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The Planet

Reasons to Be Cheerful

by Tom Valtin

OK, let's be real. There was precious little good news on the environment coming out of Washington, D.C., in 2004. The best news at the federal level was what didn't happen. We stopped renewed attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and a pork-laden energy bill, fat with giveaways to the energy and extractive industries. But there were still many victories to celebrate, especially at the state, regional, and local level. Among them:

Mile-High Milestones
The Rocky Mountain Chapter figured prominently in two "smart-growth" victories in Colorado on November 2: a citizen-sponsored renewable energy initiative (the first of its kind in the country) under which utilities must derive 10 percent of the state's energy from renewable sources by 2015; and a "FasTracks" initiative to expand the Denver area's public transit system. Four years ago, pitted against the union movement, the Club lost a smart-growth measure in the state. This year, these two initiatives had the solid backing of organized labor. The Sierra Club also helped spur a record voter turnout that elected Ken Salazar (D), a strong proponent of smart growth, to the U.S. Senate.

New Nevada Wilderness
In November, President Bush signed the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act of 2004, creating 14 new wilderness areas on 768,294 acres of BLM land in eastern Nevada-the most ever designated in the Silver State. While many Toiyabe Chapter activists were elated, the bill was not without controversy, as it contained provisions that could facilitate water transfers from rural eastern Nevada to feed Las Vegas sprawl. "As a bipartisan public lands bill, it contained some good things and some bad things," says longtime chapter leader and "Mother of Nevada Wilderness" Marge Sill. Club leaders were divided as to whether to support or oppose the bill, and the Club ended up opposing it. For the third Congress in a row, Nevada led the nation in the amount of new wilderness.

Cheap Underwear or Clean Water- You Decide
In Austin, Texas, the Sierra Club helped stop a Wal-Mart Supercenter from being built on environmentally sensitive land. In October, in the face of intense local opposition, Wal-Mart announced that it was scrapping its plans due to the site's location within the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The Club was part of a coalition of local citizens' groups that staged protests, attended public meetings, and printed T-shirts with messages like, "Cheap Underwear or Clean Water-You Decide." The Austin Group wrote a resolution opposing the development, helped link coalition groups via its Web site, built public awareness through its newsletter, and in July helped turn out nearly 600 people to a "town hall" meeting opposing the Wal-Mart. Austin Group Conservation Chair Donna Tiemann says the coalition is now trying to permanently protect the tract.

Volusia Voters Have Boundary Issues
In Volusia County, Florida, the Sierra Club promoted a measure to slow urban sprawl that passed on November 2 with more than 70 percent of the vote, despite being opposed by the local homebuilders association. The successful grassroots initiative amended the county charter by establishing urban growth boundaries. "The county government backtracked on its pledge to follow through on its smart-growth objective," says Volusia-Flagler Group Conservation Chair Alexa Ross, "so we had to dig in our pockets, give our time, and pick up the slack." Sierra Club members circulated petitions and collected the necessary signatures to put the measure on the November ballot.

Michigan Momentum
The Club's Huron Valley Group (Ann Arbor region) racked up its fifth winning land-preservation ballot initiative since 1999 in the November election. The latest victory in the fight to curb sprawl came in Scio Township, where 75 percent of the voters approved a property tax increase that will raise $5.7 million to preserve more than 1,000 acres of open space. The move will allow the township to preserve natural areas as parks and to use conservation easements to protect working farms. Over the past few years, the Huron Valley Group has been instrumental in backing ballot measures that will raise nearly $130 million to preserve 14,000 acres of natural areas and farmland.

Mississippi Activists Nix Wetland Fill
Thanks to the perseverance of Mississippi Chapter activists, DuPont announced in December that it was scrapping plans to expand a local chemical plant and create new toxic waste pits on 24 acres of forested wetlands. Club members organized community opposition to the expansion, bringing so much local pressure to bear that the Harrison County Board of Supervisors-who had hitherto been supportive of whatever DuPont wanted-came out in unanimous opposition to the wetlands landfill and wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers asking that the project not be permitted. DuPont said if it didn't get the landfill permit it would have to close the plant, eliminating 1,000 local jobs. But when the company announced in December that it was dropping its expansion plans, there was no mention of even a single job being lost.

Taking the Long View
In August, the Sierra Club and two other groups reached an agreement with Longview Power about air quality safeguards for the utility's proposed power plant in Monongalia County, West Virginia. The appeal by the Club, Trout Unlimited, and the National Parks and Conservation Association challenged a state air-pollution permit because it did not adequately protect the air quality of nearby communities or address adverse effects on downwind national parks and wilderness areas. Under the new agreement, Longview will lower emissions limits, dramatically improve pollution-monitoring requirements, and establish mitigation funds for acid rain and greenhouse gases. "This agreement set precedents for new coal-fired power plants," says West Virginia Chapter leader Jim Kotcon.

Turning Down the Heat
In August, the Illinois Sierra Club and local residents persuaded the Evanston City Council to order the closure of Northwestern Hospital's aging medical-waste incinerator. The vote culminated an 8-month campaign that began when residents raised concerns about the hospital incinerating large amounts of trash next to an elementary school. At first the hospital refused to budge. Illinois Chapter activists embarked on a city-wide education campaign to pressure the city council to act. "In a sweet and unexpected twist," says Club organizer Bruce Nilles, "on the same day as the Evanston City Council voted to close their incinerator, Governor Blagojevich-who had initially tried to undermine our efforts-called for a ban on medical waste incineration statewide."

Tahoe Logging Plan Slashed
In August, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the Red Star Timber Sale in a roadless area of California's Tahoe National Forest. The Forest Service claimed the sale would reduce fire risk through "forest thinning," but Sierra Club attorneys challenged the plan, saying it would cut the biggest trees and leave behind highly combustible "slash" debris that would create a fire hazard. Forest Service attorneys admitted that the agency planned to log large trees and leave behind more than double the amount flammable debris their own scientists said would cause an extreme fire hazard. The judge's ruling created an important precedent as the first decision to stop a logging project that violated the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

New Pipes in the Palmetto State
It took two years of pressure from the Sierra Club Environmental Justice Program, South Carolina Chapter activists, and local citizens. But in December, the town of Williston agreed to remove an old septic system that contaminated private water wells near the Dixie-Narco vending machine plant. A grant was approved to extend Williston city water lines to homes whose drinking water supply had been contaminated with mercury. Club Environmental Justice organizer Rita Harris, says the victory is the result of "the people of Williston who have attended meetings, fussed, cried, sweated, and gone door-to-door to raise awareness." She adds proudly, "None of these people had ever protested anything before in their lives!"

Shrinking the Box
In Stoughton, Wisconsin, the Four Lakes Group helped get the city council to tighten restrictions on big-box development. The Stoughton City Council had approved an 180,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter, but after the campaign, which helped turn out hundreds of citizens to city council meetings, the city reversed its previous decision and limited a new developments to 110,000 square feet.

Greening the Golden State
In June, the California Air Resources Board released a draft rule to implement the state's vehicle emissions law, which would reduce the impact of the global-warming pollution from passenger vehicles. The law, passed in 2002, directed the Air Resources Board to adopt rules requiring auto makers to reduce emissions from new cars and light trucks beginning in 2009.

In Orange County, Angeles Chapter activists and the Rural Canyon Conservation Fund won a victory in June when a county judge ordered construction halted on a 12-mansion estate development in the county's last natural wildland inside the Cleveland National Forest. The judge ruled that the environmental impact report for the project failed to address potential pollution of nearby Silverado Creek.

Further north, in Stockton, a slow-growth citizens' initiative supported by the Sierra Club passed in the face of unanimous opposition from local officials and a dozen hostile mailers claiming Stockton would lose 200,000 jobs and families would be broken up if the initiative passed. In neighboring Tracy, voters decisively rejected two developer-sponsored initiatives that would have promoted sprawl.

Tarheel Activists for the Birds
In April, a North Carolina judge issued a temporary restraining order against the Navy, prohibiting them from building a landing field next to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, the winter home of 250,000 migratory birds. The Sierra Club joined the state Fish and Wildlife Commission and a host of other environmental groups in opposing the landing field, holding rallies, press conferences, and speaking before the Governor's Study Commission. The Navy has twice appealed the restraining order, but lost both times, and Congress has now severely reduced the funding available for the project. The final court date is not until early 2005, but the Navy's case took a further hit after memos located in December divulged that Navy higher-ups had ordered underlings to make the environmental impact statement favorable regardless of the facts.

Buckeye State Cleanups
Responding to intense pressure from the Ohio Chapter, the Miami (Ohio) Group, and the Club's Water Sentinels program, industry giant AK Steel agreed in January to install $66 million in pollution controls at its Middletown, Ohio, plant. Club activists worked with volunteers and local residents to do water-quality monitoring and prodded the company into negotiations on PCB cleanup that are now ongoing with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Sierra Club. At the company's 2004 shareholder's meeting, AK's CEO declared a new commitment to company workers and the environment.

In Cincinnati, Club organizing and legal work led to a $1.5 billion commitment to stop illegal sewer overflows and start a "claims, cleanup, and prevention" program for residents who suffer from raw sewage backups in their basements. Club Ohio organizer Katie Danko says the victory stemmed directly from Sierra Club organizing efforts that brought the plight of sewage-in-basement victims to the attention of the media and elected officials.


Holy S#*t, Batman!
This mock addition to the Cincinnati skyline, a metaphor for the city’s chronic sewer overflow problems,was conceived by Miami (Ohio) Group Conservation Chair Andy Betts and designed specifically for the Sierra Club’s outreach campaign to stop raw sewage backups into residents’ basements.

It's a Locke
In March, Washington Governor Gary Locke vetoed a $400,000 state budget item to study a proposed loop road through Mount St. Helens National Monument. The Sierra Club and the Washington Trails Association lobbied lawmakers and encouraged their members to call Locke opposing the road. "It doesn't make sense that the Sierra Club has more power than the state legislature," fumed one lobbyist.

Frontal Assault Terminated
In October, the Department of Interior announced that it was "terminating" the Blackleaf environmental impact statement, a review process that could have issued in extensive oil and gas development in the heart of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front. The Sierra Club, working with the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, hosted slideshows, turned out hundreds of people for open houses, and helped generate thousands of letters and 50,000 e-mail comments to the BLM. David Ellenberger, a Club organizer in Montana, says 99 percent of the nearly 50,000 public comments opposed drilling.

Keeping the Garden in the Garden State
In March, the New Jersey legislature passed a Transfer of Development Rights bill that the Sierra Club has been promoting for the last two years, allowing towns and cities to steer development into designated growth areas and making builders pay for saving open space. In June, the legislature passed a measure New Jersey Chapter has been working towards for more than a decade: the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, protecting 800,000 acres that provide drinking water for millions of New Jersey residents. The Act defines roughly half of that acreage as a preservation area where development is forbidden, and limits development on the other half. A bill signed one week later by Governor McGreevey compromised some of those protections, but the chapter is working to repeal it.


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