Fresno native Richard Sloan has been drawn to the San Joaquin River for as long as he can remember. “As a child I’d ride my bike there after school, through fig orchards that have long since become suburbia. When I was in 6th grade we built a tree house by the river. It was on someone else’s land, but it didn’t seem to bother anybody.”
Fast-forward to January 2006. Sloan is attending a ceremony celebrating the deeding of 230 riverfront acres to the San Joaquin River Conservancy for a hiking trail and wildlife corridor. It’s the same land on which he built his childhood tree house. On meeting the man deeding the land, Jim Moan, he mentions the tree house. “I always wondered who built that—my children had a great time playing in it!” Moen exclaims.
In 2003 Sloan started RiverTree, a charitable organization dedicated to cleaning up the San Joaquin. Under his direction, over the past six years Sierra Club members, RiverTree volunteers, and others have removed 5,800 tires, ten large dumpster loads of trash—seven in 2005 alone—and countless invasive weeds from the river. “Full restoration is still a distant goal,” Sloan says, “but this is a good start.”
Sloan says his environmental awareness was spurred while attending junior high school in Khartoum, Sudan, where he witnessed problems with water pollution and degraded wildlife habitat. Following a 27-year military career, he went to work for the San Joaquin River Parkway Trust, around which time he became active in the Sierra Club. He is currently helping restart the chapter’s Inner City Outings Program, and he regularly takes kids hiking or canoeing and kayaking on the San Joaquin.
A former research scientist in the field of immunology, Linda Ernst says the trigger for her environmental activism was reading scientific journals outside her field. “I became more and more alarmed by reports of environmental degradation, and the mounting evidence that human activity was the cause.”
Retiring after 20 years as a scientist to raise her son, Ernst shifted her focus to working with children. Five years ago she started a canvas- shopping-bag program and an environmental club at her son’s school. Enrolling the club in Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program to engage children in community service, “with beginner’s luck” club members were able to attend a meeting in Grand Rapids where Goodall spoke. At the meeting they described the canvas-bag project to Goodall (who loved it) and presented her with an autographed bag. “It was a major thrill for the kids,” Ernst says.
Last year, she created “Dr. Linda’s Study Garden,” an outdoor classroom at the school where kids plant and tend Michigan native plants. “It brings the natural world to students in ways textbook learning can’t,” she says. “We won a grant for 200 bulbs which were planted in October, so spring should be quite spectacular.”
A long-distance runner who also tutors low-income students in reading, Ernst recharges her batteries at a family cottage on Lake Michigan. “The sand dunes, shoreline, storm systems, beach walks, birds in flight, sunsets over the Big Lake—they’re all so inspirational to me.”
Ernst says a highlight of 2005 was attending the Sierra Summit in San Francisco. “The Club has a long history that I wanted to be connected to. Being there totally reinforced my commitment to conservation.”
If Rod Hunter is hard to get a hold of, it’s because he’s out taking photographs of tundra swans wintering on Lake Mattamuskeet. Or, as chapter chair, he’s visiting his state’s 13 groups to see how the chapter can help them, and vice versa. Or he’s working on the Leadership Development Program, or mentoring other activists, or advising the Organizational Effectiveness Committee, or…
Well, you get the picture. Hunter has been a member of the Sierra Club on and off for more than 20 years. During that time, he served as president and chairman of a mid-size company, published a magazine, became a pro photographer at age 51, retired, and never once set foot in a Club meeting. “Never got involved,” he says, “felt life was OK the way it was.”
Five years ago, after hiking for 10 days on a Club outing to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge with people deeply critical of the Bush administration’s
environmental policies, he decided to run for excom of the North Carolina Chapter (despite the fact no one in the chapter knew who he was). But he won—by one vote. “The first time I went to a Sierra Club meeting,” he says, “I went as a state excom member.”
He brought experience as an administrator and businessman to the chapter and after a year, was voted chapter chair. “The quality of my life has improved tremendously since I became an activist,” he says. “All of us have this inner urge, a compelling need, to know that we are making a little difference in the world.”
Hunter is also involved in the local arts council and the Amani Children’s Foundation, for which he traveled to Kenya to photograph some of the millions of African children orphaned by AIDS.
—Tom Valtin and Timothy Lesle
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