Getting Wet, Getting Dirty, and Having the Best Time Ever With ICO

April 23, 2014


By Briana Okyere

Debby Rudy's love affair with the environment began in the summer of 1996 when she attended a local meeting of the Pennsylvania Sierra Club. "I felt a need to be among more kindred spirits," she claims.

Debby, above at left, found those kindred spirits in two Sierra Club members who were opening up an Inner City Outings (ICO) program in Harrisburg. "It turned out to be one of those rare moments of fate, when you stumble upon something you had been looking for your whole life," she recalls. "They were looking for volunteer leaders to hike, camp, bike, bird watch, paddle, and be outdoors with like-minded people, while taking urban youth on new forays into the world of nature. I couldn't say 'Where do I sign up?' fast enough!"


She did more than just sign up. Debby started at ICO as a volunteer, but it wasn't long before she became a Certified Leader, then a Co-Chair, then Treasurer, then Chair and Treasurer. In 2002, she became the Regional Representative for the Mid-Atlantic Region, and from there served one term as National Vice Chair, then another term as National Chair of ICO.


ICO acquaints inner-city youth with the outdoors in an effort to cultivate an understanding and appreciation for the environment. To Debby, who has been with the program for 18 years, this is the most important aspect of her work. "That 'nature connection' is how every ICO leader influences their local program," she says.

"The most memorable trip I was ever part of was a Columbus Day three-day-weekend outing to Assateague Island National Park," she recalls. "Our participants were so excited. None of them had ever seen the ocean before, let alone been out of Pennsylvania. After a very long drive, we pulled up at the park rest stop to change into swim suits. The kids saw the ocean beyond the sand dunes and took off in their street clothes for the water. They were screaming and yelling for joy and ran right into the surf -- clothes, shoes and all.


"They were astounded, amazed, and joyously happy to see the ocean," Debby says. "Despite having to try and dry out all those street clothes overnight in the cool, damp sea air, I would have let them do it again in a heartbeat. That was a pure moment. Seeing something new, forgetting the tribulations of urban life and being carried away by the simple joy of being in the sand and in the waves. I look at some of the photos from that outing and it brings tears to my eyes -- happy, joyful tears."

Continue reading "Getting Wet, Getting Dirty, and Having the Best Time Ever With ICO" »

John Muir Way Opens in Scotland

April 21, 2014


The John Muir Way, a 134-mile coast-to-coast lowland trail in Scotland, officially opened on April 21 -- Muir's birthday. The opening was part of the annual John Muir Festival, which runs from April 17-26 this year.


The route echoes the Sierra Club founder's own personal journey from his birthplace of Dunbar (above), on Scotland's east coast, to the west coast at Helensburgh (below) on the River Clyde, where Muir set sail for the United States in 1849 with his family.


Along the way, the trail passes by castles, historic towns and villages, beautiful coastal scenery, and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland's first national park. Visitors can walk or cycle the entire way across the country or take scenic day trips on any stretch they want. Most stretches of the trail are easy to access by public transport, and there are numerous charming villages and towns in which one can stay along the way.


Continue reading "John Muir Way Opens in Scotland" »

Connecting the 9 in New Orleans

April 18, 2014


On a recent Saturday, the Sierra Club joined up with community allies in New Orleans to host a recreational outing, the Connect the 9 Community Bike Ride, to advocate for better pedestrian and bicycle connections between the Lower Ninth Ward and the rest of the city.


Participants benefitted from exercising outdoors and sharing in an urban learning experience. Sponsoring the event with the Club were Global Green USA, the Green Project, Bike Easy, and the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED).


"Our goal was to increase awareness about the barrier the St. Claude Avenue Bridge poses to pedestrians and bike riders going from the Lower Ninth Ward to the Bywater neighborhood and the rest of the city of New Orleans," says Darryl Malek-Wiley (at right, below), a Sierra Club organizer based in the Crescent City. "The bridge needs safety improvements and a separate, protected lane for pedestrians and cyclists."


New Orleans' Industrial Canal, which runs 5.5 miles from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain, has only three bridges crossing it. The St. Claude Bridge, built in 1919, is the only one that's low-rise. It's also the closest bridge to the river and the Bywater, where jobs for people living in the Lower Ninth Ward are located.

St.-Claude-BridgeSt. Claude Avenue Bridge. Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

"This was both an educational event and a celebratory bike ride," says Malek-Wiley. "We just learned that the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission has committed $45,000 to study the feasibility of adding an extra lane to the bridge for bikes and pedestrians."


Continue reading "Connecting the 9 in New Orleans" »

Selenium: Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining's Toxic Legacy

April 16, 2014

Mountaintop-removal-miningMountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. Photo by Vivian Stockman, courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

By Peter Morgan, Staff Attorney, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

Surface coal mines in Appalachia have a problem. For years, they've been getting away with blowing up mountains and dumping the waste in streams. That mining waste releases toxic pollutants -- such as selenium -- into the streams. Now the companies are being held accountable for their pollution, including at older mines that are no longer active but still discharge selenium.

MTR-pollutionStream polluted with runoff from a mountaintop removal mining site. Photo by Matt Wasson, courtesy of

Across Appalachia, coal companies have tried to cut costs and access more coal by using a highly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal (sometimes referred to as MTR). These mines use high explosives to blow up the rock and other materials that overlay coal seams in the mountains and ridgelines of Appalachia. The rocks, which were under pressure in their original setting, expand when the mountain is cracked open. This means that there's even more material left after the blasting. The mining companies dispose of this mining waste by dumping it directly into the neighboring streams and valleys. Approximately 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried with coal mining waste.

MTR-valley-fillA valley fill in southwestern Virginia.

That's where the problem starts: All of that newly exposed and cracked-open rock is now in constant contact with the water in the streams. Over time, pollutants start to leach out of the rock and into the streams. These waste dumps, called valley fills, are left in place even after the mining's done. Some of the pollutants that leach out of the valley fills -- like selenium -- stick around in the environment.

Continue reading "Selenium: Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining's Toxic Legacy" »

Urban Girls Explore, Enjoy, and Protect

April 14, 2014

Yellow-Creek-Park-KYPhoto by Jenny Sevcik, courtesy of the Owensboro Messenger Inquirer.

By Winny Lin, Sierra Club Pennyrile Group Volunteer

On Thursday April 10, the Sierra Club's Pennyrile Group in western Kentucky partnered with Owensboro Girls Incorporated to take 30 girls to explore Yellow Creek Park in Daviess Country during their spring break.

Pictured below with some of the girls are (middle row) Pennyrile Group volunteers Rick Fowler (chair), Sister Ann, and Valerie Holcomb, and (back row) Aloma Dew, Nancy Connor, Mary Cupp, Winny Lin, and Brad Smith. Volunteers prepared healthy sack lunches for all the girls -- peanut butter on wheat bread, carrots, popcorn, oatmeal cookies, and water or milk.


At the park, Eric Miller (pictured at top of post and below), director of the Western Kentucky Raptor Center, talked to the girls and their counselors about the injured birds of prey who are taken in by the center and how they are rehabilitated there. Eric used Diva, a 1-year-old barred owl, as an example. Diva was hit by a car and sustained a broken wing and a head injury. Since she could not gain lift to fly, now she is the center's good will ambassador for teaching children about birds of prey. Miller told the girls that these are our birds to protect!


Next, Valerie Holcomb (below) volunteered to lead all the girls on a 1.5-mile-long wildflower walk. They explored, and Valerie was able to pinpoint several kinds of wildflowers on the trail -- spring beauty, Dutchman's breeches, May maple, poppy, and wild violets. During the hike, the girls enjoyed walking on the hanging bridge, and just chatting with their friends on a gorgeous sunny day. Everybody loved the sun after a long winter!


Thanks to Brad Smith for organizing this perfect educational outing for these urban girls. The icing on the cake was when two photos -- including the one atop this post -- appeared the next day on the front page of Messenger Inquirer, the only paper in Owensboro.

This is the second time the Pennyrile Group has partnered with Owensboro Girls Inc. to help the girls to learn about nature. Last time it was an outing to John James Audubon State Park (below), named after the famous ornithologist, naturalist, and painter, who lived in the area for a decade during his middle age.

Audubon-State-ParkPhoto by Zachjank, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Girls Incorporated is a national non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold. Girls Incorporated of Owensboro-Daviess County has been in the community since 1969 as a provider of informal educational opportunities for girls between the ages of 6 and 18. The Pennyrile Group has partnered with Girls Inc. since 2009 on a variety of projects, including planting flowers and vegetables in the summer, teaching them about composting, and hosting outings to nearby state parks.

A Parent and Faith Leader's Perspective: Why We Need Strong Smog Standards

April 11, 2014

Reverend-Doug-BlandAs the father of an asthmatic child, and as a person of faith, I'm grateful for the Clean Air Act. That might seem like an odd introduction, but let me explain.

Last fall, Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) complained that, in enforcing the standards of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has "overreached" its authority. Overreach - that mental picture might seem scary to some: the hand of big government imposing its way into our lives to tell us what we can and cannot do.

As a Christian, though, the image that comes to my mind when I think of overreach is very different. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, against a clear blue sky, God over-reaches space and time. In the touching of two fingers, heaven and earth meet, and Adam "became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7b). According to the second creation story, God took the dust of the earth and gave it human form. But the lump just lays there, inert, lifeless, until God breathed spirit---the Hebrew word is ruach, "breath" - into Adam's lungs.  

That Biblical story takes on real flesh and blood as I'm desperately racing to the emergency room with my son, Aaron, in the seat beside me. It's another bad air quality day where I live, and Aaron is having yet another asthma attack. His face is ashen and his lips are sky blue as he tries to suck in the life giving air that he can't force into his lungs. I reach out my hand across the seat to him---to assure him, to assure myself---but he's too weak to even lift his fingers up to meet mine. There is no breath in him.

I carry him in my arms, limp as a ragdoll, into the emergency room where doctors and nurses who meet us at the door. I watch as their hands reach out to heal. Aaron's breath is restored. Standing next to his bed I can't talk without crying, so I just make an OK sign with my hand, a question in my eyes. He lifts up his hand so his OK meets my OK. Overreach.

It could have been much worse for Aaron. The reason there aren't more bad air quality days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because, in 1970, Republicans on one side of the aisle and Democrats on the other side of the isle reached their hands across the partisan divide to create the Clean Air Act.

Continue reading "A Parent and Faith Leader's Perspective: Why We Need Strong Smog Standards" »

Crude-by-Rail Dangerous to Communities

April 09, 2014

Lac-Megantic-Crude-TrainJuly 2013 train derailment and explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Photo by Paul Chaisson/The Canadian Press.

By Devorah Ancel, Staff Attorney, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

Imagine five, ten, twenty trains, 100-cars long, moving through your neighborhood each week, bringing constant rattling and diesel fumes into your home. A small obstacle in the tracks might cause a derailment, overturning cars and spilling toxic crude into yards and the local water supply. Those train cars could even explode, which would almost instantaneously decimate your neighborhood.

No community should have to experience these problems, but they are the reality for hundreds of towns across North America, as the oil industry sends ever more fracked oil down outdated and overburdened rail lines. As a result, loss of life and property and environmental devastation from catastrophic rail accidents have become an expected "cost of business" throughout North America.  

As prodigious quantities of volatile crude oil comes out of the ground in North Dakota, other parts of the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountains, railroads are rapidly becoming the principal mode of transporting this hazardous substance to coastal refining hubs, including the San Francisco Bay Area. In the past five years, the amount of oil transported by rail has skyrocketed from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013. In 2013 alone, Northern California experienced a 50 percent increase in transport of crude-by-rail.

Unfortunately, improvements to our nation's aging rail infrastructure have not kept pace with this oil boom on the railroads. In 2013 alone, more oil spilled from rail cars than in the past four decades combined. The National Transportation Safety Board has weighed in, warning that our existing rail infrastructure is woefully inadequate to the task of transporting highly volatile fracked crude, and our existing safety regulations do not protect communities along these rail routes. The most tragic example: a July 2013 derailment and train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec (pictured above), that took the lives of 47 people and leveled 40 buildings.

Continue reading "Crude-by-Rail Dangerous to Communities" »

Water Scarcity and Reproductive Health

April 02, 2014

image from
Students drilling a well at the Water4 training. Photo courtesy of Christelle Kwizera.

Christelle KwizeraEditor’s note: Christelle Kwizera is a fellow with the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program. Christelle is also part of Water Access Rwanda and will be drilling wells this summer and next in Rwanda, where some families lack access to clean water. She recently participated in a Water4 training that taught student activists about groundwater pollution and how to avoid contaminating drinking water sources. The students spent four days drilling a water well using tools that combine hand augers and percussion tools. Manually drilling is minimally intrusive and offers protection from water contamination by backfilling with sanitary layers around the well. In this blog post, Christelle reflects on some of the ways water scarcity affects reproductive health.

Water is an essential part of life. It makes up as much as three quarters of our body weight when we’re born, and more than 60 percent in adult life. We cry for it when we’re thirsty. It’s essential to the growth of crops. It's the universal solvent, a cooking necessity, and central to adequate sanitation.

However, in many parts of the world, it is rare to find clean water that is easy to access. Rather, it is often contaminated with harmful substances and bacteria, and pure streams are located below the earth’s surface, protected by layers of stone and clay.

Thus, it is not at all surprising that the average African woman spends six hours each day fetching and cleaning water. Despite the hard work and time spent collecting water, one in nine people still lack access to clean water, and every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related illness.

In Rwanda and in most of the developing world, the task of gathering and sanitizing water is left to women and children. The scarcity of water promulgates the cycle of poverty and illiteracy, and it exposes women and children to dangerous situations outside of the home. This is unfortunate and heartbreaking when you realize that water scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa is not physical but economic. There is a tremendous amount of water in the valleys, lakes, and rivers, and even more below the surface; however, many women and children lack the knowledge and tools to make that water usable, potable, and accessible.

Continue reading "Water Scarcity and Reproductive Health" »

Sierra & Tierra: The Dirty Energy Industry Looks Green with Envy

March 31, 2014

By Javier Sierra  

We are in the midst of an epidemic of devastating oil and coal spills. In recent weeks, we have witnessed oil spills in the Mississippi River, on the Galveston, TX, coast and in Lake Michigan, among others. We have also seen terrible toxic coal spills in the Dan River, NC, and the Elk River, WV. It will take hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up these disasters.

And they claim dirty energy is cheap!

On the other hand, when we have a sun spill, we call it a nice day. And that is precisely what I want to talk to you about today, the huge economic and environmental benefits that clean energy brings to Latino workers and the whole country.

“Creating all this energy that is much needed at this time, without burning our fossil fuels and without damaging our environment, to me is a win-win situation no matter how you see it,” says Alfonso Carmona-Jiménez, a Calexico electrician working in the installation of solar and wind projects in California’s Imperial Valley. “Finally we have started taking energy from the sun, and I hope we will continue this way after polluting the earth for so long.”

InstallingSolar_600x600Workers installing solar panels in California (Photo Sierra Club)

Alfonso and thousands of other Latino workers are benefitting from a historic clean energy bonanza taking place across the country, but especially in California. The Great Recession punished this part of the state with special harshness, leaving Alfonso and thousands of workers like him jobless.

“And now it’s a great relief that I don’t have to ask the government for anything and not having to worry about where the next paycheck will come from,” proudly says Alfonso, who is now working on a solar project for the State University of San Diego at Brawley.

Alfonso is benefitting from the clean energy professional trainings for unemployed workers that unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are conducting in California and other parts of the country.

“The union is doing a great thing for all of us here,” says Alfonso. “They provide good jobs for us, they train us, they get us benefits and health insurance, they defend us when we have issues with employers.”

California is the nation’s solar energy leader and also a world leader on its own merits, recently beating two generating records in consecutive days. On March 7th, it generated 3.9 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, and on the following day, 4.1 GW, enough to power 3 million homes or 18 percent of the overall power demand.

California already boasts almost 1,700 solar companies that employ more than 47,000 workers, thousands of them Latinos. In 2013, it added 2.7 GW of solar power, and today it has 5.6 GW of installed energy, making it the world’s seventh solar power, if it were an independent country.

Also, this clean bounty does not punish the health of Californians, unlike coal or oil. Just ask Domingo Reyes, another Calexico electrician who works on solar projects and, like his 10-year-old son, suffers from asthma.

“Here in the Imperial Valley we have some of the worst air quality in the nation. Pollution worsens our asthma. But wind and solar power is helping to lower these pollution levels,” he says.

Indeed, this is a win-win situation, as Alfonso puts it. He proudly tells the story about his first job installing a wind turbine almost 300 feet tall: “My six-year-old really got a kick out of the photos of me working on the turbine, looking so small compared to the size of the turbine, and when I told him that was me, he said with his eyes wide open, ‘really?’”

The dirty energy industry would look at the photo green with envy.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

Champion of Change

March 25, 2014


On March 18, Dr. Benjamin Blonder, an ecologist at the University of Arizona and a volunteer leader with the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program in Tucson, was honored at the White House as a Champion of Change, along with 13 other environmental and conservation leaders.

Blonder is cofounder and Education Coordinator at the Sky School, a residential science school located on a campus in the heart of southern Arizona's Coronado National Forest that provides immersive, year-round environmental education programs to K-12 students.

Sky School, which started in 2012, had its genesis when Blonder was studying for his doctoral program in ecology and evolutionary biology, and in his personal experiences working as an environmental educator with AmeriCorps and as a middle-school science teacher at Miles Exploratory Learning Center, a public school in Tucson.

At Sky School, students work in small groups with a graduate student mentor, brainstorming ideas, learning how to do scientific research, and presenting their findings to peers, teachers, and other scientists at the end of the program.

Because of Blonder's efforts, each year hundreds of K-12 students, primarily from Title 1 schools, are able to conduct independent research while exploring the region's "sky island" ecology, biology, and geology. And since Sky School is located at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, they have access to the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory to study astronomy.

Below, Blonder (back row, fourth from right) with other adult leaders and youth participants on a recent Tucson ICO trip.


Blonder, who grew up in New Jersey twenty miles from Manhattan, says he didn't spend all that much time getting out into nature as a kid. "My experience was primarily sidewalks and strip malls and night skies lit up by airplanes instead of stars," he says. "I never went camping until I left for college. I was fortunate that I took one ecology class as an undergraduate student, just out of curiosity, and a whole new world opened up for me. I think everyone deserves the same life-changing experience I had."

The Planet caught up with Blonder the week after he won his Champion of Change award.

Continue reading "Champion of Change" »

User comments or postings reflect the opinions of the responsible contributor only, and do not reflect the viewpoint of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of any posting. The Sierra Club accepts no obligation to review every posting, but reserves the right (but not the obligation) to delete postings that may be considered offensive, illegal or inappropriate.

Up to Top

Find us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter RSS Feed

Sierra Club Main | Contact Us | Terms and Conditions of Use | Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights | Website Help

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2013 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.