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Sierra Magazine
Thinking Big

Five bold ideas for the new century

A clearcut prevented in Georgia. A golf course blocked in Hawaii. A mining claim denied in Wisconsin. Local victories like these are the bread and butter of the environmental movement. Sometimes, however, it's nice to work on changing the world on a larger scale.

For this millennial issue of Sierra, we present a few of the Sierra Club's Big Dreams for America's environment. While we're fighting the crucial local battles, we're also working on these goals: vast stretches of protected wildlands, national forests without logging, natural river flows, an end to pollution, and sustainable cities. Instead of just fighting to keep what we already have, we're envisioning the way things ought to be.

Enacting these big visions won't be easy--but then neither was felling the forests or building the dams. Adversity didn't stop previous generations from "conquering" the natural world, and it can't stop ours from saving it.


Big Wilds: Protect One Hundred Million Acres

On the eve of the new century, little remains of our nation's original wildlands. More than 95 percent of America's old-growth forests has been logged. Over 90 percent of our native prairies has been plowed under or grazed away. Half of our wetlands has been drained, and 100,000 acres more is lost each year.

To save what's left, the Sierra Club's Wildlands Campaign aims to protect or increase current safeguards for 100 million acres, including imperiled treasures such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Alaska's coastal rainforest, the Maine Woods, the Everglades, the Northern Rockies, Utah's redrock wilderness, and the giant sequoias of the southern Sierra Nevada.

Included in the campaign are dozens of smaller special places, locally beloved landscapes such as Arizona's San Francisco Peaks, New Hampshire’s White Mountains, North Dakota's National Grasslands, and Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin.

Some of these wildlands are part of other initiatives that seek to connect and preserve entire ecosystems. The Northern Rockies, for example, are vital to Y2Y, a U.S./Canadian effort to preserve an 1,800-mile arc from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon Territory. They also figure in the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), which would link wild areas in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming with wildlife migration corridors for grizzlies and other far-ranging animals otherwise trapped in dead ends of genetic isolation.

"We can look at what's left of our natural heritage and see a spiritual element, rather than a frontier to be conquered," says Melanie Griffin, coordinator of the Wildlands Campaign. "It connects us to our ancestors and future generations."

How to Help
For more information about the Sierra Club's effort to secure lasting protection for 100 million acres of America's vanishing wild heritage in the next decade, see www.sierraclub.org/wildlands/.


National Forests: End Commercial Logging

People often assume that federal ownership automatically saves wildlands from being plundered. Sadly, that's not the case, as is shown by the scars of clearcuts and logging roads on our 191 million acres of national forests. "We're doing an incredible amount of damage to the last, best fish-and-wildlife habitat in the country, and we receive so little for it," says Sean Cosgrove, the Sierra Club's associate Washington representative. "Only four percent of the wood and wood products that Americans use each year comes from the national forest system."

The Club is lobbying for the passage of the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, coauthored by Representatives Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa). The measure would eliminate commercial logging on federal public lands, promote restoration, and aid economically stressed logging communities.

A logging ban is just the first step. "To recover species like salmon in the Pacific Northwest or songbirds in the Southeast, it's not enough to protect the last remaining scraps of intact habitat," Cosgrove says. "We need to start restoring damaged habitat to bring back naturally functioning ecosystems." Doing so would guarantee clean water for our cities, tourism and recreation opportunities, and jobs for rural communities.

"We're changing the debate in America about how we manage our national forests," says Cosgrove. "The question used to be, 'How much can we log?' Now people are asking, 'Should we even log at all?'"

How to Help
The Sierra Club's End Commercial Logging Campaign is calling on the Forest Service to end its taxpayer-subsidized timber-sale program. To help, contact Sean Cosgrove at (202) 547-1141 or sean.cosgrove@sierraclub.org, or visit www.sierraclub.org/logging/.


Free-Flowing Rivers: Bring Down the Dams

In Edward Abbey's eco-classic The Monkey Wrench Gang, a band of nature-loving malcontents plots to restore the Colorado River by blowing up Glen Canyon Dam. The Sierra Club has the same goal of rescuing rivers across the country (minus the outlaw pyrotechnics).

Along with the Glen Canyon Institute, the Club wants to decommission Glen Canyon Dam and drain the Lake Powell reservoir, eventually restoring 180 miles of river upstream. "Glen Canyon could provide prime breeding habitat for endangered fish, as well as a connection between isolated habitats along the Colorado River all the way down to Mexico," says Rob Smith, director of the Club's Southwest office. At present, so much water is sucked from the Colorado that the river often fails to reach the Sea of Cortez, dooming species like the endangered desert pupfish and the Yuma clapper rail.

"Our use of the Colorado River is unsustainable," says Steve Glazer, chair of the Club's Colorado River Task Force. "We've turned the river into a plumbing system."

Many interests like it that way. "Lake Foul" provides water and electricity for burgeoning western states, as well as fortunes for Jet Ski merchants and party-barge owners. But an Environmental Defense Fund study has shown that the region’s water and power needs could be met by Hoover Dam and more energy conservation. "Dams are a political decision," Smith says. "If people want to build one, we build one. If we want to stop using one, we can do that too." Another prime candidate for retirement is O'Shaughnessy Dam, built in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1923 over the ardent opposition of John Muir and the young Sierra Club. "We want to restore this beautiful valley," says Ron Good, chair of the Club's Hetch Hetchy Task Force, which proposes re-engineering Don Pedro Reservoir downstream to meet San Francisco's water needs.

The tide is turning against dams across the country. In 1997 Quaker Neck Dam in North Carolina became the first large dam to be removed in the United States solely for environmental reasons. Last year, Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River met the same fate, and the Club is spearheading an effort to save salmon in the Pacific Northwest by breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington.

Good is encouraged: "Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is going around the country with a sledgehammer, giving speeches about preserving wild rivers," he says.

How to Help
Want to help save salmon in the Pacific Northwest? Contact Jim Baker at (509) 332-5173 or jim.baker@sierraclub.org. To join the Hetch Hetchy Valley restoration effort, contact Ron Good at (209) 372-8785 or rongood@inreach.com, or visit http://california.sierraclub.org/hetchhetchy/. To help restore the Colorado, contact Steve Glazer at (970) 349-6646 or steve.glazer@sierraclub.org.


Clean Air & Water: Phase Out the Poisons

The passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, which clamped down on air pollution, was a milestone victory for environmentalists. Since that time, we’ve learned that even limited amounts of such poisons as PCBs (banned in the United States in 1977), mercury, and dioxin are too much. These substances have been linked to cancer and neurological, reproductive, and developmental disorders. Once released into the atmosphere (medical-waste incinerators are a leading source of mercury and dioxin emissions) they disperse around the globe, where they persist for decades. High concentrations of dioxins, for example, are found in Greenland, northern Canada, and the Great Lakes region, where cool temperatures prevent the poisons from vaporizing and moving on. Persistent pollutants accumulate as they travel up the food chain, finally settling in the fatty tissue of humans—where they can be passed on to fetuses and breastfeeding infants.

"These pollutants have an entire 'death cycle' as they move from smokestacks to fish and wildlife to fish sticks to mother's milk," says Marti Sinclair, vice chair of the Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Strategy Team. The Club is working to establish a zero-discharge zone, starting with Lake Superior, the least polluted of the Great Lakes.

Since pollution freely crosses borders, Club activists are also lobbying the U.S. government to negotiate a strong global treaty that would phase out persistent organic pollutants. Current federal policy merely advises Great Lakes and subsistence anglers to eat less fish. "The industries that have caused this pollution ought to pay for cleaning it up," says Emily Green, director of the Club's Great Lakes Ecoregion Program. "People should be able to eat the fish out of the nation’s waters, which belong to everyone."

How to Help
To aid the Sierra Club in its global efforts to ban persistent bioaccumulative poisons such as mercury, dioxin, and PCBs, contact Marti Sinclair at (513) 674-1983 or mjsinclair@prodigy.net. To help clean up the Great Lakes, contact Emily Green at (608) 257-4994 or emily.green@sierraclub.org.


Livable Cities: Halt Urban Sprawl by Aiding Urban Areas

Ultimately we can't protect wild places and wild creatures without improving the places where people live. "Suburbs are growing outward because people don't find the quality of life that they should in our urban centers," says Sierra Club Southern California representative Jim Blomquist. "We need to attack sprawling development when it destroys open spaces, but we also need to address the reasons why people want to leave the city."

The sickness of sprawl-pollution and traffic congestion, lost open space, high taxes, and deserted downtowns-infects communities across America. But nowhere does the Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign face a bigger battle than in California, where the population is expected to increase nearly 50 percent by 2020. Southern California alone will gain almost 7 million new residents.

"People look back on the seventies, when California had about twenty million people and Orange County still had orange groves, as if it were nirvana," Blomquist says. "I don't want to look back on the 1990s and say, 'Ah, those were the great years.'"

California Vision 2020 lays out an agenda to make the future better than the past. "California subsidizes poorly planned growth in the outer suburbs and discourages development in the inner cities and older suburbs," says Blomquist. "These communities don't have sufficient funds to improve their environment. We want to get urban California a fair share for transportation, water quality, and parks." The Club's anti-sprawl campaign calls for more local, state, and federal money to buy open space; stronger land-use planning; funding for urban development; and better mass transit.

"The success or failure of Los Angeles as a nice place to live affects wildlands all over the West," Blomquist says. "Unless we want to see our big urban areas become human centrifuges, flinging people out into every rural and wild area, we need to make cities livable."

How to Help
Tired of traffic jams, smog, and the rapid destruction of open space? Then join the Sierra Club's nationwide Challenge to Sprawl Campaign. For more information visit www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/.

Jennifer Hattam is Sierra's assistant editor.


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