April 4, 2013
Devon: First of all could you tell me a little about yourself?
Lee: Well, I grew up in Michigan outside of Detroit went to the University of Michigan spent a while on where I was going to study ended up as a special education teacher and also a grade school teacher and spent career teaching in Heartland (MI) which isn't too far from Lansing. All of my life I've pretty much had in an interest in the outdoors and the environment. I did a lot of camping as a kid and working in summer camps. In my college years took up wilderness travel, like canoeing and backpacking. At some point along the way, while I was still a teacher, I found out that we had a local chapter of the Sierra Club called Crossroads Group and got involved with them. Now I am the group chair, so I am able to kind of give back, rather than just participate.
Devon: So how did you go about becoming the group chair?
Lee: First I joined the group and was a member for a number of years. I was the program chair, which means I brought in speakers during that time. We do five programs a year that we put of for the public for free of charge. Then for a while I was program chair as well as vice chair and when our chair stepped out I got the position. In groups like these local groups, it takes a lot of work to keep them up and running and bring in new blood. So, there is not necessarily a lot of competition for these positions. No one else was there so it took over and I've had the goal of revitalizing our group and streamlining it and bringing in new faces and structure it in a way in which it will have a more secure future.
Devon: Ok, Could you tell me a little about what the Sierra Club does in general and the maybe specifically about what your chapter has done?
Lee: Let me tell you a little about how the Sierra Club is structured. The National organization is "The Sierra Club" every state has a chapter, so there is a Michigan Chapters, used to be called the Mackinaw and now it the Michigan Chapter, and the locals are known as groups and those are the official terms. The Sierra Club is the oldest a largest environmental organization in the world their main kind of motto is to teach people about the environment so that they will protect the natural world and want people out their to enjoy it because if they are understanding and utilizing it they are more likely to try to protect it. The Sierra Club does a lot of educational work but they are very big into lobbying from the national level all the way down to the local level. At the group level we work more locally. Now we often help on statewide initiatives when we collect signatures for ballet initiatives. We will work on some campaigns for people running for state office. But the screening and endorsing may be done with group recommendations when it is done at the state level. The national organization handles things on the nation wide level and often at time internationally and we have the state to deal with big issues at that level. Groups are the most variable when it comes to how effective they are because it is tough to keep local groups up and running to keep us funded and keep us active with new blood.
Devon: Now do you receive funds from the national organization or do you guys have to depend more on your local contributors and members?
Lee: We are on our own. It may be true at the state level I know that for instance membership in the national... I'm not sure to be honest whether the National gives some of the funds from the national to the chapter. I know that the chapter does some of its own fundraising. The groups are on their own. But we are pretty fortunate I don't know if you have ever heard of the Howell Balloon Festival?
Lee: Well it's a big event and it attracts a couple hundred thousand people. The organization allows three non-profits there to have a food stand and we are one of them. So with one even during the three-day period we are able to raise plenty of money to do all the things we want and then some. Otherwise groups are selling calendars or calling up members and asking for funds. Going from one event to another with a table selling whatever they sell to try to raise money. It can be a challenge we are fortunate to have this one three day event and we get several thousand dollars a year which is plenty for a local group.
Devon: What are some of the issues that you guys are currently concentrating on?
Lee: At the local level?
Devon: Yea or at the state wide level?
Lee: Starting a the state wide level, of coarse we have just passed an election cycle so they were very active at the state and also trying to energize the locals as well to work on the election. In Michigan we were not all that successful. We got a couple of things defeated that we wanted to get defeated but some of the validations was taken away by the things that would liked to have pass did not pass and clearly we did not make as much headway with legislators as we would have liked. The Republican legislature is doing some pretty devastating things environmentally and as much as the chapter is lobbying we have not been able to stop it. I am not sure how familiar with environmental issues. I that something you keep..
Devon: Yea, that is something that I have been trying to keep up to date on this semester.
Lee: For instance they are in the midst of passing a law that will soon go to the governor for signature if he will sign it, which it looks like he might, disallowing the department of Natural resources from considering bio-diversity as they make land use decisions. So you have a piece of land and there might be an endangered species or a threatened species and they are not allowed to consider when they decide on how the land will be used. They put a cap on the amount of land that the state through the DNR can acquire. So if there is a beautiful piece of land that becomes available that could become a great park they may not be able to acquire it unless the sell off other land. They passed a law two years ago saying that if somebody leaky underground fuel tank that they are not under law required to clean it up. So... sometimes you just have to look at it and just shake your head at the ignorance on what is going on and its tough for our chapter our folks are taking a beating because its tough to fight against a heavily Republican, "heavy republican" I use it because of the environment but usually the two line up pretty clearly when you look at the voting records it pretty straight forward. Most of the republicans have very low ratings and the democrats have better ratings. So with the election cycle over what we are working on now is hydrofracking. I'm sure you are familiar with that.
Lee: Have you seen the movie "Gasland?"
Devon: Uhh... no but I have heard of it.
Lee: Yea, put Gasland down on your list at something to look at. You can stream it off of amazon or Netflix as well. It can give you an idea of the dangers in hydrofracking. It can be a major environmental threat. Land it being leased to all through the state to companies who want to frack. Without serious regulations in this state, the state claims that they have done fracking before and its never been a problem, well its not the same type of fracking it was a very different process. Its not the one when they are pumping in unknown chemicals. We know that known carcinogens that are being pumped into the ground. We know that well have been disturbed and massive air pollution in some areas and destruction of roads because of massive amounts of water has to be trucked in. Huge, huge problems some states are considering banning it all together communities could be torn apart and it could very well be coming to Michigan without regulation. Under our previous president, who happens to be an "oil man" if you recall, they passed a law exempting the companies that do the hydrofracking from having to reveal the chemicals they pumped into the ground. So you try to prove that they a polluting your water but you cant prove it because you don't know if those chemical were put in there by a chemical company because the government says that they don't have tell anybody. For a while they were using things like diesel fuel. Hydrofracking is a major problem and it is one that we are working on now. Another one we are working on now is renewable energy. There was a really big push for that. It was one of the ballet issues that unfortunately went down that would have required energy companies to ramp up the amount of energy that they provide users that comes from renewable energy sources. It went down along with everything else that was on the ballet. Those are the to biggest ones on both the national and state level. Another local issue that the chapter is right now is working on is getting a ballet initiative to prevent a wolf hunt. Basically the state legislature passed a law allowing for a wolf hunt. Once the signatures have been turned in and found being significant then the wolf hunt will be put off until we have referend. That's the big one we have going on at the state. There are two issues that seem to come up at each level. Those are ones that are planned goals from the national such as trying to get renewable energy and trying to get better control of fracking and then there are ones that come up in response to what the government is doing such as the wolf initiative.
Devon: How would you compare Michigan's environmental activism to other states and now with the current leadership do you see a lacking of success?
Lee: In terms in trying to rate Michigan's activism compared to other states I have very little knowledge of it. I know that the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club has a reputation of being an effective organization. We do have several groups within the state that are doing pretty well are healthy and are contributing and we have some that are struggling. But I think overall we are in the top half in terms of environmentalism and organization. The National Wildlife Federation has created an office in Ann Arbor to help oversea their efforts in the great lakes. One of the organizations that many years ago used to be a contributor to environmental activism was the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. Sierra Club dropped out of that once it became more of an advocacy group for hunters. The Sierra Club does not take an official position on hunting. We are against wolf hunting for reasons for survival of the species not because we are against hunting per say although I think the Sierra Club would take a position against trophy hunting.
Devon: Do you guys try to influence every environmental policy process or do you try to pick or choose the ones you are going to make an influence or make a difference?
Lee: I would say at the local level at the state a local level they lobby all of the time in Michigan even though we know it is like bumping our heads against the wall. We have a lobby day coming up in two weeks. One hundred or so Sierra Club members will head down to Lansing, including me, and will meet with state legislators or their assistants and go over some key issues. We try to do it respectfully and politely and we try to educate these folks. In some instances we may change their mind. In others we may just informing them of things that they do not know. Helping legislators understand that the decisions that they make about these issues have consequences and the consequences may not always be what they think they are. We are pretty active and we do this at least one time a year.
Devon: What are some tactics that you guys use to influence policy?
Lee: It can be done at a few levels. It can be done at direct lobbying and it can be done through education. If you educate the public you often educate lawmakers. If you have public that is educated it is motivated particular if they have things at risk. When the word got out the legislation wanted to have a wolf hunt, our organization as well as many other environmental groups made a lot of noise about it an rapidly collected over 200,000 signatures for the petition. Educating the public, publicizing important issues and lobbying are common at all levels but at the local level we do programs. We will bring in speakers on different issues like global warming and ones that bring in live animals and we offer these events free to the public so people can just become more interested and that helps. The more people that you have that care about the outdoors the bigger the push from the public to support those issues. I would say that is what local groups do best is to engage people in their local community is through outings and through programs.
Devon: Could you give me an example of one of the programs that you have hosted in your county?
Lee: Multiple times we have brought in the local rehabilitation centers like the Howell Nature Center, Bat Conservation, and Hands on Museum in Ann Arbor. We brought in somebody who was on Al Gore's Nobel winning climate team and University of Michigan Professor Hennery Pollack who published a book "World Without Ice." We have another program talking about preserving the red country in Arizona. We had somebody who was allowed to go back and visit the Chernobyl site because he was a resident and he did a program talking about his experience. It is really a very wide array of different programs. We do a lot of summing programs biking, hiking, and owl calling. If you look on our website you can see a list of our upcoming programs. We have around 15 to 20 outing a year.
Devon: What typically opponents that you face when you are trying to influence policy?
Lee: Funding is typically the biggest because the funding for environmental interest groups will never match the funding of the private organization. This is an issue at all levels and for all environmental groups. We just don't have those same sorts of resources. The challenge to overcome that is to engage the public. Staffing is also an issue. There generally very small staffs that are stretched thin and they do what they can. At the local level it is a struggle to keep a good strong leadership and finding people willing to go to meeting and put in the time.
Devon: As you have become more involved with influencing policy how have your opinions changed on how the state legislature functions as a whole?
Lee: My own feeling is that I think that it is sad how much money influences decision making because clearly a lot of the decision have come down from the government regarding environmental issues or protection of the public are not in the publics best interest when the government allows for know carcinogens to be pumped into the ground by the tens of thousands of gallons. Another big issue is contained animal feeding operations. They know that the waste produced just poisons groundwater the government still allows it to continue. Why are they allowing it to continue? Because of economics. The Biggest disappointment is how much money can affect policy. It is much harder to mobilize the base on an issues rater than give money to the person that they are hoping to influence.
Devon: How would you compare the current state legislation to the past based on successes in environmental issues?
Lee: The current legislations is a complete disaster. It is one of those things you just have to hold your breath and hope you get past it. Passing laws that the DNR is not allowed using science to determine how to use land to limit the amount of state land that can be parkland. It has been very challenging for use to effect legislation of late because we have complete domination by the republicans and they are not environmentalist. They did do one good thing by disallowing wild boar to be raised for game hunting.
Devon: Can this be posted to Michigan Policy Network?
Devon: Once again I want to thank you for your time and I appreciate what you stand for and what you are doing for our environment and have a nice day.