People Who Make a Difference

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

  • NWF Staff
  • Oct 01, 1992
While others simply sit back and watch, some Americans are taking initiative to solve environmental problems or protect wildlife habitat. On the following pages, for the eighth time, National Wildlife presents profiles of seven committed citizens whose voluntary efforts have helped make a difference.

ED CHANEY: He speaks for salmon

In the summer of 1968, Ed Chaney stood beside the Columbia River in the Northwest, marveling at thousands of salmon fighting the current below John Day Dam. In the Army Corps of Engineers' rush to prepare the dam for a September dedication, he recalls, it had sealed off the river before the fish ladders used by salmon to get over the dam were ready.

Adult salmon heading for spawning grounds hundreds of miles inland were blocked repeatedly by the monolithic structure and perished. Army Corps officials denied the problem, but Chaney had proof: photographs of dead fish washed up on shore. A full page of those photographs in The Portland Oregonian brought attention to the problem. "The fire alarms went off," says Chaney.

A quarter-century later, Chaney, a 6-foot, 6-inch genteel Idaho conservationist, is still trying to save the salmon, only the situation has grown much worse. Snake River sockeye have been designated as an endangered species, and three Snake River chinook runs have been listed as threatened or endangered. Other runs, such as the Snake River coho, have become extinct. The American Fisheries Society estimates another 150 salmon runs throughout the Northwest are in trouble.

In the Lower Snake and Columbia rivers, Chaney blames eight dams that block key migrating corridors for killing as much as 95 percent of the juvenile salmon each year. However, the Army Corps and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which manage the world's largest hydroelectric system, have yet to make significant changes in dam operations to save the fish. Meanwhile, electric utility officials lobby government authorities against change to protect the lowest electrical rates in the nation: 2 to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour. For Chaney, a natural resources consultant, the task of saving the salmon has consumed his life. He frequently works 20 hours a day, sacrificing his personal life in the process. "If you're going to fight a battle," he says, "you might as well fight a big one, and they don't come any bigger than this. We're wiping out a resource that has enormous social, cultural and economic value."

In the mid-1970s, when commercial and sport fishermen and Native American gillnetters were arguing over who was responsible for dwindling fish runs, Chaney wrote the first comprehensive salmon status report for federal and state officials in the Columbia River Basin. It revealed with empirical evidence that dams—more than fishermen—were wiping out the fish. In 1980, he helped convince Congress to create a special agency charged with giving fish equal status with hydropower on the Columbia.

Though the BPA has spent $1 billion in the last decade on fish projects, Snake River salmon runs have continued to decline toward extinction. The Army Corps barges most of the juvenile fish around the dams, but few transported fish return to the Columbia as adults. In the wake of endangered species listings, authorities have called for reservoir drawdowns to give water back to the fish. But industrial interests are fighting the plan with predictions of economic ruin. Chaney disputes such predictions. He and the 40 or so environmental and Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest that he helped bring together into a coalition have come up with an economically viable solution to save at least a portion of the once-magnificent salmon runs. The battle could last for years, though for the fish, time is rapidly running out.

"If the salmon ever recover to fishable numbers in our state," says Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus, "people should name a tributary of the Salmon River after Chaney. That would be the right recognition for a man who has relentlessly devoted 20 years to the well-being of our anadromous fish." — Stephen Stuebner

IYLENE WEISS: Heaven at her doorstep

Ballona Lagoon is small compared to most tidal wetlands. The 16-acre estuary, which runs through the tony section of Los Angeles known as Venice Beach, is one of the last remnants of a vast saltwater wetland system that once covered hundreds of acres along the coast of Southern California.

Despite its size, however, Ballona Lagoon provides valuable habitat and feeding grounds for more than 20 species of migratory waterfowl and shore birds, including the endangered California least tern. It also contains more than a dozen species of fish, crabs and clams, and at least two dozen species of native plants. "It is," says Venice resident lylene Weiss, "the most productive saltwater wetland within L.A. city limits."

When Weiss and her husband bought a house adjacent to the lagoon in the mid-1980s, it was like a dream come true for the founder of the Los Angeles chapter of the Oceanic Society. "To have an estuary right at my doorstep, that was heaven to me," she says.

But Weiss' dream turned into a nightmare when she learned of a developer's plan to dredge Ballona Lagoon into a boat marina. The self-proclaimed "full-time professional volunteer" decided she wasn't going to let that happen without a fight. It wasn't an easy task. First she had to convince neighbors that a wetland would be more valuable to them than a marina. Then she had to take on a developer who had huge financial resources.

With other concerned citizens, she organized a grass roots campaign to teach the community about the ecological significance of Ballona Lagoon. She also devised a clever plan to take advantage of the developer's resources. "To apply for a building permit with the California Coastal Commission," says Weiss, "the developer had to do an environmental impact statement. We also filed for a permit, but our plan called for restoring the lagoon. Then we sat back and waited for the developer to finish his study, and inadvertently provide us with the scientific data we needed to make our point."

Though Weiss and the other members of her group, the Ballona Lagoon Watch Society, had no experience with federal or state regulations, they successfully defeated the marina plan. "Iylene took the initiative to gain protection for one of our city's most overlooked natural treasures, at a time when other people were seeking to destroy it," says L.A. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. The group's victory was still incomplete, however. The degraded lagoon needed to be restored to healthy condition. To help do so, Weiss' group convinced the Coastal Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide more than $100,000 in grants to develop a wetland restoration program.

That program has now begun. Today, the banks of Ballona Lagoon are again alive with a variety of flowering native plants. Work also is underway to improve the tidal circulation that flushes pollutants from the estuary. And Weiss, who has received national honors for her efforts, has turned her attentions to trying to save other remaining Southern California wetlands. — Mark Wexler

MARJORIE CARR / JACK KAUFMANN: Fixing a broken river

From the start, it had all the makings of an ecological nightmare. In 1964, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a questionable project to build a 110-mile-long shipping canal across Central Florida, linking the Gulf of Mexico with the St. Johns River and Jacksonville. If completed, the proposed Cross Florida Barge Canal would have destroyed tens of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat and contaminated the aquifer that supplies drinking water to the region.

As it turned out, by 1969, the Army Corps had completed a third of the project. In the process, it had dammed and inundated some 16 miles of the river flood-plain, including 9,000 acres of forest, to create a massive flooded area, Rodman Reservoir, in order to accommodate barge traffic. The dam blocked the migratory routes of several aquatic species. Other riparian wildlife also found themselves cut off from feeding corridors. When it became clear the project would completely destroy the unique Oklawaha River Valley, Marjorie Carr could not sit back silently.

The energetic mother of five, who has a master's degree in zoology, had cherished the Oklawaha's beauty ever since she first laid eyes on the river in the 1930s. In 1969, she rallied other conservationists to form the Florida Defenders of the Environment (FDE), based in the Gainesville home she shared with her husband, the late University of Florida zoologist Archie Carr. The group helped convince officials to stop the canal's construction.

Though the project may have died, Rodman Reservoir continues to haunt the Sunshine State. Because the nutrient-rich waters of the Oklawaha are trapped behind the dam, they cause a buildup of noxious weeds and algae in the reservoir.

"The reservoir now requires around $1 million every year to maintain, including regular drawdowns to kill back the weeds. But the one-time restoration cost would only be about $3 to $4 million and would pay for itself in a few short years," says Jack Kaufmann, a University of Florida zoologist who joined forces with Carr and the FDE in 1970 to develop a plan for taking down the dam and restoring the Oklawaha to its former meandering course.

Though Florida officials recommended as far back as 1976 that the river be restored, the FDE's efforts continue to be stymied by a few politicians who favor leaving the reservoir intact. The reason: Some local constituents claim Rodman's reputation as a prime bass fishing spot brings needed revenue to the region. "Opponents of river restoration assume that if we drain Rodman, the fishermen won't spend any more money," says Kaufmann, who has devoted thousands of hours to the battle. "Studies show the return of the river would actually increase recreational opportunities not only for fishermen, but also other outdoor enthusiasts."

Currently, Carr and Kaufmann are serving on advisory committees to help the state solve the dispute. They're also busy trying to rally support for their plan. "People say, 'That's controversial, I'll stay out of it, — notes the feisty, 78-year-old Carr. "Well, hell, there's nothing controversial about this—the facts are so overwhelmingly in favor of restoration." It's tough to argue with a woman who has devoted three decades of her life to reversing an ecological disaster. — Leah Barash

NORRIS McDONALD: When pollution hits home

Lower Beaverdam Creek and its junked cars are not one of Washington, D.C.'s major tourist attractions. But it's just the sort of place local environmental activist Norris McDonald takes people when he wants to show why the city's Anacostia River is such a mess. The narrow brown creek wends past automobile chassis, rusted fenders, and tires before joining the Anacostia, a sluggish tidal river that The New York Times labeled the national capital's "backyard refuse pit."

Stripped of wetlands, choked with silt, laden with pollution from street runoff and from sewage overflow during storms, the Anacostia is Washington's "other river." The better-known Potomac River has been scrubbed with a multi-million dollar clean-up campaign. But the dirty Anacostia "has been literally 'trashed' to the point where, in some areas, it is unfit for human contact," says D.C. delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Norris McDonald hopes to change that situation. Seven years ago, he founded the Center for Environment, Commerce and Energy, one of the nation's few organizations devoted to solving environmental problems of African Americans. One of his immediate goals has been to focus attention on the Anacostia and pollution in the neighborhoods along its banks.

McDonald organizes Anacostia cleanup days, leads creek walks, conducts water-quality tests and persuades businesses to "adopt" stretches of the fouled suburban streams that flow into the river.

But his real task, he says, "is mobilizing the African American community to participate in our environmental future."

To better demonstrate to District residents the links between the Anacostia River and themselves, McDonald came up with his WET (Water, Education and Training) program, which identifies and fixes water leaks in homes and apartments. "Just getting people aware of the value of water as a resource," he says, can do more than trim the family utility bill.

Stopping leaks, McDonald maintains, also reduces the flow of wastewater to the city's sewage treatment plant, a major electricity user. Less water to treat means less use of power, reducing the need to build more electrical generating facilities, thereby curbing potential air pollution. "Through our WET program we hope to educate people to the bigger environmental picture," says McDonald.

"Norris has been ahead of the curve for a long time in addressing environmental problems in terms of people-of-color communities," says David Hahn-Baker, a New York environmental consultant to the National Wildlife Federation and other groups who specializes in urban issues. McDonald says that his dream is to turn his organization into a powerful voice for all African Americans fighting for environmental fairness, as well as a source of solutions. By focusing on Anacostia pollution problems that hit close to home, the D.C. activist believes his most important environmental message is self-sufficiency. "If somebody dirties up your yard, yes, scream at them and try to get them to clean it up," says McDonald. "But if all else fails, be prepared to clean it up yourself." — Michael Lipske

NOA EMMETT ALULI: Fighting for a culture

Three years ago, Noa Emmett Aluli was among a group of native Hawaiians that marched barefoot for several miles on a new crushed-lava road to the last standing ohi'a tree in a clearing at a geothermal energy drill site. The clearing is located in the heart of the Big Island of Hawaii's Wao Kele o Puna—a 27,000-acre gem on the slopes of the world's most active volcano that is the last sizeable lowland tropical rain forest in the United States.

Under the tree's blossoms, which are considered sacred to the Hawaiian fire goddess Pele, the Hawaiians built an altar. Within a week, both altar and tree were bulldozed down. For Aluli, it was another example of the blatant disregard for native Hawaiian culture, and the wanton destruction of island forest ecosystems.

The physician, who lives on the island of Moloka'i, has been actively fighting rain forest development in the fiftieth state for a decade. In 1983, he co-founded the Pele Defense Fund (PDF) to rally many of the state's 8,000 full-blooded and 180,000 part-Hawaiians to protect traditional religious and cultural sites.

A main target of PDF activities has been protecting the Wao Kele o Puna, where developers want to build a geothermal electric plant to help the islands become more energy self-sufficient. Aluli and others contend that geothermal energy is not dependable or economical, and that it produces potentially dangerous hydrogen sulfide emissions. They also maintain that cutting down the rain forest is both a biological and cultural disaster.

Aluli says the forest around the volcano is sacred to Hawaiians. Drilling beneath it, he says, is equivalent to jackhammering the Vatican floor to look for oil. "We also must remember," he adds, "that island ecosystems are degraded much faster than continental ones. Even small damage is irreparable." Aluli argues that if the United States won't save its own rain forests, "what business does it have telling other nations not to cut theirs?" Two years ago, in a show of support for the PDF, some 2,000 Hawaiians entered the fenced-in drill site in what is perhaps the biggest protest demonstration in the state's history. And last year, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund joined the fray when it obtained a federal court ruling requiring an environmental impact statement before more federal money for geothermal development in the islands can be released. The PDF joined in a similar suit to force the state to do its own impact study. Several months may pass before the controversy is finally settled.

Aluli's strategy, says Allan Kawada, an attorney who is representing the geothermal developer, "is to delay progress and eventually stop it." However, he concedes, he sees the physician as "the plaintiff, the opponent, but not the enemy. He's intelligent and articulate."

Aluli, meanwhile, is concerned about the future of his people. "Indigenous Hawaiians," he says, "are as endangered as the Hawaiian hawk of Wao Kele o Puna. But now there's a community of native people here that wants to leave a legacy for future Hawaiians." — Sally-Jo Bowman

KEN MOSER: Seeking sound evidence

With more than 2,700 miles of shoreline to monitor, Puget Sound would represent a difficult challenge for even the most well-staffed pollution control agency. For Washington's beleaguered Department of Ecology, which is charged with enforcing state and federal water-quality laws, the task is all but impossible. "We're strapped for people and money," admits Kevin Fitzpatrick, acting head of the department's industrial permit section. The result: a lack of enforcement efforts and increasing levels of contamination in the 2,200square-mile sound.

Eight years ago, to help deal with the situation, some concerned citizens joined forces with Washington environmental groups to form the Puget Sound Alliance. The watchdog coalition began looking for ways to use volunteers to monitor water contamination. It found Ken Moser.

A former sailing ship skipper with a keen interest in environmental law, Moserwas selected by Alliance leaders in 1990 to become the official Puget Soundkeeper. As such, he heads up a citizen pollution-monitoring program similar to other "keeper" efforts already operating in other parts of the country. Under Moser's leadership, some 200 volunteers now regularly patrol areas of Puget Sound in kayaks, small boats and on foot, looking for evidence of illegal polluters.

"These citizens are trying to fill a vacuum that our legislators are not allowing our agencies to fill by providing adequate funding," says Vim Wright, assistant director of the University of Washington's Institute for Environmental Studies. The volunteers who join Moser attend workshops where they study everything from Puget Sound plankton to details of the federal Clean Water Act. The actual sampling of water is left to Moser, who is specially trained in handling hazardous substances, and to government experts who assist the Soundkeeper program. "Each case takes a tremendous amount of surveillance and research time," says Moser, who frequently must weed through stacks of records to determine if a potential violator has a history of noncompliance with the law. "Our first option," he adds, "is to try to give violators the chance to correct problems. If they don't, we have no choice but to file a citizens' lawsuit to stop them."

To date, the pollution fighters have successfully stopped the flow of contamination from at least a dozen industrial sites; their activities have also cost polluters more than $150,000 in fines. And currently, the group is challenging the legality of state discharge permits for 12 paper and pulp mills in the region.

"We've accumulated data to show that the permits are not adequately stopping the mills from releasing thousands of gallons of potentially dangerous wastes daily into state waterways," says Moser, whose only regret is that he cannot spend much time these days on the water. "There's so much work to do on land, nailing down all of the evidence, that my kayak may start getting a little rusty." — Jeann Linsley

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