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Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Majority Rules | Volunteer Spotlight | Ecoregion Roundup

Majority Rules, and It's Green

Voters send polluters packing.

by B. J. Bergman

If the 1996 elections failed to tip the balance of power in Washington, D.C., they did alter the political landscape in one significant respect. Voters have sent politicians an unmistakable message: don't mess with the environment.

America's headline writers declared November 5 a victory for the status quo: President Clinton will be with us for four more years, the GOP-led Congress for two. But by emphasizing the horse race, the mainstream media missed a key part of the story. This time around, clean air, safe water, and unspoiled wilderness were very much on citizens' minds as they entered the voting booth. The environment was a pillar of Clinton's campaign (helping him to secure a Sierra Club endorsement) and of congressional races coast-to-coast. Even strict adherents of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, most of whom had jumped at the chance to slash environmental protections only months before, were now straining to sound like disciples of John Muir.

For the most part, such deathbed conversions fell flat. Voters, it turns out, know a greenscam when they see one, especially when it's pointed out by conservationists from their own communities. In fact, Americans chose Sierra Club backed candidates in two of every three races in which the Club invested heavily in time, money, or both, electing 30 of 48 green candidates for the House and 8 of 13 for the Senate in some of the hardest-fought contests--including many in which pro-environment challengers went up against better-financed, deeply entrenched incumbents. Overall, 70 percent of the more than 200 candidates for Congress endorsed by the Club won.

As Jessica Mathews wrote in The Washington Post, "The most dangerous place to be in this election was on an environmental hit list. Mathews, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, also cited the comment by pollster Stan Greenberg that the environment was "an issue that elected, and even more, one that defeated.

Newt, as of this writing, is still in the saddle (albeit shakily) as Speaker. But the erosion of the House GOP leadership's strength, coupled with growing public awareness of environmental issues, almost certainly augurs a more moderate approach from surviving anti-environmental warriors.

"Our issues were a bigger factor in this election than ever before, says Chuck McGrady, chair of the Sierra Club Political Action Committee. McGrady cites a dozen incumbents whose defeat stemmed in part from their anti-environmental records--and their inability, thanks to the efforts of Club activists, to run away from those records.

Take representatives--that is, former representatives--Andrea Seastrand (R-Calif.) and Dick Chrysler (R- Mich.). Members of the freshman Republican class, both had earned Sierra's "eco-thug award in 1996 as dependable friends of corporate polluters. Both were targeted by the Club in so-called independent-expenditure campaigns. And both lost--Seastrand to Walter Capps (D), a University of California, Santa Barbara, religion professor whom she'd defeated two years earlier, and Chrysler to Michigan state legislator Debbie Stabenow (D).

"Educating the voters about these two incumbents' records played a major role in their defeat, says McGrady. "In our election-eve polling in Seastrand's district, voters said her dismal environmental record was the number one reason to vote against her.

Due to limited funds, unfortunately, the Club could wage such campaigns--which are exempt from federal spending caps--in only two congressional districts. But Club activists didn't lack for other ways to win votes and influence policymakers. In California, they helped challenger Ellen Tauscher (D) oust Gingrich clone Bill Baker (R), running ads, staging rallies, and getting out the vote on her behalf. In Maine, they helped Democrat Tom Allen topple James Longley, another Gingrich ally. They helped embattled environmental champions Elizabeth Furse (D) and Maurice Hinchey (D) fend off serious challenges in Oregon and New York respectively, and played a role in the re-election of two of the Senate's most committed environmentalists, endangered Democratic incumbents John Kerry and Paul Wellstone, in Massachusetts and Minnesota.

For the Sierra Club, the past 24 months--beginning with the GOP takeover of Congress, and the wholesale threats to the environment posed by the Republican Party's Contract With America--have brought an unprecedented meshing of staff and volunteer efforts toward one overriding, nationwide objective. Over those two years, the Club invested $7.5 million in issue advocacy, voter education, and direct electoral activities to end Congress' War on the Environment, including more than $1 million worth of television, radio, and print ads.

During Earth Week last spring, Club volunteers distributed doorhangers bearing the message "Protect America's Environment: For Our Families, For Our Future to some 2.3 million homes in 100 cities. A few months later, the Club orchestrated more than 100 rallies, yard-sign events, and other community-based activities. In the final weeks before the election, thousands of Club volunteers blanketed their neighborhoods with a half-million voter guides that contrasted the positions of the major candidates. Nearly 700,000 more were mailed to crucial swing voters.

Some of these activities were expressly political, unapologetically aimed at changing the makeup of Congress, state legislatures, and city councils. But others had a subtler, more far-reaching goal: to raise the visibility of environmental issues across the nation and, in the process, reinvigorate the Club's grassroots presence in local communities.

On that count, said Club President Adam Werbach, the 1996 elections represent "a victory of citizen democracy over apathy.

It's too early to predict what the 105th Congress will do. It is clear, though, that the majority of the American people want to continue our progress toward protecting the country's air, water, and wildlands. That's now a political fact of life, and it will shape the way officeholders view the environment long into the future--no matter which party holds the majority.


Volunteer Spotlight:
Making the Ties That Win

by Tracy Baxter

Given his state's history of green stewardship, John Andrews should have more time than he does for leisurely contemplation of the natural world. Massachusetts, after all, was home to such naturalist and literary lights as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Today, most towns in the state have a conservation committee to administer wetland protection laws and acquire open space.

But Andrews, political chair of the Massachusetts Chapter, was busier than usual in the days leading up to the 1996 election. "These are dangerous times for good public policy, he said. "The most important thing environmentalists can do now is show that citizens won't tolerate attacks on the laws that protect the common good.

Andrews was well prepared to lead the charge. After graduating from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in physics, the Alabama native moved to Lexington, Massachusetts, to work in a lab at MIT. An ardent birdwatcher, he assembled like-minded enthusiasts in the area to collect and publish data on the region's wild birds. From there, he took on the big issues: defending water, air, and open space. In various Massachusetts Chapter and Thoreau Group offices, Andrews tackled a slew of problems, from nuclear-weapons production to Superfund reauthorization.

As he worked to educate and organize grassroots activists, it became increasingly clear to him that environmentalists would need to take a broad view of ecological destruction in order to stop it. "We need to treat each environmental campaign as part of a much larger movement toward social justice. That way, win or lose, we're in a stronger position for the next struggle.

And the wins are adding up. The Beaver Brook Watershed Coalition, cofounded by Andrews and composed of 11 member groups, including the Massachusetts Chapter, lobbied three years to save 240 acres of open space at the site of a former mental hospital. In 1996 they finally convinced the state that the property was more valuable undeveloped than as a cemetery, golf course, or industrial park.

Linking with organizations such as the AFL-CIO and women's health groups, Andrews helped defeat a measure that would have prevented people who suffered from chemical exposure from suing the offending corporations. The weight of the groups' testimony before the state legislature caused the so-called tort reform bill to "sink beneath the waves, recalls Andrews.

Cofounder of The Environmental Roundtable, a coalition of 30 green and public-interest groups in the Boston metropolitan area, and editor of its electronic newsletter, Andrews is proud of the group's efforts to stave off the anti-environmentalism legitimated in Newt Gingrich's now-infamous Contract With America. Using the Internet, the group circulated a petition protesting 17 pro-plunder riders in the 1996 federal appropriations bill and delivered it to the Massachusetts congressional delegation in only three days. "We pulled off something that we couldn't have done by licking stamps, says Andrews. "When The Boston Globe remarked that Newt Gingrich was as popular in Massachusetts as toxic waste, we felt we'd helped expose his real agenda.

Though Massachusetts voters gave the green nod to Club-endorsed John Kerry (D) for the Senate and the hook to Gingrich crony Congressman Peter Blute (R), Andrews is still busy. He's at least been able to shift gears, however. "Activists aren't on pure defense anymore. Now we have some room to advance a vision of what an environmentally sound society might look like.


Ecoregion Roundup

In 65 chapters and hundreds of local groups spanning 21 ecoregions and two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work protecting the environment--for our families, for our future.

by Tracy Baxter

When the Missouri Department of Conservation secretly voted to hand over exploratory permits and lease options along the Current River to the state's biggest polluter, the Doe Run Company, the Ozark Chapter immediately stepped in to prevent lead mining on more than 7,000 acres of public forest. Letters, faxes, and phone calls generated by the chapter's midsummer media blitz demanded intervention from state officials. The chapter's lawsuit against the agency added to the growing political pressure. Meeting again in September, under the scrutiny of green activists, the agency unanimously rescinded its mineral extraction proposal.

American Southeast: Teaching Kids About Clearcuts
The State of Franklin Group of the Sierra Club, which introduced kids from Johnson City, Tennessee, to the world of wetlands last summer with its "Sierra Cubs" program, took environmental education on the road this fall with an exhibit called Cove Forest Contrasts. The wire and papermache display, created by youth for youth, depicts both a robust old-growth Appalachian forest and the devastation of a clearcut. An average of 200 school children a day visited the display in October and many more are expected as the exhibit travels throughout Southern Appalachia through April 1997.

Raid at Kisatchie
A sneak attack on Louisiana's only national forest might have turned a popular recreation area into a war zone last year if not for a counteroffensive by the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club. United States Army officials at Fort Polk, Louisiana, already had a permit to conduct war games in 40,000 acres of Kisatchie National Forest. Sidestepping public input, Senators J. Bennett Johnston (D) and John Breaux (D) tacked an amendment onto a defense bill to transfer an additional 45,000 acres, including red- cockaded woodpecker habitat and scenic trails. Hunters and hikers fought back through e-mail and letters to the editor, and their protests caught the attention of the White House. After President Clinton opposed the transfer, the amendment was dropped.

Pacific Coast: Shabby Sand Swap
For 14 years, beachcombers have enjoyed guaranteed access to the trails and tidepools at Vista Point One in northern San Luis Obispo County. Yet the California Coastal Commission voted to give the popular five-acre beach away to the Hearst Corporation for resort development. In exchange, the commission promised the public access via a utility road to Twin Creeks, a beach frequented by elephant seals. Given the colony's growth, it's likely that the beach will soon be closed to visitors, leaving the shore-lovers on a road to nowhere. The Sierra Club's Santa Lucia Chapter has initiated its first-ever lawsuit to prevent the public-land flimflam.

Great Lakes: Keeping a Bad Plan Down
Although the Army Corps of Engineers seems to have forgotten, the Sierra Club's Fox Valley Group remembers that expansion of the Kidney Island, Wisconsin, dump was sunk in 1987 when it was proven that a larger dump threatened Green Bay water quality. Now the plan to triple the size of the 55-acre toxic-mud holding pen has resurfaced, despite public concerns that PCBs and heavy metals will seep back into the Green Bay/Fox River watershed. To help the public redirect the federal funds allocated for the project, the group is leading community workshops that detail more reliable disposal options.

Hudson Bay/James Bay Watershed: Passing the Muck
If Canadian officials hadn't acted hastily, cleanup of the staggering blight at Cape Breton's Sydney Tar Ponds might now be under way. Instead, the province of Nova Scotia and the federal government blindly invested $52 million in an incinerator to destroy a hundred years' accumulation of thick, toxic, steel-industry detritus, assuming the crud would flow through pipes to the facility. It wouldn't. The province then proposed to cover the 700,000 metric tons of hazardous chemicals (including upwards of 50,000 tons of PCB-contaminated material) under a bed of slag--a plan condemned by the Sierra Club's Sydney Group and Canada's environmental minister, and soon abandoned. Now the residents of Sydney need help in making the mitigation of the second-largest toxic site in North America a top national priority.

Write the Right Honorable Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Government of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0H3, and ask him to use his political muscle to help find and implement an effective cleanup plan.


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