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Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Breach of Contract | On Firmer Footing | Better Homes, Safer Gardens | Ecoregion Roundup

Breach of Contract: Congress' stealth campaign is now out in the open

by B. J. Bergman

Congress' War on the Environment, which looked like an irresistible force as 1995 began, encountered an immovable object around mid-year: public opinion.

When they cast their ballots last November, few Americans dreamed that they were voting for dirty air, polluted water, and ravaged wilderness. And few realized, as the House plowed through its Contract With America, that "anti-regulatory" was a euphemism for "anti-environment." But thanks in part to the efforts of Club activists, voters soon started getting the message: their right to a safe, sustainable environment was being traded away in exchange for fistfuls of campaign dollars.

The anti-environmentalists haven't been stopped yet, but they are clearly losing momentum. And politicians are slowly waking up to the perils of trashing a quarter century of hard-won protections for public health and public lands.

"Four out of five Americans say they want environmental protections strengthened, not weakened," says Sierra Club President J. Robert Cox. "And the more they know about what this Congress is up to, the less they like it."

Furthermore, they're giving Congress an earful-quite a change from the first hundred days of this congressional session, when media coverage of the polluters' hidden agenda was virtually nonexistent. The stealth campaign was a short-term success: the three main anti-environmental planks of the Contract-amounting to a "Polluter's Bill of Rights"-passed easily through the House, which rubber-stamped nearly everything Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) proposed. Of the three, however, only a watered-down unfunded-mandates measure actually made it into law. The Senate has not been nearly as eager as the House to pass its own version of so-called takings legislation, which essentially pays polluters to obey environmental laws. And Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) had to pull his comprehensive "regulatory reform" measure-the centerpiece of the War on the Environment-after losing three consecutive attempts to send it to the floor for a final vote.

Polluters were dealt a body blow in the days that followed. In a vote that shocked the GOP leadership, 51 Republicans refused to go along with a sweeping effort to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the laws on wetlands, drinking-water standards, auto emissions, and even food safety. And though the leadership prevailed in a second vote-in large part due to the absence of at least a dozen opponents of the measure-the defections signaled a growing concern of many in Congress. Their constituents, it seems, think the government is supposed to protect their families' health.

Indeed, Dole himself, in a tacit acknowledgment that the House had overreached, said, "I doubt we'll go that far" in shackling the EPA's ability to enforce public-health standards.

Dole's doubts reflect a significant shift in the political landscape. Since just after the November elections, the Sierra Club has been working to alert the environmental movement, the media, and the American people to the polluters' agenda. In March, along with a dozen other public-interest organizations, the Club launched a drive that gathered a million signatures on the Environmental Bill of Rights, which asserts the right of all Americans to a safe, healthy environment. The petitions, scheduled to be presented to elected officials in November, contain a powerful message to legislators. According to Executive Director Carl Pope, however, the medium is as important as the message: the effort has "provided a way to have conversations with Americans around a common theme."

The petition drive was just one facet of the Club's public-education effort. Through its "Save Our Summer" campaign, for example, activists reached out to enlist the help of recreationists nationwide in protecting the air and water. And when President Clinton caved in to opponents by signing the devastating "logging without laws" measure (see "Ways and Means," page 18), the Club and other organizations responded by staging a scornful "21-chainsaw salute" in front of the White House.

By mid-year, the GOP's stealth campaign was out in the open. Anti-environmental initiatives in Congress were under fire in the media and, more importantly, in America's neighborhoods. GOP strategist Kevin Phillips, explaining why "Americans are disgusted again" with Congress, wrote in August: "What we have seen in the last six months is a spurning of the public's priorities in order to gratify the very different desires of upper-bracket lobbies and special interests."

"As early as January," says Pope, "we knew the way to turn back the War on the Environment was by changing the political climate all across the country.

"We've got a long way to go, but the strategy's working. The days when elected officials could give polluters a free hand to rewrite the nation's environmental laws are over. Americans are beginning to see what the politicians are doing. And we think that spells the beginning of the end for the War on the Environment."


On Firmer Footing

by J. Robert Cox

A year ago, the Sierra Club found itself in a perilous financial situation. At about the same time, the 104th Congress rolled into Washington, determined to gut the environmental protections that the Club has fought so hard for over the past 25 years. It was, to say the least, a challenging confluence of events: the Sierra Club needed to improve its own health even as it marshaled its forces to get the word out about Congress' War on the Environment.

We immediately began work on both fronts. Internally, we embarked on the painful process of reducing expenses by eliminating 10 percent of our national staff positions; we are still saddened by the departure of these experienced and loyal staff members. As we scaled back, we also reorganized, being careful to preserve our essential conservation programs to protect public lands and critical pollution laws. Less crucial activities were either reduced in scope or eliminated. The effort is paying off: we expect to show a modest operating surplus in 1995-a major improvement over our 1994 operating deficit of almost $1.5 million.

At the same time, we have tried to serve our members better, in ways as simple as responding more efficiently to member requests or as visionary as tapping the possibilities of the Internet to open new doors to those wanting to be active in local or national issues.

As a result of these efforts-assisted, of course, by a sober ing political climate-membership has increased, as has the Club's income from dues and donations. At the end of June our membership numbered a healthy 543,000.

Throughout this process, we have preserved and even strengthened our conservation capabilities. How do you get more while spending less? By focusing on our not-so-secret weapon: our grassroots activists. While corporate special interests have practically been given pass keys to the back rooms of Capitol Hill, they can't match the Sierra Club's ability to organize a nationwide grassroots response that holds members of Congress accountable in their districts.

The number of volunteers now working on the Sierra Club's priority campaigns has increased by more than 3,000 in our War on the Environment campaign alone. With a massive outpouring of letters, faxes, phone calls, media alerts, and outraged editorials in newspapers around the country, we are turning the tide in the battle for a safe and healthy environment.

Through your efforts we have held off three attempts in the Senate to push through a regulatory-reform bill that would tie up environmental laws in miles of red tape and cost billions of dollars; we helped gather more than a million signatures on our Environmental Bill of Rights; and we put the word out that we would not forget votes in favor of the "Dirty Water Bill" next election day.

In Utah, more than 400 activists turned out to protest at a public hearing on Congressman James Hansen's bogus wilderness bill. Conservationists flooded an August hearing on the decertification of Voyageurs National Park in remote International Falls, Minnesota. In Washington State, Club members gained three times the number of signatures they needed to put an anti-takings initiative on the ballot.

Whether the environment wins or loses depends largely on how each one of us responds-by writing to a local newspaper, by calling a radio talk show, or by letting our representatives know directly that we expect them to protect every American's right to a healthy environment. It is the Club's job to make sure those individual voices are heard loud and long.


Better Homes, Safer Gardens

by Amy Wilson

When Doris Cellarius was named Oregon's first recipient of the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow Award in 1955, a career was launched -- but not the one that was intended. The sponsors made one small miscalculation: along with a free trip to Washington, D.C., and lunch with Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, they gave Cellarius a scholarship to study biology at Oregon's Reed College.

After receiving her bachelor's degree from Reed, Cellarius won a National Science Foundation fellowship to study at Columbia University. She earned a master's degree in zoology, but gave up plans to go on with laboratory research when Columbia faculty spurned her plan to investigate the then uncharted connections between nutrition, chemicals, and birth defects. The scientific world's loss soon became the Sierra Club's gain.

Cellarius is a rare combination of community activist and national leader. As likely to be knocking on doors in a trailer park as she is convening a meeting of Sierra Club leaders and scientists, Cellarius is "equally comfortable and in demand at all levels of the Club," says Jennie Alvernaz, a colleague on the Community Health Committee.

"The best place to start is within your community," says Cellarius. When Cellarius, her husband, Richard (a former Sierra Club president), and their two daughters moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the early 1960s, she became an organizer of the city's Ecology Center and its community gardens. After relocating to Olympia, Washington, in 1972, she helped establish more gardens, a farmers' market, and the Sasquatch Group of the Club's Cascade Chapter.

"I worry about workers and other people who are involuntarily exposed to toxic chemicals," says Cellarius. "When I'm fighting for cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation"-one of the nation's biggest stockpilers of nuclear waste-"I'm driven by concerns for those who live downwind and for a friend who died after working there."

Cellarius' appreciation of the power of teamwork and the down-to-earth example she sets make her a natural leader. As a consultant for the Washington Environmental Council, she organized a network of citizen groups to monitor cleanup of the state's toxic-waste sites and assisted communities in applying for grants. She helped start the Club's Issue Caucus, a national networking group that raised the visibility of members with expertise on specialized topics. She was an early leader of the Club's State Program, which links state-level activists across the nation, and edited a Club newsletter on hazardous materials and water resources for more than a decade.

Cellarius believes that what she contributes to the Sierra Club is returned in kind. "Being part of an organization this big and having access to its skilled leaders has helped me enormously," she says. Equally important is her grassroots work to help clean up towns such as Chehalis, Washington, which abuts a dioxin-contaminated Superfund site that floods several times a year. "For years, people there reported rashes and respiratory problems," says Cellarius, who went door-to-door urging residents to form a community group and tell their story publicly. "Places like Chehalis hold the key to convincing even our most skeptical political leaders that the Superfund program should not be cut.

"People have the power to act to push our government on behalf of their children's health," she says. "If I can get them to use that power, then I've done my job."

Amy Wilson is senior editor of the Sierra Club's activist newsletter, The Planet.


Ecoregion Roundup

In 60 chapters and hundreds of local groups spanning 21 ecoregions and two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work for a healthier planet.

by Tracy Baxter

Southwest Deserts

Unwilling to let their children languish in one of the nation's poorest neighborhoods, 20 determined young women are transforming the Segundo barrio in El Paso, Texas, into a place of optimism and pride. Under Sierra Club sponsorship, Las Chulas del Barrio have been organizing community cleanups of their streets and parkways. These urban environmentalists also encourage local youngsters to discover the natural world for themselves through participation in Sierra Club–led outings. Long admired by their neighbors for their grassroots activism, Las Chulas have also been noticed by the Border Environmental Commission, which hopes to make their project a pilot program for other border communities.

Atlantic Coast

Toying with machinery a mite more sophisticated than the matchbox models they once enjoyed, junior-high-school students from 36 states convened in Washington, D.C., to race 25,000 solar-powered model cars. Cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the New Columbia Chapter of the Sierra Club, the race was designed to spark interest in math and science while teaching pollution prevention to mostly inner-city youth. Clad in Club T-shirts, the students left the competition with visions of future Energy Department events-solar-bike races in high school and full-size solar-race-car competitions in college.

How the Washington, D.C., Department of Public Works could fail to turn a profit on its recycling project was a mystery to the New Columbia Chapter. Revenues from fees charged to commercial trash haulers and from sales of recycled materials were supposed to put the program comfortably in the black. Yet the cash-strapped agency claimed it needed to scrap the program and incinerate recyclables for financial reasons. Quickly forming a coalition, New Columbia activists staged a springtime "recycle-in" to show public backing for the program. With support from the Afrocentric Urban Ecology Association, the Chapter won an injunction ordering recycling to continue citywide. By summer, the DPW still hadn't figured out how to reap the rewards of recycling, but thanks to the Chapter's mobilization, the agency turned the program over to a private company and recycling resumed.

Mississippi Basin

When 75 Sierra Club activists working with the Mississippi Ecoregion Task Force hit Capitol Hill for Clean Water Week this summer, they were prepared to wrangle with House members over the Clean Water Act, flood reform, and Great Lakes protection. They impressed upon legislators the public's commitment to water protection and management, including testimony from flood victims and this kicker from a recent GOP survey: the majority of citizens deplore wetlands destruction and would not vote for a representative who weakened water-quality laws. In visits to the offices of over 100 lawmakers, they were delighted to find waning congressional support for H.R.961, Representative Bud Shuster's (R-Pa.) "Dirty Water" Act.

Pacific Coast

Governor Pete Wilson, an expert at trumping up politically expedient conflicts, recently put his talent to use by waiving the California Endangered Species Act. Purportedly to allow victims of fires, earthquakes, and floods to rebuild their homes without prohibitive regulation, the governor suspended the act until 2001. But existing legislation already gives authority to the governor and the Department of Fish and Game to assist disaster victims, so this blanket repeal of endangered-species protection is less a compassionate gesture to humans than a high sign for corporate abuse of creatures. The Sierra Club and other environmental organizations, represented by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, filed suit in June to block this handout to developers.

Rocky Mountains

It's no surprise that the panel organized by the congressional Private Property Rights Task Force was heavily stacked with business interests. But drumming up public support in Sheridan, Wyoming, for legislation that would pay polluters simply for obeying the law was tougher than anticipated. The Sierra Club's five days of media alerts helped crowd the field hearing with outraged citizens. The absence of an open microphone didn't discourage the public's participation; they expressed their pro-environment views with hisses, boos, and wild applause. But if the task force didn't get the message that "takings" legislation was a bust with this crowd, the local TV news coverage of the Sierra Club rally after the sham hearing should have done the trick.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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