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Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Unreliable Sources | Don't Buy Old Growth | User's Guide | Ecoregion Roundup

Unreliable Sources

by B. J. Bergman

By his own admission, Newt Gingrich gave the House Ethics Committee "inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable" information about his fund-raising activities on behalf of fellow Republicans. The Georgia congressman, uncharacteristically contrite in the face of the loss of his leadership post, agreed in January to a lighter sentence: a formal reprimand, the first ever given a speaker of the House, and a $300,000 fine.

Well, as another GOP icon once said, there he goes again: No sooner had the ethics panel ended its investigation than Gingrich was once more taking license with the facts. This time, though, it wasn't just his own fund-raising activities that were being misrepresented. It was the Sierra Club's.

Some background is in order here. As anyone who followed the Speaker's recent travails knows, the Internal Revenue Service distinguishes between contributions to charitable, tax-exempt organizations and those to nonexempt groups, such as those with political action committees. "The law in this area is clear," explained Representative Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the ethics panel's investigative subcommittee. "Tax-exempt organizations know that it's extremely risky to commingle funds and activities with PACs. Tax-exempts understand well that the penalty for doing this could clearly be the loss of their tax-exempt status."

Gingrich ignored this fire wall between charitable and political donations when he linked purportedly educational projects, like his "Renewing American Civilization" college course, to his fiercely partisan political action committee, GOPAC. According to House Ethics Counsel James M. Cole, Gingrich orchestrated "a coordinated effort" to use donations to tax-exempt entities--including one aimed at helping inner-city children--to elect Republicans instead.

Gingrich admitted as much when he came to terms with the Ethics Committee. It wasn't long, however, before he and his supporters were singing a different tune. Gingrich did nothing wrong, they argued; what's more, the Sierra Club does it, too.

This refrain reached a crescendo as the details of Newt's plea bargain came to light. Ethics Counsel Cole had barely finished his report when Gingrich attorney J. Randolph Evans--whose client was not in attendance--was invoking the "Sierra Club defense" for C-Span and the Congressional Record. Days later, Gingrich himself followed suit in a series of unapologetic exchanges back home with his Georgia constituents. Citing the Sierra Club by name, he told a questioner: "Now, somehow on the left, you can commingle everything and nobody notices it. . . . But if you are a conservative and you follow the law and you hire lawyers and you do what you can, if you make a single mistake, you had better plan to be pilloried because you're politically incorrect and that's what's going on."

Fittingly, the Newt-as-martyr theory reached a national audience via ABC's late-night talk show, Politically Incorrect. Demanded GOP strategist Mark Goodin: "How is what [Gingrich] did any different than what the Sierra Club, for instance, does when it raises money under tax-free status and has a very partisan and very liberal agenda?"

Glad you asked, Mark.

As Carl Pope, the Club's executive director, informed Gingrich by letter, "The Sierra Club is not a tax-deductible charity." (The Club lost its tax-deductible status three decades ago, after running newspaper ads aimed at blocking federal plans to dam the Grand Canyon.) As a nonexempt entity, the Club is allowed to support candidates for federal, state, and local office through its political action committee. Its endorsements are made on a nonpartisan basis. "As you are certainly aware," Pope reminded the Speaker, "we even supported you for re-election in 1988 when you had a good environmental record."

While The Sierra Club Foundation does receive tax-deductible donations for some projects, the Club does not mix charitable donations with those earmarked for electoral, lobbying, and other nonexempt activities. "None of the donors who supported [the Club's 1996] voter education project received a charitable tax deduction for their contribution," Pope wrote Gingrich. The Club's voter guides "might not be particularly pleasing to members of Congress who vote against environmental protection," Pope acknowledged, but "distributing [them] with non-tax-deductible money is clearly within the letter and the spirit" of tax and election laws. As Representative Cardin said during the Ethics Committee meeting, this is why the Sierra Club and other groups have a legal status that explicitly permits them to use non-tax-deductible contributions for political endorsements.

The bottom line is that Gingrich's ethics problems stemmed from using tax-exempt funds for partisan ends, something the Sierra Club takes pains not to do. The difference is not a matter of "political correctness." It's a matter of fact.


Don't Buy Old Growth

When citizens speak out on behalf of ancient redwood forests, do they make a sound? Apparently not, to judge by the deaf ear turned by certain timber barons.

Which is why the Sierra Club is asking lumber dealers, architects, and others to refuse to stock or use products made from old-growth redwoods. In concert with Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, and the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters, the Club has launched a nationwide campaign to use the power of the marketplace to preserve gravely endangered redwood ecosystems.

"Successful citizen action has historically involved consumer action," explains Elyssa Rosen, coordinator of the Club's Wild Salmon Forever program. "Money talks."

An estimated 96 percent of America's old-growth redwood forests have been destroyed for timber--and with them 99 percent of California's coho salmon. Of the forests that remain, only about half are publicly owned and off-limits to logging, while the rest are private property and unprotected. The largest such stand is the Headwaters Forest in Northern California, where a protracted struggle between environmentalists and Charles Hurwitz, the Texas financier who acquired it in a hostile takeover in 1985, remains unresolved.

The Club and its coalition partners are hoping that by drying up demand for products made from old-growth redwoods--not just in Headwaters, but in all unprotected forests--incentives to chop them down will evaporate as well. The trees, some of which are two thousand years old, are frequently used for hot tubs, outdoor decks, and window frames.

As the first step in the campaign--kicked off in February with a high-profile Hollywood event featuring singer Bonnie Raitt and actors Steven Seagal and Ed Asner--organizers have written to more than 6,000 architects, builders, dealers, and do-it-yourselfers asking them to take a simple but significant step by halting their use of old-growth redwood. The campaign also plans to educate consumers about alternatives.

To get involved in the Club's ancient-redwood campaign, ask your local lumber dealer--as well as architects and contractors you know or do business with--to pledge not to use or carry old-growth redwood products.

For more information, contact Elyssa Rosen at (510) 450-1389; e-mail elyssa.rosen@sierraclub.org.


A User's Guide to the Sierra Club

hether you're a longtime member or a novice, exploring the Sierra Club can be a somewhat daunting adventure. That's partly due to our democratic, decentralized structure, by which more than 600,000 members in 65 chapters and nearly 400 groups effectively set policy for the entire organization. It's partly attributable to the Club's involvement--at both the grassroots and national levels--in an unusually wide range of conservation issues and other activities.

But such explanations barely scratch the surface of the real Sierra Club. The fact is, the Club has for a century eluded all efforts to define it. "The Sierra Club is not unlike nature itself," observes Carl Pope, its executive director. "Like the Grand Canyon or the Alaskan wilderness, it can't really be explained. It has to be experienced."

As with those other natural wonders, a little guidance can add immeasurably to one's enjoyment. Here, then, is a brief overview, offered in the hope that you'll be encouraged to venture further on your own.

GETTING YOUR BEARINGS

As a member of the Sierra Club you belong to the national organization and a regional chapter. Depending on the size of your chapter, it may also include a local subdivision called a group.

From this point forward, the possibilities are virtually limitless. For example, you can:

  • Go on a Club-sponsored outing into your favorite wilderness.
  • Put your editorial talents to work as a contributor to your chapter's newsletter.
  • Speak out at a public hearing on an issue affecting your state, region, or neighborhood.
  • Run for a seat on your chapter's executive committee--or on the national Board of Directors.

And that's just the beginning. Sierra Club members make a difference in a wide variety of ways, from public education to litigation, lobbying, and electoral politics. Call the volunteers in your chapter for more information. Or contact the Office of Volunteer and Activist Services at the Club's San Francisco headquarters (see "Express Yourself," below).

TAKING ISSUE

Worried about wilderness? Throughout its history, the Sierra Club has played a pivotal role in protecting more than 132 million acres of wild America in our national park and wilderness systems. Today, we're leading the way in preserving threatened and endangered species, and in protecting and restoring the integrity of entire ecosystems all around the world.

Fretting about forests? We welcome your help in our campaign to defend and restore America's forests by ending clearcutting and other forms of unsustainable logging in our last remaining ancient forests, and to ban commercial logging on public lands.

Sick of air and water pollution? Then join the Club's campaign to fight smog and soot (see "Ways and Means"), toxic chemicals, and a wide range of other public-health threats.

In Washington, D.C., in statehouses, and in communities throughout America, the Sierra Club is working to protect our environment--for our families, for our future.

GO WILD

Lead people into the wilds, reasoned John Muir a century ago, and they'll return as conservationists. The truth of that wisdom has been proven countless times since on thousands of national and international Sierra Club outings, and hundreds of thousands of hikes, treks, and other adventures offered by local chapters and groups.

Under the auspices of our national Outings program, experienced Club members lead more than 350 journeys each year to some of the world's most spectacular natural areas. And for those who ordinarily can't experience the great outdoors--including urban youth, seniors, and the physically challenged--our Inner City Outings program provides rare opportunities for wilderness experience and environmental education in communities throughout the country.

For more information, call the Outing Department at (415) 977-5630.

OR STAY PUT

There's a lot you can do from the comfort of your living room, such as write a letter to your congressional representative. You can make a donation to your chapter, or even include the Club in your will.

Of course, by simply belonging to the Sierra Club you're helping to protect the world's environment for future generations. Your membership is the foundation of everything we do.


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

Pacific Coast: The Bad and the Ugly
Though no longer mayor of picturesque Carmel, California, Clint Eastwood evidently still has a few well-placed pals in Monterey County. Famous for portraying tight-lipped, gun-happy heroes, the actor won swift approval of his Canada Woods North development--a thousand-acre playland in Carmel Valley that will feature an 18-hole golf course, a fitness center, and 44 luxury homes. To make Eastwood's day, star-struck land-use agencies ignored concerns about the project's impact on sensitive species as well as on the local water supply. With rare native coastal grasses and an already overdrawn Carmel River at stake, the Sierra Club's Ventana Chapter has sued to block Dirty Harry's deal.

Incinerator Smokescreen
Characterizing itself as a recycler helped Barnard Environmental, Inc., get the nod from the Washington State Department of Ecology to burn aluminum potliner, a by-product of aluminum smelters that contains toxic fluorides and cyanide. But the Cascade Chapter's lawsuit challenged the company's dodge of federal law on hazardous-waste disposal. Stating that it needed guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency withdrew its authorization.

Great Lakes: What's Up, Doc?
"I'm not a real doctor, I just impersonate one on behalf of the auto, oil, and steel industries," should have been in the script of a Citizens for a Sound Economy ad played recently on Chicago radio. Instead, the polluters' front group used a phony pediatrician to attack the EPA's new air-quality proposals, inventing wildly improbable figures on the cost of meeting the standards--even predicting the demise of the traditional backyard barbecue in the wake of improved air safeguards.

But the Illinois Chapter shot down the bogus diagnoses in a media alert that outlined the human health costs of soot and smog, and listed many real physicians and organizations--including the American Lung Association and the American Public Health Association--that endorsed the new guidelines. The chapter's rebuttal helped alert the press to the polluters' disinformation campaign.

Natural Allies
Anglers and green activists in Wisconsin have joined forces to block a threat to the state's waterways. Exxon, responsible for the most catastrophic oil spill in U.S. history, wants to build a toxic-waste landfill the size of 350 football fields and 90 feet high for the tailings from a proposed copper and zinc mine at the headwaters of the Wolf River, imperiling the sturgeon, walleye, and trout fisheries in its watershed.

A 38-mile pipeline would also pump over a million gallons of the mine's wastewater each day into the Wisconsin River. As similar mining operations have devastated soil and groundwater with sulphuric acid pollution, sportsfishers and the Club's Great Lakes activists are throwing clamorous support behind a mining moratorium bill introduced by State Representative Spencer Black (D-Madison).

Great North American Prairie: Celebrating Unity
A recent Lakota ceremony honored four members of the Black Hills Group in South Dakota. Regaled with drumming and chants from the Porcupine Singers, Brian Brademeyer, Nancy Hilding, Michael Melius, and Donald Pay were each presented with a star quilt for their dedicated defense of the Black Hills, land sacred to the Lakota, against logging and mining interests. A song heralding the deeds of each Sierran and a traditional circle dance capped the event. With the Forest Service's revised Black Hills management plan (see Ways & Means) offering paltry ecosystem protections, the Lakota and Club activists hope to work together to prevent stepped-up development in the region.

Guts, No Glory
Simmons Industries of Southwest City, Missouri, owners of a poultry plant that processes 1.5 million chickens a week, might have won reauthorization of its wastewater permit without a peep from Missouri's Department of Natural Resources if not for an investigation by the Ozark Chapter. The chapter found citations against Simmons for 21 violations in five years, ranging from spills of chicken entrails on public roadways to a catastrophic discharge of over a million gallons of blood and grease that left a creek virtually lifeless. The chapter's exposé also revealed the department's failure to collect nearly a million dollars in fines from Simmons for the violations. Chastened by the bad publicity, the watchdog agency has put the permit on hold and referred the case to Missouri's attorney general.


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