People Who Make a Difference

Americans from all walks of life are taking extraordinary steps to safeguard wildlife and the environment

  • Oct 01, 1999
For many Americans, solving a community problem means taking extraordinary action while others simply sit back and watch. On the following pages, for the seventh time, National Wildlife presents profiles of several such committed citizens whose voluntary efforts to protect the environment or wildlife habitat have helped make them heroes in our time.

SHEILA CANNON: Protecting the homefront

The mayor's backyard did not make the list of proposed sites for a trash-burning plant in Los Angeles. Neither did those of any city council members. Perhaps they wouldn't have enjoyed the 10 percent increase in air pollution the plant was supposed to cause. Or the potential increase in tumors, skin lesions and respiratory problems predicted for people living within a 10-mile radius. Or the toxic ash, tainted with mercury, arsenic and dioxin that would drift down into yards. Perhaps the 50-foot smokestack would ruin their views, or the trucks thundering by to deliver 1,600 tons of garbage a day would tie up traffic. Maybe it was the predicted boom in rats. Or just the smell.

For whatever reason, the city officials' backyards lost out to Sheila Cannon's. In 1985 this private-duty nurse in south-central Los Angeles learned that the city was planning to put its first garbage-burning plant, known as LANCER, two blocks from her home, in a largely black and Hispanic neighborhood. "They thought we were nothing," she says. "They thought we wouldn't fight their plan."

Cannon and the other underdogs in this dispute proved the mayor and city council very wrong. This was more than a squabble over whose backyard got dirty. The whole idea of burning trash seemed wrong to Cannon. The plant would, she says, "thrive on garbage." People in Los Angeles would have little incentive to produce less waste.

At first Cannon's campaign went badly. She and her sister, Robin, and a group of neighbors studied the plant's environmental impact assessment and protested its lack of details. The city council brushed aside their presentation as just so much gnatlike humming from the politically cloutless. "Part of the determination and drive to keep going came from how badly we were treated," she says.

Though Cannon had no organizing experience, she set out to raise a storm that the city council could not ignore. She enlisted the support of other neighborhood groups from as far away as Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley, building coalitions that had not been dreamed of before. She and her neighbors attended every political forum they could find, bringing up the question of garbage burning. "We made it an issue," she says.

"For two years I lived and breathed LANCER," Cannon remembers. "My phone started ringing at six in the morning and didn't stop until midnight." Somehow she also worked as a part-time nurse and cared for her four children.

"She's in the forefront of urban environmentalism," says Don May, director of California Earth Core, a local conservation group. "She showed that environmentalism is not just saving wild rivers."

Cannon's strategy worked. Today the garbage-burning plant is a dead issue, canceled by its planners. Two city council members who favored it are out of office. And the mayor has withdrawn his support for the project and announced that in Los Angeles, nobody's backyard will have a trash-burner. — Susan Milius

JOAN SIMS / TOM RODD: A dream of clean streams

Children used to play in the streams that flow near Joan Sims' house, on the outskirts of Morgantown, West Virginia. They don't anymore. Two years ago, an area coal mine began spewing hundreds of gallons of acid mine drainage into the streams, turning the water bright orange and killing the fish and insect life.

Eight years earlier, Sims and her neighbors had argued with state regulators that the mining would cause such damage, but as often happens in coal country, their cries fell on deaf ears. Sims decided she would just have to cry louder. She turned for help to a local environmental group, Mountain Stream Monitors (MSM), which for more than a decade had been providing technical assistance to citizens who sought to protect area streams. She found Tom Rodd, an energetic attorney who was also tired of seeing mine wastes destroy waterways. Together, they took on some of West Virginia's powerful coal companies.

Sims and Rodd formed an activist group within MSM called Living Streams, which now keeps tabs on nearly every active mine and application to mine in northern West Virginia. Their goal: to halt projects that are causing acid mine drainage.

"The number one environmental problem facing the coal industry in Appalachia today is acid mine drainage," says Rodd. "We're in danger of losing what few clean streams we have left."

Mining can cause acid drainage in other parts of the country, but the problem is most acute in Appalachia. There, the overburden—the ground between the surface and the coal—contains high concentrations of iron sulfide. Experts estimate that more than 6,000 miles of Appalachian streams have already been polluted by acid drainage, which kills all stream life. And once a sensitive area has been mined, it will continue to discharge its toxic drainage into surrounding waterways for decades to come.

"These areas represent only about 5 percent of West Virginia's total coal potential," says Rodd, who donates his legal expertise to Living Streams. "There's more coal here than we'll ever be able to mine, so it's madness to mine the kind of coal sites that produce such severe environmental costs." Unfortunately, he notes, the state Division of Energy does not have the manpower or funding to effectively monitor mining operations and enforce stream-protection laws.

"We've taken a systematic approach, instead of looking at problems one by one," adds Sims. "By doing our own regular stream testing, digging through state files and hounding state officials and mine operators, we're acting as an independent regulatory agency."

The group's efforts have begun paying off. Last spring, after Sims and her neighbors filed a lawsuit with the aid of Living Streams, a coal operator's insurer agreed for the first time to provide a $1.2 million treatment system to clean up two creeks.

However, Living Streams' greatest effectiveness may result from its persistence. "We challenge coal operators during every step of the permitting process," says Rodd. The result is that more and more companies are becoming less and less inclined to mine in acid-producing areas after they see how much trouble they must go through just to get a permit—and how much it will cost them to treat pollution if they do. — Ken Ward, Jr.

JOE PADILLA: A labor of love

In 1983, Joe Padilla got a glimpse of the past which radically changed his future. That was the year U.S. Forest Service officials took Padilla and other Albuquerque conservationists on a tour of a 100,000-acre ranchland that was being added to New Mexico's Carson National Forest.

The area, called Valle Vidal, had been donated to the government by the Pennzoil Corporation in exchange for tax breaks. For years, it had been managed as a private sportsmen's retreat. Few people had visited it. The results were breathtaking.

"You could stand almost anywhere on that ranch and see deer and elk," says Padilla. "It was one of the last places in this area that wildlife still had to itself. It was the way the region must have looked before people changed the landscape."

Inspired by that first glimpse of the Valle Vidal, the New Mexico native decided to find out what he could do to ensure that wildlife would always find refuge in the pristine high mountain meadows and forests of the ranchland. After talking with Forest Service authorities, he volunteered to become the works project coordinator for the Albuquerque Wildlife Federation (AWF), a chapter of the National Wildlife Federation's New Mexico affiliate. Rather than use a pen or protest sign to achieve his goal, Padilla picked up a shovel. His hard-working efforts have been benefiting wildlife ever since.

At Valle Vidal, the 45-year-old machinist organized a crew of AWF volunteers, which spent some sweaty weekends uprooting 8-foot "game-proof" fencelines so deer and elk could move about more freely. To preserve migratory routes, the group installed log elk crossings along fencelines that had to remain in place.

Padilla also organized a series of weekend projects aimed at providing water for animals at Valle Vidal. Over a four-year period, the volunteer force built more than 125 structures to create pools and waterfalls on a creek that was one of the last redoubts of native cutthroat trout. They also planted native grasses and willows to stabilize streambanks.

"We took a stream where you could barely find a fish and made it fishable," says Padilla. "Now it's designated as strictly a catch-and-release area."

"They've been involved in half of all wildlife improvements that have been done in the Valle Vidal," says Forest Service District Ranger Ron Thibedeau, adding that such efforts would have cost his strapped agency at least $50,000.

But Padilla didn't stop at Valle Vidal. In the past few years, he and his corps of workers have tackled innumerable projects on other federal and state lands. "I've never worked with a more dedicated individual for wildlife conservation—anywhere, at any time," says Pecos National Forest District Ranger Pete Tatschl.

For their efforts, Padilla and his crew of AWF volunteers have been honored at a White House ceremony for the Take Pride in America Program and by the governor of New Mexico. — Mark L. Taylor

JOAN BAVARIA: Changing the bottom line

When the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in March 1989, the massive damage to the Alaskan environment set off angry cries all across the United States. One of those anguished voices belonged to Joan Bavaria, an idealistic Boston money manager who had spent several years in the forefront of social investing, searching out companies for her clients that make safe products and pursue worthy goals. Soon, her anger turned to action.

Within months of the tanker spill, the 47-year-old Massachusetts native emerged as the driving force behind a new alliance of investors and conservationists, formed to persuade corporations into accepting more responsibility for their actions. The group, called Ceres (for Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies), uses more than words to get its point across. Its investor members, which include 250 Catholic and Protestant church groups, control $150 billion in pension fund and mutual fund monies. The coalition's environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and others, represent several million members.

"We are trying in a very fundamental way to change the way corporations look at the environment and at their practices around the environment," says Bavaria, who operates Ceres on a volunteer basis.

To clarify their objectives, Bavaria and her Ceres colleagues wrote the Valdez Principles—a tough, ten-point code of corporate conduct that asks companies to give environmental standards the same emphasis as financial standards. Then, using their stock-holding clout, they asked major corporations to agree to sign the principles—a task that proved daunting.

"First there were fears that nobody would sign it," recalls National Wildlife Federation General Counsel Joel Thomas, a member of the Ceres board of directors. "Then there were fears that everybody would sign it—and if everyone signed it, the code wouldn't mean anything."

As it turned out, not many Fortune 500 companies rushed to sign the Valdez Principles, but several major firms scurried to write their own codes; several others are talking with Ceres to try to find ways to include environmental safeguards in the way they do business.

These days, Bavaria tries to devote one third of her time to Ceres and two-thirds to her Boston company, the Franklin Research and Development Corporation. At Franklin, she manages some $220 million for concerned clients who want to avoid stocks of firms that make liquor, tobacco, weapons, or pollute the air or water.

Every corporation, says Bavaria, should have two bottom lines, and only one is profitability. The other is preserving the health of the planet. — Stan Hinden

GEORGE GURLEY: He took a stand

Three years ago, George Gurley didn't know a megawatt from a kilowatt. At age 62, the retired U.S. Air Force communications specialist had neither the scientific background nor the technological expertise to talk knowledgeably about oil-fired generators, turbines or sulfur and nitrogen emissions. He learned quickly.

"I had to," says Gurley, "because some body had to take a stand." At stake, he says, was the quality of the very air he breathes and the health of his neighbors in the River Terrace section of northeast Washington, D.C. That community of low to moderate income families is located adjacent to a 75-acre generating plant owned by the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO).

For years, residents of the tidy community lived in peaceful coexistence with the PEPCO facility. In 1988, however, PEPCO officials proposed building two new generators at the plant to increase electrical output during peak periods. "They didn't count on anybody from our neighborhood challenging them," says Gurley.

To prepare for arguing against the plan, the former military man began spending long nights in public libraries learning about the various aspects of energy technology. By day, he visited with D.C. City Council members and other city officials, organized community discussions and enlisted the support of local consumer advocates, including Ralph Nader.

Gurley argued that power plant generators spew potentially hazardous emissions into the air that can possibly cause cancer and respiratory problems. He pointed out that his neighborhood had one of the highest incidences of cancer in the city, according to a recent study conducted by the D.C. health commissioner.

PEPCO authorities countered by saying that their operation was meeting all D.C. clean-air standards and that their studies found no health risks from emissions at the plant. They said there was no scientific evidence linking the power plant with the cancer rate in the area.

Even so, last fall, the utility announced that due to a downturn in the economy, new conservation programs and opportunities to purchase power elsewhere, it had withdrawn its application to build the new generators at the River Terrace facility. "The need was no longer there," says a PEPCO spokesperson.

Area residents believe, however, that public pressure was what caused the utility to withdraw its proposal. "This was a major victory for us," says Linda E. Dixon, a longtime River Terrace homeowner.

"If it were not for George Gurley, this thing would have never happened," adds Kevin P. Chavous, a Washington, D.C., attorney who volunteered his time to help residents fight the plan. "He was the one who kept the momentum going."

Today, Gurley continues to monitor activities at the plant and advise people in other culturally diverse communities about how to better protect themselves from potential health threats. "The battle here has been won," he says, "but the fight elsewhere continues." — Jenice Armstrong

DANIEL WILKINS: Breaking down barriers

For as long as he can remember, Daniel Wilkins has loved the outdoors. Growing up in rural northwestern Ohio, he spent countless winter days snowshoeing through quiet pine forests. In summer, he waded repeatedly through the area's thick bogs. When he became a quadriplegic in a car accident at age 23, he couldn't bear the thought of being isolated from nature forever. He refused to let it happen.

Today, 11 years after his accident, Wilkins is as active as ever in outdoor pursuits. He is also one of Ohio's leading advocates of efforts to make outdoor facilities more accessible to people with disabilities. His voluntary work has resulted in a number of programs that now allow impaired people to do, as he puts it, "all kinds of crazy outdoor activities."

It hasn't been easy for Wilkins, who spent several tough years regaining limited use of his arms and hands. Eventually, he was able to begin supporting himself by developing a small desktop publishing business out of his home in the town of Luckey. With his mother, he also founded the Northwest Ohio Chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, which provides technical and emotional support for newly disabled people. "Dan has the power to influence people," says Dr. Bill Waring, a Michigan rehabilitation physician. "He is the best role model there can be" for impaired people.

Wilkins became frustrated when he couldn't get beyond the main road at the Ottawa. National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, located on Lake Erie, had trails allowing people to view migratory birds. However, wheelchairs could not traverse the stone trails. Wilkins rallied volunteers and acquired the materials needed to resurface the walkways.

Today, wheelchair users are a common sight in the refuge—a fact Ohio legislators recognized. Not long ago, they honored Wilkins as one of the state's most "outstanding citizens."

Wilkins next turned his attentions to helping naturalists in Toledo devise trail accessibility programs in area parks. One result of those efforts is Trail Partners, which, says Wilkins, shows that accessibility doesn't mean having to pave the wilderness. "We decided to use people power to aid those needing assistance," he says.

In the program, people with disabilities call ahead to various parks and requests assistance of trained trail partners, many of whom Wilkins has personally helped to train. The city's programs have attracted thousands of people with hearing, vision, physical and mental disabilities.

"Physical barriers are easily overcome," says Wilkins, "once attitudinal barriers vanish. People need to say 'I can' and 'you can.'" — Lori Bergstrom Ruhlman

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