Newsletter Archive

January 19, 2004

Dear CalUWild friends and supporters;

This month’s Update is a little different from most others. Item 1 is the only one dealing with wilderness, and is a repeat from December (although it contains a little bit more information about the issue).

Next are two press-related items. the first contains background information on effective advocacy, in addition to an opportunity for letter-writing. the second is an offer from High Country News , a paper that has covered the Intermountain West for many years. Together these two items stress the need for staying informed on issues that affect us.

Many thanks to the CalUWild members and friends who sent in contributions over the holidays. They were very much appreciated. Although dues are voluntary, we need the support of each and every member. If you haven’t contributed anything in the last year, please consider doing so. You can find a dues form on-line.

Thank you for your interest in protecting our wild places,



1. Mt. Whitney Toilets Environmental Assessment

DEADLINE: February 4, 2004



2. San Francisco Chronicle Op-ed Piece

Regarding Writing Congress


3. High Country News Offer



1. Mt. Whitney Toilets Environmental Assessment

DEADLINE: February 4, 2004


As discussed in the December 2003 Update , the National Forest has a new preferred alternative to deal with the toilet situation on the Mt. Whitney Trail. This is good news!

It is now Alt. 5: Toilet Building Removal and Mandatory Pack Out of Human Waste. Under this alternative, hikers would be given waste pack-out kits and would dispose of them after the hike at the Whitney Portal trailhead. Overnight campers would not be assigned to specific campsites along the trail. The first of the two toilets would be removed in 2004, the second in 2005. There would be no structures or mechanized equipment or transport once the existing toilets are removed. If the mandatory pack out system fails, the Forest Service would implement further use limits and/or designated site camping, which are included in Alt. 4.

Alternative 4 would also remove the toilet structures and the “pack-it-out” aspect would be voluntary. However, the trail quotas would also be decreased and overnight hikers would be assigned designated campsites.

Please send the Forest Service your comments. If you have had experience with a pack-it-out system before, include your thoughts. Similar programs have been used at Mt. Shasta and Mt. Rainier, Denali, and Grand Teton National Parks.

Thank the Forest Service for making Alt. 5 its preferred alternative. Since the existing toilets are in designated wilderness, it is especially important that they be removed and not rebuilt. This alternative also removes the necessity of intrusive helicopter flights for carrying waste out.
Request that signing for “privacy areas” be kept to a minimum. It seems hikers can figure those things out for themselves.
Stress the need to monitor impacts at campsites, especially if they are not designated sites.

Public comments on the Mt. Whitney Toilet EA must be postmarked no later than February 4, 2004. They should be submitted to:

Mr. Garry Oye

District Ranger

White Mountain Ranger Station

798 N. Main Street

Bishop, CA 93514

They may also be submitted by FAX to:


or e-mail at:

For more information regarding the Environmental Assessment, or if you have specific questions, please contact Deputy District Ranger Mary DeAguero at 760-876-6227.


2. San Francisco Chronicle Op-ed Pieces

Regarding Writing Congress


Those of you who read the San Francisco Chronicle may have read the Insight section on Sunday, January 11. It contained an essay in which a 2003 graduate of Georgetown University talked about working in House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s office as a summer intern after his freshman year. He wrote about the use of “signature machines” on letters back to constituents and the need for responses that say “something without really saying anything.” His attitude was summed up in the headline: “Write your congressman? Don’t even bother! His signature is phony, so is his interest.”

CalUWild is in total disagreement with the cynical conclusion expressed in the headline and the article. While the depiction of Rep. Hastert’s office may be 100% accurate, we do not believe that the author is justified in concluding that all other offices on Capitol Hill exhibit such a negative view toward constituent correspondence. If they did, we would not recommend writing to those same offices to protect wilderness. We firmly believe in only taking action that is effective. And time and time again we have seen instances where just a few letters have made a difference.

Of course, it’s a very seductive conclusion, because the press is full of accounts of undue influence in the Capitol (even more in this White House). And voters should react negatively to that. But just because it fits nicely into a pre-existing picture does not make it an accurate portrait in and of itself.

It is very dangerous to take this attitude, because it guarantees that there will be no voices to counter the others in Washington.

CalUWild members should send letters to the Chronicle expressing their views, especially if they have had positive experiences with writing or calling specific legislators.

Write to:

I submitted the following op-ed piece as a counterpoint to the essay, but the Chronicle has said they won’t publish it. The paper told me it has a policy against publishing rebuttals, and that the Insight section is only for “fresh, new ideas.” I’d say the cynicism of this former intern is hardly fresh or new.

One note: This piece is quite a bit longer than an ordinary op-ed (the Chronicle ordinarily has a 650-word limit). It was written to respond to the original essay and is about the same length as it.

Write your congressman? You bet!

It was a bleak picture that Jonathan McLeod painted in his essay about being an intern on Capitol Hill. (“Write your congressman? Don’t even bother! His signature is phony, so is his interest” INSIGHT, January 11)

However, he shouldn’t generalize too much from his experience; his conclusion does not in any way reflect my experience working with Congress. There is enough about our system for voters to be cynical about, and the last thing we need is for those attitudes to be unnecessarily reinforced.

If I believed for one minute that citizen letters were a waste of time, I would not be committed to my work. I am the founder of Californians for Western Wilderness, a group dedicated to saving wildlands,and to the belief that ordinary citizens can make a difference, if they have the proper tools and information to be effective. Our goal is to provide those. When citizens see how easy it is to have an effect, maybe they will carry that knowledge over to other areas of concern.

We got our start in 1997, but we couldn’t continue if we hadn’t met with some level of success through the involvement of our members. The income is just not good enough to support a massive waste of time.

So just what have I learned over the last few years?

To begin, let me say that there are parts of Mr. McLeod’s essay that ring true, but each office has its own policies and procedures. His experience is not necessarily typical.

An office in the House of Representatives might receive a hundred or more letters a day. California’s senators receive ten times that number, 10-15,000 letters per week. The advent of e-mail has made the situation even more overwhelming. Given those volumes, it is unlikely that a legislator could read each letter and respond personally. Practicality dictates that they might use a machine to sign outgoing correspondence. With staffing and time restraints, an efficient office simply might not craft a personalized response to each correspondent. There are offices, however, that do.

Additionally, in the House of Representatives offices generally do not deal with voters from outside their districts, although there are exceptions. Sometimes offices forward the correspondence to the appropriate member; sometimes they simply discard it.

Finally, it is true that pre-printed postcards may be summarily dumped in the trash. They reflect no thought on the part of the sender, and I’m frankly dismayed that many advocacy groups continue to use them. They give citizens a false sense of having done something. However, this is not a uniform practice; some offices do tally them.

But acknowledging these points does nothing to change my view that Mr. McLeod’s conclusion – that it’s all a waste of time – is inaccurate.

What might account for this discrepancy in our viewpoints?

Given the typically short tenure of most congressional staffers, one might expect that this inside information that Mr. McLeod purports to be exposing would have come out before.

However, I have never heard a Capitol Hill staff person say anything remotely resembling his viewpoint. On the contrary: Every year since 1999 I have gone to Washington with ordinary citizens to meet with congressional staff on issues of concern. Some of these staff members have addressed our groups, and every one of them has stressed the importance and need for letters from constituents in their home districts. They have been blunt: Offices inside the Beltway do not have every piece of information on every topic. They rely on the voters to keep them informed on the issues, in addition to voters’ opinions.

Of course there are some topics where a representative’s mind is made up and he or she is unlikely to change it. In those instances, the most letterwriters can hope to do is make their opinions known. However, when a legislator is undecided, these staffers have told us that it can take as few as five or ten constituent letters to convince a lawmaker to take a particular stand.

To double check these points, I sent Mr. McLeod’ essay to six current or former House and Senate staffers with whom I have worked over the years. Their initial comments were just about unanimous: “It’s too bad he had such a miserable experience being an intern.”

They all said that, of course, it was possible that the essay accurately reflected the way Speaker J. Dennis Hastert ran his office. However, since he is House Speaker, his office is not typical. Leadership offices receive many times more mail than average, and those offices do not have a larger staff to handle the volume.

Several pointed out the fact that the short time of Mr. McLeod’s position as a summer intern probably didn’t give him adequate time to learn the complexities of the decisionmaking process. But someone was advising his boss; somehow information was getting through.

But to the extent that the Speaker ignores his mail, his constituents lose out, and his effectiveness as a legislator is diminished.

Interns often handle the mail and answer phones to expose them to the broad range of concerns that constituents have and to give them direct interaction with the public, not because it is unimportant or no one else can or wants to handle the mail.

All the staffers I contacted said that their offices do consider constituent mail important, and they said that most other offices do as well.

Their offices tally the opinions expressed in incoming mail because representatives and senators need and want that information before every vote they cast. Furthermore, letters are important because they may provide new perspectives or ideas regarding issues of concern to the legislator.

One legislative correspondent who had been in charge of the mail system in her House office for about a year and a half e-mailed me: “During my tenure there, and I am sure it continues, letters with specific concerns always received personal attention, either by DC staff or the California staff. I worked closely with the legislative assistants in our office, who work closely with [my boss], to collectively provide a response to the constituent’s needs and concerns and let them know [her] position. This is not … ‘saying something without really saying anything.’”

She continued: “It is true, however, that there are occasions when mail is not regarded with that same level of priority. Often, there are mass mailings that come in from constituents belonging to interest groups. These are usually postcards with an issue printed on them by the organization and then sometimes signed by the constituent. In response to these form mailings, they receive form letters back from the Congresswoman. This is simple to understand because they really provide nothing personal to personally respond to. It’s important to restate, however, that this is NOT how all, or most constituent letters are handled.”

Another staffer, this one with a Senate office, responded: “Some letters receive form letter responses and other letters receive specific responses, but all receive attention in our office and most other Congressional offices. … After working as a Legislative Correspondent and Legislative Assistant on the Hill, I believe even more strongly in the philosophy that every person can make a difference.”

Not a single one of these staff people supported the view that letters to Congress are a waste of time.

So what tactics can a voter use effectively to make that difference felt in Washington, DC?

When writing a letter, let the legislator know that you have put some thought into the issue. Make it personal. Don’t use pre-printed postcards or form letters that you simply sign and drop in the mailbox. As noted above, legislators want to know that something is important enough to you the constituent that you would take the time to write.
* Keep your letter simple and on-topic. State what you want the representative to do. Explain why the particular issue is important and why. Ask to be informed of the final decision.
* Use the form letter you may receive in response as an opportunity to follow-up. If you have a question not covered by their response, write again. That will force the issue up the ranks in the office. It’s unlikely you will receive a form letter the second time around.
Get to know the staff people working on your particular issue, either at the local office or in the Capitol. If you’re in Washington on vacation, make an appointment to visit the office. Consider taking your kids along to the meeting. That lets the staff know you’re concerned about your kids’ future. At the same time you teach the kids two important lessons: You care about their world, and it is important to be active in public affairs.
Congressional recesses aren’t vacations for lawmakers. Attend scheduled public meetings during those times or on weekends. Ask questions publicly, when the representative can’t ignore you. Talk to the legislator or the staff before or after the meeting.
Don’t give up.

A staff person for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee talked with me for 40 minutes about the importance of citizen involvement. She concluded our conversation by stating the obvious: “If you don’t write, your interests will be represented by people who don’t have your interests at heart.”

That is something every voter should remember.

3. High Country News Offer

High Country News is a newspaper published in Colorado, covering issues in the Intermountain West – from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies. Later this month, the paper is publishing an cover story on the Bush Administration’s energy policy and its impact on wilderness principles and policy. The conclusion of the story is reportedly: “In the painfully delicate balancing act called multiple use, wilderness has been cut out of the picture.”

The paper sent out a notice last week saying that it would be happy to provide a free copy of the wilderness issue to anyone requesting one.

If you’re not familiar with the paper, this would provide an introduction to it.

To request a copy you can go on-line to:

Or send your name and address to:


119 Grand Avenue

P.O. Box 1090

Paonia, CO 81428

1-800-905-1155 (phone)

970/527-4897 (fax)

Disclaimer: While we appreciate the willingness of HCN to do this, you might also receive subscription offers from them afterward. CalUWild has no financial interest in this offer, nor do we have anything waiting to be published by them.