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My Sierra Summit
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by Dan Soeder | 2005

We arrived in San Francisco the Friday of Labor Day weekend, a week before the Summit, so we could spend time in Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada mountains. My wife, Susan, had never been there before, and my last visit to Yosemite had been an all too-brief day trip seven years earlier.

We camped in the park for several days with Matt and Anne Urban, our friends from Delaware. Matt is the chair of the Sierra Club Delaware Chapter, as well as a member of the club’s national Organizational Effectiveness Committee. He is also a professional video producer, and was in the process of finalizing a new travel video on Yosemite, which he had been developing for the past year. We couldn’t have been in the park with a more knowledgeable person.

We visited many of the sites made popular by John Muir, including several spectacular waterfalls and the awesome granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome. Matt and I rafted the cold, clear waters of the Merced River through the park, and made an evening trip with our wives up to Glacier Point, a magnificent valley overlook where the famous photograph of John Muir standing with Theodore Roosevelt was taken.

The stars came out on a clear, moonless night, and at an altitude of 8,000 feet, far from city lights with the Milky Way nearly overhead, the sky was simply ablaze in glory. It was one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen.

On our last day, we visited historic campsites along the Tuolumne River in the high meadows above Yosemite Valley where Sierra Club outings occurred in the early days. The legendary William Colby led the first of these “High Trips” in the summer of 1901, followed by one every summer thereafter for the next 29 years, bringing hundreds of people into the High Sierra so they could, as John Muir said, “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.”  As an outings leader from the East Coast who gets to these locations far too infrequently, having the opportunity to walk these trails and see the same sights that awed the early Sierra Club members nearly moved me to tears.

 

Back to the City and the Summit

Thus inspired, we returned to San Francisco for the Summit. The most striking thing I noticed  was the incredible variety of Sierra Club people. With 700 voting representatives, and hundreds of others in attendance, it was a potpourri of club membership. I discovered early on that we are not so different from chapter to chapter, or group to group. United by a passion for the environment, distrustful of the easy answers and bland reassurances of authority, and not shy about speaking out, well, let’s face it; Sierra Club people are usually pretty easy to spot. Without the intention of promulgating any stereotypes, some common character traits could be observed.

Prominent among the crowds were what I think of as the wise graybeards, older men filled with facts on one issue or another, patiently explaining their views to all who stop long enough to listen, speaking out in public forums, and passing out literature filled with “Great Ideas” And, yes, some even have beards that would shame Santa Claus. These are the Marc Imlays, Charlie Garlows, and Ed Stennetts of our Maryland chapter, and their intelligence and expertise lends a huge amount of credibility to club issues.

One wise graybeard sitting in the back of the meeting room quietly handed me a sheaf of literature with a proposal to dismantle and completely revise the entire American voting process. No one can accuse these guys of thinking small!

Then there are the women of substance. These also are, generally, older ladies, with manes of silver, years of experience, and a no-nonsense attitude that dares corporate spokespersons to try, just try, to soothe them with simple platitudes. These women go to every public hearing, demand explanations and accountability from local governments, condemn greedy and cozy corporate-government relationships, never go away, and never, ever quit until people recognize the benefits to society of long-term conservation over short-term profit. Corporate types derisively call these determined women “little old ladies in tennis shoes.” I say we should hijack the derogatory term, update it to “little old ladies in tennis/athletic shoes” to cover all types of footwear, and call them LOLITAS for short, with a great deal of pride.

One of my favorite LOLITAS, Til Purnell from Delaware, got an award at the Summit for her lifetime conservation achievements. She has saved many miles of Delaware beach and bay coastal areas and wetlands over the years by challenging development in sensitive coastal zones with nothing more than common sense, a sharp wit, and a bunch of questions. I have been to hearings with Til, and she is, without a doubt, the one person that developers, county council members, state regulators, and the feds absolutely dread to see in the room. Til has been magnificent for many years as a huge pain in the coastal developer’s backside, and I’m happy that she got the award.

Another of my favorite LOLITAS, Maryland’s own Bonnie Bick, was a featured presenter at one of the Summit activist sessions, called “Old Timers and Young Guns.”  The session was designed to show what energetic young people could learn from the oldsters, but Bonnie claimed that while she might not be a “young gun” any more, she was still functional as an “old gun,” with quite a bit of ammo. The kids loved her. My middle-aged wife told Bonnie she wants to be just like her when she grows up.

The rest of the attendees were a mix of professionals, non-professionals, scientists, lawyers, artists, concerned parents, doctors, teachers and many others representing a broad spectrum of society. The club truly does touch many lives at many levels.

 

The Presence of Youth

It was good to see the many younger members in attendance, and many of them were fired up and ready to change the world—a feeling I remember from the mid-1970s when I was in college. I was glad to see that some of today’s college students still care about something bigger than themselves.

There’s never a lack of criticism from “older” people about the younger generation, who “only want to party” or are “too driven” to be successful; college seems little more to them than a training ground to learn how to be wealthy corporate business people. I always thought college was where you learned not necessarily what to think, but how to think.

The Maryland Chapter is my first real experience working with younger activists; sadly, because of a falling-out with the Sierra Student Coalition in Delaware, there were few young people involved in the chapter when I was there. These kids at the Summit were concerned, focused and knowledgeable, and they were prepared to do whatever it takes to change the system. Back in my day, I suppose, we would have been rallying at the barricades, or marching in a demonstration, or having a sit-in, or maybe even a be-in, whatever that was.

I think the kids today are smarter than we were, stealthier, and more effective as activists. They know how to rush the barricades if needed (remember the WTO and NAFTA protests?), but they mostly try to work within the system, or maybe around the system, instead of going straight at it head-on. Confronting “the man” just doesn’t work well when you’re a minority in a society where someone can use a law ironically called the “Patriot Act” to arrest you as a threat to homeland security.

On the second or third night of the Summit, the under-30 crowd decided to meet at a local watering hole to network with each other. Solely through the use of cell phone pagers, text messages, signs on bulletin boards, and word-of-mouth, more than a hundred of these kids got together with less than three hours’ notice. Even Lisa Renstrom, the club president, mentioned in her speech the next morning that she was impressed with this ability to organize. Imagine if this had been for a political rally, or a protest against illegal dumping. The ability to get a large number of people to gather someplace quickly is an amazing talent of the younger generation, and I think it is one of their strengths.

We debated a lot and voted on new directions for Club policy. Being the Sierra Club, we accepted nothing, questioned everything, debated on how to debate, and then voted on how to vote (oh, yes, we really did). Things got a little behind schedule. One of the organizers said it was populist democracy but, to me, it was messy, a bit over-blown, no one really seemed to be driving the bus, and there were a few people who could have done us all a favor (and saved boodles of time) by keeping their opinions to themselves. But we got it done, and the Club leaders have heard us.

 

A Champion of the Cause

Al Gore gave a speech that was just terrific. Organizers tried to get him for the Summit early on, but his calendar was booked. He was actually scheduled to give a speech that day to the 50 state insurance commissioners on the hazards of global warming. Ironically, the hazards’ speech was supposed to be in New Orleans, but Gore’s trip was pre-empted by the Hurricane Katrina disaster. So he had an open spot in his schedule, and came to talk to us instead.

Gore is without a doubt a champion of the environment. He has great ideas, and a wonderful delivery. None of the stiffness or lack of warmth noted by many during his campaign was apparent, and he appeared relaxed, confident and funny. Yes, Al Gore can be funny!  He is also wickedly efficient at taking down the arrogant and incompetent members of the Bush administration.

Several people commented afterward that if he had spoken like that during the campaign, he would have won. Others pointed out that he actually did win, but Bush became president by Supreme Court decree.

 

An Eye to the Future

The exhibits ranged from interesting to fascinating. Honda brought their hydrogen-fueled vehicle for people to test drive. It uses H-powered fuel cells and works pretty well, although the range of 60 miles is a bit short. Also it’s hard to get hydrogen fuel, and the prototype model cost a million dollars to develop, putting it just a bit out of my price range. Honda and Toyota had some of their new hybrids on display, as did Ford/Mercury. Ford is producing a hybrid version of the Escape that gets 30 MPG—an SUV with better gas mileage than my car!  I think I’ve found my next vehicle.

Other exhibits showcased environmentally friendly building materials, including sustainable “hardwood” flooring made from bamboo; kitchen countertops similar to Corian, but made of crushed, recycled glass imbedded in resin; and a solar cooker for third-world countries that consists of a simple, fold-out metal mirror about a meter across to focus sunlight on a pot of water. The inventor (from Rockville, Maryland) claimed that a tropical sun would boil the water in less than 10 minutes. The solar cooker is designed to reduce dependence on scarce and expensive firewood in poor countries, but it looked slick enough to take camping on the Appalachian Trail.

The Sierra Club also had a host of exhibits covering many of the club activities. The Outdoor Activities Governance Committee held a reception at the outings booth, where I had the honor of announcing the winner of the outings identifier contest that the Group and Chapter Outings Committee had been running over the summer. We have a beautiful patch design to distribute to outings leaders to recognize them for their hard work, and also to help outings participants find them at the trailhead.

We enjoyed the Summit and we enjoyed San Francisco. Susan and I met up with some of the Maryland Chapter people for dinner in Chinatown one night. We ordered a bunch of things off the menu at the suggestion of the waiter, with little idea of what we were getting, but it was all good and a lot of fun. It was the Festival of the Autumn Moon in Chinatown that weekend, and there were dragon dancers, musicians, special food, and many people.

Susan and I did a lot of walking; there is so much to see and do in San Francisco that I think we hiked more in the city than we did in Yosemite!  We ended up walking down to Fisherman’s Wharf from Nob Hill the last day, watched them make sourdough, had dinner in the Buena Vista Café (that’s Spanish for good view…it looks out on the Golden Gate), and rode the Powell Street cable car back to our hotel. I think we accomplished a lot, and I hope the club will hold more meetings like this in the future on a regular basis. n

 

Dan Soeder is the Maryland Chapter outings chair.

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