The most dangerous part of almost any outdoor activity is driving there in your
car. Car crashes are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States,
killing some 43,000 people a year. Many of those deaths are entirely preventable.
Automakers could save thousands of lives by, for example, installing side air
bags in every car, strengthening frames to withstand side impact, and
standardizing bumper heights.
Instead, they build bigger and heavier sport-utility
vehicles and market them as safe transportation alternatives. "One of the most
common reasons people give for choosing a sport utility vehicle," says Land Rover's
Authoritative Guide to Compact Sport-Utility Vehicles, "is the feeling of command
and security they get in driving an SUV." Implicit in the pitch is the promise
that in an accident, mass rules. When your two tons of four-wheeling fun slams
into that little Toyota at window level, someone might die-but at least it won't
This deeply cynical doctrine-you might call it "survival of the fattest"-is
abetted by misleading stories such as the one in USA Today on July 2 ("Death by
the Gallon" by James R. Healey) that claimed that small cars were the killers.
Since the 1975 adoption of corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards to
improve fuel efficiency, Healey claimed, "46,000 people have died in crashes they
would have survived in bigger, heavier cars."
True, passengers in a vehicle struck by another twice its weight are ten times
more likely to die. When an SUV strikes a passenger car on the driver side, the
driver of the car is 30 times more likely to die than the SUV driver. According
to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than half of
all traffic fatalities in 1996 involved collisions between "light trucks" (SUVs,
minivans, and pickups) and passenger cars-and four out of five of those
fatalities were car passengers. But blaming the car in this situation is like
blaming a shooting victim for getting in the way of a bullet. "Any mass-related
protection of a heavier vehicle's occupants," warns John DeCicco of the American
Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, "comes only at the brutal expense of
greater harm to others."
Gigantism, of course, is a crude approach to automotive safety. The General
Accounting Office studied the same basic data as USA Today and declared that "it
is not true that cars become more dangerous simply by becoming lighter." Nor is
that the main reason they're becoming more fuel efficient; rather, 86 percent of
fuel-efficiency improvement is the result of technological innovation."CAFE does
not dictate vehicle size, weight, or safety," says Dan Becker, head of the Sierra
Club's Global Warming and Energy campaign. "Automakers do." Cars have become
twice as fuel efficient since CAFE was instituted, he points out, but automobile
death rates have been cut in half.
Crashworthiness is determined "not by size itself, but rather by how well a given
vehicle design protects its occupants," says DeCicco. "Many of today's small cars
offer better occupant-protection systems than most large cars of the past and
much better protection than even many light trucks of today." If you crash a
16-miles-per-gallon Ford Expedition and a 40-mpg Saturn SL1 subcompact into a wall, the
Saturn's driver and passengers will have a better chance of surviving because of
its superior safety features. And the 31-mpg VW New Beetle, for example, beats
the 21-mpg Jeep Grand Cherokee in three out of four NHTSA safety tests.
Then there is the unfortunate tendency of SUVs to flip over. According to the
NHTSA, "In fatal crashes, SUVs are twice as likely to have rolled over than other
cars." Rollovers cause 22 percent of car fatalities, but 62 percent of SUV
fatalities. Of course, Detroit could reduce the risk of rollover death to its
customers by lowering the height and therefore the center of gravity in its sport
utility vehicles. Instead, the same companies that opposed seatbelts and air bags
offer the opportunity to be the biggest thing on the highway.
The dangers caused by SUVs are not just to their own drivers and to others on the
road. Half of all cars sold these days are gas-guzzling sport utes, minivans, or
pickups, and the more fossil fuel consumed, the more global-warming gas is added
to the atmosphere. In its lifetime, a fuel-efficient Honda Civic emits 40 tons of
carbon dioxide, a Ford Excursion 134 tons. The reason is the huge loophole in the
CAFE law that requires fleets of passenger cars to average 27.5 miles per gallon,
but allows light trucks an average of 20.7 mpg.
Currently, CAFE saves 3 million barrels of oil a day. But stopping world climate
change, with its droughts, floods, hurricanes, and epidemics, will take much
greater savings. At presstime, 40 senators had signaled their support for tougher
CAFE standards-and for giving President Clinton the power to order them. It's now
up to Clinton to require Detroit to make vehicles that are safe not only for
everyone on the road but for the planet.Paul Rauber
The Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy campaign is currently working for
tough fuel-economy standards for all motor vehicles. For information on how you
can get involved, visit the campaign's Web site at www.sierraclub.org/globalwarming or call (202) 547-1141.
Maybe the Feds will subsidize Fido?
Despite years of complaints from environmentalists, the U.S. Forest Service and
Bureau of Land Management continue to offer cut-rate grazing for private
livestock on public lands. In addition to the cost to taxpayers (as much as 20
times what ranchers are charged), overgrazing denudes landscapes, pollutes rivers
and streams, and drives out native species.
A cost comparison of America's most-pampered animals:
Grazing a sheep on federal land for a month: $.27
Grazing a sheep on private land for a month: $2.24
Grazing a cow and calf on federal land for a month: $1.35
Grazing a cow and calf on private land for a month: $11.22
Feeding a cat for a month: $24
Feeding a medium-size dog for a month: $30
Land of the Fee
You'll need a $15 "summit pass" next time you head up Mt. Shasta.
When Congress allowed federal agencies to start charging "user fees" on public
lands, it didn't expect a backpacker rebellion. The Recreation Fee Demonstration
Program, now in its fifth year, promised to bolster the recreation budgets of the
Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and
Wildlife Service by charging to enjoy the agencies' lands. By 1999, "pay to play"
schemes were in effect in 81 locations nationwide. The program is scheduled to
expire at the end of 2002.
But the Clinton administration
is now trying to make user fees permanent-over the protests of outdoor
recreationists and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. Instead, they
say, Congress should provide adequate annual appropriations to address the parks'
maintenance and upkeep needs. "Fee demo" adds only $20 million per year to the
Forest Service's total budget of $3.3 billion, much of which goes to subsidize
extractive industries like mining, grazing, and logging.
Some critics even argue that fee demo is a step toward commercialization of
public lands. In its 1998 report, "A Strategy for Recreation," the Forest Service
imagines itself "a market-driven agency" dependent on public/private
partnerships. To succeed, the report says, the agency must "evolve from a steward
of natural resources and custodian of recreation services to a provider of
wildlands and legacy experiences." In 1997, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck
lamented to ski-industry executives that recreation and tourism on public lands
have been perceived as "an amenity-something extra that we are privileged to
enjoy" rather than as "a revenue generator."
So it's no surprise that environmentalists shuddered when "The Recreation
Roundtable," an offshoot of the American Recreation Coalition, a lobbying group
composed mainly of motorized recreational interests and resort developers,
boasted that the fee-demonstration program was "a direct result of our efforts."
The industry says it promotes user fees simply to aid the parklands on which its
customers depend, but environmentalists' worst fear is that industry's
involvement is a "partnership" that will eventually hand public lands to the
richest bidders. After a barrage of letters from angry hikers and other
recreationists, outdoor retailer REI, one of the few Roundtable members not
dependent on motorized recreation, resigned from the panel in March.Reed.McManus
Write your representatives and urge them to oppose the fee-demo program
and focus instead on restoring adequate annual recreation budgets. For more
information, contact Scott Silver, fee-demo issues coordinator of the Sierra
Club's Oregon Chapter Conservation Committee, at (541) 385-5261. Or visit the
Web site of his organization, Wild Wilderness, at www.wildwilderness.org.
Bang, Bang, You're Green
The U.S. Army has a problem: Its bullets are deadly. Each year our soldiers use
300 million to 400 million rounds of ammunition (most in training, not combat)
and all that lead, along with 15 other toxic substances, can
be swallowed by critters or leak into nearby civilian water supplies. (In 1997,
the EPA stopped live-fire training at the Massachusetts Military Reservation when
lead was discovered in Cape Cod's water sources.)
The solution? The Army is starting to use bullets made from a nontoxic tungsten
alloy. Already facing a $9 billion cleanup bill for its lead-contaminated sites,
the Army considers the $12 million investment in Earth-friendly ammo a good deal.
Marching in double-time, military officials hope to get the lead out of bullets
in all branches of the armed forces by 2003.
Save energy...and bucks, too
The industry-sponsored Global Climate Coalition claims that efforts to meet the
requirements of the Kyoto climate change treaty will cripple the booming U.S.
economy. But according to the World Wildlife Fund and the Cambridge,
Massachusetts-based Tellus Institute, reducing greenhouse gases is not only
essential but will also be profitable. The country could save up to $43 billion
by 2010 through the use of more efficient autos, buildings, and appliances
powered by alternative energy sources-along the way producing 870,000 new jobs
that would offset losses in the coal and electric-utility industries.
Using a mix
of financial incentives, regulatory changes, and market measures, the report
says, the United States could reduce emissions by 14 percent from 1990 levels,
double the goal mandated by the Kyoto pact. And last year the Union of Concerned
Scientists concluded that the United States can meet its emissions-reduction
goals with no net impact to the economy and actually stands to prosper from
"technologies that will become increasingly important in the 21st
Lights Out! In several metropolitan areas, professional and amateur astronomers have
championed municipal ordinances to restrict outdoor lighting and preserve the
pleasures of a starry night. But the Canadian province of Ontario has gone a step
further by establishing the world's first dark-sky preserve. The 4,900-acre
Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve on the shores of Lake Muskoka is now a
designated lights-out zone, and it's just 150 miles from one of North America's
most densely inhabited regions. "It's good to know there is now a small place in
Canada set aside for people to gaze in wonder upon the star-filled infinity of
creation, instead of just gawking at the infinity of McDonald's," says Robert
Gent, spokesman for the International Dark-Sky Association.Katherine Jacob
VICTORY! Home Depot, the world's largest lumber retailer, has announced that it
will stop selling old-growth forest products by 2002. The company has been the
target of demonstrations and public outrage around the globe for carrying wood
products made from ancient trees, including British Columbia's endangered coastal
rainforest. More than 15,000 Sierra readers sent postcards to Home Depot earlier
this year calling on the Atlanta-based chain to "stop trading in wood that is
destroying the world's forest heritage." (See "Canada's Forgotten Coast," March/
CLEAN AIR WHEN? In the summer of 1997, a major Club campaign helped convince
President Clinton to sign off on an EPA proposal for tough new standards for soot
and smog emissions. This summer, though, a three-judge D.C. Circuit Court panel
threw out the new standards, ruling that Congress-by directing the EPA to write
the rules necessary to implement the Clean Air Act-had unconstitutionally
delegated power to a federal agency. The EPA has appealed the
decision, which could go to the U.S. Supreme Court. (See "Big Win for Little
Lungs," November/December 1997.)
BOMBS, AWAY! Conservationists and the U.S. Air Force have signed a truce in the
decade-long war over the fate of Idaho's Owyhee plateau. A variety of outdoor and
environmental groups hammered out an agreement in July with the Air Force, which
has used the fragile canyonlands-home to elk, deer, and bighorn sheep, and
beloved by river rafters-as a bombing range. Roger Singer, conservation
coordinator for the Middle Snake Group and the Sierra Club's representative in
the talks, says the settlement "puts real, court-enforceable limitations on the
Air Force's maneuverings in the air above nearly 2 million acres of public land,
and on ground-disturbing activities affecting wildlife and recreation." It is, he
adds, "a real victory for our side." (See "Their Own Private Idaho" in
"Homefront," May/June 1999.)