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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2005
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American Idylls
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Sierra Magazine
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American Idylls
Revel in the supersize vistas of the Arctic, the Green Mountains' reborn wilds, and the squishily bountiful Gulf Coast.
Then do what's needed to protect them.

There's a crucial Congressional vote coming up in early November, 2005, on the fate of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This handout, adapted from "American Idylls" in the September/October 2005 issue of Sierra, will give you and your friends the information you need to express your views about the issue to Congress.
For more information, print this page or read the article below.

To contact your Congressional delegation about this important issue, click here.
(pdf file)

Forty-five years ago, former Sierra Club executive director David Brower launched This Is the American Earth, the first in an enormously influential series of "exhibit format" books. His simple idea was to bring the grandeur of the planet's wild places directly into American homes, giving viewers a stake in their preservation. The technique inspired so many new defenders of nature that photo essays became a signature of the Sierra Club. Today we need more defenders than ever. Yet we are overloaded with information, and decision-makers are taking full advantage of our distraction: Earlier this year, Congress cast a preliminary vote to pave the way for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Bush administration is busy chopping up what should be new wilderness areas. And now Congress is even talking about installing oil and gas rigs directly off the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts, where they've long been forbidden.

caribou
Caribou (photo by Gary Braasch)

So it's time to see for yourself what we're fighting for. While we can't send you tickets to visit northern Alaska, Vermont's Green Mountains, or the magnificent Gulf Coast, we can take you there through the work of some of Sierra's favorite photographers. We chose these locations as exemplary of our ambitions in these tough times: to win another vote on the Arctic Refuge, to introduce a far-sighted campaign for new wilderness areas in Vermont, and to block expanded oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal waters. Of course, we're hoping these pictures will move you to take the simple, concrete action mentioned at the end of each portfolio. Go to sierraclub.org/sierra/idylls for advice on how to get started. If you treasure wild places, make sure your voice is heard.

Where the Fox & the Caribou Play
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- One of the planet's grandest wildlife spectacles unfolds in the brief Arctic summer at the top of the North American continent, as hundreds of thousands of caribou spill over the Brooks Range and onto their calving ground on the broad plain leading up to the Beaufort Sea. And one of the most cynical political games is the effort by the Republican leadership in Congress to turn that cradle of life into an industrial oilfield. Cynical because those pushing the destruction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge know that—contrary to their own public pronouncements—whatever oil may be found there won't make the United States self-sufficient in energy, won't lower gas prices, and won't even start to flow for at least ten years.


Arctic foxes (photo by michio hoshino/minden pictures)
They're also well aware that the summertime beauty and awesome vitality of the refuge are its saving grace. (That's why they conduct their "fact-finding tours" during the inhospitable winter.) Grizzlies, wolves, and foxes follow the caribou herds through vast fields that also nurture birds that disperse in the fall to the ends of the earth: snow geese, tundra swans, wheatears, phalaropes, eiders, and loons. All the original relationships of predator and prey, migrant and nester are preserved here intact. If the refuge is Eden, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is the serpent. In a speech to a closed meeting of the Republican leadership in September 2003, he revealed that the real reason for opening the Arctic Refuge to oil exploration was to crush resistance to drilling other sensitive areas in the future. If environmentalists can't stop drilling here, DeLay reasoned, they can't stop it anywhere: "It's about precedent."

Snowy Owls
Snowy Owls (photo by Art Wolfe)

Save It!
In April, narrow majorities in the House and Senate passed a budget bill that included revenues from oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge. In early November, however, both houses are scheduled to cast a final vote on whether to approve a budget that actually authorizes the drilling. Call, write, or visit your representatives (or send a fax at sierraclub.org/sierra/idylls) and ask them to save this priceless wilderness.

The Comeback Woods
woodpecker
Pileated Woodpeckers (photo by gustav w. Verderber)
Green Mountains -- The verdant wildlands of Vermont have emerged from the rubble left by logging, catastrophic fires, and flooding early in the last century. Starting from scarcely more than 1,000 acres in 1932, Green Mountain National Forest has grown to some 400,000 acres of various forest types, from recovering clearcuts to rare stands of old-growth hardwoods and white pine, whose huge, straight timber once furnished masts and spars for the British Navy. This mosaic provides habitat for black bears, moose, Canada lynx—and maybe even mountain lions. Of the forest's hundreds of bird species, some migrants come directly from nesting grounds in the Arctic. "You don't have to travel to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to enjoy its wildlife," says the Sierra Club's Vermont Chapter chair, John Harbison. "You can do it here."

Even with all this wildness, Vermont is surprisingly lacking in designated wilderness. In fact, only 1 percent of the state is so protected—far below California's 14 percent, Washington's 10 percent, or even the national average of 5 percent.

A 2002 poll showed three out of four Vermonters supporting more wilderness in the state. The protected lands could serve as a refuge for the 70 million people living within a day's drive—a balm for the city dweller's soul—and as a continued source of pure drinking water for the Northeast. Yet officials at Green Mountain National Forest see its future largely in terms of all-terrain-vehicle trails and clearcutting. Despite identifying more than 100,000 acres of roadless, wilderness-quality federal land, the U.S. Forest Service is recommending wilderness status for only 18,000 acres.

waterfall
Moss Glen Falls (photo by James Randklev)

Save It!
The next move is up to Congress—and you. The Sierra Club and 15 other conservation organizations are advocating the expansion of current Vermont wilderness areas, plus the addition of several new ones, totaling nearly 100,000 acres. Call, write, or visit Senators Patrick Leahy (D) and James Jeffords (I) and Representative Bernie Sanders (I) (or send a fax at sierraclub.org/sierra/idylls) and encourage them to introduce a bill in Congress that would protect Vermont's wild forests for future generations.


Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Florida (photo Mark Conlin/larry ulrich stock)

Watery World
bluebill
Roseate spoonbill (photo TIM FITZHARRIs/MINDEN PICTUREs)
Gulf Coast -- The southern edge of the United States is notoriously squishy. The 2,000 miles of coastline running from the Florida Keys to the mouth of the Rio Grande is a spongy plain extending some 60 miles inland, linked to the sea by a labyrinth of rivers, estuaries, coastal bays, mangrove swamps, and bayous. Two-thirds of the continental United States drains here—flooding, pouring, or oozing into the rich, warm Gulf. Historically, floods from the Mississippi and other waterways spread silt widely over the delta, creating the state of Louisiana. Fine silt and sand ground up by old glaciers formed natural levees on the rivers' banks, the perfect habitat for sycamore. Beyond the levees, floods deposited a dense clay layer, where backswamps of tupelo and bald cypress thrive. And not only trees: 75 percent of migratory waterfowl traversing the country find at least a temporary home here, among them the great egret, white ibis, and roseate spoonbill.

This bountiful system is now sadly out of whack. Channelized and engineered rivers carry their silt all the way to the Gulf, effectively shrinking Louisiana by 25 to 35 square miles every year, as the delta ceases growing and coastal lands subside. Nitrogen-rich farm runoff draining into the rivers robs the Gulf waters of their oxygen, creating New Jersey–size "dead zones," where fish, crabs, and shrimp cannot survive. Coastal wetlands that might otherwise absorb some of the excess nutrients are whittled away by logging and development. A recent series in the St. Petersburg Times found that, despite a presidential policy of "no net loss of wetlands," the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves nearly every permit for wetland destruction that comes before it.

A new threat is the boom in natural gas, which is imported to dozens of Gulf ports in liquid form. Warming it up in "open loop" systems requires circulating as much as 200 million gallons of Gulf water through each facility daily. The resultant temperature change destroys whatever fish eggs and larvae the water might contain. Twenty-two new facilities are on tap for the western Gulf alone. In addition, the Interior Department is considering allowing oil and gas drilling in a large area in the eastern Gulf, not far from Florida's fragile beaches, overturning a Clinton-era moratorium that would have extended until 2012.


Sunrise off St. George Island, Florida (photo James Randklev)

Save It!
Call, write, or visit your representatives (or send a fax at sierraclub. org/sierra/idylls) and tell them you oppose the expansion of oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal waters. Urge them to preserve the moratoriums that protect America's fragile coasts.

Explore -- To make plans to see America's glorious natural heritage for yourself, check out the Sierra Club Outings listings on page 52 or go to sierraclub.org/outings.


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