John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, had hiked from Gainesville to Cedar Key in the late 1800s when he had the insight that our natural systems have value in and of themselves, apart from any benefits they provide for humans. Muir wrote about that idea in the journal that was later published in his book, “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf”:
…Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit—the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge
I like to think that Muir would be pleased with news that in June 2016, the Sierra Club hired Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, former president and policy director of Our Santa Fe River, to lead a new effort to protect Florida’s freshwater springs from pollution.
Before Christmas—as American Indians at Standing Rock were making headlines to protect water from damage by the Dakota Access Pipeline—I sat down with Merrillee to talk about our springs, Florida’s Sabal Trail Pipeline, and her new role with the Sierra Club.
“The Sierra Club hired me because they needed a grassroots organizer in North Florida to work for springs protection,” Merrillee explained. “The club is concerned about the amount of pollution that is damaging our springs, so I’m focused on that. My job also includes complementing the work that’s being done by the club’s Suwannee-St. Johns Chapter.”
The new Sierra Club office is located at Merrillee’s family-run business, Rum 138 in southern Columbia County.
Geographically the largest Sierra Club chapter in the eastern United States, the Suwannee-St. Johns (SSJ) group has close to 2000 members and includes all or part of 16 counties in Florida’s springs heartland.
One of Merrillee’s projects is to assist with the creation of SSJ’s new North County Working Group. Designed to encourage people to be the eyes and ears of Sierra in North Central Florida—to watch for development, changes in water use or land use regulations or anything else that might damage our springs—the group meets once a month on the third Saturday at 10 a.m. at Rum 138.
“The big effort is trying to get better land use development on top of high aquifer recharge areas,” Merrillee explained. “I’m working with groups to push for better land uses that do not affect our aquifer and springs. Right now, I’m involved with people in Brooker and other communities in Union and Bradford counties to stop new phosphate mining that has the potential to pollute the Santa Fe River. I’m also working with people around the state to try to stop the potential for destruction caused by the Sabal Trail fracked gas pipeline that is coming through our region.”
Designed to carry large amounts of natural gas, the Sabal Trail Pipeline has received its required permits and is under construction, boring through wetlands and sensitive areas that are prone to sinkholes. To protect the springs and the Floridan aquifer, the Sierra Club joined with the Flint Riverkeeper in Georgia and the Gulf Restoration Network in a lawsuit challenging permits for the pipeline. At press time, the lawsuit is still in the court system.
“The Sabal Trail Pipeline is newsworthy because the power corporations involved are locking us into fossil fuels rather than moving toward more sustainable energy sources such as sun and wind,” Merrillee explained. “There is a statewide movement against the pipeline because of that and because pipelines can leak, explode, and damage water supplies.”
“Stopping the pipeline requires a huge movement,” she continued. “We as citizens can stop this, even though it is now being built.” To support that claim, Merrillee cites the stoppage of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal in the 1960s and the recent actions at Standing Rock, where American Indians have at least temporarily halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Standing Rock put the wind in our sails when we saw what they accomplished to delay a fossil fuel behemoth,” Merrillee said. “The tribal network gave that movement its energy and people’s motivation to get involved was their water supply, something they could all stand behind.”
To learn more about the new North County Working Group or other Sierra Club activities in the springs heartland, email Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson at email@example.com or call her at 386-454-1542.
To learn more about…
Sierra Club: http://www.sierraclub.org/
Sierra Club Suwannee-St. Johns Chapter: http://ssjsierra.org/
John Muir’s “Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf”: http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/a_thousand_mile_walk_to_the_gulf/
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of "The Observer," a free monthly tabloid (circulation 5000 copies) distributed in the High Springs/Alachua/Newberry/Jonesville/Fort White areas of North Florida. Many thanks to publisher Barbara Llewellyn for her kind permission to post it here.