By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
Want more top stories? Sign up here for daily or weekly newsletters with our top news.
“It felt great to finally be a part of the democratic process that we’ve learned about for so many years. It really felt like we made a difference,” said student John Reid after meeting with U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Seattle, and Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, on Tuesday.
Added Students for Sustainability club President Ewan Shortess: “It was amazing to meet in person with both of our U.S. senators within two hours.”
Eleven of the students traveled to the nation’s capital with three chaperones in a cross-country trip using ground transportation that was meant to call attention to global warming and motivate legislators to take action.
The 12th, Eamonn Clarke, flew to D.C. after appearing in the Washington State Mock Trial Finals.
Those who made the cross-country trip learned a few things on the way, according to chaperone Laura Tucker — most significantly that it is nearly impossible to get a good night’s sleep in a train’s coach seat.
They arrived in the nation’s capital Monday evening “pretty french-fried,” according to Tucker, but managed to get a good night’s sleep at a youth hostel before their first day of meetings.
The day began “taking cold community showers with Danish kids,” according to an email from student Harry Doyle, followed by a lesson on lobbying from Emily Wirzba, a member of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, during which time they practiced with a mock meeting with a senator.
The group went to Cantwell’s office for the scheduled meeting, but the senator was on the congressional floor, so they traveled through the connecting tunnels to the U.S. Capitol, “where our water bottles were emptied and cellphones swabbed for explosives,” Doyle said.
The students discussed with Cantwell and later Murray such issues as climate change, ocean acidification and hydraulic fracturing, which is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside.
“[Cantwell] told us she was impressed with our group’s motivation to voice our opinions on the topics that matter most to us,” Doyle said.
“It felt surreal to come all this way and finally take an active role in our representative democracy,” said student Daniel Charlton.
“As we articulated our points, it seemed that both Sen. Cantwell and Sen. Murray listened intently, and agreed to promote sustainable change.”
On Wednesday, the students met with 6th Congressional District Rep. Derek Kilmer — a Democrat from Gig Harbor whose district includes the North Olympic Peninsula — as well as other legislative staff members.
Throughout the trip, the students have managed some sightseeing sojourns and Tuesday “played frisbee on the National Mall until dark,” Doyle said.
Meetings with legislative staff members are on today’s agenda along with a meeting with the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.
They will tour the East Wing of the White House on Friday before boarding the train for the trip home at 4 p.m. The students are due to arrive in Port Townsend on Monday.
A meeting with President Barack Obama is not completely out of the question, Tucker said, but the possibility is slim.
Tucker said the students spent the train trip fine-tuning what they expect to say during their meetings and polishing an “elevator speech” that encapsulates the issue of climate change and what action legislators can take.
They also got a close-up look at contrasting aspects of the country, from views of Montana’s Glacier National Park to fields of fire in the Dakotas, where fracking takes place.
The trip didn’t meet the students’ expectations, as they were hoping for larger crowds to come out to greet them at each stop, Tucker said.
“The media blitz they were hoping for did not happen,” Tucker said.
“They found out that people don’t respond to emails and they should have called them directly to try to get more press and that conservative legislators won’t return their calls at all.”
Tucker said the students are getting a lot of help from environmental experts and have been educated about climate change and lobbying so they can make effective presentations.
The club’s activities caught the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency’s office in Washington state.
“The Students for Sustainability in Port Townsend have achieved some very impressive measurable results for the environment due to their hard work and dedication,” said Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for EPA Region 10, in a statement.
“It makes me proud to see how this student-run organization has seized opportunities to make a difference at their school.
“These recycling and waste-reduction efforts have helped improve the school’s bottom line, and they have also made it cool to take community action for the environment,” McLerran said.
Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.