First in a Four-Part Series Celebrating the Hoosier Chapter’s 25th Anniversary
Our First Battles in the 70s Similar to Today’s
The year 2000 marks the Hoosier Chapter’s 25th anniversary, and we’re observing it with a four-part series on our past and future as a lead advocate for Indiana’s environment.
Each article will cover the chapter’s achievements for one decade--first the seventies, then the eighties, and finally the nineties. The last article will discuss the chapter’s future in a new century.
The Sierra Club in Indiana was once part of the Great Lakes Chapter, which was headquartered in Chicago. The Great Lakes Chapter at the time encompassed all of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, and extended into Iowa, Kentucky, and Ohio. Hoosier Sierrans working on local issues decided it was time to leave the geographically larger Great Lakes Chapter to become the Hoosier Chapter in October 1975.
Members of the new chapter tackled a variety of issues, sponsored outings, and worked tenaciously to build the organization in Indiana.
Richard Huelster, the Hoosier Chapter’s first chair, said, “It was hectic at first because we didn’t know what being a chapter would be like.
“A lot of our desire to become a chapter came out of an interest in the Hoosier National Forest and hopes to get designation of a Wilderness Area.”
At the national level, the Sierra Club is credited with building support for and ending opposition to the Wilderness Act. This made it possible for Hoosier Sierrans to lobby for Eastern Wilderness designation in the Hoosier National Forest (HNF).
Chapter members were also involved with the development of Forest Management Plans in the HNF.
Sierrans focused on recreation, wilderness, land acquisition, and resource management.
Members commented at Forest Service hearings, hoping to influence the final management plan.
Consistent with the Sierra Club’s roots in outings, members supported recreational uses of the forest but urged that activities such as off-road vehicle operation be restricted to areas not significant to wildlife.
Sierrans supported appropriate land acquisition to meet the increasing recreational and biological demands on the forest.
In the midst of an energy crisis, oil, gas, and mineral resources in the forest were serious factors in management plans. Sierrans urged the Forest Service to conduct an extensive Environmental Impact Study whenever extraction was considered.
The seventies brought with them an increased public awareness of the serious impacts of discharging chemicals into the environment as evidenced by the creation of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
Industry was only beginning to realize its responsibilities and accountability. Early chapter members worked on pollution issues ranging from PCB-contaminated water to coal-powered energy plants.
A lot has changed since the seventies, but similar environmental issues confront us. For example, the HNF Management Plan is up for revision, coal-powered plants still pollute our air, and industrial polluters continue to threaten Indiana’s waters. In the mid-seventies, Hoosier Sierrans participated in hearings where Westinghouse Electric Corporation was charged with negligently contaminating waters through sewer and storm drainage runoff.
Only months ago, Indiana’s White River was victim to a chemical release causing the death of hundreds-of-thousands of fish. At this January’s planning retreat, members chose clean water as the chapter’s priority issue for 2000.
Gordon Coppoc, who served on the chapter’s first executive committee, stated, “I began supporting the national activities of Sierra Club and thought members who wanted to approach local conservation issues would benefit by becoming a chapter. Clean water is a good focus for our state.”
Along with major conservation goals, the new chapter had to struggle with organizational issues.
As a volunteer-based organization, it was vital to the success of the chapter to build membership and recruit volunteers.
Within the first four years, four Sierra Club groups were formed within the chapter. In July 1976, the Uplands Group (formerly Bloomington Group) was accredited, followed by the Heartlands Group (formerly Indianapolis Group) and the Michiana Group in January 1978.
In January 1979, the Wildcat Group was accredited.
“Those were exciting and energizing times with dedicated Sierra Club members. We were blazing new ground as a chapter. We worked hard to boost membership and establish new groups,” said Richard Huelster when describing his experience as the chapter’s first chair.
“The thing that got most of us interested to begin with were the outings and the Sierra Club’s long dedication to tying our experiences in nature to our desire to protect and preserve it,” Huelster said.
In the tradition of John Muir who founded the Sierra Club, the new Hoosier Chapter sponsored outings throughout the state. These included backpacking, overnight canoe trips, hiking, birdwatching, and cross-country skiing.
Bill Hayden, the chapter’s current lobbyist, led several cave and biking trips. In 1978, 14 Hoosier Sierrans journeyed to the Oslo, Norway area to trek mountains, fjords, and glaciers. The trip was coordinated by Sylvia Retherford and filled up quickly.
Bill Larrison, who has been a Sierra Club member since 1971, attended some of the chapter’s first outings and says that hiking was probably the primary reason he became a member.
Larrison, who is still an avid hiker, stated, “I joined the Sierra Club to support the environmental movement. I love the wilderness and do a lot of hiking.”
Our passion for nature, love of wild places, and the willingness to take responsibility for protecting them were what led to the formation of the Hoosier Chapter. Our battles haven’t been, nor will they ever be, easy ones.
But our forests, our water, our land, and our air are all precious and worth every effort to protect and preserve. And between battles, we’ll find time to enjoy the special places…on the trail and in our hearts.
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