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Sierra Magazine
Natural Resources

Books | Video | Web

BOOKS: Activist's How-To

To Save the Wild Earth
By Ric Careless
Mountaineers Books, $15.95

I first met Ric Careless in 1992 in the midst of his campaign to save the wild Tatshenshini River from what he called "one of the most dangerous mining projects ever proposed in North America." The charismatic Canadian conservationist was doing what he does best: exciting people about the wonders of imperiled wilderness areas and enlisting their help in the fight to save them. His magic worked on me and hundreds of others—including former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Bill Clinton's chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Katie McGinty—and ultimately the Tat was saved.

Over the course of his many campaigns, Careless has discovered that wilderness preservation is a skill that can be taught, but the learning is never finished. "Each wilderness campaign is different," he writes. "For some areas, high-profile 'flagship' campaigning based on extensive public support is the best means to achieve success. For less-contentious or less-known areas, 'finesse' campaigning focused on convincing key politicians is the best way to go." In this volume, Careless shares the knowledge gained through his own process of trial and error. (He made the latter when he naively altered Club letterhead to invent the "Sierra Club of Victoria" during the early 1970s campaign for the rainforest called the Nitinat Triangle.)

Careless has worked exclusively in British Columbia, but many of his observations will resonate with activists from across the border, as will the lyrical accounts of his travels. He notes that "in a world grown crowded with rules and obligations," many conservationists look back romantically on the past, wishing they could experience the land as the early settlers did. Yet, he says, "surely in some distant year when the chance for wilderness preservation is long gone, many will envy the drama of our lifetimes when we took on overwhelming odds to achieve the impossible, and say, 'Oh, if only I could have lived then.' " Careless reminds us of our fortune to live in exciting times, when great things can still be done.—Paul Rauber

Wetland Awe

Discovering the Unknown Landscape
By Ann Vileisis
Island Press, $27.50

So swamp-friendly was Henry David Thoreau that one summer day he "eased his wiry body into the pungent mixture of decomposing leaves, stagnant water," and "with only eyes and nose above the water, proceeded through the small wetland, observing intimately all the life present in this place unknown to his fellow Concordians." And while the 18th-century naturalist William Bartram refrained from such a baptism in deep ecology, he did find God in wetlands, which he called "a display of the wisdom and power of the supreme author of nature." These are but two of the many memorable vignettes that enrich environmental historian Ann Vileisis's intriguing excursion into U.S. wetlands.

Unlike Thoreau or Bartram, most colonizers saw nothing sacred or even mildly interesting in bog, marsh, or fen, which were considered diseased wastelands, fit only to be plundered, like the vast cypress bottomlands of Louisiana, or drained out of existence for agriculture and urban development. Consequently, we've obliterated more than half of the estimated 220 million acres of "wetland Eden" that existed prior to the arrival of Europeans, an assault that continues at the rate of 100,000 acres a year.

Vileisis traces the exploitation and array of laws, land grabs, and subsidies that promoted this destruction, from the earliest draining of marshes around Boston to the Reagan administration's opening up of a million acres of wildlife refuges to oil drilling. She also packs the text with revelations that make it a first-rate resource for wetland advocates fighting to protect and restore their spongy turf. For example, by 1828 levees were known to cause floods downstream and, after the 1858 Mississippi flood, the draining of wetlands was another proven culprit. Maybe in 1998, after another round of floods, the development boosters will finally concede these points.—Bob Schildgen

SHORTTAKES: Our Eco-Saints

"Go to the mountains," exhorted Sierra Club founder John Muir. "Think like a mountain," urged ecologist Aldo Leopold. For peak inspiration, turn to some recent books by and about a few of our finest eco-heroes.

  • Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire by Marybeth Lorbiecki (Falcon, $19.95) is a good brief biography of Leopold, helped by dozens of candid photos. Starting early seems to have been his secret. By age 11, little Aldo already had 39 birds on his life list, and at 60 he would rise before dawn to hear avian songs at his country shack. He was equally gifted at listening to his own species, says Lorbiecki, portraying a sociable scholar who delighted in helping colleagues and students. She also creates a fresh appreciation of his ideas, radical for the time, that are now so widely accepted.

    We almost take national wildlife refuges for granted; as a young forest ranger in New Mexico he proposed and planned the first one. We push for restoration projects, encourage wolf reintroduction, and oppose dam-building; as a sage in Wisconsin he did these things 50 years ago. He won over a generation of ecologists to his holistic view of nature elaborated in hundreds of articles and the classic A Sand County Almanac. Many moving quotes from his work enhance this biography.

  • Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear (Henry Holt, $35) is a big, definitive biography that takes us from Carson's early start as a writer (first national publication at age 14) to her work in oceanography and the 1962 publication of the book on pesticide hazards that shattered complacent belief in a chemically perfectible universe, Silent Spring. Established as a scientist, nature writer, and author of the best-seller The Sea Around Us, Carson didn't focus on pesticides until late in her career, when she became a "reluctant reformer—but certainly one of the most eloquent and effective ever.

  • A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson by David Backes (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95) traces the long career of the activist/author who fought for the Minnesota wilderness and eventually became president of The Wilderness Society. A charter member of the Society along with Leopold, Olson was anything but a wunderkind like Leopold or Carson. Backes relates the struggle of a frustrated writer who doubted his talents and was well into his 30s before he discovered how to express his communion with nature, "that ancient realization of oneness" in what he called "the singing wilderness." Fortunately, Olson's powerful musings are easy to find, thanks to the new release of four volumes of his work from the University of Minnesota Press: The Singing Wilderness, The Lonely Land, Listening Point, and Runes of the North (all $14.95).

  • Another beautiful new edition is Henry David Thoreau's Walden (Beacon, $17). Thoreau's reverence for nature is so formidable that we tend to forget his satiric bent, especially quotable when he launches on a rant against the arrogance of capital or technology, as in his comment on trans-Atlantic telegraphy: "But perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." The introduction by Bill McKibben is magnificent in its own right.

  • Finally there's John Muir: Nature Writings edited by William Cronon (Library of America, $35), with more than 800 pages of Muir's best. The Scot's genius wasn't so much to think like a mountain as to imagine the mountain thinking like a person. Whether it's a cow or a lofty sugar pine, Muir gives it a soul: "Although so wild and unconventional when full-grown, the Sugar Pine is a remarkably proper tree in youth...a strict follower of coniferous fashions." His eloquent animism shows why environmentalism will always be more than science: it takes a poet like Muir to awaken our hearts to what science finds—and to nature itself. —B.S.

    New from Sierra Club Books

    The World of the Monarch Butterfly by Eric S. Grace Sierra Club Books $27.50 Here is the story of the beloved monarch's life cycle, in all the complexity of its metamorphoses, survival strategies, courtship rituals, and epic migrations from the rare oyamel fir forests of central Mexico all the way to Canada. Includes 55 color photos.

    Endangered Mexico: An Environment on the Edge by Joel Simon. This vivid, alarming look at Mexico's environmental crisis indicts social injustice and failed development policies for the devastation. Now in paperback.

    Adventuring in Alaska: The Ultimate Travel Guide to the Great Land by Peggy Wayburn. The most authoritative and comprehensive guide to Alaska's recreational opportunities, culture, and history. Now in its fourth edition.

    Walking Softly in the Wilderness: The Sierra Club Guide to Backpacking by John Hart. The classic backpacking guide that shows how to enjoy the wilderness without disturbing it in a revised edition with new sections on map reading and off-trail navigation, and updated information on equipment.

    Exploring Yellowstone Backcountry by Orville Bach, Jr. Trail information, natural history, hiking, canoeing, skiing, and fishing, covered by a ranger who has worked the park for over two decades. New edition.

    Best Coast Hikes of Northern California: A Guide to the Top Trails from Big Sur to the Oregon Border by Marc J. Soares. Describes 75 scenic trails with maps and information on the best times of the year to visit specific sites in this immensely varied region.

    Order these titles from the Sierra Club Store by phone, (800) 935-1056, through our Web site, www.sierraclub.org/books, or by writing 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105.

    MYTHBUSTER: Don't Worry Breed Happy

    The population bomb has been defused. At least that's what you'll hear from Ben Wattenberg, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Declining fertility rates, he says, present a new set of problems: a shortage of skilled workers, a glut of aging people supported by a shrinking pool of young people, and falling real-estate prices.

    Wattenberg has promoted this theory for years, but he's generated a flurry of media attention with his rosy interpretations of the latest figures from the United Nations. In World Population Prospects: The 1996 Revision, the U.N. noted that global population is rising by 80 million rather than 90 million annually as predicted, and adjusted its global population projections downward.

    Wattenberg parlayed this modest change into signs of a revolution. "The Population Explosion is Over≤ was the headline of his November New York Times Magazine piece. "The Population Implosion" was the eye-grabbing title of an op-ed piece written by a Wattenberg associate for The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times announced a new ≥Problem for a Crowded World: Not Enough People."

    Unfortunately, the "no worries" crowd focused on what the U.N. calls its "low variant" projection, which it considers unlikely to occur. The U.N.'s more realistic "medium" projections are as sobering as ever: global population—now about 5.9 billion—will hit its peak at about 10.7 billion, probably around the year 2200.—Reed McManus


    VIDEOS

    Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh
    The Video Project, $39.95;
    (800) 4 PLANET

    What happens when modern development encroaches upon an ancient culture high in the harsh Tibetan plateau of northern India? Not even Ladakhis-mostly Buddhists with deep spiritual ties to the earth-can resist the onslaught of an increasingly global economy. This insightful case study, based on Helena Norberg-Hodge's book of the same title (published by Sierra Club Books in 1991), examines how development, with its attendant seductive images of glamour and gadgets promising life free of hardship, destroys social and ecological bonds.

    Pollution, resource depletion, sprawl, breakdown of family and community, crime, growing economic disparity-all are crises in industrialized nations. While these problems are not the sole province of the West, Norberg-Hodge traces their appearance in Ladakh to Western notions of progress. And because modernization has taken hold so rapidly here, the roots of these modern maladies, mostly obscured in the West, are easier to trace.

    "Development has systematically dismantled the local economy and self-reliance, and the first victim is the small farmer whose livelihood is completely undermined," Norberg-Hodge tells us. Ladakhis are buying heavily subsidized wheat trucked in from the plains of India because it's cheaper than grain grown minutes away in local villages. They are drifting away from a cooperative small-farm model, based on organic farming and renewable resources, toward dependence on chemical-intensive agriculture and imported goods and services.

    Once protected from food shortages and rationing by these close-knit communities, villagers are now at the mercy of market forces beyond their control and of roads that are impassable two-thirds of the year. Forced into competition for scarce, meaningless work that doesn't pay enough to meet basic needs, they've become alienated from their neighbors. Broken community ties have led to escalating crime and homelessness, virtually unheard of 20 years ago. "There has been progress," one Ladakhi says, "but people are not as happy as they once were."

    Respect for ecological limits is yielding to modern promises of uncontrolled economic growth and consumption, as this fragile high-desert ecosystem succumbs to the corollaries of modernization: garbage- and human-waste-filled streets and waterways, chemical-fertilizer and pesticide-laden fields, increasing population and ethnic friction, and loss of respect for women and families.

    The film does not suggest that we renounce our wicked Western ways and head for the hills, but that we reestablish our ties to the earth, recognize its natural limitations by developing renewable energy sources and recycling waste, and resist globalization by supporting local cottage industries and small farmers. In the end, these rules to live by transcend cultural boundaries, and Norberg-Hodge eloquently shows us the way to follow them.—Liza Gross

    Coyoteland
    The Video Project, $35; (800) 4-PLANET

    Wildlife and urban sprawl collide in this thought-provoking documentary short. Borrowing from cinema verité-the film is shot entirely on location in the hills above Santa Monica, with no staged interviews or script-filmmaker Jay April follows a county animal-control trapper on the trail of a coyote with an appetite for domestic pets.

    As the trapper sets about his work, he meets an amiable yet resolute defender of wildlife who reproaches him for allowing sprawl to continue unfettered, forcing animals to bear the brunt of thoughtless development. Gesturing at endless acres of starkly sterile bulldozed hills, the official explains: "This is why I'm trapping. They're going to build more homes. We ran [the coyotes] out of 50 acres...so they have to find new homes and new food sources."

    Although there are no "talking heads" or voiceovers to offer context and analysis, the video is a good starting point for discussion and would be a great outreach tool for anti-sprawl activists. April allows the confrontation between the trapper and wildlife activist to dramatize the issues at stake. "I might have to take a life to save ten," the trapper says, to justify his role. But as April's camera rests on the frightened animal, rendered immobile by the trap, the viewer is left to question the logic-and costs-of that rationalization.—Liza Gross


    World on the Web:
    Interactivity on the Net

    by Sierra Club Webmaster John Kealy

    The Internet is superior to other media, its fans say, because it's "interactive." But what most Web users usually see is simply printed material presented electronically, dressed up with video, audio, and text links. To live up to its reputation, the Web needs to deliver tailored information to people who would rather be reading than surfing.

    The Sierra Club's own Web site is moving into this new world of "user customized" information. After registering at the Sierra Club's Internet activism site (https://tioga.sierraclub.org/takeaction/index.jsp) you'll receive information about pending bills in Congress, customized to your zip code. The service also links you to your representatives so that you can fire off missives directly to them.

    If you want to find more interactivity on the Net, try its electronic discussion lists, two-way mailing lists where people explore topics of mutual interest. The Sierra Club hosts more than 150 lists, such as the listserv devoted to development issues. To sign on, send an e-mail with the words SUBSCRIBE CONS-SPST-SPRAWL-DEV as the message text (not the subject heading) to listserv@lists.sierraclub.org. You'll then be able to discuss sprawl solutions with other activists around the country and receive related articles via e-mail. To see a complete list of Club listservs, click on http://www.lsoft.com/scripts/wl.exe?XH=LISTS.SIERRACLUB.ORG

    A more general way to make the Web work for you is to set up a personalized Web site, like "My Excite" (my.excite.com) and "My Yahoo" (my. yahoo.com). Using My Excite, I created my own environmental news feed. From updates on threats to Arizona's voter-approved Heritage Fund for parks and recreation to the latest on endangered salmon runs in Oregon, My Excite uses criteria I've selected to search newspapers all over the country, then drops the results on my page, at no cost.

    Because of all its flash and disorganization, many people dismiss the Web as entertainment. But with a listserv and a customized page or two, you'll find new ways to put the Web to work.


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