A stack of outfits hides behind Melinda Pierce's office door, including a conservative
suit for attending fundraisers and a blouse, slacks, and Doc Martens shoes for
spur-of-the-moment lobbying. Within five minutes of my arrival in the Sierra Club's
crowded 40-person office in Washington, D.C., I'm working at Pierce's hectic pace, racing
downstairs to fax a Sierra Club newspaper ad and back upstairs to field calls from
legislators, stopping only for a quick meeting in the hall.
It's early October, just four days before the scheduled end of the congressional
session, and Pierce and the other members of the public-lands lobbying team are in high
gear, enlisting last-minute cosponsors for a bill to protect forests one minute and
fighting to keep anti-environmental riders out of an appropriations bill the next. To an
outsider, the number of campaigns seems daunting, the intricacies of congressional
procedure almost impossible to understand. Yet Pierce and her colleagues seem to thrive on
the chaos. After seven years as a Club lobbyist, Pierce still speaks of it as her dream
job, and public-lands director Melanie Griffin expresses similar sentiments: "Doing
this work, you feel like you're living your life the way you should be," she says.
Soon, I'm on my way to Capitol Hill to help with a "drop"--lobby lingo for
passing out Sierra Club position papers--on the Interior appropriations bill. It gives me
the creeps just to stand outside Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's office door, but even
the Club's most vocal opponents receive the material so they can be held accountable later
for their anti-environmental votes. When distributed to friendly senators, the drops serve
their primary purpose: "They're ammunition in a rhetoric war," explains Pierce.
"We want to encourage our champions to go on the floor and represent the
The timing of the drops is critical. Especially near the end of a session, a bill could
pass out of committee in days-or minutes-and go to a vote. No matter what's going on in
the office, someone has an eye on C-SPAN, monitoring the progress of the House and Senate.
If a bill doesn't get voted on before Congress closes up shop, the lobbyists will have to
start all over again the following year.
The effort can seem Sisyphean, but it's effective. When the Aspen Institute asked
members of Congress and officials from the Clinton administration in 1997 to name "the
national nonprofit organizations that you believe have the most influence on federal
policy," the Sierra Club was mentioned far more often than any other environmental
policy group. Most of the Club's big public-lands victories have been defensive since
1994, when conservative Republicans gained control of Congress.
"When the Republicans
took over, we realized we had to fight to even have public lands," says Griffin, an
18-year Club lobbying veteran. The lobbyists' defensive skills should help them fend off
the worst proposals from the new Congress. If they get a chance to advance green
legislation, big wilderness bills in the Arctic, Utah, California, and the Northern
Rockies, and ending logging on national forests top their list. "I started working
here when Reagan was president," Griffin says. "So I've never really been let
Meanwhile, the lobbyists have been honing a secret weapon: "As awful as it has
been having an anti-environmental Congress, it has really encouraged us to go back to our
strengths in the grassroots," Griffin says. The Sierra Club has an army of people
standing up at public meetings across the country, and writing letters to the editor of
their local newspapers, saying the same things the lobbyists are saying in Washington.
"When I go into a congressional office, they know that we have members who are
constituents in their district," Pierce says. "Other lobbyists may have the
cachet of money, but our cachet is people."
Part of the D.C. staff's job is to keep in touch with grassroots activists about
strategy and to help them decide when to hold out for more, and when compromise may be
necessary. Given the arcane rules and unlikely allegiances of Congress, anyone who insists
on a "perfect" solution may not get any. This frequent communication often
requires sacrificing evenings for late-night conference calls with local activists, but in
some ways, it's the most important part of the day.
"Industry lobbyists are just doing a job. They run on negative stuff-ego, power
trips, money, revenge. This is not just a job. We run on the inspiration of Yosemite, of
the people we've met who need help with their local causes," Griffin says. "The
grassroots makes us different. When I go to the Hill, I know I have people behind me, that
I'm speaking for them and their special places."
And the Winner Is...
by Jennifer Hattam
Last September the Sierra Club's highest honor, its John Muir Award, went to Carla
Cloer, a Porterville, California, teacher who after two decades of work finally
gained protection for the giant sequoias of the southern Sierra Nevada. New York
congressman Maurice Hinchey won the Edgar Wayburn Award for championing
the Utah wilderness bill, while Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald
received the David R. Brower Award for his exposÚs on the Army Corps of Engineers.
Chicagoan Patrick Murphy, a national conservation director for the Sierra
Student Coalition, won the Joseph Barbosa Earth Fund Award, an honor for Club leaders
under age 30 that includes a $2,000 prize to help Murphy's effort. International
conservationists honored were Beth Clark, of the Antarctica Project, with
the Raymond Sherwin International Award; the Bellona Foundation of
Norway, with the EarthCare Award; and Mexican activist Rodolfo Montiel Flores,
with the Chico Mendes Award. Florida photographer Clyde Butcher won the
Ansel Adams Award, while Eric Huber of New Orleans won the William O.
Douglas Award for environmental law.
The Electronic Communication Award went to Charlotte Gardner, who created web pages for the Georgia Chapter and Savannah River Group,
and the Maryland and Delaware Chapters both won Newsletter Awards for their publications.
Special Service Awards for longtime activism went to George Barnes of
Palo Alto, California; Peter Belmont of St. Petersburg, Florida; Dennis
Schvejda of North Haledon, New Jersey; Jan Swenson, Gerhard
Raedeke, and Diane Warner of Bismarck, North Dakota; and the
members of the Angeles Chapter's Santa Monica Mountains Task Force.
The Central Florida,
Santa Fe, and Poudre Canyon Groups were honored for fundraising/membership development
efforts with the Denny and Ida Wilcher Award, while Harold Wood of Visalia, California,
and the Rio Grande Chapter were presented with Special Achievement Awards. Former Board
director Shirley Taylor of Los Gatos, California, took the Walter A. Starr Award for
continuing contributions to the Club; Marjorie Sill of Reno, Nevada, the William E. Colby
Award for outstanding leadership, dedication, and service; Carol Vellutini of Santa Rosa,
California, the Oliver Kehrlein Award for her work with the Club's outings program; Robin
and Lori Ives of Claremont, California, the Susan E. Miller Award for outstanding chapter
service; and Camille Armstrong of San Diego, California, the One Club Award for combining
conservation and recreation on Club outings.
Join the Network
To join the Sierra Club activist network, write to the Office of Volunteer and Activist
Services, 85 Second St., San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Members of
the network receive a free subscription to the Planet, our monthly activist newsletter,
and the Sierra Club Action Daily, an e-mail update.