Protecting the Grand Canyon — An Organizer's Story
By Alicyn Gitlin, Sierra Club Resilient Habitats organizer.
I'm probably like you: I'm the one who will show up at public meetings and speak loudly, and I prod my friends to do the same. I will stand up and ask questions of water managers and foresters and politicians, and if their answer doesn't make sense, I will ask again.
I live in Flagstaff, Arizona—a place that's small enough to make easy connections. I see the same people at every meeting, and I rapidly realized that by being one out of the 10 or 20 people who show up to a hearing, I alone might offer 5-10% of the opinions that my decision-makers hear.
One year ago, I began organizing for Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Protection Campaign. One of my most important goals: empower more of the public to show up, speak out, and just plain participate in public processes. Easy, right? After all, everyone I know lives in northern Arizona because of our vast and stunning landscapes. Why wouldn't they want to protect them?
Persuading people that they must speak up to protect what they love is just like medicine: part science, part art, and some inherent skill; and what worked last time might utterly fail this time.
Starting this job, I immediately knew I was in for a challenge: it is hard to convince people that the Grand Canyon ecoregion, one of the most remotely occupied landscapes in the Lower 48, needs their help. Yep, it needs their help as much as the forest outside their back door. But that forest outside the back door is so distracting! How do I get people to attend meetings with me when that forest is calling?
Oh, no! Organizing people suddenly got rough! Now that it's my job, I must have a ton of volunteers, right? Suddenly my staple people that I could always call on to protect the forest visible from their backyard dwindled to a very small number. I wanted everyone to be as passionate as I am! How do I communicate urgency without overwhelming? How do I channel the passionate people to the right places?
… An amazing thing began to happen. The passionate people began to find me.
October to December, 2010
Shortly after starting my work, I headed up to Tuba City, Arizona, for an EPA-sponsored stakeholders' meeting on abandoned uranium mine and mill cleanup on the Navajo Nation. One after another, people came to me asking for help from the Sierra Club. I was simultaneously empowered and intimidated.
I was fueled by a newfound horror at the intricate ways mining companies tried to get their way with our public lands! Heartbreak just wasn't an option. People had to learn what the threats were—water contamination and depletion, habitat destruction, soil contamination, loss of public land access, and a legacy of sickness plaguing our neighbors on the Navajo Reservation.
I contacted local reporters and gave them my new Navajo Nation contacts. I worked with collaborators and tribal liaisons to ensure that we followed up with everyone who asked for help. I contacted local recreation groups and guiding companies to make sure they all knew how they and their clients could speak out against mining. I worked with our City Council to pass a resolution opposing mining near Grand Canyon. I provided "No Mines" pins for the Coconino County Board of Supervisors to wear for photos while signing their own anti-mining resolution.
January to March, 2011
Working with collaborators including recreation groups and guiding companies, we gathered about 50 people at a public hearing on air and water pollution permits for three uranium mines. About 50 people opened their testimony with the message I gave them: "I am here to ask you to deny these permits. Here's why…" Fantastic. Not one person asked for the permits to be approved. The permits were… approved. Ugh.
The next big public meeting on uranium mining was on Mardis Gras. Below, Havasupai tribal elders address the BLM at a meeting on a temporary mining ban near Grand Canyon.
Several federal agencies would present their plan to temporarily ban mining on 1 million acres of public land surrounding the Grand Canyon, protecting the entire national park watershed for 20 years.
I organized a Mardis Gras parade, featuring radioactive wildlife. We got photographers and National Public Radio reporters to follow us to the venue, and attended the meeting in costume. That's Emily Nelson of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project in the wolf suit, below.
A few weeks later, I mailed in 400 postcards (below) that were collected at local businesses. We're sill waiting to hear whether that ban will happen.
I organized a service and celebration trip to Grand Canyon National Park. We planted native plants along the beautiful new Rim Trail and Visitor Center, and celebrated the Sierra Club's birthday with a huge barbeque (below) for volunteers and park vegetation crew members. Participants came from across Arizona and Nevada, and everyone had a blast.
Uranium mining is not all I work on. We are also trying to see large predators returned to the landscape; forest planning that protects our last remaining old growth ponderosa pine forests; Glen Canyon Dam management to protect native fish habitats; the return of natural quiet to Grand Canyon National Park, where it's not uncommon to see 6 helicopters simultaneously droning above; limitations on off-road vehicles so our fragile soils and watersheds stay healthy; and much, much more.
Music and bicycles are a huge part of the lifestyle here in Northern Arizona. For the Flagstaff Hullabaloo (above), a popular celebration of all things Flagstaff, I worked with the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project to organize a wolf pack for the event's bike parade (below). We wore our costumes all day and directed people to a table where they could send a postcard to Grand Canyon National Park, asking for wolf reintroduction as part of the new Grand Canyon National Park Backcountry Management Plan. We got every postcard filled out.
A week later, at the campground at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I got friends and acquaintances to fill out another stack of postcards, asking for better air tour regulations at Grand Canyon.
One year now on the job. Residents of Grand Canyon's South Rim want to participate in Sierra Club activities. I am trying to facilitate programs aimed at park employees, such as films, outings, and service projects. Our second such event is this weekend: we'll show the film Lords of Nature and serve hot cider and chai tea. I hope that this film about the value of large predators to ecosystems will motivate people to ask for predator reintroductions in the new Grand Canyon National Park Backcountry Management Plan.
I've been up at the South Rim a lot lately, watching as a Town Council plagued by corruption allegations decides whether to approve thousands of new resort-style residences 10 miles from the Grand Canyon entrance gate. Studies commissioned by the Town of Tusayan found that every gallon of water they pull out of the ground will take a gallon out of Grand Canyon's springs—lush hotspots of biodiversity with deep ties to local cultures and high value to Grand Canyon's hikers and boaters. I spent a night calling and emailing everyone on our mailing list who lives at the South Rim. Twenty-five percent of the people I contacted either spoke at a hearing on the project or sent a personal email to the Town Council.
The moral of my story:
There is no doubt: the people want environmental protection. I try to make taking action easy and fun. Activists need to feel that their actions will have a direct impact on the lands they love. They need to know that they have a chance to keep their favorite outdoor places beautiful, peaceful, accessible, quiet, and safe.
We are waiting to find out if new mines will be banned in the Grand Canyon watershed for 20 years. We are waiting to find out if natural quiet will return to Grand Canyon National Park. We eagerly await a draft of the new Grand Canyon Backcountry Management Plan, and hope it will address the need to restore large predators to the ecosystem.
We hope the town of Tusayan, Arizona, will decide that its natural resources are too precious to give away to developers. We await the release of two draft national forest plans. There is no shortage of work ahead of us, because the protection of Grand Canyon is not fully ensured by its National Park status, its UN World Heritage Site designation, or its stamp on a 2010 National Treasures quarter.
I hope our local activists are conserving their energy, because I'll ask them to show up again many times during the next year. I just wish there were more ways to say "Thank you" in the English language. It is their passion that keeps me going.