In Their Own Words

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“We’ve been opposed to the PennEast Pipeline that’s bringing natural gas through here, but the problem is it’s almost impossible to fight. It’s an interstate pipeline and interstate pipelines are approved by a federal agency called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It was set up in 2005 by a bunch of secret meetings that Dick Cheney ran at which only energy executives were at, no environmentalists. And they got Congress to pass this thing, FERC as it’s called, and it’s never turned down a pipeline. So it’s very hard to fight.” —Don Miles, Executive Committee member, Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club

Sierra Club, Lehigh Valley Group

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The Lehigh Valley Group of the Pennsylvania Chapter hosted a screening of “From the Ashes” at the Charles Brown Ice House in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

If you’re involved in the outdoors in any capacity, you’ve heard of the Sierra Club before. Headquartered in Oakland, California, and founded in 1892 by environmentalist and outdoorsman John Muir, the organization boasts three million supporters, making them the undisputed king of grassroots environmentalism.

I met with Executive Committee member of the Pennsylvania Chapter Don Miles after a screening of “From the Ashes,” a documentary about America’s coal industry. The film screening was busy, but not packed, and at 24, I was on the younger side of attendees.

The attendee demographic wasn’t surprising. I see far more of my peers at events like the Banff Mountain Film Festival tour than I do at environmentalism events. Who wants to hear about how U.S. coal plants are responsible for more than half of human-caused mercury emissions when you could watch Angel Collinson ski unbelievable lines in Alaska? Adventure trumps activism. Or so it seems.

So who is strapping on their Tevas and taking up the environmental banner (a sustainably produced banner, of course)?

Well, not the people who showed up to the public hearing on wind turbines in the Lehigh Valley region that Don attended.

“[There were] 300 people there. All screaming and yelling, and all full of misinformation,” said Don. One man stood up and expressed concern about the danger turbines posed to deer, bear, and mountain lions. Don informed him that the eastern cougar (mountain lion) has been extinct for nearly 70 years, the last one formally registered as killed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1874. “There’s a certain sort of person who knows what they know and doesn’t want to hear any facts. And you can’t argue with them,” he told me.

When people do show up to public forums, Don pointed out that they’re not usually supporters: “My experience in practicing law for 40 years is the vast majority of people who show up to meetings are against what’s going on, not in favor of it. If people are in favor of something, they just think it’s going to happen. It’s the people that are against something that turn up.”

I’ve never been to a public forum before. Prior to 2017, I’d never called or emailed a government representative. But apathy is a luxury I can no longer afford. The cost of inaction is too high.

There are different degrees of activism, and any type of participation is helpful. But how do we motivate people to go from hashtags to public forums? How do we cultivate passion for things we so often take for granted? How do we make films about coal just as enticing, just as attention-grabbing as films about skiing?

I don’t have many answers. But this blog, for me, is a start.

In Their Own Words

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Bethany Keene and Jason Zarnowski work for the Delaware Highlands Conservancy at their Hawley, Pennsylvania, office.

“We hope the community sees us as a resource. . . .We’re not here to tell people, ‘Don’t do that.’ We’re not pointing our finger and saying, ‘You can’t do that with your land.’ We’re helping people who want to protect what they have, who have this beautiful land and they want to say that it’ll still be a farm, it’ll still be a forest, whoever owns it. So we really help people meet their goals for their land, which benefits us all.” —Bethany Keene, Outreach & Development Team Lead

“I often get emails and phone calls saying, ‘I have this on my property, and I don’t know what to do about it.’ The latest one was about bees. ‘I’ve got all these bees, and I don’t know what to do with them.’ And while we didn’t know what to do in staff, we knew where to point them. If they don’t know what to do, they know we can send them to someone who can help.” —Jason Zarnowski, Outreach and GIS Coordinator

Delaware Highlands Conservancy

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The Conservancy focuses on land protection, education, and community initiatives within the Upper Delaware River region.

If Pennsylvania does one thing well, it’s waterways. From the Delaware River in the east to the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela in the west, what Pennsylvania lacks in mountains it makes up for in rivers and waterfalls galore (fun fact: Ricketts Glen State Park has 22 waterfalls alone).

Water was a running theme (see what I did there?) in my talk with Bethany Keene and Jason Zarnowski from the Delaware Highlands Conservancy. They have a variety of community programs—everything from teaching women landowners on how to best steward their land, to running eagle viewing sites in the winter—but one of their primary focuses is land protection, which, in turn, protects water quality.

“Whatever you do to the land, you do to the water,” said Bethany. “So if you want to have clean drinking water, it’s based on what you’re doing on your land. If you’re dropping fertilizer, if you’re mowing right up to the edge of a lake or stream, everything you do on your land affects the water. And that’s why we work so hard to protect the farms and forests here because that’s really what’s helping to keep the water clean.”

Two numbers from our conversation really stuck with me: seven and 15 million. Seven is the number of Conservancy employees, and 15 million is the number of people who rely on clean water from the Upper Delaware River region, which is the area the Conservancy works within.

Seven people helping to preserve water quality for 15 million people.

Seven.

Fifteen million.

Of course, the Conservancy is not alone. There are other organizations and agencies helping to regulate water quality, but we, the consumers, trust a very small body of people to control something as essential as water. Like so many other things, a luxury of living in a first-world country is that water quality is something we don’t think about until something goes wrong. We assume it’s a given.

Which is why education is such an important part of the Conservancy’s mission: If we learn how our actions affect our water sources, if we all contribute in big and small ways to conserve and protect, then the ripple effect lessens and the ratio increases. It’s not just seven people safeguarding drinking water, it’s 100, 10,000, 10 million.

Want to take the first step in protecting local water sources? Bethany and Jason directed me to Clear Choices Clean Water, where you can learn easy ways to conserve water and take a pledge to make a difference. Check it out!

We, the People. We, the Rocks.

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Cairns (rock piles) mark mountain trails in Adirondack Park, NY.

It can be difficult to love rock. Bioerosion, glauconite, miogeosyncline, they aren’t words that inspire. Even cleavage becomes a sigh when it’s all slate and dust.

But build it a backbone, give it a story, and that piece of sandstone that remembers the weight of dinosaurs 150 million years ago—as well as Jenny + Sean 4eva from 2014—suddenly has meaning. We care about it. We’ll protect it.

You’re a part of the story, too.

At some point, known or unknown, you gave a piece of yourself to the wilderness and never asked for it back. While walking through the woods, an elm branch brushed your arm and suddenly a piece of you went missing. You were watching the sun set on your friend’s rooftop, a beer in one hand and your uncertain future in the other, and a part of you flew away and painted itself into the sky. Once, when you stepped into a ray of sunlight, you felt lighter than you did just moments ago.

Empathy is easiest through a window. Backyards, sidewalks, neighborhood pines. It’s easier to care when we see it, when it’s our own lawns turning brown and brittle in the summer drought. We take care of us and our own. The mountains will be there when we want them, when we have time for them.

Right?

Like everything, rock changes, too. Foundations crumble, canyon walls erode, entire tectonic plates shift. They symbolize what many think of nature as—everlasting and enduring, changing slowly and naturally over the course of time. But that isn’t true. Not always. Not anymore. Nature lasts because we think it’s valuable and because we’re willing to fight for it. It survives because we protect it.

In 2017, change in the outdoors seems quicker than ever. There are no guarantees on what will survive the year.  It’s happening across America. You can’t see it all from your window.

This blog is a place to give a voice to the American wilderness and the people who support it. As journalist Katherine Boo wrote:

“I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.”

This is our land, and these are its stories.