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Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Traveling Green Schoolhouse | Home Front

Our Traveling Green Schoolhouse

Five anxious residents of Victor, a mountain community near Colorado Springs, are hoping to learn what more they can do to stop an open-pit mine from swallowing up their town.

Their classmates have their own agendas. T. J., a wry ex-logging engineer living in Fort Collins, wants to make amends for having once been "part of the problem."

A 30-ish woman from Broomfield, her small daughter wriggling in her lap, offers uncertainly that she "just thought it was time to do something."

And Jay, a younger but more seasoned eco-warrior from here in Boulder, takes a holistic view. "Activism," he declares, "is the antidote to despair."

Environmental activists (and aspiring activists) are a diverse lot. But whatever their reasons for coming, the Sierra Club Training Academy aims to send them home with the tools for both personal and planetary healing. If the academy borrows much of its text from Saul Alinsky, the famed Chicago guru of neighborhood organizing, its guiding vision derives from Cesar Chavez, legendary founder of the United Farm Workers. It was Chavez, asked to reveal the magic behind his organizing success, who said: "The only way I know how to organize is to talk with one person, then talk to another person, then talk to another."

That commitment to grassroots, community-based organizing lies at the heart of the Training Academy, an itinerant green schoolhouse that has traveled to more than a dozen cities and tutored over 400 Club volunteers and friends of the environment. This particular session is taking place on the first weekend of spring; fresh snow carpets the Flatirons, skies are clear and sunny, and daytime temperatures are downright balmy. The place is a hiker's delight, yet 44 lovers of the outdoors are willingly holed up in a drab University of Colorado meeting room, looking at slides and scribbling notes in the dark.

Following a casual Friday-night muster at a local restaurant, the two-day working session begins in earnest with presentations from a group of Sierra Club staffers led by Debbie Sease, the Club's legislative director, who reminds the assembly that good intentions are not enough. "In the political process what counts is power," she says, explaining that power consists of money—a commodity controlled largely by despoilers of the environment—and people. "Involving citizen activists in the political process is one of the Sierra Club's greatest strengths."

By dinnertime Saturday the volunteer participants—who range from college students to a former county commissioner—have been briefed by Club specialists in a variety of disciplines vital to citizen involvement, from raising funds to getting the media to carry your message. And they've heard one overarching idea again and again: getting what you want takes planning. Effective organizing means setting goals, crafting a compelling story, identifying political targets, agreeing on tactics—and creatively melding all these elements into a cohesive, winning campaign.

And then it's their turn. Working long into the night and resuming the next morning, teams of five or six volunteers struggle to hammer out their own campaigns. Training coordinator Emily McFarland gives them their marching orders: for the rest of the conference they are Club activists in the state of Apathy, opposed to construction of a new Sprawl Mart in the sleepy town of Lethargy. Next day they'll present their campaigns in plenary session, complete with banners, posters, and assorted aural and visual aids. And some won't wait that long: as we stumble groggily into breakfast that morning we are confronted by Ramon, an energetic Fort Collins activist, draped in sandwich boards and wielding a petition to keep Sprawl Mart from ruining Lethargy's creeks, parks, drinking water, and quality of life.

The presentations are impressive for their scope and inventiveness. Some are hilarious, replete with comic impressions of Sam Walton and fictitious local characters like the shady, well-connected Bugsy, who pops up at key moments to muscle the city council. The staffers offer their critiques, and award a prize to the team whose campaign best employs the principles of community-based organizing in the service of the environment.

Finally, the surrounding snow melting and shadows lengthening, the citizen activists head back to their own communities—Cripple Creek, Longmont, Denver, Loveland, Durango, Victor—to talk to their real-world neighbors, first one, then another, and then another.


Home Front

In 65 chapters and hundreds of local groups spanning 21 ecoregions and two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work protecting our natural heritage.

Colorado Plateau: DIRTY DODGING

In a truly masterful act of avoidance, the Mohave power plant on the Nevada-Arizona border has managed to buck the Clean Air Act for two decades. Operating without adequate pollution controls, Mohave has dumped approximately one million tons of sulfur dioxide and one-quarter of a million tons of particulates into the atmosphere. In addition to endangering public health, the pollution has impaired visibility over the Grand Canyon.

The cost of installing smokestack scrubbers, claims Southern California Edison, the plant's primary owner, would shut the plant down, cutting off jobs and income to the nearby Hopi and Navajo people. Activists say that other plants in the region have managed to follow the law, however. With the plant in the black last year by nearly $1 billion, and an $8 billion deregulation windfall on the way, the plant owners are just blowing smoke, contends the Grand Canyon Chapter. The chapter, with the Grand Canyon Land Trust, is suing to force the utility to come clean.

Pacific Coast: A FAIR GAME

The urban-renewal projects of the 1960s and '70s barreled along with little attention to neighborhood life and inner-city environments. A similar lack of foresight seemed to be at work in Los Angeles County's approval of a 20,000-seat sporting arena near Pico-Union, a low-income, largely immigrant area. "We didn't ask for this," says Terry du Soleil, a member of the Angeles Chapter's Central Group, referring to the traffic congestion and pollution the stadium would bring.

Nor, she says, were the public-hearing announcements—written in English and scantily distributed— adequate notification in the largely Latino community. After the Central Group read the environmental impact report, it demanded mitigation. The $750,000 settlement the group won will fund native-plant landscaping, bike lanes, a child-care center, and a new traffic study. "Pico-Union residents have worked hard to reduce local crime and clean up the streets," says du Soleil, who just won the Angeles Chapter's award for conservation work. "We're going to keep on improving the quality of life in Pico-Union."

Great North American Prairie: BAIT AND SWITCH

When the Missouri Farm Bureau insisted that a U. S. Fish and Wildlife public hearing on listing the Topeka shiner as an endangered species be held in rural Bethany, Missouri, the group believed it was stacking the deck with corporate-agriculture sympathizers. "It's only good for bait," scoffed one bureau official. But the Ozark Chapter has long been mobilizing local farmers against the chicken and hog factories that befoul their communities. As a result, the locals demanded good stewardship, including federal protection for the imperiled minnow. One outraged farmer declared, "Anyone willing to profit from the destruction of God's creations should be deeply ashamed." The impassioned support for the listing gave the bureau a well-deserved shiner, and validated the chapter's extensive rural organizing efforts.

Atlantic Coast: THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES

"In the U.S. we have the right to speak out for what we believe in. That's not the case in Nigeria," says Sierra Student Coalition member Eric Luedtke, 16. To help turn up external political pressure on the country's military regime, Luedtke initiated a drive in Maryland for state economic sanctions against Nigeria. Besides presenting over 1,000 signatures from SSC members across the state, he testified before the state assembly with Maryland Chapter lobbyist Nancy Davis, Sierra Club Board member Michael K. Dorsey, and Owens Wiwa, brother of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed with eight others in 1995. Though a Club-drafted sanctions bill was narrowly defeated in committee, Luedtke believes the effort will help end human-rights and environmental abuses in the oil-rich African nation.

"It took years of pressure to break down apartheid in South Africa," says Luedtke. The SSC's next move, he says, is to present 20,000 signatures in support of federal sanctions to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

American Southeast: CLEANUP OR COVER-UP?

In the 1970s and '80s local public agencies encouraged African-Americans to buy new homes in the Agricultural Street area, a 95-acre parcel in New Orleans' 9th Ward. Now, many of the 300 families want out, having discovered that their homes were built on what was for 50 years a municipal dump.

After testing in 1993 turned up high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and 150 other types of poisons, the EPA speedily designated the area a Superfund site, and indicated it would relocate residents. Later, the agency backed away from its strong stand and recommended removing two feet of contaminated soil from Agricultural Street yards, laying down plastic screens, and topping them with fresh dirt. Peggy Grandpre, a member of the Delta Chapter and resident of Agricultural Street, believes that the remediation plan is inadequate because families would be exposed to more poisons during the partial cleanup and rains in below-sea-level New Orleans will likely wash away the new topsoil. Moreover, the Superfund listing drastically decreased property values. "We can't afford to leave," says Grandpre. Write to President Clinton and urge him to champion relocation for Agricultural Street residents.

CUMBERSOME SWAP

Formerly an idyllic retreat for the likes of the Carnegies and Rockefellers, Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia is now mostly a national seashore. But money still has pull on the near-unspoiled coastal gem. Descendants of Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler, who sold their 1,000-acre High Point property to the federal government in 1983 under a "life estate" arrangement, are now trying to renege.

Their plan is to purchase another part of the island the government wants to buy and to swap it for High Point. The feds could avoid the trade by using $17 million in the Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy the land. "We should use that money to preserve Cumberland instead of trading away open space that already belongs to the public," says Norman Owen of the Georgia Chapter. The chapter is fiercely lobbying Congress to release LWCF money for the Cumberland purchase.


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