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Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Crossing the Potomac | Volunteer Spotlight | Ecoregion Roundup

Crossing the Potomac

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 followed.

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.


Volunteer Spotlight:
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 charge."

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 other topics.

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 my dorm."

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 them."

To hook into the Sierra Club's student grassroots network and to receive the SSC newsletter, Generation E, contact the SSC.


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

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.

Polluters' Helpers

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 dirty industries.

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.


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