Mendocino, Calif. — Remember the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the story of a political babe in the woods who took on the US Senate? In the Jimmy Stewart movie, the antagonists were well defined: a corrupt senior US senator and the corrupt machine behind him. the battle, too, was well defined: to build or not to build a dam.
Now a real-life "little man" (represented by two lionhearted women activists) is fighting a more complicated battle, taking on not only the government, but the oil companies as well. At stake are approximately 700 miles of magnificent coastline, extending from just north of Santa Barbara in central California to the Oregon border, a rocky, cliff-pocked coastline recalling whaling stations, redwood logging days, and salmon runs (still running), a coastline that's threatened by oil derricks.
Just off this coast, claims the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are five basins rich in oil and gas (an estimated 548 million barrels' worth of oil and approximately 621 billion cubic feet of gas). The Point Arena basin, off the Mendocino coast, is one of three that may be excluded from the sale, at least for the time being, by the secretary of the interior, Cecil Andrus. These basins are part of OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) Lease Sale 53, scheduled to take place next year. The major oil companies are expected to bid on 1.3 million acres of federally owned ocean floor extending from 3 to 27 miles seaward, and in water from 162 to 2,437 feet deep.
What's involved, opponents of the sale say, is far more than beauty-mark blemishes on picture-post card views, of even the preservation of nature. A life style is threatened, and so are livelihoods dependent on fishing and tourism.Besides, the oilmen and the Department of the Interior seem to have forgotten the automatic reaction people have here to the mere mention of a certain city and date: San Francisco, 1906 -- the focus and year of the famous earthquake, which was precipitated by the spreading of the San Andreas Fault. The planned drilling sites are near this same fault. Even the oil companies hesitate to estimate what could happen if oil spills were caused by quake-ripped rigs.
Two women, Beth Sparkuhl (pronounced "sparkle") and Sue Miller, have mobilized the community on the Mendocino coast (a 3 1/2-hour drive north from San Francisco) into nearunanimity in their fight against the oil companies. In november, these two women joined the county-authorized citizens' volunteer offshore oil task force, which consisted of a cross section of local citizens, including a biologist, a meteorologists, a retired Coast Guard commander, a retired Chevron oil pollution-control chemist, and a retired Shell Oil petroleum research chemist.
The task force found that the BLM's draft environmental-impact statement of Lease Sale No. 53 was dotted with "don't" knows" such as: "little water quality information . . . knowledge of intertidal zone of central and northern California is incomplete with many areas largely unexplored . . . the subtidal invertebrates are not as well known . . . available studies of kelp limited in number . . . central and northern California shelf area is among most poorly studied areas of United States . . . areas have not been intesively surveyed as others. . . ."
"Furthermore," Sue Miller notes, "much of the data that was provided was biased. The language was biased, too. Dangers that were pointed out were ludicrously minimized, and there simply wasn't enough specific information about specific areas."
Sue knew what she was talking about. She was already familiar with the draft environmental study for the proposed five-years OCS lease sales for the entire North American Continent. Back in the days when she was working for the San Francisco city planning department, she had been given the job of reviewing the plan. She had the same reservations, then. And yet, this draft which she had considered so inadequate had mysteriously become the basis for Mr. Andrus's giving the green light for all 1.3 million acres to be put up for sale.
The two women protested to the Interior Department on behalf of the task force, but their phone calls and letters were, they felt, treated very cavalierly. "We didn't want to be shrugged off on pieces of paper," Sue Miller said. So they decided to go Washington.
Although Beth and Sue's task force had been formed by order of the county board of supervisors, the board refused to pay their way to Washington, D.C. But thanks to bulletin board announcements, fliers, items in the local press and on radio, word spread, and a good portion of the money came in from fishermen and friends. So the pair went off to Washington, paying the rest of the cost out of their own pockets.
The two women had one advantage: This is an election year, and as the more optimistic Beth says, "Anything is possible during an election year. Even [ California Rep.] Don Clausen, who has traditionally voted with the oil interest invited us to Washington to testify against offshore oil drilling."
However, it was in Representative Clausen's office that the two women learned just what can happen when the "little man" takes on the bureaucracy. An aide told them that they needed 75 copies of their 20-page testimony. A copy shop down the street, he told them, would do it for 10 cents a page.
"That's when Sue dug in her heels," Beth said. "She backed the aide up against the arm of a chair and said, 'Now see here, we're your constituents. We pay taxes and you're supposed to be looking out for us. I want you to get that testimony printed.' "Well, Sue backed him so far, the poor man fell over into the armchair, and that broke the tension. We all had a good laugh, and after that it was cooperation all the way."
And Beth and Sue were able to testify before the House Select Committee on the Outer Continental Shelf.
After a long day spent listening to the testimony of congressmen, governors, oil corporation representatives, and environmental lobbyists, the committee was delighted and surprised to welcome Beth and Sue, acknowledging that not many "just plain citizens" come before them.
The recording clerk did a double take when Beth began her testimony with: "I'm the great-great-great-great-grand-daughter of Jane Knox Polk, the mother of President Polk, and it's wonderful to be here in Washington."
"He had to ask me to repeat it," Beth laughs. "It blew his mind."
She believes that their political naivete was really an asset.
"I mean, if we had known half of what we know now about Washington protocol, we would have felt very inhibited. But we didn't, so we all called each other by first names and had a good time. We assumed we had a right to see our representatives, so we saw them."
The women were able to meet with Heather Ross, deputy assistant secretary of the Interior, and Ray Karam, program coordinator for the Outer Continental Shelf , and to tell the two government officials why they considered the Bureau of Land Management's draft of the environmental-impact report on OCS No. 53 to be "'inadequate, irrelevant, and inaccurate.' Of course, it wasn't the nicest thing we could have said," Beth smiles.
Beth and Sue recount that when they asked Heather Ross if "their scenic backyard" could be withheld from the lease sale, they were told that there was not enough "on-site information" to make such a decision. This seemed ironic indeed, since this was precisely what Beth and Sue's task force was complaining about: tht the government's EIS (environmental-impact statement) did not have enough "on-site information" to justify offshore exploration for oil. In effect , Mrs. Ross seemed to be tacitly admitting that there was indeed not enough on-site information.
At any rate, Beth and Sue agreed to retun to Mendocino to prepare a citizen's environmental report. However, they say, when they asked Mrs. Ross for some information they needed, she countered by saying, "You'll just use the information to work against us," a remark that suggested to them that the Interior Department has allied itself with the offshore oil drilling interests.
"Heather was very patient," Beth says. "She tried to explain the government's position to us. Heather told us," she explains, reading from her journal of the Washington trip, "the harder oil is to get, the more money it will bring in, because it will cost more to get it out. The consumer loses but the revenues go into the federal reserves.'"
"And all we could think of," Sue adds, "was why not take all of those billions proposed for oil exploration and use them to motivate Americans to quit wasting so much oil. Then the consumer wouldm win."
Openness and ingenuousness can take people off guard, as Beth and Sue found when they were back at the hotel buying post cards in the gift shop. A young man was having trouble finding some organic shampoo. Treating the problem as she would a next-door neighbor's request for sugar, Sue offered to give him some.
Some 20 minutes later, there was a knock at the door. There stood the young man, cup in hand. When he saw their environmental study papers strewn all over the floor, he said, with some awe, "Oh, I've never met real environmentalists to talk to before."
And when Sue and Beth heard what his profession was, they said, "And we've never met an attorney for an oil company before."
They seized the opportunity to learn the bottom line for stopping the sale of oil leases.
"Permanent environmental damage," the oil attorney said, apparently glad to exchange crucial advice for a cup of organic shampoo.
"We went to Washington to get only 2 out of 549 oil platforms deleted, but now, after our trip to Washington," Sue said firmly, "we're telling the secretary, 'Look here, Cecil, you don't have to drill for any oil in the sea. There are other ways to create oil reserves, and the folks in Mendocino County will show you how. We're going to draw you up a blueprint for savying oil and gas.'"
"We're throwing a year-long, do-it-yourself, grass-roots, oil conservation party in Mendocino County," Beth says, adding with a smile, "and we're inviting the President, the secretary of the Interior, and the secretary of the Department of Energy to help us host the party. We're writing up the invitations now."
Asked how she first became an activist, Beth explains that when she was 15 and living in Laguna Beach, she heard that a petition had been drawn up to stop Eiler Larson, a bewhiskered town character, from standing on the curb and waving greetings to incoming motorists.
"Everyone was very upset about it," Beth remembered, "so I said, 'Let's get up a petition to protect Eiler,' . . . so I drew up a petition, and took it around to all of the businesses and stopped people on the street to get signatures. Well, Eiler was saved. And after that he went on to become a landmark." Beth believes in keeping petitions short. As she remembers it, the one for Eiler read: "We like Eiler Larsen and we think that he should be able to wave at people."
A petition she drew up to stop offshore oil drilling in Laguna Beach in 1972 read: "We are opposed to offshore oil drilling except in case of a national emergency as declared by President Gerald Ford." She remembers that she and her friends went from beach to beach, gathering signatures. They got 100,000, and there are no oil platforms off Laguna Beach today.
Seven years ago, Beth gave up a $60,000-a-year airbrushing business she had started and came to live in Point Arena, a small and windy fishing port on the rugged Mendocino coast. Now she's scaled her business down to $6,000 a year and spends most of her time on her offshore oil task force work.
Three years ago, Sue Miller was working for the California Department of Health in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her job as a small-water systems specialist took her to Mendocino, a town that looks like a transplanted Maine fishing village, and is so picturesque it has been used for movie backgrounds ("The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" and "Same Time Next Year"). She decided to make her home there.
Almost the first thing she did was to launch a radio show on environmental issues with Tom Wodetzki, director of the Mendocino Environment Center. With its guest interviews, environmental news, and telephone call-ins, this popular radio program has grown from a twice-monthly to a weekly show.
While they were in Washington, Beth and Sue had invited the Department of Interior to local BLM hearings. Apparently, their invitation was accepted, because in mid-June, Washington came to the "Smiths."
Government representatives came to the nearby lumber-mill town of Fort Bragg to sit and listen to 12 hours of impassioned speeches opposing offshore oil drilling. (Agencies represented included: Department of the Interior, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, OCS Division of Ecological Services, Offshore Environmental Assessment, and Land and Water Resources.)
During the morning, out of approximately 50 testifiers, four people testified for the proposed oil exploration and two of those represented Exxon and Chevron. The third man had applied for and been granted a license by the California Coastal Commission to drill for oil on his land, which was near the epicenter of the 1906 earthquake. The fourth was a citizen worried about jobs in this economically depressed area. Only one out of 75 witnesses spoke in favor of oil development in the afternoon hearings.
The government's decision to hold the hearing in the mill town of Fort Bragg rather than in scenic Mendocino, as requested by Sue and Beth, is symptomatic, perhaps, of the way the government and oil industry's outlook differs from that of the coastal dwellers.
Thinking aloud about what happened when official Washington met the folks along the coast, Beth And Sue concluded that it was a clash of life styles, perhaps symbolized best by the contrast between a statement by Ray Fritz of the Department of Interior, saying that he had two cars and a motorboat and he wasn't going to give them up, and the statement of a young, bearded man in a homespun sweater: "I come from Cincinatti, Ohio. I came out here five years ago and bought five acres in the country. I make my own energy with wind. I grow my own food with natural fertilizers. I raise my own meat. Even this sweater I wear is homegrown, homespun, and home-knitted." With no irony intended, he concluded by saying, "It took me 38 years to get where I am."
The government's panel said that they respected the young man's life style, as well as those of the audience, who for the most part are cutting down their gasoline consumption, generating their own energy, and raising their own food. However, the Interior Department's Ray Karam said that, in an attempt to be balanced, he wanted to tell them: "Your outlook is provincial. You don't have the national interest at heart. If there was a vote for this tomorrow, the American people would be for drilling for oil off the coasts. You can't tell people in Detroit or Tucson they have to cut down on their gasoline consumption. You can't dictate their life styles."
But Sue believes it is the oil and automobile industries that do not have the national interest at heart.
"They've been stupid in managing our resources and now, they're asking us to pay for it. Detroit and the media have promoted the gas guzzlers, the freeways, the shopping centers, the suburban tracts. They've stifled the growth of mass transportation. The oil companies have created a gluttonous monster, and now in the name of national security they tell us we've got to keep this monster alive. Monstrous, indeed!"
"But," Beth argues, "I don't want anybody to give up anything. I just want to find different ways of propelling our cars and motorboats. I mean, I want an abundance of energy for everyone, now. Why wait for the year 2000? Let's get those nice oil companies, you know, like the ads say, to share all those energy-saving patents they've been buying up."
Neither did Sue believe that the American people don't want to change their life styles. She pulls out a 1977 Harris poll showing that 76 percent of Americans favored "learning to get our pleasure out of nonmaterial experiences" rather than "satisfying our needs for more goods and services." The day after the BLM hearings, Beth and Sue walked with their visitors through Russian Gulch State Park. Ray Fritz of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service leaned over the cliff and looked at the rocks below and said, "You'll never be able to clean an oil spill off those rocks."
"We were quite impressed with his 'testimony,'" Sue says. "The whole coast is like that."
In fact, out of 30 outer continental oil and gas lease sales from Maine to Alaska proposed for the next five years, at least 33 major oil spills are predicted.
Now that their guests have gone, Beth and Sue are both elated and disappointed. They are disappointed that the Department of Interior officials did not promise to include an oil conservation plan and an alternative energy report in the Secretarial Issue Document, the report Interior Secretary Andrus will use to guide him in October when he makes his final decision on the Californian offshore oil lease sales.
They are elated that Secretary Andrus appears to be considering dropping the Mendocino coast from OCS Lease Sale No. 53, and by the County Board of Supervisors' decision to ask the Department of Interior to delete the Point Arena Basin from the sale.
But Point Arena Basin can be re-offered for sale anytime within the next five years. For this reason, they are disappointed that the County Planning Department is planning to dissolve their task force.
Even as this is being written, Sue is making calls to the Department of Energy asking for information and help for a grass-roots energy asking for information and help for a grass-roots energy conservation program. When Washington asks what organization she represents, she says, "I'm a citizen." Her calls have not been returned. So once again, she and Beth are getting out their credit cards, calling on friends. "Mr. Smith" is getting ready to go back to Washington.