Campers descend from hills to push environmentalism

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Allison Eisendrath hadn't given too much thought to trees before this summer. Now the 15-year-old San Franciscan talks like a seasoned environmentalist.

"The forests are a big portion of our life because they hold clean water, clean air, abundant fish," she said. "If we cut our forests down, all that will be diminished."

As part of Camp Swig/Newman's Hevrah program, Eisendrath has spent the last several weeks learning about deforestation, recycling and other issues related to environmental protection and awareness. Thursday of last week, she and other Hevrah campers ventured from their Santa Rosa campsite into San Francisco for a day of activism.

Specifically, the group of 25 lobbied for the passage of "The Act to Save America's Forests of 1999," a bill introduced in the House to save the country's rapidly dwindling forests.

The campers met with representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to express their support for the bill and urge the two California Democrats to vote for it. They also spoke with an official from Mayor Willie Brown's office to learn how the city copes with environmental issues.

Standing on the steps of City Hall in the misty fog, they performed a piece of guerrilla theater aimed at grabbing attention for their cause.

With the steady beat of a drum as background, they held signs reading "Save the Trees" and "If You Kill the Forest, You Kill Us." Their "Stop Clear-Cutting" banners showed forests filled only with thick stumps of trees.

Holding a fake microphone fashioned from cardboard, Daniel Bear, a 14-year-old from Reno, posed as a newscaster filing a report. He talked about clear-cutting, the process of cutting down swaths of trees at a time, leaving the land barren.

"Clear-cutting destroys two football fields of forests every second," he announced to the occasional curious passerby. "When trees are cut down, the soil is no longer stable. Landslides often occur, sending tons of earth in lakes and rivers."

"The Act to Save America's Forests," calls for banning clear-cutting, with some environmentally sound logging allowed to continue. The act also prohibits logging in ecologically sensitive areas and requires native species to be protected and restored on federal forestlands.

Campers approached strangers with petitions and handed out information on the act — printed on small squares of paper to conserve supplies.

Alli Rothenberg, a 15-year-old camper from Monterey, said she previously had no idea how much of America's forests have disappeared. "I learned 96 percent of America's forests were cut down. I didn't know it was that much."

Each summer, Hevrah (Hebrew for "society") campers devote themselves to a cause. Past issues have included AIDS, the disabled and Mideast peace. Each year, the program aims to link an issue to Judaism's focus on social justice.

After last week's City Hall demonstration, the group moved on to the AIDS Grove at Golden Gate Park, where campers staged a creative service of poems and prayers relating environmentalism to Judaism.

In preparing for the social action day, the group found the woodsy Santa Rosa hills provided a perfect spot for pondering the environment. "There were times when we sat in nature for hours at a time," said counselor Zachary Rosenberg.

The Hevrah campers, ages 13 to 15, took it upon themselves to educate other campers on "green issues." The camp began to recycle for the first time this year. Some Hevrah campers say they will continue to do so when they go home.

"I'm really going to try hard to recycle," said Rachel Becker, 15, of Alamo. "When I came to camp, it opened up my eyes."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.