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for people who care about the West

It's true: You can change the world

  You hear this argument from drillers, miners and loggers nowadays: For every tree we don't cut here, a forest falls in Siberia. For every proposed regulated mine we don't dig in the West, a river system is poisoned in China. For every oil or gas well we don't permit here, a rainforest in Africa is turned into an industrial zone.

We all should be rightfully concerned. The not-in-my-backyard syndrome will never solve any problems unless everyone is minding their own backyard. Unfortunately, many less-democratic countries don't allow their citizens to meddle in state business, a privilege we sometimes take for granted in our country.

So how should we react to this defeatist argument? Not by backing down, but by exporting the American environmental movement. It requires some work, but it's not impossible. And the rewards can be vastly satisfying.

Just ask Eugene Debs Bernofsky, a U.S. Postal Service worker in Missoula, Mont. Bernofsky, 61, grew up in New York's Coney Island and was named after union organizer Eugene Debs, a brash defender of human rights.

Bernofky developed a similar sense of justice and combined it with innovation. In the 1960s, he organized one of the first hippie communes "- Drop City near Trinidad, Colo. Photos of the brightly colored geodesic domes made of car tops graced the pages of Time magazine.

Bernofsky started his family and film career at the commune, producing and directing 16 mm black-and-white underground films that won an almost a cult following. After leaving the commune, he attended the University of Kansas, later becoming a postman to support his growing family. When he transferred to an opening at the Missoula post office, Bernofsky became interested in wildlife films, thanks to Chuck Jonkel, founder of the International Wildlife Film Festival. But Bernofsky began making films that focused on mining issues.

He was the first to bring public attention to the proposed Noranda gold mine on the border of Yellowstone National Park. Bernofsky distributed the film, "Undermining Yellowstone," to media across the nation free of charge, and over the years he produced a dozen more films exposing the transgressions of mining companies.

In 1998, Bernofsky traveled to Georgia to make an award-winning film, "Trembling Waters," about a proposed DuPont titanium mine on the border of the Okeefenokee Swamp. A year later, he received an e-mail from a citizen of Nairobi,Kenya, describing how the Digo and Kamba people were being run off their homeland by a Canadian mining firm, Tiomin of Toronto, that wanted to dredge for titanium.

The Kenyan asked Bernofsky to inform the world. Still a full-time postal worker, Bernofsky raised barely enough cash to fly himself and videographers Ken Furrow and Jim Kinsey to Kenya. The three produced the innovative film "Dongo Kundu11," in which native Kenyans tell their story without the aid of a narrator. Bernofsky printed up 3,000 copies of the film and distributed them across Canada, and Kenya.

As time passed, opposition to the mine intensified in both countries. Two years later, the Kenyan Supreme Court negated the mining permit. As things stand today, it looks as if the Digo and Kamba people will be allowed to remain on their homeland.

Bernofsky never made a penny from his environmental work, yet he's champing at the bit to go back to Africa. He describes the country as "virgin territory" for environmentalists. "There's so much to do over there," he says. Bernofsky plans to retire soon from the post office and devote the rest of his life to challenging corporations who ignore the social and environmental impacts of mining, logging and drilling.

If he could raise enough money, he says, he would jump on a plane tomorrow and head to Tanzania. There, 300,000 small-scale miners and their families have been evicted from the richest body of gold ore in East Africa by theTanzanian government and Canadian-owned Kahama Mining Corporation Ltd.

Bernofsky is no green Indiana Jones. With a bird\'s nest of hair surrounding the bald spot on his head, and chunky cheeks, he looks like the average Joe you'd find behind any Post Office counter. But Bernofsky epitomizes the spirit of those early idealists who often sacrificed their own time and resources to try to protect the land and communities .

No one likes to work for nothing, not even idealists, but I hope that people find inspiration in Bernofsky's story. As he proves, it just takes a little cash and a lot of enthusiasm and willpower to change the world.

Mark Matthews is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].