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Sierra Magazine
Inside Sierra: A Civil Society

By Editor-in-chief Joan Hamilton

The Sierra Club won a few last year. While others were mired in Monicagate, our members (and Sierra readers) gained protection for places such as Chapman Forest in Maryland, Bolsa Chica wetlands in California, and Clam Bayou and Tampa Bay in Florida. They outsmarted polluters. They defended parklands. They helped pass good bills and defeat bad ones.

Some of the good bills were aimed at pigs and chickens-not the Old MacDonald sort, but those in megafarms producing industrial-strength pollution. For the past five years, Sierra Club members have been working with family farmers and public-health advocates to clean up these profitable but poisonous operations. "Meat Factories," on page 28, tells what it's like to live next to a lake of hog sewage. "Bringing the Land Back to Life," on page 36, describes a better way to do business.

This farm coalition is a prime example of what the Sierra Club and its magazine are all about: motivating people to make democracy work for the environment. The Aspen Institute, a Colorado-based think tank, calls us a "civil society." The Sierra Club and similar groups "have created democratic structures that enable their members and supporters to deliberate on social and economic questions," the institute said last fall. "Through their efforts, millions of Americans are able to have a voice in national policy." In 1997, the Aspen Institute asked members of Congress and the Clinton administration to name the two nonprofits that were most effective in lobbying on the environment. In a report, "Effective Nonprofit Advocacy," the institute put the Sierra Club at the top of the list, with 64 mentions. In fact we were cited twice as many times as the runner-up, the National Federation of Independent Business, and three times as often as the closest environmental organization.

The institute studied groups that were models in other areas, too: budget, health, families, foreign aid, and housing and community development. In the top 12 overall were the mighty Christian Coalition, American Medical Association, and American Association of Retired Persons-and the Sierra Club.

The report went on to probe the secrets behind the success of these groups. In our case, it certainly was not the size of our budget. Compared with other large membership organizations on the list, our staff is smaller and our political action committee less well funded. But the Sierra Club does have one big edge over all the rest, according to the report: "the high degree of public activism of its members." That's your cue to take a bow.


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