Chapter office celebrates silver anniversary

Courtesy Elana Richman

by Wendi Taylor

Jeff Schmidt remembers standing on the Capitol steps, taking very deep breaths before his first press conference on January 17, 1983. With television cameras rolling and half a dozen reporters from the Capitol newsroom assembled, Schmidt announced the opening of our Chapter office and his new position, making the Sierra Club the first environmental organization to employ a full-time lobbyist in Harrisburg.

For 25 years, Schmidt has represented the interests of the Club, keeping tabs on the legislature and lobbying on behalf of the environment. Today, in addition to Schmidt, the office—formally known as the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Environmental Lobby (SPEL) office—also employs Chapter Coordinator, Joan Wilson, and our newly hired Conservation Program Coordinator, Laura Piraino. In addition, the office regularly hosts an intern, a position held by Elana Richman since May.

Wilson provides the administrative support that keeps the office running smoothly and the assistance and encouragement that volunteers need to stay motivated and perform their duties. “The volunteers are the heart and soul of the organization,” said Wilson. She is the point of contact for volunteers and outside inquiries and believes that education is the best way to connect people to environmental issues. Once people make that connection, “there’s a sense of ownership, which then leads to action.” Wilson also works closely with Richman, who assists staff and volunteer leaders with everything from the planning of Lobby Day to working on the Legislative Scorecard. Piraino, the most recent addition to the staff, is helping Groups recruit and organize volunteers for conservation campaigns through out the state and notes that “with our membership growing across the state, there has never been a more exciting time to be involved in the environmental movement.”

As for Schmidt, he likes to say he got his job because of James Watt, who was Ronald Reagan’s blatantly anti-environmental Secretary of the Interior. Watt’s appointment in 1981 became a rallying cry that sparked the Sierra Club’s “Dump Watt” petition drive. The Pennsylvania Chapter collected 80,000 of the 1.1 million signatures gathered to oust Watt; and Schmidt and former Chapter chair, Wyona Coleman, joined Sierra Club leaders from all over the country to ceremoniously deliver the petitions in two large wheel barrows to the steps of our nation’s Capitol.  

Schmidt points to the “Dump Watt” drive as a prime example of how an environmental campaign can attract new members and volunteers. While gathering signatures across the state, the signer was asked to check a box if they wanted more information about the Club. One in ten people checked the box and from that list, nine in ten joined, doubling the Pennsylvania Chapter’s membership from 5,000 to 10,000 members.

With a growing membership, the Chapter voted to realize its decade-long vision of hiring a full-time employee to lobby state legislators on behalf of the Club. Ironically, Watt finally resigned in November of 1983, the same year that Schmidt opened the Harrisburg office for business. Given that no other environmental organization had an office in the capital; Schmidt remembers feeling “pretty lonely” back then. Fortunately, he was quick to recognize the benefits of coalition politics. While tackling the issue of acid rain, he discovered that the Club had common ground with the PA Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. Understanding that there was strength in numbers, Schmidt learned how to effectively partner with other public interest groups. “Instead of being a solo act, the Sierra Club could be in a chorus,” he said.

Over the years, the vision of the SPEL office has not changed. And in some cases, the issues haven’t either. In the early days, Schmidt worked on our state’s first Oil and Gas Act, which sought to minimize the environmental impacts of oil and gas drilling. Twenty-four years later that law needs to be updated to include the types of drilling that have emerged. A quarter of a century ago Schmidt testified, along with Senator John Heinz, in Washington D.C. to establish the first Allegheny National Forest Wilderness Area. Today, the Sierra Club is working to expand that wilderness.

What has changed is the world in which our volunteers live. Twenty-five years ago, volunteers had more time and more discretionary funds. Today, with real income falling and more demands on people’s time, volunteers have less time and money to help out. Given this new reality, Sierra Club is finding it more challenging to recruit and keep its volunteers engaged. “We have to find a way to match the time people have to work on issues with the tasks available,” Schmidt said. As a member of an eight-family intentional community that co-owns and manages a 130-acre farm, Schmidt understands the value of collective efforts, adding that “Many hands make light work.”


Wendi Taylor is a member of the Governor Pinchot Group and chair of the Chapter’s Long-Range Planning Committee.