by Tom Valtin
Pombo Upset Highlights Green Election Day
The environment won a resounding victory on November 7 when voters elected a greener Congress, greener governors, and green candidates at every level of government in every region of the country. Thousands of Sierra Club volunteers and staff did their part, engaging the public about the environment, taking the Club’s message door-to-door, and pounding the pavement to get out the vote.
No race was more important to the Club than that between wind power consultant Jerry McNerney and seven-term California Congressman Richard Pombo, the powerful House Resources Chair. McNerney lost to Pombo by 22 percentage points in 2004, and Pombo’s re-election was widely seen as a near-certainty just weeks before the election. But with the support of hundreds of volunteers from the Sierra Club and other environmental and labor organizations, McNerney garnered 53 percent of the vote in a district where registered Republicans far outnumber Democrats.
Club volunteers and staff, along with celebrity guests Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck, made phone calls, went door-to-door, ran radio ads, and deployed mobile billboards in Pombo’s district. “Our ability to defeat an extreme anti-environmental incumbent shows the power of environmental issues with voters,” says Club Executive Director Carl Pope, who was out knocking on doors in the district until 7:30 p.m. on Election Day. The next day, Pombo blamed his defeat not on Iraq or his alleged connections with Jack Abramoff, but on concerted efforts of environmental groups and other critics who targeted his race.
Never have more candidates, of both parties, run on energy and environmental issues, Pope asserts. Voter concerns over high gas prices deepened into doubts about our current energy policy, the lack of forward-looking energy solutions, and concern about the fact that our oil dependence ties our fate to the most unstable parts of the world and increases the threat of global warming.
While some Club-backed Republican environmental champions lost in the Democrats’ coast-to-coast surge—notably Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island—the Democratic control of the House and Senate is likely to improve prospects for the environment.
The national Sierra Club and its Political Committee “micro-targeted” more than 300,000 environment-first voters in dozens of congressional, gubernatorial, and legislative races around the country and mobilized thousands of volunteers and staff to get out the vote.
Roadless Rule Reinstated
More than five years of Sierra Club grassroots activism, lobbying, and legal action paid off in September when a federal judge in California reinstated the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Enacted in 2001 by President Clinton, the Roadless Rule protects 58.5 million roadless acres in America’s national forests from road-building, logging, and mining.
One of the Bush administration’s first decisions on taking office was to block the rule, substituting a plan that encouraged logging and mining on public lands. The administration formally repealed the rule in 2005, replacing it with a policy of state-by-state management that forced governors to petition the federal government if they wanted protections for national forests within their borders.
Back when the Clinton administration first proposed the rule, the Sierra Club and its allies deluged the Forest Service with a record-breaking one million public comments in support of protecting wild forests. “The Roadless Rule is based on real science and was the result of the most extensive public comment process ever, spanning three years and 600 public meetings,” says Club public lands specialist Sean Cosgrove.
But when Bush blocked the rule, the Club had to do it all over again, and since 2001, postcard campaigns and e-mail outreach have kept up a steady drumbeat. In Virginia, Club organizer Dave Muhly and others led “Tours de Cut,” taking locals to still-intact national forest roadless areas as well as logged areas so they could experience the contrast for themselves. Oregon Chapter members organized when 12,000 acres of roadless-area logging was proposed in the wake of 2002’s Biscuit fire, successfully lobbying the governor to take a stand for roadless area protection and battle the Bush administration in court. “We lost a couple of special places, but we won a huge victory overall and the vast majority of the roadless area logging proposals never moved forward,” says chapter organizer Ivan Maluski.
Club members wrote op-eds, letters-to-the-editor, and contacted their governors, stressing that national forests should be protected by a national rule. “In the last year the public really got behind that idea,” Muhly says. “State protection is great, but it’s no substitute for national protection.”
The Sierra Club and a coalition of states and environmental groups also sued the Forest Service to reinstate the Roadless Rule, objecting to the Bush administration’s scrapping of the rule with no environmental analysis and little public input. District Judge Elizabeth LaPorte ruled for reinstatement, saying, “While regulation is not a popularity contest, the 1.8 million comments [on the Bush administration rule]...most of which were negative...reflect the heated public debate over the rule’s impact.” LaPorte’s decision came as several states were preparing to allow road construction on these lands, paving the way for logging, mining, oil and gas development, and off-road vehicle use.
California Tackles Global Warming
Thanks in large part to a big push by Sierra Club California, in August the California State Legislature passed a landmark bill to create the nation’s first economy-wide cap on global warming emissions. Four weeks later, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Global Warming Solutions Act into law.
The bill will require California’s greenhouse gas emissions to return to 1990 levels by 2020. It will be implemented by the state Air Resources Board, which is recognized as a leader in setting air quality standards.
Sierra Club California—the 13 Sierra Club chapters in the state—was pivotal in building the political will to pass the historic legislation. Each year, Sierra Club California holds a Lobby Day where activists come to Sacramento to learn how to lobby, and then do it. This year the Global Warming Solutions Act was seen as so crucial that the usual four or more bills to lobby weren’t selected.
“In a summer when everyone talked about the climate, the California legislature actually did something about it,” says Sierra Club California Legislative Director Bill Magavern. Environmental and health groups enlisted businesses, faith groups, local governments, labor unions, and others to support what Magavern calls the most important environmental measure in recent years.
“Governor Schwarzenegger deserves credit for putting the global warming issue high on his agenda, and for finally agreeing to support [the bill] just before the legislature sent it to him,” he says. “In between, though, he tried his best to weaken the bill, right down to threatening a veto just before he capitulated and announced he would sign it.”
Among those who helped apply the pressure that ultimately brought Schwarzenegger around was Magavern’s 9-year-old daughter, Emily. In early April, she spoke at a press conference in Sacramento on the just-introduced legislation, which had been triggered by a Climate Action Team report commissioned by Schwarzenegger in 2005.
“I don’t want the polar bears to lose their homes,” Emily told a packed room of reporters and legislators, including the bill’s authors Assemblywoman Fran Pavley and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez. Standing on a step-stool so she could see over the podium, she told the crowd, “We can’t rely on oil forever.”
In the end, the bill passed the Assembly 47-32. “Sierra Club California made this a top priority all year,” says the senior Magavern. “Club activists can truly feel they contributed to passage of this historic bill.”
Alaskans Nix Coal-Fired Plant
When a new coal-fired power plant was proposed in Seward, Alaska, the “gateway” to Kenai Fjords National Park, local Sierra Club activists exposed the developer’s own “model,” a Montana plant that had been shut down due to permit violations, to discredit the proposal and convince the local city council to turn it down.
Seward resident and Alaska Chapter volunteer Russ Maddox had just arrived in the state capital of Juneau after a trip to Washington, D.C., for Alaska Wilderness Week, a twice-annual gathering for activists to get lobbying and leadership training and meet with federal decision-makers. He was putting his training to work lobbying the state legislature as part of an Alaska Conservation Voters “legislative fly-in” when he received an e-mail at his Juneau hostel informing him of a proposed coal-fired power plant in Seward.
“That very day I’d heard presentations on global warming and Alaska’s renewable energy potential, highlighting the adverse consequences of coal,” he says. “Sitting a few blocks from the capital, I was in a great position to seek a renewable energy solution instead of this huge mistake we seemed headed towards.”
In Juneau, he met with his state representatives and energy regulators to discuss the power plant proposal, and then back in Seward, he and fellow members of the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance formed a coalition to fight the plant.
“Just opposing it wasn’t enough,” says Maddox, standing second from right, above, with other coalition members. “We had to do our homework and offer viable alternatives like hydro, tidal, and wind power.” They gathered more than 600 signatures on a petition (in a town of 3,000) and generated more than 100 formal public comments in favor of alternatives to coal.
But the coalition went further, researching the developer’s “model” coal plant in Montana and finding it shut down, with a long history of broken promises to the community and the EPA. They also contacted Montana environmental groups, which Maddox says were “remarkably helpful.” The environmental groups there even wrote to Alaskan leaders urging them not to make the same mistake Montana did.
In September, the council voted down the project.
Maddox credits Chapter Chair Dr. Paul Forman and staff organizers Maryellen Oman, Katherine Fuselier, and Betsy Goll for playing key roles in the campaign. He adds, “Never hesitate to call another organization for advice.”
Citizen-Collected Evidence Compels Alabama Cleanup
When Willard Jones, a retired refinery manager from Alabama, crawled along the creek bank near his home to collect jars of water samples, he had no idea he’d be making history. But the water samples collected by Jones and other Sierra Club Water Sentinels volunteers helped win a court settlement from a neighboring factory hog operation, which was polluting local waterways with dangerous levels of E. coli.
This is the first time citizen-collected data has been used successfully in a lawsuit brought under the Clean Water Act. The evidence included a two-year “odor log” kept by a neighbor who avoided going outside many days because of the stench.
Willard and Barbara Jones and Pearl Ivey of Henagar, Alabama, are neighbors of the Whitaker & Sons confined animal feeding operation, and a creek that drains the facility runs through the Jones’ property. In 2003, the Joneses and Ivey teamed up with the Sierra Club to bring suit against Whitaker for polluting streams that flow into the Tennessee River in violation of state and federal clean water regulations.
The suit also claimed that the odor from the operation was damaging neighbors’ property values, and that the factory sprayed liquid waste not just on its own fields, but on neighboring property.
Jones and his wife had planned to build a retirement home on their property, but the stench from the hog factory and concerns over water pollution made them abandon the plan. “I never imagined our retirement would be spent fighting a hog farm,” he says.
With funding from the Club’s Water Sentinels program, Alabama Chapter Conservation Chair Bryan Burgess, an environmental science professor at Jacksonville State University, and colleague Blake Otwell worked with Jones and other volunteers to monitor streams near the factory. The water samples they collected showed high levels of E. coli and fecal coliform.
Burgess and Club organizer Peggie Griffin recruited attorney Mark Martin to represent the Club. Plaintiff Pearl Ivey kept a log showing there was an offensive odor more than 1,200 times over a two-year period when she stepped outside her home. “Many days I don’t go outside because of the stench from hog waste that ends up in my pond,” she says.
Matched up against a team of corporate attorneys, Martin successfully negotiated a settlement in August calling for Whitaker & Sons to clean up its operations and pay the defendants $100,000 in damages.
“We teach our children that if they make a mess, they ought to clean it up,” says Griffin. “This agreement ensures that the Whitaker operation will be held to that same standard of responsibility.”
More Sewage in the Ohio? No Thanks.
In May, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), charged with protecting water quality in the Ohio, issued a proposal to allow more fecal coliform—raw sewage—to be released into the river, which supplies more than 3 million people with drinking water.
Eight Sierra Club chapters, the Club’s Water Sentinels program, and a coalition of community groups fought back with an unprecedented barrage of public comments, a challenge of the science behind the proposal, even a swim across the Ohio at Cincinnati, where hundreds of people joined acclaimed long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox to protest the commission’s plan.
In October, ORSANCO bowed to public pressure and shelved its proposal.
“We organized fishermen, swimmers, and boaters against the plan,” says Northern Kentucky Water Sentinel Tim Guilfoile, “but we also talked to businesses and companies who are investing millions along the Ohio—in condos, restaurants, aquariums, movie theaters, you name it. “If more raw sewage is allowed in the water, what’s going to happen to their property values? It doesn’t just threaten recreation; it threatens business investments and tourism revenues all up and down the Ohio.”
Ohio Chapter Conservation Chair Marilyn Wall and Ohio organizers Christine Robertson and Becky McClatchey helped spearhead the Club effort, aided by a coalition of partner groups including Rivers Unlimited.
Guilfoile says that ORSANCO typically gets a dozen or so comments when they’re thinking about changing a regulation, so the scale of the public opposition “completely overwhelmed them.” The Club-led coalition generated more than 8,000 public comments, nearly 6,000 written comments and 1,800 e-mail comments, and some 8,000 postcards opposing the proposal.
The Club also demonstrated that ORSANCO’s proposal was based on invalid scientific data and shaky criteria. “They claimed no one used the river when the current exceeded two miles per hour, so it didn’t matter if standards for human contact were lowered,” says Wall. “That was not the case.”
Guilfoile, who grew up swimming in the river (“I shudder to think this was before the Clean Water Act”), says water quality has improved dramatically over the last 20 years and that river communities are now focusing on the Ohio as an asset to community development as well as tourism. “Given the progress we’ve made, ORSANCO’s plan was a giant step backwards.”
More than 90 groups got involved in the campaign, says Water Sentinels Director Scott Dye. “It was Tim’s idea to figure out who used the river and put a huge, broad, diverse coalition together.”
‘Adoption Plan’ Boosts California Wilderness Bid
In October, Congress passed the Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Act of 2006, designating more than 275,000 acres of federal roadless lands as wilderness. The bill creates several new wilderness areas, adds to existing ones, and establishes new Wild and Scenic River segments. Among the places protected are portions of California’s fabled Lost Coast, containing the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the Lower 48.
The groundwork for the bill was laid seven years ago. Lynn Ryan, North Group Conservation Chair (Redwood Chapter), recalls the day in 1999 when she learned in the California Wilderness Coalition newsletter of the effort to inventory all roadless Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands in California to begin the process of passing a California wilderness bill in Congress. (Sierra Club California, eleven Club chapters, a dozen groups, and several committees are active members of the coalition.)
California Senator Barbara Boxer, the bill’s Senate sponsor, told activists that each area being considered for wilderness designation needed to be “adopted” by a group or individual, who should then build support for that area. “I learned how to inventory boundaries, how to draw little dirt roads on maps, how to talk not just to hikers, but to hunters and ranchers about my survey,” Ryan says. “We pored over maps and spoke with neighboring landowners, explaining that wilderness would keep things as they are, with no new roads, grazing permits, or mining claims, but they could still graze cattle and fight fires like they do now, while preserving wildlife habitat and clean water.”
Recruiting Humboldt State University students to join her, Ryan surveyed her adopted area and solicited letters of support from businesses and elected officials in Humboldt and Mendocino Counties. “We went on lots of hikes, searched for old trailheads, fixed flat tires, pulled each other out of ditches and back up on ridges, got lost and found, slept under the stars in the middle of nowhere and listened to mountain lions screaming in the night, and laughed a lot,” she recalls.
Coalition members worked with Northern California Congressman Mike Thompson to introduce a bill in the House of Representatives, answered tough questions from Senator Dianne Feinstein to gain her endorsement, dogged Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for his nod of approval, and obtained letters of support from every county supervisor in Humboldt County. In a remarkable show of support, 21 of the 24 county supervisors in the five California counties encompassed by the bill went on record favoring it.
Florida Wetlands Win
To understand why activists in the Northeast Florida Group are all so high on their successful campaign to protect a sensitive wetland, you need to know about the low point in their battle—about the potatoes, the pine forest, and the proposed six-lane freeway.
The tale started in October 2000 when developers for the Goodman Company proposed filling that Jacksonville, Florida, wetland with a WalMart and apartment complex. The company’s existing Freedom Commerce Centre office complex surrounds 604 acres of mature forested wetlands, the headwaters of Julington and Pottsburg creeks, which flow into the St. Johns River, a designated American Heritage River. The company applied for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to fill and develop 245 acres of the wetland.
The Sierra Club, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Marine Fisheries hit the Army Corps with a barrage of objections; the Corps sat on Goodman’s request.
The next few years saw our heroes tangling with both federal and state agencies, as well as some regional regulators, all of whom had some kind of jurisdiction over the property and its use. There were decisions, appeals, and a ruling made by an administrative law judge, as well as educational meetings, letter-writing campaigns, and rallies.
The worst of it came in January 2005 when the St. Johns River Water Management District approved a permit for the destruction of state-regulated wetlands. To make up for the wetland destruction, the district said, the Goodman Company would reforest an abandoned potato field and restore a planted pine tract to wetlands—both in another county.
“It was unbelievable enough that the mitigation was in another county,” says Linda Bremer, conservation chair for the Northeast Florida Group. “But what the district wasn’t aware of, and didn’t learn about until it came out in the newspaper, was that there were plans to run a six-lane freeway through the same pine plantation Goodman was supposed to restore.”
The state water regulators, a little bruised by the revelation, declared the freeway “speculative.”
The plan garnered another flood of objections from the Sierra Club and its partner the St. Johns Riverkeeper, and everyone they could educate and motivate to take action, including neighborhood groups and garden clubs.
“They got over 300 very angry letters,” Bremer says.
Finally, bowing to public pressure, the company applied for an Army Corps permit to fill just 35 acres of wetlands instead of the original 245. In May 2006 the federal permit was issued. And in September 2006 the water management district agreed to purchase conservation easements which, when all is said and done, will mean that 579 acres are now safe from development. The 35 acres approved for destruction by the Army Corps is the last vulnerable acreage.
“We’re absolutely going to keep fighting to protect those 35 acres,” says Bremer. “We’re relentless. Everywhere we go, we ask people to protect it. We’re celebrating that we’ve gone from 245 acres to 35 that are still vulnerable, but we will not give up on that last bit of land.”
Teddy Roosevelt’s Ranch Protected
In August, the Dacotah Chapter won its 5-year campaign to protect President Theodore Roosevelt’s historic Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota when the U.S. Forest Service purchased 5,200 acres of rugged badlands from a retiring local ranching family. The acreage will be added to the Little Missouri National Grasslands.
“These badlands are one of those hidden treasures that most people don’t have a clue even exists,” says North Dakota Sierra Club organizer Wayde Schafer. “This was an opportunity to honor Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy and preserve a piece of his beloved North Dakota Badlands for future generations.”
Roosevelt’s cabin site was already protected by the National Park Service, but the surrounding buttes and grasslands where he grazed his cattle, hunted, and developed his conservation ethic were in private ownership. The Eberts ranch property, once part of Roosevelt’s cattle ranch, is directly across the Little Missouri River from the original Elkhorn Ranch cabin. Roosevelt often sat on his front porch and wrote of the spectacular view of the high bluffs across the river.
“Five years ago, as a new Sierra Club member, I was on a Club outing in these badlands,” says Dacotah Chapter activist Carol Jean Larsen. “We stood on a grassy plateau on the Eberts ranch overlooking the Little Missouri River and Roosevelt’s ranch site in the cottonwoods beyond. A passionate national park superintendent read from Roosevelt’s journals, and I was awed to find myself looking at the same rugged beauty he described. On that day I made a quiet commitment to help protect this wild place.”
For the next five years, Larsen answered every Dacotah Chapter call to action, writing and calling the governor, the North Dakota congressional delegation, and the Forest Service, organizing speaking engagements, and submitting letters-to-the-editor to local newspapers. “And, of course, I hustled up my neighbors to do the same.”
Real estate developers wanted to build trophy homes along the bluffs overlooking the river, and neighboring ranchers wanted to add portions of the Eberts property to their own ranches. Schafer says a strong anti-public land sentiment persists in the region, and the Eberts deserve enormous credit for “hanging in there in the face of tremendous opposition from their neighbors.” Sierra Club members wrote personal letters of support to the family, and Schafer and others spoke with them almost weekly.
“So many Sierra Club volunteers answered the call to take action over and over again,” Larsen says. “But it all started with the Eberts’ belief that wild places matter.”
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