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Forward thinker
Forward thinker

Missoula woman elected president of Sierra Club

If Jennifer Ferenstein, the Missoula woman just elected national president of the Sierra Club, has learned one thing during her 10 years in Montana, it is that all things are truly "hitched together."

Now she intends to invoke that lesson - enunciated first by conservationist John Muir - all across the country. At hog farms in Iowa. In national forests in the Rocky Mountain West. In congressional offices and hearing rooms.

"Wherever I can lend my support and position to local or national issues," Ferenstein said Wednesday. "I'm going to be on the road a fair amount of the time."

On June 1, Ferenstein will leave her job as an organizer for the Montana Environmental Information Center and begin her term - full time - as the Sierra Club's president. She's a little surprised by her election, first by the group's 660,000 members to its governing board, then by the board to its presidency.

"I really do come from the local grass roots," she said. "I've seen how things work on the local level. Now I'm trying to think big, without losing that grass-roots focus. But I know that if you want to solve the big issues, you have to think big. I know a lot will play out on the national level in the next year."

But Ferenstein said she does not intend to spend her one-year term constantly responding to the initiatives of the Bush administration's first year.

"The most important thing to me is that the Sierra Club not be anti-everything," she said. "We want to be proactive. We want to offer alternatives and choices to the American public. When we respond to the Bush administration, we will respond with alternatives of our own."

A Westerner by upbringing, Ferenstein spent most of her summers on her grandparents' cattle ranch in central Oregon. She moved to Missoula in 1991, and has worked as an environmental activist and organizer since. She is 36.

In recent years, the Sierra Club has focused much of its national activism on four goals: to protect water quality by stopping confined animal-feeding operations, to end commercial logging on the national forests, to promote smart growth and to protect roadless wildlands.

"I want to focus on what we stand for, though, not what we are against," Ferenstein said. "The end-commercial-logging campaign, for example, has a jobs component that puts people to work and funds alternatives to wood products. That's what I want to talk about - where we want to go in the future.

"I think Americans are tired of rehashing the past," she said. "We know that dirty coal and dangerous nuclear power are not the answers to our energy needs. I want to look forward. Renewable clean energy exists and advances in technology make increased efficiency viable. It's our choice to make. The legacy we leave depends on our ability to choose wisely."

In northcentral Montana, for example, Ferenstein hopes to encourage consideration of wind power as energy - as that region has been identified nationally as having the greatest potential for wind-energy development.

"Those kind of local projects are what the Sierra Club has always been best at," she said. "We are a large national organization, but we have the local structure too."

The club has 65 chapters nationwide.

Ferenstein has been on the group's all-volunteer national board since 1997 and chairs its Northern Rockies Task Force. This will be her first time, though, looking at environmental issues all across the country.

"I'm still a volunteer," she said, "but now I'll have a chance to look at that big, big picture. We really do have our finger on the pulse of the public and all the different issues nationwide. We know how things are hitched together."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com.

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