On Jan. 11, 2012, the local Sierra Club could undergo a change of tectonic proportions if a group of Generation Ys who advocate bicycling to ease global warming gets its way. The group wants to overthrow the Baby Boomers of the “tree-huggers” generation, who have been in power for decades.
The matter will be decided by the results of a mail-in election of local chapter leaders. Kevin Collins, Dennis Davie and Mark Sullivan, who serve on the current executive council, are being challenged by Greg McPheeters, Tawn Kennedy and Mary Odegaard.
“I am really concerned about reaching out to new members," said Kennedy, director of Greenways to Schools. "The average age is going up, and when I started talking to my friends, I realized that very few of them were Sierra Club members.
Kennedy, who is 32, said he wants to reach out to even younger people.
"I could perhaps start a youth column for the Ventana newsletter where they could share their stories.”
Davie, one of the old guard who has chaired the forestry committee for six years, said, "We could certainly use someone on the membership committee to focus on young people. It’s time for that person to get involved. An argument that we haven’t done enough is an argument for more people to get involved, not to kick people off the executive committee. We need people to get involved in all areas of the Sierra Club as long-term activists, not just for one issue.”
He said his committee no longer has meetings but corresponds by email and phone.
“It’s tough to get people to join committees," he said, "but it’s in the committees that the local Sierra Club does its work. We would love to see people like those running to get involved in our committees and really do some grassroots work.”
As the forestry chairman, he keeps track and comments on local timber harvest plans that may adversely affect Santa Cruz waterways and endangered species, like steelhead and coho. “I try to make the environment sustainable,” he said.
He pointed out that the club made several innovations in public outreach in 2011. The last issue of the Ventana was mailed out in mid-December. Now the newsletter will be found on a website, which is more ecologically-friendly and less costly. A meetup group was founded to publicize hikes and events.
Newcomer McPheeters, who designs solar panels, said he'd like to see even more changes.
"The Sierra Club now feels like a small group of people who are doing a lot of good things, like forestry issues, but there is a disconnect between them and the rest of the members," he said. "I would like to see the group much more inclusive and positive in the community. People have told me that they have a deep frustration with the present leadership in getting things done, not easy to work with.”
Kennedy contends that his slate of candidates is not just a one-trick pony on a bicycle. During discussions concerning the recently drafted City of Santa Cruz Climate Action Plan, he said the club responded with just a letter.
“The club could have been more involved and ask the general membership to discuss it," Kennedy said. "But there were no general meetings about reducing greenhouse gases, no thoughts on how to make the city more accountable.”
He wants to align with national Sierra Club issues, like climate change. “It’s time for the club to step up and address contentious issues like desalination and transportation, because who’s going to be left with the bill for climate change and the price tag on water?”
With 3,300 members locally, Kennedy said he believes the group could be more effective. "It’s not just the tar plant versus the bicyclists, hikers vs. bikes; we need a broader focus. But I support logging activism, too.”
Collins, who chairs the executive committee, said he would like to return the group to stability after a year of club infighting.
“Some members don’t understand the distinction between local and state and national levels of activism, like fighting against global warming in this little fly-speck of ground called Santa Cruz County. Certainly you can try to promote the issue with the City Global Warming Action Plan, but it’s not the place that
major decisions are being made or not being made.”
He has spent the last 15 years as a Sierra Club member and volunteer activist, learning about public policy and forestry code and speaking for the environment before the Board of Forestry and the Board of Supervisors.
“I don’t think the other candidates know much about land use policy and county zoning policy,” he said, adding that he is proud he has become a subject-matter expert and has formed relationships with people in government through the years.
When there is an environmental issue before the Board of Supervisors, Collins, who has served on the executive council for nine years, said it is difficult to engage 50 members who can attend and speak. “Few people know how to influence policy and change codes, because they don’t understand the technical questions concerning issues like pollution control. Most people aren’t interested in that level of involvement.”
However, he admits that there have been no mentoring programs for members who want to become involved, and no fact sheets are provided for those who would like to speak at governmental hearings.
“I had articles in the Ventana for years over various issues, but nobody ever called me, unless they were personally impacted," he said. "The local Sierra Club constantly provides expert information to people on their problems, but they rarely become activists themselves.”
Davie said, “One third of Santa Cruz County is forest, and if we don’t protect that resource, we’re not only going to lose productive timberland, which is part of the tax base for Santa Cruz County, but at the same time we can’t let that production adversely affect the endangered species that live in the Santa Cruz Mountains’ headstreams. I hope that whoever is on the executive committee next year understands that.”
The final draft of the City of Santa Cruz Climate Action Plan, "dedicated to the children of 2050, may we succeed in meeting our responsibilities to your future,” may be found on the city's website.