“I can tell you in five letters what got me involved with the Sierra Club,” says John Swingle. “K-A-R-E-N.”
Karen Cartwright, Swingle’s wife, was already active with the Florida Chapter when the two met in 1999. “I always loved the outdoors—I’ve camped all my life,” Swingle says. “But I was never an activist until Karen took me to a meeting for public input into off-road vehicle restrictions in Big Cypress. I got up and talked in favor of the restrictions even though we were outnumbered 250 to 6 by angry swamp buggy and ORV owners, and they haven’t been able to shut me up since.”
Before he became an environmental champion, Swingle was another kind of American hero. “I was a paramedic/firefighter with the Milford, Connecticut, fire department for 25 years, Battalion Chief for the last year-and-a-half. I retired because I was 46 years old and I’d gone as high as I could without being relegated to a desk job. I moved to Florida because my marriage was ending and two of my six kids were there.”
Swingle’s advice to ordinary citizens who care about the environment is simple: “Talk to people. Tell others about your concerns. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. And contact your legislator—elected officials will listen if they hear from enough constituents.”
As tirelessly as Swingle works on behalf of Florida’s environment, no one will ever accuse him of not stopping to smell the roses. He and Karen have a cabin in the Ocala National Forest to which they escape to be close to nature. “We don’t stop playing because we get old,” he says. “We get old because we stop playing.”
Betsy Bennett joined the Sierra Club in 1983 “because I wanted to make the world a safe and healthy place for my two children, who were nine and six at the time.” Her interest in conservation and politics was spurred on by a job as news editor for the rural Danville, Kentucky, Advocate-Messenger, where she “covered everything” in a 7-county area.
“I was interested in clean water issues,” she says, “and I remember taking my kids out to a bridge over the Kentucky River that was being repainted. The old lead paint was being sandblasted and the dust was falling into the water below. We hid in the bushes on the streambank and took photos. Unfortunately, the picture quality was so lousy due to the paint dust that the photos couldn’t be printed.”
Bennett, who in college majored in French with a focus on Albert Camus, says, “I learned that one individual can create positive change. At the first Cumberland Chapter meeting I attended I volunteered to be the newsletter editor, and my activism mushroomed from there. Those activities ultimately led me to law school when my children reached high school. I graduated in 1993, the oldest person in my class!”
After passing the Kentucky bar, Bennett “landed” in a private practice with fellow Club activist Hank Graddy. The two recently played key roles in convincing an administrative law judge to remand a controversial air permit for Peabody’s proposed Thoroughbred Power Plant in western Kentucky.
Bennett is currently vice-chair of Kentucky’s Environmental Quality Commission. She and her husband Bruce Hart enjoy bluegrass music, traveling, and spending time with their beagle, Dakota.
Larry Fahn is in animated phone conversation at his desk, piled high with papers, in the San Francisco offices of As You Sow, a non-profit foundation dedicated to promoting corporate accountability. It’s the week before the Sierra Summit, and Fahn—an attorney and executive director of As You Sow—is trying to nail down Al Gore’s appearance. It was he who first approached Gore last year about appearing at the Summit.
Fahn, who as Club president delivered some 300 speeches across the country, says the best part of the job was visiting the favorite places of local leaders and meeting like-minded people from coast to coast. “I got to see grizzlies in the wild, saw a pair of wolves chase a grizzly from a kill, watched manatees browsing on marsh weeds just 20 yards from where I was hiking. Those kinds of experiences made the hectic travel schedule more than worthwhile.”
Another highlight, he says, was addressing 1.2 million people on the Washington Mall on the occasion of the March for Women’s Lives. Among Fahn’s priorities as Club president was collaborating with non-traditional allies, including the women’s movement, labor, hunters and anglers, the faith community, and communities of color. “It’s vital that we reach out to more diverse communities, especially in the South and the Midwest,” he says. “Our issues resonate across the political spectrum.”
In spite of the prevailing climate in Washington, D.C., Fahn is upbeat. “There’s great reason for hope at the state and local level, there are exciting developments in energy and hybrid technologies, and young people are getting active on public lands and trade issues. If we just get through the next three years, we’ll be OK.”
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