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Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Sea of Crude, Legacy of Hope | Sierra Club Hero | Home Front

Sea of Crude, Legacy of Hope

Ten years ago, Pam Brodie quit California and a career with the Sierra Club to pursue her dream of a new life in Alaska. She'd barely caught a glimpse of the promised land when she got the rudest of awakenings.

"I drove my pickup off the ferry on the spring equinox and saw the Northern Lights and heard wolves howling my first night in Alaska," she recalls. "Four days later the Exxon Valdez hit the rocks."

That was March 24, 1989, a day from which Prince William Sound and the western Gulf of Alaska have yet to recover. In the worst such disaster in U.S. history, the single-hulled tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, dumping 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into the sound and eventually along more than 1,000 miles of Alaska's coastline. Thousands of sea otters and hundreds of thousands of seabirds were killed.

"It took a few days for people to realize what a catastrophe it was, and then I couldn't help but be caught up in a whirlwind of activity," Brodie says. She put in 80-hour weeks as a volunteer, organizing citizens from across the country in a desperate attempt to hand-scrub the oil off hundreds of otters and birds still clinging to life.

Looking back, she doubts it was worth the effort. "Exxon spent $80,000 per otter that survived the cleaning, but at least half of those are thought to have died soon after they were released. So it was closer to $160,000 per animal. I think that money would have been better spent restoring and protecting habitat. But people wanted to help, and so did I. We were doing the best we could."

Happily, "the best we could" would get better. In October 1991-a year after Brodie had resumed working for the Club in its Alaska field office-Exxon agreed to pay $900 million to settle a civil suit over the spill. Nearly $700 million went jointly to the state and federal governments, which established a six-member panel, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, to decide how to spend it. Led by the Sierra Club, a coalition of national and local organizations known as the Alaska Rainforest Campaign pushed for the money to be used to buy and protect privately owned wildlife habitat.

That idea proved popular with Alaskans, despite the state's well-deserved reputation as a bastion of opposition to federal land ownership. "When it comes right down to it, Alaskans love their public lands," says Brodie, who serves as the environmental representative on the council's public advisory group. "And they wanted these lands to be public and to be protected." Support came not only from conservationists but from commercial fishermen, sportsmen, and Native Alaskans. To some Native corporations established under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, resource development, usually logging, had long seemed the best way to make money off of their land. Selling the deeds to the trustee council was for many corporations a preferable alternative.

The oil spill windfall is already protecting some 635,000 acres of irreplaceable wildlife habitat as state and federal parks and refuges, including formerly private land on the Kodiak archipelago and along the coastline of Kenai Fjords National Park. Conservationists now have their eyes on some extraordinary salmon and bear habitat in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. About $62 million remains for land acquisition from the original $900 million settlement, which Exxon is paying in installments over a ten-year period. The final payment is due in September 2001.

Brodie, now a Club volunteer based in the fishing town of Homer, admits to some surprise at the success of the initiative to set aside wildlife habitat. In 1991 George Bush was in the White House and Wally Hickel, no friend of the environment, was Alaska's governor. "We started out not expecting to get a single acre from them," says Brodie, "but just hoping that over the course of the ten years we'd have friendlier administrations. In fact, many of the purchases and all the fundamental planning happened under the Hickel administration, because such a diverse group of Alaskans supported it." She thinks the state's experience with the "polluter pays" principle-the notion that those responsible for environmental damage must pay the costs of remediation-should serve as a model for the rest of the country.

And she has some advice for other environmentalists: "When you face a catastrophe, don't despair. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, you can build something of lasting value out of a disaster." Was the Valdez spill, then, a blessing in disguise? "I could never say it was a good thing because thousands of animals suffered a horrible death," she says. "They can never be compensated. But in the long run we've permanently protected over a half-million acres of spectacular coastline. The fish and wildlife populations haven't recovered yet, but eventually they will. And the habitat they depend on is now protected forever."


Top Honors For a Sierra Club Hero

For his more than 60 years as an ardent conservationist, David Brower has been honored with the world's most lucrative environmental award, the Blue Planet Prize.

Last fall, Brower, the executive director of the Sierra Club from 1952 to 1969 and a current Board member, and Russian climatologist Mikhail Budyko each received a 50 million yen award ($448,900 at current exchange rates) from Japan's Asahi Glass Foundation, which annually recognizes individuals or organizations for their work on global environmental problems. The 86-year-old Brower, founder of both Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute, was lauded for his lifelong conservation efforts, which have helped create nine national parks and seashores, the 1964 Wilderness Act, and a United Nations system of World Heritage sites.

At the two-day award ceremony in Tokyo, Brower focused on encouraging corporations to become more environmentally sensitive by appealing to their own self-interest rather than altruistic sentiments. "We've been worrying about clean water and clean air, but what's needed is a totally different attitude in the corporate world," he told Sierra. "There will be no corporations, no profits on a dead planet."

Brower hopes to make an example of the few companies that are already becoming greener. In his speech, he singled out Interface, a textiles business that has reduced waste, pollution, and energy use without financial loss.

Getting businesses to adopt such practices is a key challenge for environmentalists, Brower says. "[California] State Senator Tom Hayden once said that we've only been slowing the rate at which things get worse," he adds. "I think it's time that we speed the rate at which things get better." -Jennifer Hattam


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.

Sierra Nevada: YOSEMITE GETS A REPRIEVE

Last fall, the Sierra Club won two victories in the battle to preserve Yosemite National Park. The Park Service shelved a development plan opposed by the Club and announced a comprehensive effort to address land use, housing, and transportation issues.

Opponents of the nixed proposal believe the park's administrators were attempting to circumvent the 1980 General Management Plan under the guise of restoring facilities damaged in the 1997 floods. The GMP calls for a return to more natural conditions in the valley.

But the new plan would have expanded the Yosemite Lodge facilities north toward the Camp 4 climbers' haven and south toward the banks of the Merced, one of only 14 designated wild-and-scenic rivers in California.

Southwest Deserts: DANGEROUS DUMP DENIED

There's no good place for a nuclear-waste dump, but some places are worse than others. In Sierra Blanca, a poor rural community in west Texas, planners picked an earthquake fault, just 16 miles from the Rio Grande and the Mexican border.

The nuclear graveyard's proximity to Mexico may have been its downfall. A binational coalition came together to oppose the dump with rallies, hunger strikes, and marches to the state capitol. In October, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission voted unanimously to deny a permit for the dump, citing safety questions. Republican Governor George W. Bush had assured Mexican officials that he would abide by the commission's findings, and if the likely presidential candidate wants the support of his state's sizable Mexican-American community, he'll keep that promise.

"The Sierra Blanca site is probably dead, but there might be an attempt to move it to another area in west Texas," says Scott Royder of the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter. "We need to watch the nuclear industry closely all across the Southwest."

Pacific Coast: TAKE A HIKE

From the alpine meadows of Klamath National Forest to the cactus-dotted flatlands of the Sonoran Desert, Californians aren't waiting for the government to identify wildlands that deserve more protection-they're doing it themselves.

With the Wildlands 2000 campaign, activists led by the Sierra Club and the California Wilderness Coalition hope to add 3 million to 6 million acres to the 14 million already protected as wilderness in the state. Volunteers are field-checking natural areas managed by the federal government to see if they are roadless and pristine enough to qualify under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

With a little training, you too can hit the trails, taking photographs and notes. The information gathered by volunteers will be incorporated into a proposed California wilderness bill in 2000. To volunteer, call the Wilderness Coalition at (530) 758-0380 or e-mail info@calwild.org. Or contact Vicky Hoover, chair of the Club's California/Nevada Wilderness Committee at (415) 977-5527 or e-mail vicky.hoover@sierraclub.org.

UNDERGROUGND ACTIVISM

In the narrow, winding passageways of Oregon Caves National Monument, rock formations take the shapes of giant rib cages and tiny ocean waves. Jaguar and grizzly-bear bones dating back tens of thousands of years were recently discovered in this maze of marble canyons. The caves have been protected since 1909, but the monument is surrounded by logging that blights the scenery and threatens the local flora and fauna.

To protect the 484-acre monument near the Oregon/California border, the Sierra Club's Rogue Group proposed extending its boundaries. Club volunteer Val Swanson made two dozen visits to map ridges, creeks, and watersheds vital to the caves' well-being. In the end, the group helped generate nearly 1,000 letters in support of expanding the monument to 3,410 acres, a plan that is on its way to Washington, D.C., for final approval.

Atlantic Coast: A MONSTER HIGHWAY

Activists are fighting a proposed 6- to 12-lane highway that would connect semirural areas in two Maryland counties outside Washington, D.C. This Inter-County Connector (ICC) would "completely damage some of the last remaining green space in Prince Georges and Montgomery counties," says Jon Robinson, chair of the Prince Georges County Group. According to local activists, the $1 billion project will only increase auto use and congestion.

Highway opponents organized hikes along threatened creeks and demonstrated at appearances by pro-highway Governor Parris Glendening. Their efforts caused the governor to reconsider and helped elect three ICC opponents to local county councils. Gaining control of the councils is a key step toward eventually removing the highway from the master plans of both counties. Although the project is on hold, "Roads are like Godzilla," warns Maryland Chapter Chair Chris Bedford. "You think you've killed them, but they just keep coming back."

Great Lakes: WOLF WATCH

When an animal is removed from the federal endangered species list, is this a success or a failure? That's what environmentalists are asking in Minnesota, where they expect the eastern timber wolf to be delisted in the next few years.

"We've gone from a few hundred to around twenty-two hundred wolves in Minnesota," says North Star Chapter Chair Scott Elkins. "We all need to be happy about that."

What he's not so happy about are the post-delisting recommendations hammered out last year in a roundtable convened by the state. Activists fought off a proposed hunting season, as well as limits on wolf habitat and population. But property owners would be allowed to shoot wolves that are attacking livestock or dogs, a provision that many fear could easily be exploited by poachers in remote northern Minnesota.

The timber wolf is supposed to be protected until three genetically distinct populations become established. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided that wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are "three distinct groups, separated by state lines," Elkins says. "The decision was purely political."

To spotlight Sierra Club activism in your area, contact Jennifer Hattam at Sierra, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail jennifer.hattam@sierra club.org; or fax (415) 977-5794.


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