The Young Conservationist

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Among the usual suspects addressing a crowd of 1500 environmental activists at last month's Arctic Refuge Action Day, there was a new face with a stump speech: 12-year-old Savannah Rose Walters.

It was the sixth-grader's second lobbying trip to Washington this year. With the dome of the Capitol building rising above her, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Hillary Clinton and John Kerry nearby, Walters stood on the West Lawn and explained why she opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: "The people who want to drill in the Refuge talk about all these fancy tools and technology they can use to get a little oil ten years from now," she said, in a louder, stronger voice than when she delivered the same speech to congressmen in the spring. (Before she spoke, she asked her Mom if addressing a big crowd was a little like cheerleading. They decided it was.) "I have a tool that costs about ninety-nine cents that will save us four million gallons of gas a day, starting today. A tire gauge." The crowd cheered.

When Walters was nine years old, she founded Pump 'em Up, a campaign encouraging the drivers of the world's estimated 600 million cars to properly inflate their vehicle's tires and improve their car's efficiency by up to 3 per cent, or, for U.S. drivers, 9 cents per gallon.

After writing a report on the gray wolf and studying the Arctic in second grade, Walters was distressed to learn in 2001 of the Bush administration's plans to drill in ANWR. Her activism began with a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney (she says it was never answered), and took off when her mother happened to see a photo exhibit about the Arctic, and put her daughter in touch with the photographer, Lenny Kolm, who has worked with the Alaska Wilderness League for 13 years hosting slide shows. He told Walters about a 1995 Department of Energy report that under-inflated tires wasted four million gallons of gas every day. (The department has not updated the report, but says four million gallons is still a reasonable estimate.) She asked, with the withering logic of a child, "Why don't they just pump them up?" He encouraged her to ask the public that very question.

Many children would have gone back to their computer games. Walters went to Goodyear, and asked for free tire gauges. With 1,000 in hand, she and her Brownie group from Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, handed out flyers and gauges at the parking lot of their local commuter rail station.

"It was fun, because we got to put balloons on cars," says Walters, who has since moved with her family to Florida. "A lot of people were like, 'Wow, are you serious, we waste four million gallons of gas every day?' And they said they'd pump their tires up. Only, like, one or two people just drove away and the balloons fell off."

Since that first campaign, in 2002, Walters has launched a website and personally handed out another 4,000 donated tire gauges, working at times with the Sierra Club and Alaska Wilderness League. Pump 'em Up events have been held in at least 11 states, and the website has a downloadable television public service announcement as well as worksheets for kids to prove to parents how much money correct inflation will save them, both on gas and the replacement cost of tires, which can wear out about 15,000 miles early if under-inflated.

Although drilling in ANWR would have a larger impact than Walters' conservation campaign—the U.S. Geological Service believes that the total amount of economically recoverable oil in ANWR is 3.2 billion barrels, or 134 billion gallons—, it's a start toward fuel-consumption savings that could dwarf the capacity of the Arctic range. Increasing the efficiency of U.S. cars, SUVs and light trucks by four miles per gallon, for example, is said to be equivalent to developing an oil field 10 times the size of ANWR—without the negative environmental impact.

Walters believes that Americans need to do everything they can to reduce their own consumption and leave the Arctic "I hope someday to see this beautiful place," she said in her speech last month. "And I hope [politicians] check their own tires before they ruin the wilderness I haven't had a chance to see."

Despite her polished performance in front of a microphone, Walters is still very much a 12-year-old girl. Asked about her future aspirations, she says she hopes one day to be an Olympic horsewoman. "But you have to have a lot of money for that," she says. "So I have to either become a famous singer or actress or something, or marry rich."

Although she eventually adds that her life goals are also to save the Arctic and stop global warming, Walters takes her lobbying only so far. On first trip to Washington, last spring, she tried unsuccessfully to get a meeting with Florida Senator Mel Martinez, her mother says. Before this trip, Savannah said she was considering sitting outside Martinez's offices until he gave her an audience—but later decided that she didn't have time. She did, however, manage to squeeze in outings to the National Zoo and the International Spy Museum. Walters may have a stump speech, but there's still a healthy dose of kid in this activist.