Growing public concerns about air and water pollution, urban sprawl, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and the policies of government conservation agencies were among the leading causes of a new and vigorous environmental movement that emerged in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. One measure of the strength of this movement was the transformation of the Sierra Club – hitherto a California-based entity devoted to protecting the Sierra Nevada – into a national organization with a a comprehensive environmental agenda.
An Ohio Chapter and a Northeast Ohio Group, a subchapter that embraced Cleveland and the area to the south, emerged in the late 1960’s. By 1972 there were enough members in the Akron area to launch a separate group there. Spearheaded by Walter Sheppe, a biology professor at the University of Akron, the Portage Trail Group (PTG) first met in December at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Fairlawn. In 1973 the national Sierra Club officially recognized PTG as a unit of the Ohio Chapter, embracing eight counties south of Cuyahoga County. Half or more of the members, who numbered 2000 by 1990, have always lived in the Akron area.
PTG soon became active in a number of local environmental causes and one larger, regional activity. It spurred the city of Akron to create the Cascade Valley park along the Cuyahoga River at the city’s northern edge and in 1982 actually planned and cleared the three mile Chuckery Trail. It organized a series of “Spring Shows,” featuring prominent outside speakers, to raise money for the Ohio Chapter lobbying effort. The well-known photojournalist Galen Rowell was the featured speaker in 1982 and 1986. In the meantime, local activists John Rodgers and Lou Brasaemle gave talks on the founding of the Sierra Club as part of a growing public education program. A long running Canoe School, conducted in conjunction with the Northeast Group, promoted outdoor recreation.
The most important cause of those years, however, was the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. Sierra Club members were leading supporters of Rep. John F. Seiberling’s proposals to create a national park in the Cuyahoga Valley, leading hikes, for example, to familiarize local residents with the Valley’s resources. After Congress acted in 1974, they worked with park administrators to sustain public support, develop the Valley’s recreational potential, and oppose right-wing activists who sought to discredit and/or abolish the park during the Reagan years. Beginning in 1984, Tom Fritsch organized periodic cleanups in the park. Removing trash, fencing, and other evidence of misuse of the land, the cleanups continued for nearly a decade.
In 1988, a PTG committee headed by Elena Weldon, nominated John Seiberling for the John Muir Award, the national Sierra Club’s highest honor, and organized a local gala in his honor after he received the award. This was the first step toward a more permanent form of recognition: a scholarship fund at the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center (part of the CVNRA) in the names of Seiberling and his wife Betty, to assist inner city children unable to pay the cost of participating in the Center’s programs. Beginning in 1999, PTG has made the scholarhip fund an important part of its fundraising efforts. With support from Seiberling friends as well as PTG, the John and Betty Sieberling Scholarship Fund has grown rapidly and is an important feature of the Center’s operations.
Despite its large membership and community presence, PTG remained financially dependent on dues remissions from the national Sierra Club until the mid-1990’s. Several efforts to find a substitute for the now discontinued Spring Shows were disappointing. Finally, in 1997, the idea of an annual Earth Day dinner, with auction items and an award to a prominent local environmental champion, proved successful . A larger treasury made possible a series of initiatives in the following years that required relatively large expenditures.
Lou Brasaemle served as Chair of the Executive Committee through most of the 1980’s and 1990’s, also acting as representative to the Ohio Chapter for most of that period. Dan Nelson served as Chair for several years in the early 1990’s and for a number of years after 2000. Other long-serving activists included Rodgers, Weldon, Fritsch, Peg Bobel, Joan Brasaemle, Elaine and Harold Marsh, and Doug and Norma Neuman. From the mid-1990’s a new group, including Earl Clausson, Neal Broida, and Laurel Gress, and Paul Feezel, became more involved.
In the last decade, PTG has been particularly active in three areas. First has been support for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (renamed in 2000) and the Environmental Education Center in particular. Second has been opposition to the anti-environmental forces in Congress and the Ohio legislature and to the policies of the George W. Bush administration. In 2004 and 2008 PTG strongly supported the election of pro-environmental Democrats to Congress and the White House. Third was a new emphasis on global warming, alternative energy, and energy efficiency. PTG played a central role in the “Step It Up” campaign of 2007 and initiated the “LightsOutAkron” and “LightsOutOhio” campaigns of 2008-10. With greater resources PTG made grants to local non-profit groups and schools to finance energy efficiency projects.