The war in Iraq is in all of our thoughts. As I drove to Atlanta recently, I saw American flags everywhere. Americans seem united by a strong love of country - the land that is home to us all, that shapes our character and nourishes our spirit. But I'm left with a sense that something is missing: caring for America.
Some people believe the only patriots are military veterans who have fought in wars for their country. I spent more than two years fighting in Vietnam, and I know there are other ways to love and support our country. My dictionary says a patriot is one who guards his country's welfare. I don't believe one can be a patriot by waving our flag on July 4, then polluting a stream on July 5.
I'm a retired soldier trying to give something back to my country, which has been awfully good to me. That's the reason I joined the Sierra Club - to make a difference.
Twenty years ago, when I worked as a trainer for the Army, I would arrive early for work every morning and read the paper until others arrived. One day, I saw a photograph of three cowboys with their rifles across their arms, in front of three piles of dead golden eagles. At first I thought it was a historical photo, but the article said the cowboys, who grazed their stock on public land, thought eagles were killing their lambs and calves, and they petitioned Interior Secretary James Watt, who gave them permits to shoot all the golden eagles they could find.
I was mad. Those were our eagles living on our land. I wrote my senator, Sam Nunn, who said he would establish a 30-day study. The study found that eagles' talons are so weak they can only hunt rabbits, but they also feed on animals that are already dead. Nunn got Watt to withdraw the permits.
Since then, I have been trying to teach others that if you care and are willing to step forward and do something, you too can make a difference.
For much of my youth, my father worked in a coal mine in West Virginia. You probably have heard the expression "canary in a coal mine." I remember my father taking a yellow canary along with his lunch pail to work. If the canary fell off its perch, the miners knew they had opened a methane gas pocket, and had to leave the mine.
Many Georgia politicians see the Sierra Club efforts the same way - as an early-warning signal that something is wrong. The Georgia Chapter has 13,000 members and 10 groups, and this year we hope to establish our 11th. That's a lot of yellow canaries all over Georgia.
When everything is going well, the Sierra Club is not needed. Only when corporations or government entities aren't acting responsibly do people come to us. I would love nothing more to say at our next executive committee meeting, "We have no calls for help. Georgia legislators are voting as if they really do care and state agencies are doing their jobs. We are not needed. Let's all go on a hike."
As we look at Iraq on TV, we see bare, rock mountains, sand and dry river beds. We don't see lush forests, fields of green grass, healthy streams. It's easy to forget that this is the place referred to in the Old Testament as the "fertile crescent." Iraq allowed short-term economic gains to override long-term sustainability, and their once-fertile lands became dry. We don't want to hand down such a legacy to our children and grandchildren.
Here at home, our public lands are by far the largest and perhaps most important water provider in the United States. Eighty percent of all drinking water in America flows off of our national forests. But do our politicians recognize water quality and protected watersheds as a vital part of national security? Too few do.
At one time, we viewed our public lands as a vast storehouse of inexhaustible resources. Fortunately, we've learned from our mistakes. Forests can regenerate. Rivers and lakes can clean themselves if we stop pouring poisons in them.
Concern for the environment is as integral to our national security as a prepared military. Without it, we lose sight of what we ask our men and women in uniform to fight to protect.
Next time you hear someone refer to the Sierra Club as extremists, I remind you to think of us the way I think of us: as patriots, devoted to guarding our nation's heritage of clean water, clean air and wilderness.
(Editor's note: The writer, a Martinez resident, is past chairman of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club.)