Fall, 2016 issue of Sierra Watch

In This Issue

Local Political Endorsements
 Look for these candidates on the Nov 8 ballot. See the full list of SPG endorsements HERE

     See statewide and national endorsements on the PA Chapter website

Volunteer To Help With Elections

The Sierra Club has launched our nationwide Victory Corps program. Our top-notch organizers are working on 36 races across 21 states to mobilize our millions of members and supporters to support our endorsed candidates.

One of our organizers is in Bucks County, and we need Sierra Club members like you to volunteer to engage other members, supporters, and potential voters near you to win on Election Day. Are you in? Contact Seth Bush at seth.bush@sierraclub.org (organizing for Santarsiero) or Seth Long at seth.long@sierraclub.org who working from center city to support McGinty. Fill out this election volunteer survey to get further info.

SPG ExCom Election
  Vote for volunteers that sit on our local advisory board for the Southeastern PA Group


The Executive Committee of eleven members is elected by the local Sierra Club membership to set conservation priorities and oversee the management of the Group. This year there are five positions open on the Executive Committee.

The six candidates that have been nominated for the 2017-2018 term are:

  • Pat Beaudet
  • Matthew Himmelein
  • Dave Moscatello
  • William Brainerd
  • Alexandra Manning
  • Ken Hemphill
Please take a few minutes to read the candidate bios and vote online or via paper ballot HERE.

Update on SEPTA gas-fired power plant
  by Karen Melton


In the July newsletter we told you about the gas-fired power plant SEPTA is proposing to build near the Wayne Junction Regional Rail station. Since then SE PA Sierra Club has joined in a letter of opposition addressed to the SEPTA board and general manager. The letter is signed by 50 groups and organizations representing both the immediate community and the SEPTA service region.

The letter outlines a number of concerns such as pollution that would impact a neighborhood that already has significant sources of pollution including a SEPTA bus depot housing 300 diesel buses.

Sierra Club opposes new electric generating units powered by natural gas, consistent with a goal of eliminating all fossil fuels from the electric sector no later than 2030.

We ask that SEPTA instead consider the range of alternatives that might be used to provide emergency backup power, such as installing solar panels on SEPTA facilities or a power purchase agreement for wind energy. We also ask that SEPTA provide an open process for the public to review and comment on the plant proposal and the associated health study once they are completed.

To learn more or get involved go to www.350philadelphia.org/septa.

We Are Ready For 100
  by Jim Wylie


Sierra Club is ramping up a new campaign called Ready For 100, we means - we are ready for 100% renewable energy. Let's advocate for a swift and just transition to renewables. While the state and federal legislators argue about the best way to make this transition (if at all), let's get our cities and townships to make the pledge to complete this transition before it's too late.

Ready For 100/Philadelphia is about making a statement: We (residents, businesses, institutions) will be using 100% renewable energy sources by ... 2030 .. 2040 .. 2050 ..? Pick a date. Make the pledge.

Join our team of volunteers that are busy making the case to mayors, councils and committees all across the greater Philadelphia area.

Pa. taxpayers unwitting investors in open space loss
  by Ken Hemphill - reprint with permision from Delco Times


Most Pennsylvanians are likely unaware that since 1974 they have been heavily subsidizing large land owners and developers who have been warehousing their land in “Clean and Green” a “land conservation” program. Taxpayers have literally paid half the taxes for tracts of 10 acres or more in the program. But as these subsidized open spaces have been plowed under, taxpayers have only gotten a small fraction of lost revenues back in “rollback taxes.

The intent of Clean and Green (Act 319) was to encourage owners of 10 or more acres to conserve their land in return for large property tax breaks, the average discount being 50 percent. However, instead of being a conservation program that placed permanent easements on land, Act 319 has been a temporary tax shelter for many owners biding their time until deciding to develop. A quick look through county tax records, and it’s clear that almost every large parcel of ground lost to development in Delco over the past 40 years was in the program. Act 319 has not permanently preserved a single acre.

In a rational world, the “penalty” for leaving 319 would be the total of all unpaid back taxes for all years a piece of land was in the program. Unfortunately, we live in Pennsylvania, a decidedly irrational place where big corporate polluters and the Pennsylvania Builders Association outrank us in the state Legislature. Consequently, the penalty for leaving – even if the land was enrolled since 1974 – comes to just the sum of the last seven years of unadjusted taxes plus 6 percent interest.

This absurdly weak penalty is why so many landowners have chosen to develop their land and why so many developers have enrolled their holdings in it, the exit cost being so easily absorbed. The state Department of Agriculture doesn’t keep records of how many total acres have been in the program since ‘74, but they report that 9.3 million acres are still enrolled (one third of Pa.’s 30 million acres). How many hundreds of thousands of acres have been developed over 40 years? They don’t know, but it represents a loss of local revenue possibly in the billions. This doesn’t include the higher taxes arising from greater municipal density.

“Concern for taxpayers” is usually on the tip of every politician’s tongue and our county government is no exception. They recently declined to put an open space bond referendum on the ballot because it would have added perhaps $5 to $40 to a county tax bill, depending on the borrowing and a home’s assessed value. Yet the hidden costs of Clean and Green have cost Delco taxpayers a great deal more than the pittance they would have paid to protect their county’s last shreds of open space. As our last large parcels are lowered into the maw of the Delco land grinder, the added density will lead to even higher taxes to pay for more services. Tax rates are hitched to density: compare Potter County to Delaware County; Montana to New Jersey; Thornbury to Upper Darby.

There’s a particularly egregious example of the Act 319 swindle happening right now in Beaver Valley (Concord Township). The Owellian named Woodlawn Trustees have had all 325 acres of their publicly accessible “wildlife refuge” enrolled in Act 319 since 1974. On just one 79-acre parcel with one house, they pay about $6,000 per year in property taxes, more than a 50 percent savings. Act 319 has probably saved Woodlawn two million dollars over four decades. Contrast this with what the owner of an Upper Darby colonial pays for a quarter acre on Concord Avenue: roughly $9,000. People have taken to the streets for much less.

Now that Woodlawn has an agreement of sale with Frank McKee and Richard Julian, who sits on one of Woodlawn boards, their total penalty is a mere seven years of rollback taxes, plus 6 percent. In a more sane state like New York, the penalty for withdrawing from one of their preservation programs is the last 10 years of unadjusted taxes multiplied by five, plus interest. The New York penalty in many cases is greater than what was saved with lowered tax bills. Consequently, very few landowners leave that state’s program.

The Earth looks pretty big from 30,000 feet, but it’s no less finite than a terrarium. If we don’t make protecting our open places a priority, all that will be left in 20 or so years will be the scattered preserves that a selfless few had the foresight to protect. Our governments need to shift their old paradigm of “build, baby build” and more agressively pursue actual open space protection. Amending Act 319 to levy a much more burdensome penalty for withdrawing from this “preservation” program should be another priority.

Ken Hemphill is a Delaware County open space advocate.

Profits privatized, pollution socialized in Pa.
  by Ken Hemphill - reprinted with permision from Delco Times


David Spigelmyer’s Aug. 22 letter espousing greater buildout of Pennsylvania’s natural gas infrastructure implies that fracking can be done safely and that it’s not a source of climate or groundwater pollution. Yet “leaked” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and internal industry documents reveal that fracking corporations don’t believe that themselves. They acknowledge that engineering technologies and cost realities translate to a predictable percentage of leaking wells.

Unconventional hydraulic fracturing wells pump as much as six million gallons of brine and toxic frack fluid into the ground at 10,00 to 15,000 psi, the kind of pressure found seven miles down in the deepest Pacific trench. But while submersibles diving to that depth have solid steel walls 2.5 inches thick, a frack pipe comes in hundreds of sections with each connection constituting a potential leak source. The industry understands that a sectioned steel pipe inserted more than a mile into the Earth and surrounded by a layer of cement cannot indefinitely contain its toxic load.

It’s estimated by experts like Professor Tony Ingraffea of Cornell that 6 or 7 percent of all new unconventional wells fail – i.e. leak – immediately, and most wells fail within 50 years. Just a 6 percent failure rate among nearly 7,000 active wells in PA means that approximately 420 wells are leaking hazardous fluid. And with an estimated 325,000 abandoned wells in Pennsylvania leftover from 150 years of conventional oil and gas drilling, hazardous fracking fluid has that many more pathways to aquifers.

The drilling process alone is not the only problem. While about half of the fracking water used remains in the well, the other half needs disposal. This amounts to hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater. Some of the wastewater is held in surface “impoundments” (too many of which have leaked into streams and rivers) or they inject it back into the ground in designated “injection wells.” This second method has triggered opposition in communities all over Pennsylvania in light of some well-publicized industry negligence. For example, in 2012, the EPA temporarily shut down one of Pennsylvania’s seven deep injection wells and fined EXCO Resources $160,000 for continuing to operate a well it knew was leaking.

Household plumbing leaks and it rarely exceeds 70 PSI. Concrete sidewalks can crack under their own weight. But we are assured by the gas industry that their pipes and cement won’t leak their toxic slurry at 10,00 to 15,000 psi. If the practice is so safe, why oppose more inspections and testing? If they’re so confident in their technology, why not voluntarily comply with Safe Drinking Water Act provisions (from which Dick Cheney exempted them in 2005)? If their wells don’t leak, why do they continue to pressure state legislators and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to further reduce environmental protections and oversight?

Drilling sites are not just putting our groundwater at risk. They are releasing dangerous gases – some of which are known to cause cancer. As Dr. Alan Peterson notes, benzene, toluene, carbonyl sulfide, ethylbenzene, mixed xylenes, and n-hexane can be found in air samples near fracking sites. Some of these are known carcinogens and breathing them even in small quantities can lead to “respiratory issues, eye and skin irritation, nausea, vomiting and dizziness.”

Fugitive methane emissions are never mentioned, either, by boosters like Spigelmyer who tells us that “gas burns more cleanly than coal.” It’s estimated that methane – a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 – leaks from pipelines and other gas delivery infrastructure at a rate between two and eight percent. Just a two percent leak rate from the U.S’ 300,000 miles of pipelines constitutes massive emissions. When all aspects of the gas production process from drilling to delivery to combustion are factored, gas is no better than coal.

The science of climate change is settled; there are few scientific disciplines that have such a consensus. And it’s been settled for a long time. Even Exxon scientists in the late 70s concluded that carbon emissions were warming the atmosphere. Of course, they buried their internal study and spent the next 40 years buying political influence and hiring “merchants of doubt” to debunk the real science.

We’re paying dearly for that propaganda now. 13 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. Spigelmyer doesn’t mention this fact when says we “need to build out Pennsylvania’s gas infrastructure” even more. A rational observer would instead say that we need to transition to a clean energy economy post haste, not invest in an obsolete climate-altering technology. There are hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs in Pennsylvania to be had, too, once we set a course on that heading.

On top of all this, the gas drillers are getting massive tax subsidies while landowners and taxpayers get stiffed. Pennsylvania remains the only major gas producing state without a severance tax, and as ProPublica documented, the promised large monthly royalties are not amounting to much for a majority of landowners leasing their land to frackers. After corporations subtract deductions for nebulous expenses like “post production costs,” most royalty checks come up far short of the tens of thousands landowners were promised.

Fracking is the latest manifestation of a long-established tradition in America where profits are privatized and pollution is socialized. Superfund sites have already cost U.S. taxpayers tens of billions to remediate, but, unlike the Love Canal or Hudson River debacles, the ultimate environmental catastrophe of fracking will be vastly more expensive yet unfixable. There is simply no way to remove toxins from a contaminated aquifer.

Ken Hemphill, Concord

Dont Spray Me (and don't breed mosquitoes either)
  by Nathaniel Smith


Don't Spray Me, a citizen activist group in West Chester, aims to reduce both mosquito populations and airborne spraying, since pesticides come with a host of environmental threats. Our full motto is "Let's prevent unnecessary mosquito spraying in Chester County." We celebrate that West Chester Borough has not been sprayed by public health officials since 2012. But some others have not been so fortunate.

Our big effort in 2016 has been to encourage property owners to avoid breeding mosquitoes in standing water. In 2017 we hope the program will spread outwards. We have proceeded by finding over 120 block captains to convey our recommendations, and we launched our season with a letter from mayor Carolyn Comitta. In West Chester, this neighbor-based strategy works! Other communities might adopt different approaches.

Please check out our web site dontsprayme.com and contact us so we can work together. Don't Spray Me collaborates with West Chester Borough and the Chester County Health Department. We would love to have your own municipality involved. As Zika virus threatens, it is increasingly obvious that our best first line of defense is to cut down the mosquito population by any non-toxic means available to us. Please join us!

Wild growth in the Schuylkill River
  by Emily Davis


You may have seen the Schuylkill River green from bank to bank along Kelly Drive this summer. Some of it is the unusually heavy growth of Eurasian water milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) that you may have read about in the newspaper. I’m not the only rower to have had it tangle around an oar or catch on the fin of a boat. I was telling Ernie Schuyler, Botanist Emeritus at the Academy of Natural Sciences, about my experiences and he suggested I check to see what else was out there.

Here is what I found as I rowed along the Schuylkill. The bright green mat floating on the Schuylkill contains at least three species: Duckweed (Lemna minor); Greater Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza); and mosquito fern (Azolla carolinia). Other species growing among the milfoil are water weed (Elodea nutallii), water star grass (Heteranthera dubia), long leaf pondweed (Potamogeton nodosus), and water celery (Vallisneria americana). The long, thin flower stalks of the water celery are visible rising out of the milfoil. Water celery can also be seen from the shore growing in water less than a meter deep. Water primrose (Ludwigia peploides) is growing in several spots along the banks of the river.

Why all the plants this year? My theory: For this whole summer the flow rate in this section of the river has been slow. Usually between 700 and 900 cubic feet per second, this year it has only been between 300 and 500 cubic feet /sec.

Sierra Club in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux
  by Karen Melton


We are proud to see Sierra Club call on its members to join in solidarity with the native tribes gathered in North Dakota, some camped there since April, attempting to stop a 1,167-mile-long fracked oil pipeline that would permanently threaten sacred tribal grounds and water supplies as well as farms and wildlife habitat.

Attorneys for the tribes had sought an injunction to halt construction, but when the injunction was denied on September 9th the Obama administration stepped in immediately with a joint statement from Justice, Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers, asking contractors to cease construction within 20 miles of the Missouri River. The pipeline is sited to cross under the river just upstream from the Standing Rock tribe’s water intake.

Thousands had joined the camp site by early September, representing more than 280 indigenous groups, some traveling from as far away as Ecuador. They vow to maintain peaceful protest for as long as it takes. The government acknowledges it did not adequately consult native tribes during the permitting process and plans to do so via talks this November.

There are local connections to the project in our region. One of the builders, Sunoco Logistics Partners, is headquartered in Newtown Square, and TD Bank, which is providing a portion of the pipeline financing, has many branches in the area. Look for announcements of rallies outside these institutions if you wish to show your support.

Report on the Carbon Tax Proposal and Electric Cars Education Program
  by Bill Brainerd


The September 28 lecture of the Sierra Club had two topics: a carbon tax and electric cars. The first speaker on a carbon tax was Peter Handler of Citizens Climate Lobby. He called global warming the most serious problem the world has faced, demanding immediate remedy. We may not learn how little time we have to address climate change until it's too late. Drought partly caused by global warming forced mass migration, leading to the war in Syria.

CCL proposes to place a steadily rising fee on fossil fuels beginning at $15 per ton of CO2 equivalent and increasing at $10 per year thereafter. A $10 increase amounts to about a 10 cent increase in the gas tax. This Pigovian tax, named for British economist Arthur Cecil Pigou, discourages use by recovering formerly neglected external costs like cleanup or ill health. Imports not taxed at their point of manufacture are taxed in the US, keeping the money here. Thus the market and price not government determine energy use.

Revenue from the tax is returned to the taxpayer, the same amount to everyone. This dividend will be valuable to the poor if not to the rich, showing that a carbon tax is environmentally just. CCL calls its tax carbon fee and dividend. Labor groups and Congressman Bernie Sanders want some of the dividend spent on job retraining.

A carbon tax should encourage research into the problem of electricity storage, as renewables, now relatively cheap, become more popular than fossil fuels.

Republicans generally oppose a carbon tax because many have signed a no new taxes pledge, but Repr Chris Gibson R-NY introduced HR 424 affirming climate change is real, is manmade, and needs Congressional attention. Repr Carlos Curbelo R-FL and a colleague formed the House Bipartisan Climate Caucus. Southeastern PA Republican Reps. Ryan Costello, Pat Meehan, and Mike Fitzpatrick signed the Resolution and joined the Caucus.

Methane is an even more damaging atmospheric gas than carbon dioxide, but methane sources like pipeline leaks, ocean nitrates, sewage, or permafrost are harder to measure than carbon dioxide sources like oil wells.

Dr James Hansen, former NASA scientist, is on the CCL board.

The second speaker, Charles Isaacs, presented the Sierra Club view of a carbon tax. It should be consistent with the Jemez Principles of democratic organizing: Be inclusive: Organize from the bottom up, Let people speak for themselves, Work for solidarity, Build just relationships, Commit to self-transformation.

To have greater impact on emissions reduction, part of the tax revenue should go to research on green energy and technology. Another part should go to transition assistance for businesses and labor in fossil fuel-intensive industries, in part to prevent leakage of jobs and businesses. A portion of revenue should also be directed to supporting low income communities, since they will find a carbon tax most burdensome and difficult to avoid. This would make the tax more progressive and inclusive of the needs of those hardest hit by climate change.

British Columbia has a carbon tax of $30 per ton on carbon dioxide (roughly $22 USD) but at that level BC is falling a third short of its emission reduction targets and may not reach its goal of 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050. The carbon fee is a potent tool for addressing global warming. Experience shows that a carbon fee would work best as part of a larger program of measures. With these factors in mind, the Sierra Club is preparing guidelines on the carbon tax, which will be released later this year.

The third speaker, Jim Schmid, talked about his Tesla, named for Nikola Tesla, 1856-1943, Serbian inventor. Before a $7,500 federal rebate, this all-electric car costs about $100,000, but it uses no gas. It has good acceleration--"It pins you to the seat"--and easy braking because when they are applied the brakes capture kinetic energy from the car, slowing it automatically. By the time the car reaches a stop sign it's down to 5 mph. The car is heavy, weighing 4,500--5,000 pounds, so it rides smoothly and, in an accident, may be safer than a lighter car. Hundreds of small batteries make it heavy.

Tesla goes 230-250 miles when a trip starts with fully charged batteries. A light on the dashboard tells the driver how many more miles the car will go on this charge. Driving slower and turning off the heater/air conditioner will give the driver a few extra miles. Headwinds do the opposite. At home the car can be plugged into any 110 V AC outlet and left to recharge overnight. AC is converted to DC. Plugged into the 240 V outlet of a clothes dryer the car recharges several hours faster. On the road the Tesla company provides free recharging stations every 200 miles or so. Tesla stations that operate at 600 V can fully charge a car in 30 minutes. There also are stations that recharge other brands of electric cars, but they need a $400 adapter to plug into a Tesla.

Proposed innovations are, first, solar recharging panels on the car roof and hood and, second, recharging the car by quickly replacing its batteries.

A competitor plans to sell an electric car for $37,500 next year.

Greenfest Philly 2016
  by Jim Wylie


Big thanks to the Clean Air Council for another great festival of greenness at Head House Square. Beautiful weather, beautiful people – and some good food and music as well. And thanks to the 12 volunteers who worked at the Sierra Club table, talking to the hundreds of people that stopped by to hear about what great work our volunteers are doing in the area – and signing up to join our teams: fighting polluters, working for solutions to climate change, protecting wildlife, enjoying the outdoors and much more.

And the young people that stopped by made some great pinwheels – renewable energy made with kid power.

Why March For Clean Energy?
  by Jim Wylie


On a day in July when most would people would have preferred to be in an air conditioned space – powered by any kind of energy - 10,000 people took to the streets to send a message to candidates, platform authors and the millions of people watching Philadelphia for the next 5 days. The message? We want CLEAN ENERGY NOW!

Dirty fossil fuels are heating this planet. We can feel it. July 2016 was the hottest month on record. Not just in Philadelphia. On the planet. But wait, then there was August 2016. Just as hot.

Marching in 95 degree weather was a challenge. But if we have to march in 105 degrees next year, we’ll do it. And keep on marching until our carbon emissions are headed in the right direction and our children’s children are safe from the threat of oceans’ rising and baked, arid farmland.

Thanks to the many Sierra Club volunteers that worked behind the scenes on logistics, art, water services and trash collection. We recognize your contributions.

Planet Philadelphia Interviews Jim Wylie on a Sensible Energy Policy for Pennsylvania
  by Prasad Ramnath

The following is an excerpt of an interview of Jim Wylie, Chair of the Sierra Club Southeastern PA Group by Kay Wood of Planet Philadelphia. You can listen to the full interview at: Planet Philadelphia Podcast.

Kay: A lot of our legislators and public leaders feel that we need to heavily invest in gas. Gas is the bridge fuel. Seems to me that this could be money used for alternative energy.

Jim: If natural gas were to be considered a bridge fuel, we need to keep our sights on the ultimate goal --namely clean renewable energy. We only see subsidies and handouts for the natural gas industry. A bridge fuel means huge investment and building up of renewable energy infrastructure and dropping coal-sourced energy. Not expanding our gas infrastructure and production subsidies.

I feel that we should see 10 dollars invested in renewable for every 1 dollar in gas. Let the gas industry pay its own way.

Kay: Business always says that they want a level playing field. But I have never seen business leaders want a level playing field for their own industry. What is your view?

Jim: It seems to me that the state wants to go all-in for gas expansion. Then the environmental groups have to push back to the other extreme. But mostly what we see from the state legislature and the governor is to do whatever they can to facilitate the ever-increasing natural-gas economy.

Kay: There is more and more information that the extraction of natural gas causes even worse global warming than coal? Do I have that wrong?

Jim: Coal is solid and you can drop it. It does not pollute the atmosphere and releases CO2 only when burnt. CO2 lasts about a hundred years when released into the atmosphere. But methane itself is a gas and goes directly into the atmosphere and is 75 times more heat-trapping that CO2. If during the extraction process, transportation process or refining process, methane escapes into the atmosphere it is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

Kay: And it does leak doesn't it?

Jim: Yes, certainly it has been shown that it does leak when mining for it and transporting it. But there is little information about the real amount of methane leak.

Kay: So, this is something to ask our regulators about, what amount of methane is leaking. I read something recently that there are problems with compression stations for methane or natural gas. A lot of communities that live near these compression stations have suffered in air-quality.

Jim: So there are pumping stations to keep the pressure in the tanks but there are also compression stations to export natural gas. They compress natural gas into CNG.

There are often flaring stacks where they burn off excess methane. It is hard to get real data since the industry often tries to hide these things and they are not always visible from roads.

Kay: So, this is also something to ask our state regulators about. What is the air-quality around these places? I was very struck by what I heard that our legislators are really sold on natural gas and they don't want to consider anything else. Have you encountered that?

Jim: Absolutely. The natural gas industry has a lot of influence in our government. Our legislators feel that is a good economic path for the state. It is the governor's job to be more forward-looking and see what the long term objectives are and not just extract and give permits to anybody that asks. There needs to be a sound overall energy plan.

It is not sound policy to switch from one fossil fuel to another, continuing our dependence on pollution sources that have a destructive impact on the community from which they are extracted, through which they are transported and in which they are consumed. By that I mean that the workforce that is working at these plants and power stations often live close to these plants and extractive sites and suffer harm. But they are often motivated to support and defend the process and keep their jobs and this becomes a climate-justice issue.

If the gas industry wants to triple their pipeline and other compression plant and related investment, it will be 30 or fifty years before this is paid off. We don't have that kind of time to waste. We must be on the downward slope for greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and be well on our way to zero by 2050 if we have to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. When we hear plans of doubling and tripling the size of these plants, the gas industry fully plans to get their revenues from these investments in the next 30 to 50 years.

Kay: We really don't have that kind of time and will be left with a bunch of stranded assets. Do you have anything else you would like to say in the end?

Jim:The Sierra Club is working on all of these issues. We have Beyond Coal, Keeping Dirty Fuels in the Ground and we have a number of committees in the Philadelphia area and if anyone is interested in volunteering, we would love to have you help. Just google Sierra Club Philadelphia.

Service trip to Kachemak Bay State Park on the Kenai Penninsula
  by Carol Armstrong


We visited the homeland of the otter, bear, moose, dolphin, bald eagle, arctic tern, harbor seal, puffin, salmon, halibut, crab, urchins, and so many others. We listened to a pair of adult bald eagles, who appeared to reign over the lagoon on their spruce tops, chatter with each other every day in clear conversations. It was never dark, sunsets lasted for hours with a pink otherworldly tint to the sky past midnight. In this rain forest, the rain was light, and continued for a while, then stopped. It is cool, and life burgeons during the brief summer from mid June to mid August. Our Sierra Club service trip was there from June 25 to July 3, 2016 to fix and reroute trails, and install Alaska’s first compost toilet.

We began from Anchorage, convening in the Bent Prop Inn with other interesting Alaska visitors from Germany and Austria, veterinarians and biologists, and others seeking to understand the effects of global warming on different species and ecologies. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Dept. of Commerce, has a research ship in homeport at Homer, for their new initiative to record and understand the unusual diversity of life in the Kachemak Bay area, so that the effects of global warming can be put in perspective, that is, to understand what is being/will be lost. One of Alaska’s greatest risks from global warming is the loss of permafrost, which has been constant through the ice ages, and is now melting, destabilizing the earth, and revealing as yet unknown changes in the underlying terrain.

Human culture in Alaska has changed in the past 30 years. It was dominated by miners, fur hunters, fishers, and pipeline workers. Now the public schools in Anchorage (by far, Alaska’s largest city of 291,826, with 33% of the population with at least a college degree, and 10% living with government estimated poverty, 2010 census) include 100 languages spoken by the children. However, employment is declining in Anchorage. Walking around Anchorage, I met Africans from different countries, saw a Thai Buddhist temple, Halal shops, African Americans, Europeans and European Americans, Russian nationals and Siberians, Polynesians, others from the whole Pacific Rim, and a great mixture of humanity. People were kind and gentle, perhaps in part because everyone must be interdependent in order to live in a difficult terrain. Human diversity is reflected as well in the native population of the southern Kenai Penninsula, the Ninilchik Village Tribe, who are an ancient blend of Siberian, the original Dena’ina people, an Athabaskan culture, and other native tribes from the Kenai region.


A Sierra Club service trip (my second) requires daily long hours of hard work. Meals are prepared for the group by a group leader, and are plentiful and delicious. The leaders know how much work is possible without hurting anyone, and Rebecca Dameron, leader, and John Kolman, assistant leader, were extremely strong, untiring, and always cheerful in their leadership. They did more than anyone else, and knew how to motivate a positive spirit. Of course, humor is the most consumed quantity on service trips, and the bonding experienced with one’s workmates is one of its greatest rewards.

Some of our accomplishments: we built a bridge of logs, built a retaining wall for a trail overpass of logs and stone that we skinned, rolled, carried, lifted, jackhammered, etc. We cleared a trail that had become overgrown, clearing the cuttings beyond sight. We carried a wooden structure, probably a ton, from a boat, along with the wood, metal, machines, tools, and other equipment needed for Jeffrey Lee to build the first compost toilet in any Alaska park, of his design. We worked with Jeff to stain the wood and assist in clearing the site and building the latrine. This will be a win-win-win asset: much more pleasant for public use, does not require the $7000 needed to pump a regular latrine, and will be kinder to the environment.

Every problem was overcome; intelligence was a valuable commodity used to search for solutions. For example, we had no water when we arrived because the pipelines were blocked, and we broke needed tools, requiring work-arounds. The many insects needing to complete their life cycle in a few days or weeks were in constant motion except at the beginning and end of the day, and an insect net is necessary. There was one half day for hiking other trails, though we were out in the woods all the time for work.

This was the first year of Sierra Club service trips to this part of Alaska, and if the leaders are willing, there may be another next year. The Kachemak Bay State Park also takes volunteer applications from young people, paying a stipend, so that they work on trail repairs in the back country. The park has a video on understanding bear behaviors (bears are not always being aggressive, can be easily alarmed, and appear frightening to humans), so that the volunteers can avoid aggressive interactions with them. The Ranger Specialist of the park, Eric Clarke, stated he will always be calm and sometimes talk to a bear during an interaction in order to make his intentions clearer. Our parks are under supported, and there were only two rangers for this park of 400,000 acres, the first and largest of Alaska’s State Parks. Alaska is a place of extreme beauty and extreme life, and allows the chance to feel at home and ‘one’ with the earth and all of its species and physical forms.

Upcoming Events
  Mark Your Calendar


Saturday, November 19, 10:00 AM - Green Stormwater Infrastructure Tour

    A tour of the Big Green Block in Kensington. Led by a watershed educator with Philadelphia Water (PW), this 90-minute outdoor walking tour will explore numerous Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) projects. We will see rain gardens, tree trenches, rainwater cisterns, a green roof, porous pavement, and a large stormwater bumpout, as well as a geothermal field, no-mow turf, a spray park, and water-themed murals. This is a free event.

Monday, Nov 7, all day - Give 20 at Iron Hill

    Have lunch or dinner at the Iron Hill Brewing Co in West Chester or Phoenixville on Nov 7 and Iron Hill will donate 20% of your food bill to Sierra Club. Get energized for football or the election the next day. Coupon required.