Not wanted in Washington? Look homeward, activist.
By B. J. Bergman
Until Republicans wrested control of the gavels in January
1995, Congressman George Miller presided over the powerful House Resources
Committee. In June of that year, the California Democrat--a longtime Sierra
Club ally--perched on a folding chair at the back of a noisy Capitol hearing
room and described how the political landscape had changed for environmentalists.
"They used to just go to the speaker and say, 'Don't
let that bill come up,' " reminisced Miller, still acclimating to
minority status after 20 years in a Democrat-controlled House. "Or
they'd go to [Senate majority leader] George Mitchell. Now they've had
to go out and reinvigorate the grassroots. And that's starting to come
to life. But it's going to be a long, hard struggle."
Miller was too pessimistic. Even before the 1994 elections,
Sierra Club leaders had seen the need for a radical shift in strategy-radical,
that is, as in roots. Direct lobbying of politicians, even with support
from half a million members, was no longer a match for massive campaign
contributions from corporate polluters. Reaching out to citizens in our
own communities and mobilizing the general public seemed the only way to
make democracy work for the environment.
It was during the do-little 103rd Congress that the Club
took its first strides toward revitalizing its grassroots. The most dramatic
effort was Project ACT, a far-reaching volunteer initiative aimed, said
thenPresident Robbie Cox, at "reaffirming John Muir's vision
of an empowered and organized citizenry that can speak for the earth."
By streamlining our grassroots structure, the initiative freed activists
in the Club's 65 chapters to focus more energy on pressing conservation
issues, at both the regional and national levels.
Which is why, when the Gingrich "revolution"
came, the Club was ready. In cities all over the country--through rallies,
media work, doorhanging marathons, congressional voting-chart mailings,
and petition drives like the one for the Environmental Bill of Rights,
which garnered more than a million signatures--volunteers exposed the hidden
agenda of the self-proclaimed "regulatory reformers." The results
were heartening. As the 104th Congress limped to the finish, its War on
the Environment was in shambles. Once-high-stepping pollution warriors
were tripping over themselves to strengthen the Safe Drinking Water Act
and to keep their development-minded sponsors' hands off the Presidio in
California and Sterling Forest in New York and New Jersey.
"We held the line," says Bruce Hamilton, the
Club's national conservation director. "Now it's time to move forward.
We do that by keeping our issues in the public spotlight, and continuing
to hold decision-makers accountable. Public education is the key."
The 1997 Environmental Public Education Campaign, or EPEC,
embodies the Club's renewed focus on mainstream America, as well as its
growing reliance on grassroots activists to mobilize citizens. At the national
level, for example, most chapters keyed this year's Earth Day activities
to the theme of clean air, tying the Club's broadest message--"Protect
America's Environment: For Our Families, For Our Future"--to support
for tough new rules on smog and soot emissions proposed by the Environmental
Protection Agency. Around the country, activists were armed with both educational
and action material, such as tear-off postcards, that gave citizens an
opportunity to make their own voices heard.
In addition to national priorities--which also include
clean water, forest reform, endangered species, urban sprawl, population
growth, and environmentally responsible trade--much of EPEC is geared toward
specific regional ones.
In Arkansas, for example, the campaign is focused on protecting
the watersheds of Ozark and Ouachita national forests, while Hawai'i activists
aim to defend endangered-species habitat and water quality from a planned
harbor expansion. In Dallas and Fort Worth the emphasis is on the health
and economic impacts of toxic emissions from a nearby hazardous-waste incinerator;
in New Orleans, lowering mercury levels in water and fish is a top priority;
in Salt Lake City, activists are working to stop construction of the 120-mile,
multilane Legacy Highway; and in Oklahoma, the campaign is keyed to environmental
threats from pig and chicken factories.
"This is the beginning of a new grassroots environmental
movement," said Congressman Miller in June 1995. His remark was as
much a challenge as an expression of hope. After the first Earth Day in
1970, environmentalists--then lacking significant leverage in Washington,
D.C.--had to plead their case directly to the American people. Once the
voters were ready to lead, as the saying goes, their leaders naturally
The Club proved the wisdom of that approach in beating
back the War on the Environment. Now, through EPEC, grassroots activists
are primed and ready to win the battle for the environment.
Pacesetter for Generation E
By Tracy Baxter
Kim Mowery couldn't have chosen a tougher act to follow.
As 19961997 head of the Sierra Student Coalition, comparison to Adam
Werbach, cofounder of the SSC and now president of the entire Sierra Club,
was only natural. But if it took a green wunderkind to launch a national
network of young activists, it required just as much gusto to direct the
energies of the membership, now 30,000 strong and growing. By all reports
Mowery, the first female to pilot the SSC, performed admirably. "Her
smile and drive pushed activists forward, even during the depths of late-night
letter-stuffing parties," says Werbach.
Like her celebrated predecessor, Mowery's conservationist
career started early. While a high school junior, Mowery documented the
history of the environmental movement in a 20-page term paper. After charting
the tactics and philosophies of different groups, she came away impressed
by the Club's brand of advocacy. "I learned a lot about the effectiveness
of the Sierra Club. It brought about radical changes in environmental protection
by informing people about problems and then giving them the means to take
In 1994, as a freshman at Brown University, Mowery joined
the SSC to try her hand at educating and organizing. A native of McHenry,
Illinois, she gravitated to Great Lakes pollution issues, and found that
rallying other college students through cold calls was a "mammoth
task." By spring 1995, however, after a semester-long effort, the
Midwest Network was up and running full tilt, fighting the 104th Congress'
"dirty water bill" by circulating petitions, writing letters
to the editor, and "dorm-storming"--that is, going door-to-door
urging on-campus students to phone in their protests to key legislators.
This led an anti-environmental group in the West to brand the student activists
Nature Nazis. "If the Sahara Club is calling us names, I guess that
means we're getting something accomplished," says Mowery.
The Midwest regional training she coordinated helped dozens
of students connect with each other and with regional Club entities and
resources. By fall 1995, Mowery, then a 19-year-old sophomore, was a member
of the SSC executive committee. "It was a scary, exciting time,"
she says of her days balancing course work with volunteer leadership. The
committee pumped up environmental awareness on campuses nationwide, focusing
on Congress' War on the Environment and protecting Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge. It also engineered a transformation of the SSC structure.
"Sitting in on conference calls and working out procedure
isn't as energizing as attending a rally," Mowery laughs, "but
we needed to put together a framework to keep things moving." The
committee settled on a 13-region configuration (to parallel the Club's
Regional Conservation Committees) and designated liaisons to reach SSC
members at a moment's notice.
Taking a year off school to head the SSC, Mowery strove
to empower young people by giving them opportunities to share ideas and
strategies. In March 1997 the SSC sponsored leadership gatherings in Texas
and Maryland. This past April the SSC took part in a combination teach-in,
fund-raiser, and concert for young environmental activists at Rutgers University.
At the SSC's weeklong biannual seminar, Mowery participated in schooling
9th- through 12th-graders on public speaking, media, and publicity, among
Though she handed over the director's torch to Sage Rockerman
in June, Mowery intends to continue stoking young people's appreciation
and defense of the natural world. One of her long-term goals is to begin
an environmental-education program for high school students. Advising the
new SSC leadership as it hammers out its agenda for the 19971998 school
year will come naturally: "The SSC office is only three blocks from
Mowery's actions stand as a strong rebuttal to the myth
of student apathy. "It's fun and important to be involved," she
says. "And the issues are easier to handle when a lot of people tackle
To hook into the Sierra Club's student grassroots network
and to receive the SSC newsletter, Generation E, contact the SSC.
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
Great North American Prairie: Fast Track to Nowhere
Clearing the way for the construction of a 12-mile, $450
million highway took fastidious inattention to detail on the part of the
Illinois Department of Transportation. To speed approval for extending
Interstate 355 into rural Will County, Illinois, the agency overlooked
extensive damage to the Keepataw Forest Preserve--directly in the path
of the road--and the impact on the wetland habitat of the Hine's emerald
dragonfly. It also disregarded the Environmental Protection Agency's requirement
to examine no-road alternatives. When those tactics failed, it fudged population-growth
data to justify the superhighway. All this chicanery didn't fool the Illinois
Chapter of the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations who sued
to block construction, or the judge who stopped the project cold.
We Few, We Happy Few
How many grassroots activists does it take to bring down
a polluter? In the ranching and oil town of Williston, North Dakota, just
half a dozen. When Dakota Catalyst, an oil reprocessor, attempted to increase
its storage of toxic waste from 400 to 6,000 tons, the six members of the
North Prairie Group transformed community unease into action. The Sierra
Club group bought radio and newspaper ads that blasted Dakota Catalyst
for its shoddy waste-management record and, supported by 35 volunteers,
delivered informational doorhangers to every Williston residence. The ensuing
public outrage and media attention forced Dakota Catalyst to withdraw its
expansion application. The EPA and a federal grand jury are now investigating
the recycler for allegedly mislabeling hazardous waste.
Great Lakes: Keep It Clean
The Clean Water Act explicitly requires states to maintain
the quality of cleaned-up waterways. Yet Ohio legislators crafted an anti-degradation
statute that not only permitted increased dumping by municipalities
and sewage-treatment plants into improved streams but also pre-empted public
hearings. A coalition of environmentalists, including the Ohio Chapter
of the Sierra Club, took the state to court and a judge struck down the
bogus anti-pollution law in March.
American Southeast: Of Mice and Men
In the 11 years since the Alabama beach mouse won federal
protection, it has lost 18 percent of its habitat. To shield the endangered
creature from its gravest threat-development-the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service designated ten miles of coastline along Fort Peninsula as critical
habitat. But the agency subsequently approved "habitat conservation
plans" submitted by developers that would in fact destroy 50 of the
mouse's 350 protected acres. Arguing that the conservation measures outlined
in these plans are feeble, the Alabama Chapter is suing the FWS to halt
the trading of protected animals for condos.
Twelve years ago, the Delta Chapter was instrumental
in winning passage of legislation outlawing on-land hazardous-waste disposal
in Louisiana. Since then, polluters presenting sob stories to the state's
Department of Environmental Quality have obtained exemptions from the ban.
So far, the DEQ has granted seven companies permits to deep-six their poisons
in underground wells. Polluters injected more than 42 million pounds of
toxic waste through and below drinking-water supplies in 1994 alone. The
Delta Chapter is now in court to put a stop to the state's coddling of
Pacific Coast: Four Limos and a Funeral
To rally public support for the EPA's proposed clean-air
standards, Southern California environmentalists took to the highways.
Organized by a coalition of green groups including the Angeles Chapter,
a mock funeral procession of four limousines and a hearse maneuvered through
Los Angeles in rush-hour traffic. The crucial information--that one death
per hour in Los Angeles is attributable to bad air--was broadcast live
from the procession to millions of radio listeners, along with the EPA
hotline number. In the hours following the event, calls from the Los Angeles
area supporting tough clean-air standards jumped to 1,500, 47 percent higher
than the previous day.