Idaho at Its Best

July 23, 2014

Last year, about 900,000 people marveled at the majestic old-growth redwoods of Muir Woods. But if President Theodore Roosevelt had not saved those trees by declaring a national monument, people would be admiring a municipal reservoir rather than the majestic Cathedral Grove.

The importance of national monuments was on our minds as we headed to the final stop on our family tour of special places that the Sierra Club is working to protect. If it happens, the proposed Boulder-White Clouds National Monument in Idaho will be one of the biggest conservation achievements of the Obama administration. At 572,000 acres, it would be more than 1,000 times larger than Muir Woods. Just east of the Sawtooth Range in the Northern Rockies, the proposed monument's boundaries include the largest still-unprotected roadless wilderness in the U.S. outside of Alaska. This is Idaho at its best: stunning beauty, clear water, and rich wildlife habitat.

With three young kids and a long weekend, we knew that experiencing more than a fraction of this mountainous wilderness -- where Idahoans love to hike, mountain bike, backpack, ski, hunt, and fish -- would be impossible. What we did get to see, though, was spectacular.

We drove from our campground on the Big Wood River (just north of Ketchum) into the southern tip of the proposed monument. The last ten miles along a dusty Forest Service road brought us to the trailhead for our final family hike of the trip.

Road to Fourth of July Lake

The road to the mountains. See more pics and updates from our trip here.

Hiking to lakes seems to be a recurring theme on this trip, and the short trek to Fourth of July Lake rewarded us with yet another sparkling alpine gem. Lakes and mountains go together really well, don't they? Retreating glaciers carved hundreds of lakes into these mountains.

Fourth of July Lake

Sebastian hangs with Matt Kirby, from the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign, at Fourth of July Lake.

This scenic, remote, and rugged landscape is beloved by locals and visitors alike. It's a national treasure, and (not counting the odd mining company) nobody wants to see it despoiled. And yet despite many years of effort by both concerned citizens and enlightened politicians, the U.S. Congress has stubbornly refused to move on legislation that would provide proper wilderness protection for these lands.

That failure by Congress means that it's up to President Obama to ensure long-term protection for these pristine mountain ranges. The Sierra Club's Idaho Chapter is part of a broad coalition of local groups that support a monument proposal that reflects the many ways people love to experience this wilderness. Whether we are hikers, backpackers, or sportsmen -- we all know that protection for these mountains can't wait. A new national monument would ensure wise management of recreational access, while creating a lasting sanctuary for people, fish, and wildlife.

After my first taste of what the proposed Boulder-White Clouds National Monument has to offer, I needed to see more. So, early on Saturday, I headed back up the highway to the Smiley Creek Airport (actually, a well-mowed grass strip) and squeezed myself into the backseat of a small plane for a flyover. From above, the mountains and canyons looked as wild and inviolable as they have for millennia. Yet without long-term protection, they have an uncertain future.

Flyover

A bird's-eye view of the proposed monument.

President Obama has stepped up the pace of his national monument designations during his second term and, as I heard him say at the signing ceremony last May for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, he's not finished yet. Here, in the heart of Idaho, is one of the last and greatest unprotected jewels of American wilderness. You can help us convince President Obama to save it.

Let President Obama know that you think Boulder-White Clouds deserves to be our next national monument. You can tell him the Brune family sent you. 

G and Dad

"Anywhere So Beautiful"

July 21, 2014

No matter how much I love my job, being away from Mary and the kids while I travel for work is always tough. Even on a fantastic trip like the one I took to the Arctic last month, I constantly catch myself wishing they could be there to see it with me.

That's why these two weeks of summer are the best of both worlds. I get to meet fantastic Sierra Club volunteers from all over the Northwest, learn about the work they're doing, and see the beautiful places that inspire them. Plus, I get to do it with the whole family. Believe me, that makes up for a lot of budget and policy meetings.

After a brief layover in Seattle with relatives, we and our three junior explorers set off for the Cascades again, this time to the little town of Index, Washington -- on the North Fork Skykomish River. Index was once a mining and lumber town, but today outdoor recreation drives the local economy. In fact, every year, direct consumer spending on outdoor recreation adds $22.5 billion to Washington State's economy and supports more than 226,600 jobs.

We reached Index by lunchtime and hung out with locals and some great folks from the Sierra Club's Washington State Chapter at a riverside BBQ hosted by the Outdoor Adventure Center. Rafting and kayaking are a major attraction here. Thousands of people come here for some of the best whitewater in Washington. Although we didn't have time to do any rafting ourselves, the kids got in some practice on dry land.

  Raft

Future rafters Genevieve and Olivia. See more pics and updates from our trip here.

Although only an hour's drive from Seattle, Index is a gateway to the Wild Sky Wilderness, which was created by Congress in 2008, after a long, hard-fought campaign that had strong local support but kept getting derailed by anti-environmental legislators from other states. Wild Sky is Washington State's newest wilderness, and it's already extremely popular.

One thing we couldn't help but notice was the railroad trestle that crosses the Skykomish here, which led to the subject of oil trains. People here and throughout the Northwest are understandably worried that, sooner or later, a big increase in oil shipments by rail will lead to disaster. It doesn't inspire confidence that this same trestle bridge across the Skykomish was the site of a seven-car derailment in 1981.

After lunch, we headed for our first family hike in Washington, which started at a trailhead only about a dozen miles from Index. Together with some of our new Sierra Club friends, we hiked about two miles to Barclay Lake, which is nestled right on the edge of the Wild Sky Wilderness but still in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The gently rolling trail was perfect for a family with kids, and the lake itself was gorgeous -- clear and cold (as my kids and I can personally attest), with steep, rocky Mt. Baring looming over us like a fortress.

The dozens of vehicles parked at the trailhead testified to the popularity of both the trail and the lake -- and we saw lots of other families as we hiked. Like the Wild Sky Wilderness itself, Barclay Lake is a great example of what the Sierra Club calls "Nearby Nature." Although it's great that we can protect remote wilderness areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it's also important that we have more accessible wild places where a young family from, say, Seattle, can enjoy hiking, camping, and all kinds of outdoor recreation. Our family had a great time.

We also had a fantastic time camping and hiking in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which was created by Congress in 1976 and includes more than 700 lakes and mountain ponds scattered across more than 300,000 acres of the Cascade Range. We enjoyed another family-friendly but longish hike to one of those lakes (Talapus) through Douglas fir, cedar, and western hemlock. However, we may have overtaxed the endurance of our youngest explorer. 

  Tuckered

Getting carried up and down hills can be exhausting!

Like the smaller Wild Sky Wilderness, parts of the Alpine Lakes area were logged and mined before finally being protected. Interestingly, the bills that protected each of these wilderness areas were both signed by Republican presidents: Gerald Ford and George W. Bush. President Ford actually acted against the advice of the Forest Service. He supposedly made up his mind after spending an hour with Washington State's governor (a fellow Eagle Scout) admiring the photos in a book called The Alpine Lakes. "Anywhere so beautiful should be preserved," Ford said. What a great example of the personal prevailing over the political.

By the way, that coffee-table book, which saved hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, was coauthored by my friend (and former Sierra Club Northwest representative) Brock Evans, who's still out there fighting the good fight to this day.

And there's still plenty to fight for. The west side of the North Cascades has more than 250 miles of eligible wild and scenic rivers, along with over 350,000 acres of federally owned, unprotected wildlands. Unfortunately, politicians who share President Ford's opinion are in short supply these days -- especially in Congress. But though political tides may shift, you can be sure that Sierra Club folk will not only be exploring and enjoying these wild lands but also working hard to protect them.

  Family

Our next stop: Idaho and the Boulder-White Cloud mountains.

 

Here's Waldo

July 15, 2014

Does doing something two years in a row qualify as a "family tradition"? If so, this is shaping up to be a great one. Once again, my wife Mary and I have packed the tent, the camping gear, the bug spray, and, oh yeah, our ever-intrepid kids into the minivan for a two-week road trip to explore some of the wild and beautiful places that the Sierra Club is working to protect. Last year, we visited the Southwest, so this time around we're taking a northern route through Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

In Oregon, our first big stop was at a place that I'm happy to say has already been protected for more than a century: Crater Lake National Park. The blue water looked as amazing as when gold prospectors stumbled upon it in 1853. It's the deepest lake in the U.S., with incredibly clear water.

But our first major destination for this part of our trip was actually a little further north in the Cascades, where there's a cluster of lakes that includes the Oregon's second-largest and second-deepest natural lake. Waldo Lake isn't as famous as its bigger cousin. In fact, until 1969, the only way to reach it was on foot or horseback. That's part of what makes it special, though. Apart from three Forest Service campgrounds, it's completely undeveloped, and its water is incredibly clean -- among the purest lake water in the world.  

Waldo2

At Waldo Lake with Olivia and Genevieve. See more pics and updates from our trip here.

Waldo Lake and much of the surrounding area are managed as roadless wilderness by the U.S. Forest Service. To ensure that this part of the Cascades remains wild and beautiful, though, permanent protection is needed. When we arrived at Waldo Lake, we got to meet a few of the people who are working together to make that happen.

The Oregon Chapter's Juniper Group, which encompasses most of central and eastern Oregon, is running a first-class "Keep Waldo Wild" campaign. It's been led since 2010 by David Stowe, who has written a beautiful account of what inspired him to start the campaign. David, as well as Juniper Group chair Gretchen Valido and Oregon Chapter chair Larry Pennington, were among the local folks who came out to show us "their" lake.

My favorite thing about this campaign is how the local Sierra Club has reached out to other wilderness users. The unspoiled, old-growth forests around Waldo Lake are also popular with mountain bikers and trail runners, who don't want to see it logged or overrun by motor vehicles any more than we do. So the Keep Waldo Wild campaign is based on an innovative National Conservation Area model that's previously been used on BLM lands. It will establish new wilderness as well as multiuser conservation areas that still provide strong environmental protections.

That's how we were also able to meet Woody Starr, the chair of the Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA), which is one of the mountain biking organizations that have endorsed the Club's plan for protecting Waldo Lake. Life isn't always fair, however. Although five-year-old Sebastian showed off his newly acquired bike skills on a forest trail, I'm the one who scored the cool COTA bike jersey.

From Waldo Lake it was on to the Eugene area, where we hiked Mt. June with inspiring Sierra Club volunteers Cathy Corlett, Gordon Levitt, Bill Sullivan and Mike Brinkley. They were showing us the Hardesty Wildlands, which the Oregon Chapter's Many Rivers Group is working to protect. Like the area around Lake Waldo, these are Forest Service-managed lands, which means that more than 6,000 wilderness-quality acres are still at risk of being logged.

When we reached the summit of Mt. June and looked across the forested ridge to Mt. Hardesty, I gave silent thanks for the volunteers who work nights and weekends, for months and years at a time, to secure permanent protection for places like this. Oregonians, and all of us, are fortunate to have these beautiful wild places to visit and enjoy. May we never forget that keeping them safe doesn't happen by accident.

Our next stop: the Evergreen State and the Wild Sky Wilderness!

Look What You Did!

July 11, 2014

I returned from the Arctic last week, and the beauty and peacefulness that I experienced there still occupy my dreams. Sure, the grizzly we encountered in our camp the first night has a starring role, but mostly it's the grandeur and sublime tranquility that were so captivating.

I knew the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was big, but I didn't really comprehend how big until we flew into it. For miles and miles and miles on end, we passed over one mountain, broad valley, and watershed after another. Such an expanse of untouched wilderness was inspiring, humbling, and breathtaking all at once.

Could there be any better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act than to explore (in my case, for the first time) the most completely wild place in the United States? If you want to be as far as possible from any human trail, road, or settlement, then this is where you come. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge encompasses more than 19.6 million acres, of which eight million are designated as a federally protected wilderness area.

  ArcticRefuge

(See more trip pics from me and my awesome traveling companions here.)

It's not called a wildlife refuge for nothing, either. This is as north as North America gets, but animals ranging from shrews to grizzlies call it home, along with more than 160,000 free-roaming caribou. Every year, the Porcupine caribou migrate 1,500 miles to their calving grounds on the coastal plain by the Arctic Ocean. That's like walking from Boston to Miami. It may be the greatest wildlife spectacle in North America.

I wondered whether we would see the Porcupine herd, but not for long -- there must have been a thousand caribou in the grassy valley where our plane set us down. After exploring in the valley under the midnight sun, we spent the rest of the week rafting down the Aichilik River to the coastal plain, winding up at the shore of the Arctic Ocean.

What a trip. Along the way, we saw wilderness at its wildest, with the Brooks Range looming at our backs and golden eagles, tundra swans, long-tailed jaegers, and even snowy owls watching from above. Just like the caribou, though, we were making another kind of journey -- from the part of the Refuge that is safe from oil and gas drilling to the part that is not.

The coastal plain of the Refuge, where the caribou give birth to their calves each year, has an odd name: Area 10-02. When the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was expanded in 1980 as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, proponents of oil and gas drilling insisted on adding a section (10-02) to the bill that mandated an inventory of potential oil and gas resources. How much oil is there? No one can say for sure, other than that it's not enough to affect global market prices. Undoubtedly, it would have a devastating effect on the caribou and other wildlife.

It would be easy to lose count of how many times during the past four decades we've come close to losing the fight to keep oil companies from invading the coastal plain. It's been a near thing way too many times. Yet we've always managed to keep the drills at bay -- and by "we," I mean the millions of Americans who've signed petitions, contacted their representatives, and otherwise played a part in, first, creating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and then in making sure that the oil companies stayed out.

That, above all, is what kept going through my mind as I marveled at this wilderness. Just look at what we did, together! Somehow, we've kept all of this safe. We all should be proud of that.

When at last we reached the shore of the Arctic Ocean, we had another surprise.  We'd hoped we might be able to venture onto the frozen sea and perhaps climb an ice ridge. Instead, waves lapped at the shore, with only a few isolated small icebergs offshore -- a reminder that the climate in Alaska is warming more rapidly than anywhere else in North America. A decade ago, the sea ice would definitely have extended all the way to the shore.

(One more reason to be in New York on September 21 for the People's Climate March.)

Our visit to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ended at the Inupiat village of Kaktovik (pop. 293). None of the local people I talked to were in favor of drilling, either offshore or on the coastal plain. Their main concern was to ensure they would continue to be able to do subsistence hunting to provide for themselves. None of them wanted the oil industry to move into the Refuge.

If that ever were to happen, we don't have to wonder what it would look like. West of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lies the largest oil field in North America -- a sprawling complex of oil wells, gravel roads, air strips, gravel pads, and equipment-storage sites that covers an area the size of Rhode Island. And as usual, where there is oil, there are oil spills. The largest was in 2006, when a corroded BP pipeline ruptured and leaked about 267,000 gallons of oil.

Could that happen in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Yes, as long as there's still money to be made from selling oil, and as long as the status of the coastal plain remains in limbo. The current U.S. House of Representatives would happily turn the coastal plain into a Chevron parking lot -- as long as oil companies could still erect their drilling rigs.

We can never let that happen. So until the coastal plain is truly protected once and for all, we all need to keep up the fight. Join the millions who've helped keep this wilderness wild: Ask the Obama administration to do everything it can to establish a lasting legacy by protecting the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A Day for Women and the World

July 10, 2014

At the most basic level, the cause of climate disruption is obvious: a rise in heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere because we are burning so much coal, oil, and natural gas around the world. But this basic cause and effect aspect of climate disruption is only part of the equation. The problem is not simply what we are doing; it's also how many of us are doing it. Population growth has had -- and will continue to have -- a big effect on our climate.

Want to know how big? Take this POP Quiz, created with our partners at Population Connection, to test your population smarts. Here's a hint if you're taking the quiz: In the last two decades alone, global population has gone from six to seven billion people. At the current pace, our planet could have 11 billion people by 2050.

Although developed countries like the U.S. are still responsible for the majority of wasteful fossil fuel consumption, developing nations, where most of the population growth is happening, are where consumption is increasing the fastest. For such countries, essential resources like water are scarce, and modern family-planning resources are even scarcer. An estimated 222 million women in those nations would like to be able to plan the spacing and timing of their children but don't have the education, access, power, religious, or cultural permission to use a modern method of family planning.

When women have more children, more closely together, it creates additional challenges -- such as providing food and water for their larger families. In many cases, women spend up to a quarter of their day -- six hours -- just finding and collecting water for their families. Often, they need their children to help them gather water, which keeps young boys and girls out of school and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

To make matters worse, the climate disruption caused by many decades of wasteful resource and fossil fuel consumption in developed countries like the U.S. disproportionately affects people in developing countries, who have far fewer resources to cope with disasters. Women and children fare worst of all: They are 14 times more likely to be killed during a natural disaster than men are.

This senseless cycle needs to end, for the sake of women, children, and our environment. Tomorrow is World Population Day. What better time to take action so that all women -- both here and the world over -- have access to the family-planning resources they need? Yes, it's essential that we curb climate pollution to limit climate disruption, but we can never truly have a healthy planet unless we provide support for healthy women and families.

Join our Google hangout tomorrow with Population Connection, Population Action International, Blue Ventures, and Representative. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to learn more.

The Power of People

July 03, 2014

Everyone has an occasional bad day at work, but it's tough to top the one that Rep. Eric Cantor had on June 10 in Virginia. Overnight, he went from being one of the most powerful figures in Congress to a trivia question: Name the first House majority leader in history to lose a primary. What made the election upset all the more stunning is that it didn't even appear to be a fair fight. Besides being an incumbent, Cantor outspent his Tea Party opponent, college professor Dave Brat, 26 to 1. Brat spent less than $200,000. His 23-year-old campaign manager only graduated from college last year.

What the heck happened? A lot of words have been put together to explain Cantor's defeat, but his loss should remind us of something that's easily forgotten in an era of Super PACs and billionaire donor networks: Real passion and commitment can't be bought. And despite the relatively recent influx of huge amounts of money into our electoral process, passion and commitment (which Brat's Tea Party supporters had in spades) can still win against any odds.

To my thinking, that's good news for the Sierra Club and our allies as we prepare for what looks to be an epic fight over our nation's energy future. At their latest top-secret summit, the billionaire Koch brothers set a goal of raising almost $300 million just this year to roll back progress on clean energy and fighting climate disruption. That might seem like a lot of money. OK, it is a lot of money, but it represents only 0.3 percent of the combined net worth of the Kochs. We are up against some deep, deep pockets.

They're not deep enough to stop us, though. Not if we harness the righteous people power of millions of Americans who aren't willing to stand by while our planet is destroyed. Many of the Sierra Club's most important campaigns, whether it's protecting special places or replacing dirty fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy, have been fought and won at the local, grassroots level. That's not going to change, either.

Of course, that doesn't mean we won't use new tools for grassroots activism -- the Internet and the rise of social media can't be ignored. But the basic principles of organizing people at the local level and winning against much bigger and better-funded opponents are timeless. So, if you're interested in helping us keep winning, I suggest you start by doing three things.

First, if you haven't already, connect with your local Sierra Club chapter. That's where you can find other people right now who want to make a better world. Chances are, they've got at least one local campaign that could use your help.

Second, get some tips and take some inspiration from folks who have already done this stuff successfully. I'm going to suggest three places to get you started, but a rich and diverse literature of grassroots wisdom is out there waiting to be tapped.

  • Closing the Cloud Factories: Lessons From the Fight to Shut Down Chicago's Coal Plants, by Kari Lydersen, tells the full story of how Chicago's Little Village neighborhood fought a long and ultimately successful campaign to retire the Fisk and Crawford coal plants. It's a free ebook you can read on your laptop or tablet. The people of Little Village didn't have a lot of political influence, much less money, but thanks to organizers like Kim Wasserman (herself a mom), they never gave up on stopping the air pollution that was making so many of their kids sick.

  • For a concise and practical overview of what it takes to run a grassroots environmental campaign, you can't beat Fight & Win by Brock Evans, who has decades of experience under his belt working on environmental campaigns for the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and others. His "manual for the new eco-warrior" combines both practical advice ("listen hard," "get people over to your place") and killer stories, including the time five people in Camden, NJ, managed to save "two million acres of a beautiful place in Alaska they'd never seen" by answering their phones. This is a book I wish I'd had 20 years ago when I started out as an environmental organizer.

  • And because this is a multigenerational effort, I want to give a shout-out to a book I can't wait to read and give to my kids: Josie and the Fourth Grade Bike Brigade, by Antonia Bruno and her parents, Kenny Bruno and Beth Handman. I read an advanced copy of this book, and it's awesome! Josie and her pals prove that you're never too young to do something about climate change, and show that it's possible to be a do-gooder and have fun, too. If you know any potential elementary school climate activists, they'll be both entertained and inspired by Josie's adventures.

And my final suggestion is a bit of a tease: Watch this space. The Sierra Club is cooking up some new approaches to digital environmental activism that you'll hear more about later this summer. I think you’ll love it. We're going to give regular people even greater access to the power they already have -- power that can change the world. That's a kind of power the Kochs and their pals will never know -- because it's not for sale.

An American Moment

July 01, 2014

You might want to save this date: September 21. Here's why.

Activists working to address the climate crisis have been cautiously cheering President Obama this year -- for telegraphing that he's likely to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and for the Clean Power Plan, an important set of standards that his Environmental Protection Agency has proposed for cutting carbon pollution from existing coal-fired power plants.

Yet as scientists know, as polar bears know, and as people who've experienced extreme weather know, the nation and the world are still moving too slowly to avert climate disaster.

The drumbeat for urgency is growing, however, and it's not just coming from the tree-hugging contingent. Last week, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, retired hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and other leaders known for keeping an eye on bottom lines released a report called "Risky Business." It makes a sobering case for why the nation cannot afford the economic costs of climate change.

The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has already reached levels not seen since long before we even evolved. The human suffering that results may be incalculable, but the economic consequences are not. The International Energy Agency has estimated that for every year the world delays taking significant action to curb climate change, we will have to spend an additional $500 billion down the road.

At a Senate hearing that many Republicans hoped would undercut the EPA's proposed Clean Power Act, four former heads of the EPA, under Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush testified instead that action is imperative. Noting that businesses and states are already taking the crisis seriously, William Ruckelshaus, who headed the first EPA under Nixon, said: "There is a lot happening on climate. It's just not happening in Washington."

Indeed, our government may be gridlocked by the Republicans who control the House while hamstrung by ties to a fossil fuel lobby that demands utter fealty, but local leaders and the American people are moving forward fast.

Just last year, Al Gore and I stood and watched as then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's history-making plan to stop using coal-fired power by 2025 and replace it with cleaner energy sources.

That was a proud moment for Los Angeles, and Al Gore ended an impassioned speech that day on a hopeful note about the ability of our society to quickly evolve: "If somebody had told you four years ago," he said, "that on this beautiful March day, 60 percent of the American people would say, 'we are in favor of gay marriage,' you would have said, 'no we can't change that much that fast.' But we can, and we did." The same will be true of attitudes about cutting carbon, he predicted.

My guess is that even Al Gore is surprised by how soon his prophecy has become reality. When this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its Clean Power Plan for cutting carbon emissions from power plants, polls found about 70 percent of Americans in favor.

This really is a potentially defining American moment. We cannot let it slip from our grasp, for while momentum is on our side, time is not. And so on September 21, tens of thousands of people will converge on New York City to urge the president to show the hundreds of world leaders gathering in that city for the United Nations Climate Summit, that America is ready to lead a global response to this global crisis.

We're going to make 2014 the tipping point year in the international effort to solve the climate crisis, and contrary to what those who remain corrupted by the influence of the coal, oil, and gas industries would like you to think, the world we're already tipping toward is not one of diminished lifestyle, but one of rare historic opportunity.

Already, people across America are finding well-paying, meaningful jobs building the wind turbines and installing the solar panels that will let us walk away from the dirty 19th-century fossil fuels that are making us sick and wreaking havoc on our planet's climate. Already, investors are profiting from the technological innovation that is creating an era of clean energy prosperity, while communities that have long borne the brunt of fossil-fuel refining and burning are demanding an energy future that does not perpetuate sacrifice zones in places like Wilmington, Detroit, and Houston.

Every day, more people recognize the obvious course we need to take. And on September 21, the cross section of people rallying at the People's Climate March will state the obvious more loudly and assertively than ever before in New York City and around the country.

Thriving in the Great Outdoors

June 30, 2014

Note: My coauthor for today's post is Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association.

For the 10th consecutive year, the president signed a proclamation declaring that June is Great Outdoors Month. This is to encourage us to get outdoors and enjoy our natural heritage. While the president certainly wants Americans to enjoy themselves, there's an even more compelling reason to take that advice -- it could save your life.

We’ve all heard the statistics about how much exercise we need and how little of it the majority of Americans get. This trend is especially worrisome among children, who routinely while away their summers indoors playing with electronics.

That’s where the Outdoors Alliance for Kids comes in.

OAK is a national coalition of more than 70 organizations working together to connect children, youth, and families to the outdoors. The Sierra Club and the American Heart Association proudly serve on the steering committee.

We believe the health of current and future generations, as well as the health of our planet, depends on fostering personal, direct, and lifelong relationships between humans and nature. To do that, we'll need not just the health and environmental sectors but also the recreation, transportation, education, built-environment, urban planning, and business communities to pitch in.

Currently, only 1 in 5 Americans lives within half a mile of a park. This problem is especially severe for low-income communities and communities of color, which are far more likely to be "recreational deserts." In some urban areas, it's not safe to be outdoors, whether because of deteriorating infrastructure, crime, or poor air quality. People in these communities have higher rates of obesity and associated chronic diseases, including heart disease.

One of the easiest ways to bring kids -- and everyone else -- nearer to nature is to bring nature nearer to them. Vacant lots can be converted into pocket parks and gardens, particularly in park-poor communities. We can invest in trails and greenways to increase connectivity between natural areas. Studies have shown that communities with safe sidewalks, green spaces, parks, and public transportation are at a lower risk from cardiovascular disease than those that do not have those resources.

We can also prioritize protecting natural areas that are accessible to urban areas -- what the Sierra Club calls "nearby nature." These are places that a family might reach on foot or by public transit for a picnic or an hour-long stroll -- rather than after an hours-long car drive. Such nearby nature spaces might also have more amenities, such as toilets; trash and recycling barrels; picnic tables; accommodations for the disabled; and interpretive multilingual signs, guides, and programs.

The president may be able to issue a proclamation, but the responsibility for getting outdoors and staying active rests with all of us. We can advocate in our own communities for access to natural spaces. And we can make sure that we and our families are getting active outdoors wherever possible. Not sure how to get started? Find a Sierra Club outings group in your neighborhood and visit the American Heart Association's website for tips on staying physically active.

Enjoying all that the great outdoors has to offer is every American's birthright -- no one should be denied the opportunity to exercise it.

The Power of a Plan

June 25, 2014

In his 19th-century curmudgeon's classic, The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined a plan as "the best method of accomplishing an accidental result." When the EPA released its "Clean Power Plan" this month for reducing carbon pollution from power plants, the agency was clear about the results it expects by 2030: Cutting carbon pollution from the power sector to 30 percent below 2005 levels, while also reducing other air pollutants (which by themselves cause thousands of premature deaths) by 25 percent.

Maybe you've heard that this plan is momentous -- a real game changer. Or maybe you've heard that, by itself, it's not nearly tough enough to get us where we want to be by 2030. Actually, both of those things are true. This plan really is a big deal and it's the payoff for years of hard work by dedicated activists. And, yes, it can and should be made even stronger -- and we're going to keep working to make that happen. Because the plan focuses on action at the state level, the Sierra Club is particularly well positioned to do that, too.

So, kudos to the EPA. But you know what? We've already seen some important results from this plan that -- if not quite "accidental" -- were by no means a sure thing, either.

Because President Obama is walking the walk on his 2009 Copenhagen pledge to reduce emissions, U.S. international credibility on climate action was boosted overnight. Most notably, we had the first indication ever from China that it was considering capping its own carbon emissions -- an announcement that came the day after the EPA rolled out its plan. An important climate summit is happening in Paris next year, and this plan puts the U.S. in a better position to help secure an agreement.

Here at home, the plan has left the fossil-fuel lobby (and the politicians who take their marching orders from the Koch brothers) flailing for a credible response. Many cited a discredited report from the Chamber of Commerce that wasn't even based on the EPA's actual plan. Apart from the Tea Party choir, their sermons fell on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, the plan has drawn considerable support from non-fossil fuel industries and businesses, including some utilities. I think there are at least three good reasons for that. First, the EPA bent over backward to make its plan fair and flexible. Second, the reality of climate disruption has long since been accepted by businesses that can already see its effects on their bottom lines. Third, as the EPA's own analysis shows, these standards not only are a cost-effective response but also will generate new economic opportunities and thousands of jobs.

Most exciting of all has been the response of those who will be most affected by this new plan: the American people. Overwhelmingly, that response has been positive. Polls (including one a week ago from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News) have found two out of three Americans supporting the new standards. Best of all, in at least one poll, a majority stuck to that view whether they were Democrats, Republicans, or independents.

But, getting back to long-term results, do I think that by 2030 we will achieve the results the EPA is aiming for with this plan? No. I think we'll do far better. By 2030, clean, renewable energy will be playing a much bigger role in our economy than the EPA is guessing, and that transformation will multiply the already significant public health, economic, and climate benefits we're expecting from these carbon pollution reductions.

Should that be called an accidental outcome? If so, then it's a happy one.

You can submit an official comment on the EPA's new Clean Power Plan here.

Partners for the Future

June 06, 2014

I was honored to be invited to speak to the United Auto Workers in Detroit at their convention this week. Even though the Sierra Club and the UAW have been working together for years, some people don't know we're natural allies.

Here are some other things you might not know about the UAW:

As far back as 1949, the UAW led the call for building smaller cars that would cost less money and burn less fuel. It also led by being the first major union to support the civil rights movement. It provided the bail money to get Martin Luther King out of that Birmingham jail cell. And it provided more than half of the funding for the 1963 March on Washington.

The UAW was the largest contributor to the first Earth Day back in 1970, and its support went far beyond the merely financial. It was also a major supporter of the fight against apartheid -- when Nelson Mandela came to this country after gaining his freedom, one of the first places he went was to Detroit to thank the UAW.

More recently, the idea for the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program, which provided Tesla with a $465 million capital infusion at a critical time and enabled Ford to upgrade five plants, came not from the government but from the UAW.

Our shared history shows why the UAW and the Sierra Club have a lot in common. But in my speech to the members of the UAW, I also wanted to talk about why the broader labor and environmental movements are natural allies:

"We have shared values. Justice, of course. Fairness, absolutely. But also, the value of responsibility. The belief that we can and we should work together for the common good.

"And let's be honest: Not everybody shares these values. Not everyone believes in shouldering this common responsibility. They tell us that we can't afford to be fair. They try to tell us that we can't afford to do what's right for workers and for the environment. They tell us that there's no way we can meet the challenge of fighting climate change and creating jobs at the same time -- that acting responsibly will cost us jobs.

"Think about it. Why do they say these things? Because they're afraid. They're afraid of innovation that will create jobs, create more fairness and less economic inequality. They fear this kind of change, and they fear the future. And they want to hold back the future for as long as they possibly can."

By the way, that fear came through loud and clear in criticism by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of the carbon safeguards that the EPA announced this week. Fortunately, it's been drowned out by the voices of millions of Americans who are excited to see such a significant step to address climate pollution, as we trade fossil fuels for a future that's powered by clean, renewable energy.

The automobile industry will help shape that future -- as we rethink, reengineer, and start building the vehicles that run on that clean energy. The advanced technology of those new cars will create still more jobs, even as we meet the new 54.5 mpg fuel-efficiency standards. Those are standards that the Sierra Club backed, of course, but they would not have happened without the support of the United Auto Workers.

So, yes, the future is already happening -- but that doesn't mean we can take it for granted. Because there is another, darker trend in this country.

Economic inequality in the U.S. has grown from a gap to a Grand Canyon. Big corporations -- including the biggest polluters on the planet -- have gained immense new power and influence. The richest one percent are grabbing virtually all of the economic rewards, while leaving the rest of us behind.

We can't let them steal our future, too. Our Blue Green Alliance, which unites 14 of our country's largest unions and environmental organizations, is determined not to let that happen. We are committed to reversing the unfair economic policies of the last 35 years that have eroded the rights of workers, driven manufacturing offshore, and lowered union representation. Together, we will spread the good word that investing in clean energy and clean technology generates more than three times as many jobs as does spending the same amount within the fossil fuel sectors.

Years of working on the transition to renewable energy with our partners in communities across the U.S. has taught us this: As we grow our clean energy economy, we cannot rely on the market alone to respect or create healthy communities. It is no consolation to families that have lost their sole means of livelihood or have suffered from years of underemployment to learn that some new jobs were created making solar panels in China, or even in the next state over.

That means we not only need strong and just pollution standards like the one announced this week, we also need policies that create good jobs for affected workers and communities. And we need corporations to treat their both workers and the environment with greater respect.

Only then can we build a future that works for everybody, with millions of good jobs, economic fairness, environmental justice, healthy communities, and a stable climate.

 


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