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5 Ways

How To Turn Your Love of the Outdoors Into a Stand for Public Lands

Photo by Jim Schemel/istock

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which crosses into North Carolina and Tennessee, uses volunteers to record data on animal activity and plant blooms.Photo by Jim Schemel/istock

The American public owns roughly 640 million acres of national lands —panoramic views, jutting peaks, and sweeping valleys. More than 400 national parks claim 84 million of those acres, but the majority is national forests and Bureau of Land Management areas. Government agencies manage the lands for timber harvesting, livestock grazing, and oil and gas leasing. And each summer, millions of people use wilderness areas for hunting and fishing, camping, and hiking.

Melissa Hellmann is a YES! reporting fellow and graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @M_Hellmann.

Under the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, the future of public lands is uncertain. New rules make it easier for Congress to transfer federal lands to states, local communities, and Native American tribes. Critics argue that the move could lead local governments to limit public access or sell the land to developers. And although Trump has said he opposes the transfer of public lands, he does want to increase fracking and drilling.

So while you’re out enjoying open spaces this summer, consider ways to also stand up for public lands.


Most trails are maintained by volunteers and always need extra hands to clear debris and restore the paths. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy offers volunteer opportunities, while the Pacific Crest Trail also needs volunteer crews to keep more than 2,500 miles passable throughout the year. Information about trail maintenance projects can be found at local parks or by visiting the National Park Service website.

2. Count Animals

Helping scientists count animals and preserve other park resources is an easy way to merge a love for the outdoors with science. Park naturalists and conservationists depend on citizens, usually without scientific training, to help keep tabs on the health of the parks. Glacier National Park offers opportunities to count mountain goats, pikas, and butterflies. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park needs volunteers to monitor plant blooming and collect other data on flora and fauna.

3. Restore history

Passport in Time is a program sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service that connects volunteers with archaeologists and historians to work on public land projects. Volunteers can help with rock art restoration, archaeological excavations, and artifact curation. Projects can last anywhere from two days to several weeks and sometimes involve backcountry camping. Some activities are also kid-friendly, encouraging entire families to join.


Similar to last year’s Standing Rock “water protector” encampments, protest camps are in need of donations and organizers this summer. The Little Creek Camp near Williamsburg, Iowa, located on 14 acres of private land, was founded by Indigenous Iowa. The camp currently focuses on Dakota Access pipeline resistance and fosters indigenous ideology to promote sustainability. In Washington state, the Backbone Campaign offers weeklong summer camps for training in nonviolent direct action, including “kayaktivism.” At the “Localize This!” camps on Vashon Island, participants join up with other citizen activists and movement organizers to learn how to “take action before everything we value or hold as sacred is extracted, exploited, and extinguished.”

5. Ditch the Car

Want to protest oil and gas leasing on public lands and fossil fuel infrastructure crisscrossing sensitive ecosystems? Try a park that doesn’t require a car. Some are in urban settings that are easily accessible. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, for example, is 157,000 acres and the largest urban national park in the world. And parts of the park are accessible by bus from Los Angeles. Public transportation also works for national parks in faraway places. Yosemite can be reached from San Francisco entirely by public transit: Take a bus or light rail train to Richmond, transfer to an Amtrak train heading to Merced, then take the YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transit System) bus to Yosemite.

Melissa Hellmann is a YES! reporting fellow and graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @M_Hellmann.

A Solution Too Big to Fail: Electrify the Trains

Illustration by J. Craig Thorpe from <em>Solutionary Rail</em>

Illustration by J. Craig Thorpe from Solutionary Rail

Over the phone, it’s clear that Bill Moyer is frustrated. “We’re not talking about some kind of Elon Musk-vacuum-tube-Jetsons-freaking-cartoon fantasy,” the Northwest resident says. “We’re talking about something that has a proven history.”

Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Stephen is a senior editor at YES! He writes about climate justice.

Moyer has been begging Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to invest in a renewable energy-powered freight rail line from Seattle to Chicago. But the governor has shown little interest, although he recently asked the state Legislature to approve $1 million to study an ultra-high-speed passenger train from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. “We’d love for him to show some leadership for the entire state on something that’s not so pie-in-the-sky,” Moyer laments.

Futuristic commuter trains are one thing, but Moyer has his sights set on an idea that is at once larger in scope and more firmly grounded in existing technology.

Moyer is a good-natured musician and progressive activist who has lived on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, since 1989. He has a mop of curly dark hair and speaks in the laid-back tone you’ve heard at your local bike shop. These days, he often sports a black T-shirt that proclaims the name of his progressive advocacy organization, the Backbone Campaign. It was this group that researched and authored the recently released Solutionary Rail, a 126-page book filled with charts, maps, graphs, and tables to support the feasibility of a bold electrified rail proposal.

The idea seeks to address two significant problems facing the country. On the one hand, the overwhelming scientific consensus warns of an impending climate catastrophe for which we are woefully unprepared. On the other, the country’s bridges and roads are, in fact, crumbling. The American Society of Engineers awarded the country a D+ in 2016, as it has consistently since 1998. During his first address to Congress in February, President Donald Trump ignored climate change but called for $1 trillion to fill cracks in the nation’s infrastructure, which largely accommodates fossil fuel-hungry automobiles.

Illustration by J. Craig Thorpe from <em>Solutionary Rail</em>

Illustration by J. Craig Thorpe from Solutionary Rail

Transportation accounts for nearly a third of the country’s carbon emissions, of which 84 percent is attributed to cars and commercial trucks, the EPA reports. So, as Moyer sees it, it’s obvious that climate change and infrastructure should be tackled in tandem. “The biggest climate impact we can have is getting the trucks off the roads, and eventually getting people back to the tracks, as well,” he says. To do this, the Backbone Campaign proposes revitalizing and electrifying America’s rail system, powering it entirely with community-owned renewable energy.

The plan would update existing freight railways by adding overhead wires to carry high-voltage electricity generated in towns along the lines and smoothing out turns too tight for high-speed travel. It would swap diesel locomotives for electric engines that are 35 percent cheaper to operate and that haul freight five times more efficiently than trucks. In many places, it would add additional track to free up passenger rail that would otherwise get stuck behind delayed freight. And it would do all of this with a focus on justice—for the people who live alongside dirty and noisy diesel train lines, for current and future rail workers and the underemployed millions who would benefit from a large-scale infrastructure undertaking, for communities that could find economic security in renewable energy generation, and for those around the world whose lives are already threatened by global warming.

It’s a grandiose idea, perhaps even improbable, but Moyer is known in progressive circles for being someone who gets things done. His track record includes the “kayaktivist” blockade that confronted Shell Oil in Puget Sound and the 150-foot replica of the Constitution, signed by thousands, which tumbled down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in protest of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United.

In truth, electric rail is not such a long shot. China and Russia have already invested heavily in electrifying more than 40 percent of their railways. The Trans-Siberian Railway—the world’s longest at 5,772 miles—went fully electric in 2002, and Russia now moves about 70 percent of its freight over electrified lines. France, Italy, and Germany have also electrified as much or more than half of their rails, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

As Solutionary Rail recalls, the United States operated more than 3,000 miles of electrified rail up until the 1960s— granted, none of it powered renewably—when the influential auto industry and the subsidized interstate highway system pushed rail to the back burner.

“If Eisenhower had signed the high-speed rail bill instead of the interstate bill, the country would be connected by rail,” says former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

Given the rail’s potential for American employment, manufacturing, and energy independence, it would seem that a case could be made to set aside a portion of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure request to break ground on “solutionary rail.”

A congressman who sat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, LaHood had a bipartisan approach that helped him become the only Republican appointed to Obama’s cabinet who had been elected to public office. In 2009, he was given the unenviable task of rallying votes for Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which appropriated about $830 billion to kick-start the flagging economy.

The act leveraged $48 billion for transportation, of which about $10 billion was earmarked to establish intercity high-speed rail, including a line between San Francisco and Los Angeles that’s now under construction. This investment was projected to create tens of thousands of jobs and stimulate U.S. manufacturing while directly addressing global climate change.

“Obama wanted to send a message to the country that we need to start investing in high-speed rail,” says LaHood, who was not aware of Solutionary Rail but has been a staunch proponent of high-speed trains. “If you look at cities all over America, they’re investing in their metro systems, in their bus systems, because a lot of these young people who are moving to D.C. or Chicago or L.A., frankly, they don’t want a car.”

But Republican governors such as Florida’s Rick Scott and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker rejected the money outright, and legislators resisted further budgeting for rail projects. “Because it was a part of the economic stimulus, Republicans didn’t like it. Because it was Obama’s idea to invest in rail, people didn’t like it,” LaHood says. “Our Achille’s heel in America is that our national government hasn’t invested in rail.” Tired of the bitter political divisions between Congress and the White House, LaHood resigned after one term.

Moyer understands the frustration of waiting on politicians. The Backbone Campaign seeks instead to effect change from the ground up through what Moyer calls a non-ideological coalition of unconventional allies—farmers, environmental activists, renewable energy developers, and labor experts. The idea to focus on rail emerged from ongoing grassroots efforts to resist coal trains and the development of the Pacific Northwest into a fossil fuel corridor to Asia.

Moyer knew next to nothing about railroads or the people who work on them, but he assembled a team of experts that includes a senior Amtrak engineer and a whistleblowing union member who, in 2013, sent Moyer a copy of a paper on railway modernization with a note: “Let’s see if you and your people can green this.”

The team spent three years considering the global context (the U.S. is way behind), studying the efficiency of electric locomotion (even with today’s low fuel prices, the per-mile cost of diesel energy is nearly twice that of an electric train), mapping renewable source availability (every state has something), examining the impact of long-haul trucking (60 percent of highway maintenance costs are due to heavy trucks), and meeting with economists to address the Herculean task of funding.

“Greening” trains was only the start. Moyer, whose Jesuit parents worked on Native reservations, was born and raised until age 12 on land belonging to the Yakama and Spokane tribes. He was exposed to racism and cultural genocide early on and recognized that, in America, railroads carry a two-faced cultural memory. The trains that connected the East Coast to the West and ushered in an age of industrialization for many also brought a wave of terror and misery for millions, as pioneers continued to colonize, decimating buffalo herds and altering the landscape forever.

Solutionary Rail could not move forward without acknowledging this, and at the proposal’s moral center is a commitment to a just transition—a shift to a sustainable economy that addresses the inequities and injustices currently borne by laborers and marginalized people. The rights of workers and Native people had to be part of the equation, Moyer says.

The team’s ultimate vision is national. They see electric trains zipping passengers between metropolises, picking up grain in rural towns, and delivering to coastal ports. The railways that already crisscross the country offer rights of way that, outfitted with power lines, would allow electricity generated by Iowa windmills not only to propel the trains, but also to power cities many miles away. Of course, all of this will require major upfront investment.

Illustration by J. Craig Thorpe from <em>Solutionary Rail</em>

Illustration by J. Craig Thorpe from Solutionary Rail

Single-track electrification costs an average of $2 million a mile. To demonstrate the feasibility of his national plan, Moyer proposes electrifying the Northern Corridor from Seattle to Chicago—4,400 miles in all—at a base cost of $11 billion. A separate analysis from the Great Northern Corridor Coalition in 2012 indicates that, by 2035, rail service could make up the cost in public benefits, but that still doesn’t resolve the conundrum of initial investment. Backbone’s solution is to couple private investment with a public entity that would issue tax-free bonds at low interest rates and oversee funding and construction.

Given the rail’s potential for American employment, manufacturing, and energy independence, it would seem that a case could be made to set aside a portion of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure request to break ground on solutionary rail. But in March, the administration released a budget proposal that called for significant cuts to long-distance Amtrak service. If the idea seemed like a long shot before, the odds under the new administration appear to have worsened.

LaHood, pointing to the president’s New York connections, expects Trump’s infrastructure vision to go beyond roads and bridges, but he notes that the clock is ticking. “A president in their first year has an opportunity to get two or three big things done and then their window of opportunity closes,” he says. “He’s talked a good game about infrastructure. If he follows through, Congress will follow his lead.”

Moyer is surprisingly unshaken by the election’s result. “The emphasis was already on the states, not the federal government,” he says, and whether Trump can be influenced is somewhat immaterial to the need for bottom-up organizing.

“The credibility of change agents largely depends on not just their capacity to articulate an oppositional stance on something that is wrong or evil or destructive; their moral authority and capacity to move society requires that they have a viable alternative, a proposition,” Moyer says confidently. Solutionary Rail is his proposition.

Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Stephen is a senior editor at YES! He writes about climate justice. .

People We Love

Fact Checkers

Alex Baumgart

Alex Baumgart

Keeping candidates accountable

Alex Baumgart knew the moment he learned about the Watergate scandal in the sixth grade that he would end up covering politics for a living. Baumgart, now 25, is the individual contributions researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent, nonpartisan organization.

During last year’s presidential election, he spent a lot of time keeping track of the financial contributions candidates received from a variety of groups, including finance and real estate, fossil fuels, and even from Hollywood. The organization’s copywriters used Baumgart’s data in articles published on the organization’s website,, which was used as a fact-checking source for those wanting clarity on where candidates got their money.

“It’s an accountability thing,” he says. “You want to know who is financially supporting candidates and how their support may influence candidates’ policies and regulations. It all comes down to transparency.”

Baumgart says his work carries a tremendous responsibility. Helping Americans gain access to factual and easy-to-read information about the role of money in politics and policy, he believes, strengthens the nation’s democracy.

Angie Drobnic Holan

Angie Drobnic Holan

Ranking degrees of accuracy

Angie Drobnic Holan has always been a political news junkie. When she was 11, she faithfully tuned in to The McLaughlin Group, a weekly public affairs TV program hosted by political commentator John McLaughlin.

Today Holan is pursuing a similar mission to that of the now-deceased McLaughlin, but she doesn’t provide commentary on politician’s statements—she fact-checks them.

In 2007, Holan, who had worked in journalism for nearly 15 years, helped launch PolitiFact, a fact-checking website run by editors from the Tampa Bay Times, an independent newspaper in Florida. At PolitiFact, Holan rates the accuracy of claims made by America’s elected officials, lobbyists, and interest groups.

Holan uses a variety of fact-checking tools: She asks the politicians themselves for their sources, and searches online news databases and archives. PolitiFact won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2008 presidential election and conducted a high-profile fact-checking effort during the drafting of the Affordable Care Act.

“We debunked a lot of rumors and misconceptions around that law,” Holan says.

Fact-checking is satisfying work, she says, because it informs democracy.

Gary Ruskin

Gary Ruskin

Taking leads from whispers to fact

Gary Ruskin is the co-founder and co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit food industry watchdog group, where he produces reports that reveal the harmful effects of chemicals used in the food system.

Ruskin says most of his investigations stem from leads given to him by food industry insiders and whistleblowers, sources with whom he has made connections over the past 30 years. Ruskin then tracks down official documents to fact-check these leads and publishes the documents on the organization’s website, where members of the public and media professionals can also use them as a fact-checking source.

In 2013, while director of the Center for Corporate Policy, Ruskin published Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations , a report detailing how some businesses spy on nonprofit groups they regard as potential threats. He says fact-checking information and tips from sources was a crucial part in publishing the report.

“I really had to put on my fact-checking hat and read documents line by line with a skeptical eye, because our work is only as good as our reputation,” Ruskin says. “So if we say things that aren’t true, then no one would listen to us.”


The Case for Truth Seeking (No Matter How Messy)

“Is Truth Dead?” Time Magazine’s April 3 cover story about Donald Trump, and the interview on which it’s based, doesn’t answer the question so much as make it clear what we’ve long known: The so-called leader of the so-called free world doesn’t think it’s a relevant question.

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, published by Spinifex Press. He can be reached at [email protected] or through his website,

First, an aside: I was never a fan of that description of U.S. presidents, in part because much of the rest of the free world often doesn’t want to follow our leader (for perfectly sensible reasons, such as a concern for international law, which the various “leaders of the free world” in my lifetime have ignored). But these days the moniker seems particularly ill-suited. We have a president better described as leader of the “free, one-time offer, while supplies last, call before midnight so you don’t forget, can you believe the quality at this price, an offer like this is a once-in-a-lifetime deal” world.

To infomercial hosts, carnival barkers, and other hustlers, questions about truth just don’t matter much. For them, freedom of expression is all about the hustle, not truth.

For the rest of us, truth is, of course, never alive nor dead. It’s something we struggle to see more clearly, to realize day to day, to make more real in our lives. And that’s always messy business. Truth is always on life support.

Understanding of the world is the product of a complicated interaction between our rational and emotional responses; some honest self-reflection is in order before accusing any specific people in any specific age of being post-truth or truth-impaired. In our blundering to find the truth, we are not purely rational computing machines, but complex organic entities. A bit of humility is useful, for all of us.

I suggest an antidote to the clown in charge of our current three-ring political circus: going back to basics with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, widely considered a foundational defense of truth-seeking free speech, published in 1859.

In the most-often quoted passage from the book, Mill makes the case for the collective search for the truth:

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner, if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation—those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity for exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”

But Mill is not naive about people’s desire for truth:

“It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either.”

And he reminds us that truth seeking comes with no guarantees of success:

“[I]ndeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed forever, it may be thrown back for centuries.”

History is certainly teeming, right before our eyes. Like Mill, we can be realistic about our truth seeking and keep right on seeking it, committed to maximal freedom for our collective effort. Truth matters and freedom of expression to seek the truth matters, even without guarantees.

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, published by Spinifex Press. He can be reached at [email protected] or through his website,

The Page That Counts

The Numbers That Define Our World

Estimated jobs lost among brick-and-mortar stores due to Amazon sales by the end of 2015 295,000 1

Number of U.S. workers Amazon employed at the end of 2015 146,000

Number of robots working in Amazon warehouses at the end of 201415,000 2

At the end of 201645,000

Number of items a warehouse worker is expected to retrieve in a 10-hour shift1,200

Pounds of carrying capacity of one Amazon Kiva robot700

Number of refugees admitted entry to the U.S. since 19753.25 million 3

Number of refugees convicted of attempting or committing terrorism in the U.S. between 1975 and 2015 20 4

Number of Americans who have been killed in terrorist attacks committed by refugees since 1975 3

Country of origin of attackers whose actions resulted in those three deaths Cuba

Border Patrol cameras currently monitoring the Mexican border and ports of entry8,000 5

Underground sensors 11,000

Miles of border fencing that already exist688.66

Cost per mile of border fence constructed in 2007 by the Army Corps of Engineers and National Guard$2.8 million

Cost per mile of fence constructed in 2008 by mostly private contractors$3.9 million

Estimated cost per mile for the border wall called for by President Trump$27 million7

Percentage of Earth’s oxygen provided by rainforests and other land plants 28 8

Percentage of Earth’s oxygen provided by ocean plants, including phytoplankton and kelp70

Average number of breaths a person takes in a day 23,040 9

Breaths for which phytoplankton Prochlorococcus provides the oxygen 1 in 5

Average diameter in inches of an American dinner plate in the 1960s 7 to 9 10

In 2010 11 to 12

Percentage of adults who finish everything on their plates92 11

Percentage of Americans who were overweight in 196246 12

In 201075

Total miles of rail lines in China118,850 13

Percentage of miles that are electrified 48

Total miles of rail lines in Russia 54,157

Percentage electrified46

Total miles of rail lines in Germany27,010

Percentage electrified46

Total miles of rail lines in the U.S.182,412

Percentage electrified<1

Complete citations at

1. Institute for Local Self-Reliance 2. Business Insider 3. The Atlantic 4. CATO Institute 5. ABC News 6. Ballotpedia 7. MIT Technology Review 8. National Geographic 9. Environmental Protection Agency 10. Journal of Physiology & Behavior 11. Cornell University Food & Brand Lab 12. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases 13. CIA World Factbook