WatchSonoma Watch

Environmental groups go digital to spread message

Sheri Cardo, director of communications, Sonoma Land Trust


From now on, going green may be as simple as going online.

Just in time for Earth Day, the Sierra Club has rolled out an iPhone app it calls “Eco Hero.” With it, users can make Earth-friendly pledges like biking to work, bringing reusable bags to the supermarket or writing a letter to their congressmen.

Once committed, they’ll show up as pins on an interactive map, visible evidence to the world that, as one Sierra Club spokeswoman put it, “one action makes a difference because it adds up.”

The Web and phone-based application is a uniquely 21st century answer to an age-old question — can one person’s green gestures really make a difference? And it’s just one of the ways green groups throughout the nation and in the North Bay are embracing digital media to help bolster their causes.

Through Web pages, online video and networking sites such as Facebook, organizers are dramatically changing the way they raise awareness about issues, solicit money and recruit members.

Campaigns once carried out with street-side banners — in defense of endangered wildlife, a treasured piece of open space or smart growth for local cities — now make their strongest statements online.

The move amounts to a tech-savvy shift away from the battle-tested organizing tools employed by environmentalists since the first Earth Day 40 years ago.

Those hand-printed newsletters and pamphlets, phone trees and door-to-door campaigns were often short-reached or cost and labor intensive, activists say. Web-based organizing offers cheaper, instant access to a larger audience and easier networking between causes.

The digital boom has had its drawbacks, especially in the profusion of misinformation and fringe elements given life on the Web. Still, even those wary of the digital world say a mix of both approaches — boots on the ground and clicks on the Web — will be the key to environmental groups’ success in the next 40 years.

For a movement launched decades ago by clipboard-wielding activists and sit-ins, the leap to cyberspace has already been transformational.

“Today, if you have a network of people you need to reach, you can capture people right where they are — in line at the store, in the car,” said Dan Kerbein, a Sonoma County representative and finance chair for the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club. “You can get information to them — voice, text or video — wherever they happen to be. It makes fertile ground for activism.”

Examples of local groups employing digital media are legion.

When the stream advocacy group Russian Riverkeeper wanted to highlight the contentious issue of diverting water for vineyard frost protection, staff made a 12-minute film on dry farming — viticulture without irrigation — and linked it to the group’s Web site and Facebook page.

Word got around about the film, prompting screenings at film festivals in Sonoma and Napa valleys and an aPRIL 10 interview on a Mendocino County radio show.

Investment in the film was minor, but the payoff was major, said Don McEnhill, the group’s program director. “Without the Internet, that video would not have reached the audience it has reached so far.”

The Sonoma Land Trust is one of a half-dozen local organizations to roll out a Facebook page in the last several years. The Santa Rosa-based group uses its page to announce events, highlight projects and enlist volunteers.

On its main Web site, the group also features videos and an interactive map with all the properties either protected or restored through trust projects. Soon the land trust will launch a Twitter feed.

The multimedia approach has helped contribute a four-fold increase in the number of online donations and their total dollar value between 2007 and 2009, according to Sheri Cardo, Sonoma Land Trust’s director of communications.

“We’re a very visual culture, so the more you can help people visualize what it means to save land and connect properties together, the more they can (understand) what that looks like in their county,” she said. “It’s a powerful tool. It helps instill as sense of place.”

The Internet may be paying off for environmental groups in other ways, too.

A disproportionate number of people who post online material or use a social networking site for political or civic reasons are young, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.

Investing in digital tools could help green groups attract their attention, along the way boosting membership and diversity, said Aaron Smith, a research specialist with the Pew project.

“Frequently (younger people’s political) activity occurs within the context of these online platforms, rather than marching in the streets or burning draft cards, like you saw in the previous generation,” Smith said.

John Crevelli, a Healdsburg-based environmentalist from that era who fought for public access to the state’s seashores, welcomes the change.

The Internet has made it easier for people concerned about environmental issues “to branch out” and find one another, track down information or participate in some way, Crevelli said. Digital tools also help meet the immediacy of today’s policy-making process, when public input is often needed overnight.

The Digital Age isn’t for everyone, however.

Sonoma County Conservation Action, which focuses on door-to-door canvassing for environmental causes and political campaigns, will continue to use such time-tested tactics.

“We’ve pretty much done the same thing over the years,” said Diane Schulz, the group’s office manager.

Other environmental advocates have taken the middle road, learning the new digital tools while keeping to their regular regimen of in-person rallies, attendance at public meetings and letter writing campaigns.

Kent MacIntosh remembers turning in all-nighters cranking out protest pamphlets by hand in the 1960s, before copy machines.

Now the 67-year-old Santa Rosa-based organizer for Trout Unlimited of California starts most work days writing dozens of e-mails. Then he updates his group’s Facebook page with the latest news about fisheries and river issues.

“Today’s technology is absolutely incredible,” MacIntosh said. “It has really made organizing and getting the word out simple and painless.”

Still, MacIntosh said, that doesn’t mean he’ll be packing away his protest signs any time soon.

“You have to combine the two (approaches),” he said. “You can’t just stay in your living room.You can’t talk about the relationship between human beings and the Earth by holing up in a cave. You have to participate.”

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