In March this year, I was up early for the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter and Military Outdoor's second-ever Hike and Learn at Intrenchment Creek in Atlanta. Intrenchment Creek is the proposed site for the controversial police training facility called Cop City by opponents and activists opposed to the facility.
I sat out the first Hike and Learn in February due to COVID-19. Still, our great outings leader and Marine Corps veteran Nate Edwards led that outing to the enjoyment of the 15 attendees. I was looking forward to a similar number of people showing up that morning, but temperatures were only going to be 32 degrees. I didn't consider that Southerners are not fans of freezing temps. Unfortunately, an hour before the outing, I got several emails and calls from folks who canceled. Being a Midwesterner means that, barring a blizzard, I'd gladly get outside even in cold weather. All was not lost; my Marine Corps brethren Nate Edwards showed up, and so did Jackie Echols from South River Watershed Alliance. We had a small film crew of three people show up, too. The film crew, led by an independent journalist, was documenting the fight to stop Cop City in Georgia and beyond.
That morning and afternoon, we hiked Intrenchment Creek. We had robust discussions about the impact of the proposed Cop City, the outdated sewer system in Dekalb County, Georgia, and other issues that the local community had been fighting long before Forest Defenders turned Weelaunee People’s Park (Intrenchment Creek) into a national hotspot of collective action.
Even with the cold weather and cancellations, we still made an impact by connecting with the media to share our conservation and environmental justice message with a broader audience. And in partnership with the Georgia Chapter, we were able to understand and connect with grassroots organizations and local activists on the ground fighting to protect the air, land, and water. Now, our Georgia Chapter Sierra Club is supporting a large portion of SRWA’s legal work in the fight against Cop City. We are glad that SCMO was a small part of fostering this partnership with grassroots organizations.
That’s been one of the biggest strengths of the Sierra Club Military Outdoors (SCMO) Chapter Support campaign since we officially launched in 2022 – not just getting veterans and servicemembers outdoors but also involved directly with the environmental justice issues impacting their communities.
The challenges, the opportunity
The SCMO Chapter Support campaign and the rest of the Sierra Club have had some growing pains. Sierra Club, like everything else, was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Trying to coordinate with several Sierra Club chapters and groups has been a challenge. At the same time, the organization brought on new leadership and went through a significant restructuring this year. Rather than stopping us, all this has made us more adaptable as we continued our mission of connecting veterans to nature and each other to benefit both.
SCMO has undergone many evolutions, leading to this point where we are utilizing our most incredible resource, the Sierra Club chapters. This chapter work has extended our reach to influence lawmakers and the Department of Veterans Affairs to help them see that nature can be the perfect addition to traditional talk therapy and medicine for veterans dealing with issues like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury, combat injuries, and other issues impacting their quality of life. SCMO policy work at the local and national level helps countless veterans gain access to green spaces and break down barriers that prevent them from getting outdoors through actions including improving transit options or authorizing fee-free passes. We do this through impressive coalition building with veteran service organizations, non-profits, and the outdoor industry.
We recognize not all veterans and service members face these challenges. However, many may still feel disconnected from their families and communities, and spending time in nature with people who have experienced similar struggles can help fight those feelings of isolation. By working to make changes on a national level, we are making a positive impact for all veterans, even those who have never had the pleasure of joining us for an in-person SCMO outing. Offering a chance for veterans to get outdoors in their backyard with their local outing groups or organizations is the point and the best complement to our excellent advocacy work.
Our first cohort of Sierra Club chapters and groups are Atlantic, Alaska, Connecticut, Loma Prieta, North Star, Angeles, and North Florida. This year, we've added two more chapters, Georgia and Michigan.
The power of partnerships and individuals
The Michigan Chapter coming on board highlights the potential power of local partnerships. They've partnered with Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, an organization led by Army veteran and former SCMO director Stacy Bare. This partnership will undoubtedly connect veterans across Michigan to unique outdoor experiences and advocacy to protect the Mitten State's green spaces.
We've experienced the power of local partnerships in action. The North Star Chapter has partnered with AARP in Minnesota to provide outings to senior veterans and their families. The North Star Chapter is also developing partnerships with local BIPOC-led outfitters to ensure their outings reach historically underserved communities. The North Florida Group has grown a strong relationship with the First Coast YMCA in Jacksonville. It has connected veterans from the YMCA and Sierra Club to outdoor opportunities for them and their families. I enjoyed witnessing it in person in April this year for an Earth Day event at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park in Florida. The theme of the event was diversity in the outdoors. Attendees watched a live bluegrass band and belly dance performance, and we experienced the haunting beauty of live oak trees with Spanish moss accenting them on Florida's north coast during our hike.
We have established a productive partnership with local Vet Centers and VA hospitals in Georgia and the Bay Area. And we're proud to highlight outstanding individuals who have given back to their local community and made all this possible. For example, Tammy Smith from the North Florida Group was the first person highlighted in our Military Outdoors Shoutouts. A U.S. Navy Veteran who dealt with severe PTSD, Tammy got to the point where she couldn't leave her home. Her mental health challenges greatly impacted her life and her family. Working with her therapist, she was encouraged to get outside. In 2018, she discovered the Sierra Club was hosting local outings near her home.
Fast forward several years later, and not only is Tammy getting back outside, but she's thriving as a new outings leader in North Florida. She is passionate about getting people with disabilities outdoors, like her son, who has Down syndrome. She exemplifies the highest ideal of the Sierra Club, that nature is a human right and that all people deserve access to the outdoors, regardless of age, ability, or tax bracket.
This work has no plan of slowing down in 2024. This Veterans Day, several chapters host and co-host outings nationwide, from parades to day hikes to community picnics.
Veterans can potentially be our greatest ally in the fight against the climate crisis. Sierra Club’s military veteran roots run deep. The first executive director of the Sierra Club was a World War II Army Veteran named David Brower. He was a man who dedicated his life to fighting for clean air, land, and water for all. Our chapter work will continue this legacy of veterans becoming champions of the environment to ensure a greener future for all generations.