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No Conspiracy at Coffeen Nature Preserve

I am writing to express dismay at the article posted to your web site, “Coffeen-gate, What is going on at Sierra Foundation?” by David Orr. Orr’s Coffeen missive is peppered through with phrases like “there is a high likelihood”, “insider’s who are knowledgeable about this situation” and “unconfirmed reports”. The whole piece reads like the National Enquirer or The Star, but is far less entertaining and without even that level of journalistic integrity. Orr’s allegations of dark, shadowy conspiracies may help him and the readers of Counterpunch feel they are involved in some shocking scandal, but don’t apply any healthy skepticism to uninformed assertions or you will puncture the illusion of conspiracy.

This article does not accurately reflect what is going on with Coffeen or the Sierra Club Foundation.

For example, Orr wrote: “There have been few verifiable facts released that would confirm the level of assurance or control afforded the Club or the Foundation on future management of the preserve. The Foundation has refused requests from Florida Chapter leaders about the specific terms of the proposed transfer and about the purpose, structure, and goals of the land trust, or any plans for future development or any restrictive covenants that may be attached to the deed.”

Untrue. Three weeks ago three Florida Chapter representatives along with other Sierra Club representatives from throughout the Southeast met in Anniston, Ala., for a Gulf Coast Regional Conservation Committee (GCRCC) meeting designed to organize against the U.S. Army’s plans to poison an already-ill population by incinerating chemical weapons. Our rally on this made national news on NBC. At our regular GCRCC business meeting Sunday June 22 we had a 90-minute presentation about the details of this proposed Coffeen land trust that included “the purpose, structure, and goals of the land trust.”

We heard from former Foundation Trustee Carolyn Carr who personally knew the donor who willed this property to Sierra Club and discussed her intentions while she was alive. Carr gave a detailed history of the property. At the end of this long discussion, about 16 members of the GCRCC voted unanimously to reaffirm an earlier vote delegating authority to two of our representatives to interact with the Sierra Club Foundation to assure the best possible future for Coffeen.

Another error from Orr’s piece: “A majority of the members of the Board of the new land trust are reportedly owners of a number of adjacent residential properties known as the Four Mile Village.”

Everyone involved in this issue has been told repeatedly that this is not true. The truth is that the proposed land trust would include three representatives of Sierra Club, three independent experts not related to the property owners, and three property owners. However, no specific proposal has been accepted.

Orr wrote: “About five years ago the GCRCC, without explanation, asserted itself as the official Club arbiter on issues surrounding disposition of the preserve and on related matters of Club policy. No information has yet been offered to indicate why or when or who among the “powers that be” in upper Club management decided to bypass the chapter and hand over all Club decision-making authority to the GCRCC.”

The fact is that GCRCC was asked to take over from the small Northwest Florida Group to help the Foundation with on-the-ground management of Coffeen in order to provide more regional support for Coffeen, and to have management including representatives from throughout the Southeast. The idea was to broaden the support for Coffeen, and provide more accountability. Previously one volunteer had been chair of the management committee for 20 years, and that volunteer appointed members of the management committee. We felt the management structure needed more diversity.

The GCRCC has been involved with Coffeen since 1978 and has supports conservation of the land in perpetuity. Everyone working on this desires the outcome that protects the resource.

It is not Sierra Club’s intention to be a manager of nature preserves. We are not The Nature Conservancy. Environmental activism is our core mission. Coffeen was an incredible gift, but it didn’t come along with a large enough endowment to pay for proper care. The problem has gotten worse through the years. That is why divestiture to a land trust is being considered. In doing so, the Foundation will do everything necessary to make sure that Coffeen is preserved as was intended.

The major purpose of the Sierra Club Foundation is to support the charitable programs of Sierra Club. So if the Foundation has to spend time and money on Coffeen, that draws away from its mission of raising money for the club to work on environmental justice, forest protection and other issues near and dear to us. I could rebut a number of more wrong assumptions in Orr’s piece regarding the complex issues of management of this 200-acre nature preserve. After all, I have actually been there on numerous occasions. Orr has never visited it. But I don’t see any real reason why readers of Counterpunch would be interested in more of the details.

Coffeen is in good hands. I wish I could say the same for the minority community in Anniston, Alabama, that has already been poisoned by PCBs from Monsanto, and has been named the most toxic town in America. If you really want to get involved in Sierra Club business, how about running something on the chemical weapons of mass destruction the U.S. Army plans on burning in Anniston starting later this month? Sierra activists from throughout the region plan to join local activists for another rally there later this month.

BECKY GILLETTE is conservation chair of the Mississippi Chapter of Sierra Club, and secretary of the GCRCC. She is a free-lance writer based in Ocean Springs, Miss., who has published in about 50 magazines and newspapers nationwide. In 2002 she received the National Conservation Achievement Award for communications from the National Wildlife Federation. She can be reached at: bgillette@bellsouth.net

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