Friday, March 21, 2014

The Sierra Club And Environmentalism Part II

Dale Matson

Will Glacier Point Road Remain?

I ended my previous post about the Sierra Club with a question. “Would the Sierra Club allow the John Muir Trail to be built today?” The answer is, “No”. I believe this is because the Sierra Club has a philosophy that is different than the founder John Muir.

While Muir made a personal appeal to men like Teddy Roosevelt to preserve wilderness areas, he intended those areas to be a refuge for people. He saw the restorative capacity of the wilderness for the human soul. He led groups into the wilderness to enlighten them about the wilderness so that they would be advocates for the wilderness. For Muir, conservation, preservation, education and access went hand in hand. The focus of his efforts was protecting the wilderness in perpetuity for human access. Today, it seems like the Sierra Club believes it is their duty to protect the wilderness in perpetuity by greatly reducing human access.

An example of early Sierra Club activity was to install the first set of cables on Half Dome in Yosemite Park in 1919. Countless individuals have enjoyed what is arguably considered the 17-mile hike of hikes from Happy Isles to the Top of Half Dome and back. It was a personal accomplishment for me. The hike required transcending my personal limits, at the time. I rank it with completing my first marathon.
I believe the Sierra Club would have the cables and bolts removed today if possible.

I have a former colleague who was an active and important official in the Sierra Club. We were at lunch one day discussing the 100-year flood that hit Yosemite in 1997 and closed the park for three months. I particularly remember not being able to cross the Merced River on a hike above Nevada Falls because the footbridge had been washed away. I commented that it was a terrible flood and had destroyed much of the Yosemite Valley accommodations.  His response was, “I wish it had been a 1,000-year flood and washed everything away.” I looked at him in amazement and responded, “You are not pro environment, but you are anti-people.”  In many conversations with him over the years, it was evident that his views were mainstream for the Sierra Club.

As I look at federal legislation encouraged by the Sierra Club, and includes the Wilderness Act of 1964 written byby the Wilderness Society and the Wild Rivers And Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Both put additional layers of environmental restrictions on wilderness and park areas.

In particular, things can be problematic when trail maintenance is limited to hand tools only and motorized vehicles are not allowed even when searching for lost individuals. Much of the difficulty for California is the restrictions on providing needed additional water storage on rivers that are designated as “Wild”. It also means that existing bridges may be removed where they interfere with the natural flow of the river. Once again, it means less access for people. It also means the elimination of the iconic and epic Badwater Marathon in Death Valley National Park.

The purpose of this posting is to ask the Sierra Club to reexamine its charter and origins; to go back to its roots. What was the intent of John Muir and his contemporaries? How does electing attorneys and those who call themselves “Environmental Activists” as board members further the spirit of John Muir as an organization? Advocacy is certainly preferable to litigation. Why is a group with such a noble purpose seen only as obstructionists by so many who use the wilderness? I know the Sierra Club is pro environment but are they still pro people? We are more than the sum of a carbon footprint.        

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