we're in. I help
identify unique flora and fauna. I ask people to help clean up the site
before we leave, disassemble illegal or inappropriate fire rings, to not
create paths in sensitive meadow areas where new trails can easily be
formed by people tramping the same route.
"I've found that people become more conservation-oriented by
doing – participating, learning, and enjoying themselves in the wonderful
wilderness," he asserts. "They bring that home with them, and they bring
that to the ballot box."
Teri Shore, who also leads trips for the Bay Chapter, is comfortable
with both approaches. "I do like to pitch people on issues like
wilderness," she says, "but on standard backpack trips I find giving a
conservation spiel at the beginning or end of the trip doesn't work very
well because people are either getting ready to go, or they're ready to
go home. But if you advertise a trip as a wilderness campaign trip,
people know when they sign up that they'll be getting 'educated' on the
issue and maybe asked to sign postcards."
Further down the coast, Andrea Leigh recently led a series of Angeles
Chapter outings in connection with the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which
brings water to the city from the Owens Valley, 200 miles away. "At
best," Leigh says, "there are some Angelenos who have a vague idea that
there's an aqueduct that brings water to Los Angeles from somewhere
else. But the L.A. aqueduct is often confused with the California
Aqueduct. And there is even less of a sense that the main reason Los
Angeles exists as a megalopolis is because of this water supply."
Another Angeles Chapter trip leader, George Denny, says his fellow
chapter outings leaders consistently disseminate conservation
information as part of their trips. "I try to research both the
conservation issues and the geology of the areas into which I lead
people," he says. "We might discuss development in the Santa Monica
Mountains, air pollution issues, and actions to purchase wild areas by
organizations such as the Nature Conservancy. I always welcome informed
botanists and others with specific areas of expertise on my trips, and I
encourage them to share their knowledge with the group."
There are currently about 5,000 chapter and group outings leaders, 750
national outings leaders, and 500 inner city outings leaders. That's an
impressive delivery system, the potential of which is nicely summed up
by Hadrian Alagarbes:
"I have the best job in the world," he says. "I take people out to
beautiful places and tell them stories about it."
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