Northern Kentucky Sierra Club: Explore, enjoy, and protect nature

This story originally appeared in the March 9, 2024 edition of the LINK Reader. To get stories like this first, subscribe here.

A grassroots environmental organization has helped Northern Kentucky communities with projects ranging from testing air quality to getting folks out in nature.

Stemming from the national organization that started in the 1890s, the Northern Kentucky Sierra Club supports both lighthearted aspects, like nature exploration, but also more serious efforts for environmental protection. 

“Sierra Club’s historic motto is ‘Explore, Enjoy and Protect,’ whether it’s the earth or our environment,” said John Robbins, the local group’s chair. “So I consider it a very balanced environmental group, both interested in learning, fun and environmental protection or preservation.”

The Sierra Club in its earliest days coined the term “outings” to bring people from the city to the outdoors to understand better why they should be concerned about preserving and protecting nature. At the time, Robbins said, the concern was lumber companies cutting down old forests. 

The name “Sierra Club” is derived from the Sierra Mountains, where the club led early outings from Oakland, California, into the old forests of the Sierra Mountains on land that’s now part of Yosemite National Park. The outings back then looked similar to today’s club outings, with activities like blazing trails and building camping areas.

“These early explorers created some of the original trails in Yosemite, and later the Sierra Club got Yosemite declared a California state park, then later got President Theodore Roosevelt to declare it a national park,” Robbins said. “Those declarations preserved the forest.” 

The national club is broken down into state chapters and then into local groups, such as the NKY’s. The local group covers 12 counties with roughly 640 members, mainly from Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties.

Like the early members of the Sierra Club, the NKY group has fun with its outings, but they also get involved in what they call campaigns.

“They’re not just a hiking group, although they do that, but they’re really interested in doing some backbreaking hard work and correcting things that are not exactly right,” Newport Commissioner Ken Rechtin said. “I really like the group. I like their energy.

“This is also a volunteer effort,” he said. “None of these folks get any monetary benefit from it. All of them are doing it for the betterment of the community and betterment of the environment, and that’s really a big part of it.”

One local campaign the chapter has worked on is placing sensors in Newport to test air quality around River Metals Recycling, also known locally as RMR. Preston Knibbe, the chapter’s chair of membership and communications, is a co-lead in the project with another member of the executive committee, Andrea Ankrum.

Knibbe said the campaign is one way he was able to get more involved in local environmental issues. As a Newport resident, he said he didn’t know then that his desire to get more involved locally would lead to his city’s own backyard. “This is a very tangible way to get more involved to help, you know, not just locally but like literally where I live.”

The Sierra Club set up PurpleAir sensors, which measure fine airborne particulate matter – such as organic chemicals, heavy metals or dust – known as PM 2.5 because the particles measure 2.5 micrometers or smaller. Results will be shared with the Kentucky Energy and Environmental Cabinet’s Division for Air Quality to determine RMR’s compliance with the Clean Air Act and air quality permits.

The Clean Air Act, enacted in 1963, is intended to reduce and control air pollution nationwide.

The Northern Kentucky Sierra Club is leading the effort in collaboration with Newport residents and the Environmental Protection Agency Division 4, which serves Kentucky. 

Robbins said people look to the Sierra Club for help because they are a big name, though local chapters don’t have the money or resources to help as the national group might. 

“They’ve been excellent,” Newport’s Rechtin said. “I mean, when they came into this issue, they really created a lot of energy behind the problems like air quality, water quality and soil quality. I think they have energy, youthfulness, knowledge and expertise.”

Ankrum and Knibbe are in charge of installing the sensors and collecting the data daily.

“I’ve been coordinating with residential homeowners that have volunteered to host sensors and local businesses and things like that to set up a time so I can stop by to evaluate their site and install the sensors,” Knibbe said.

The project will be assessed at six months to determine if enough data has been compiled to meet the objectives. They will also be sending the Environmental Protection Agency and the state data on a routine basis so they can see what progress they’re making.

“I’m in the energy side of this; we have some people in the Sierra Club that are really better with water, and some people are good with air,” Robbins said. “We have experts who know a lot about legislation, but some people are more into the political side. What I really enjoyed about the Sierra Club is the balance compared to other groups.”

Aside from the air quality study, the NKY Sierra Club has supported Newport residents who backed litigation between the city and RMR for noise violations caused by explosions at the facility. Rechtin said Robbins and other members repeatedly show up to court hearings.

“They have shown up to many of the hearings and those types of things, and (they) are just a fantastic group to work with,” Rechtin said. “I think their continued efforts are going to be what helps resolve this issue.”

Robbins said many people involved in the group are also interested in the Licking River because it flows through the heart of the group’s territory. It covers a triangle from the Covington-Newport area to the southwest corner of Carrollton to the southeast corner of Maysville.

Come spring or summer, Robbins said the chapter is considering getting people out on the Licking River and taking samples below RMR to continue efforts through water pollution. 

If you have a problem you’d like the group to look into, contact the NKY Sierra Club at northern.ky.sierra.club@gmail.com or show up to a meeting. A member who lives in Independence got Robbins involved last year after she found out that a nearby park was using a toxic herbicide that was making her sick and causing her plants to die. 

Robbins said the member was able to go to the mayor and ask him to prohibit the use of that herbicide, and then she shared her story at an NKY Sierra Club meeting.

“This is the kind of thing that the Sierra Club does – one of our members calls and says, ‘Hey, we’re having trouble with this or that in the environment.’ It gives us a way to band together,” Robbins said. “The advantage is numbers count. If you can take a group of 20 or 50 or 60 or 600 and put them under the banner of something called the Sierra Club, that has more (impact) than just a group of citizens stomping their feet on the pavement.”

Robbins has been with the Sierra Club since the 1980s. As chair, Robbins wears many hats: He writes the meeting programs, finds speakers and coordinates the meetings. He is also an outing chair and has led hikes for the club since 2003.

One of the things that the NKY Sierra Club has done over the years, mirroring its predecessors, is blaze trails. They put in two trails at Big Bone Lick State Park in Boone County from 2003 to 2006.

In 2016, Robbins said Kenton County bought roughly 200 acres of land in Morning View and wanted to put trails in, but officials said they didn’t have the money for it.

“I was at that meeting, and I raised my hand and said, ‘I’ll lead the effort, and I’ll get the Northern Kentucky Sierra Club to supply the volunteers, and we’ll put them in.’ And we did,” Robbins said. “Now there are trails up and down hills, a few 100 feet.”

Robbins said that effort by the NKY Sierra Club was completed around 2020.

On more casual outings, club members will go on hikes, bike hikes or paddling in a canoe or kayak in different areas of the region.

“We’re environmentalists; we stop and look at things and talk about nature and pollution, and if we see litter, we pick it up,” Robbins said. “I think the Sierra Club really reaches more people by being more down to earth. We offer programs where people can have fun.”

The club requires first aid and CPR training to be an outing leader. Robbins said that, if you want to take a bunch of people out where there is no cell service, and someone has a heart attack or breaks a leg, you have to be prepared for that.

“Our members are older, and so we have to be more responsible than some of the other groups,” Robbins said.

With most of the NKY Sierra Club members being from an older generation, a unique aspect of Knibbe’s involvement in the executive committee is that he’s just in his mid-20s.

“You point out how unusual it is for a young person like Preston to be on the committee,” Robbins said. “Well, most members don’t even vote (for the club’s leadership roles). When I was a young man – I’m 69 now and will be 70 later this year – when I was in my 20s, I was getting married, buying a house, trying to go to school, doing all these things. I wasn’t thinking about any kind of leadership board.”

Knibbe’s role is more technology-leaning and mainly deals with sending out emails and maintaining the chapter’s website. “There was an open position, and it was a way to get more involved at the leadership level,” Knibbe said.

Robbins Knibbe may be the youngest executive committee member in the state.

“I don’t know this, but I’ve said this to the chair of the Kentucky Chapter; I said, ‘Is Preston the youngest in the state of all the groups’ – there are six other groups,” Robbins said. “‘Is he the youngest on any of the boards?’ And I didn’t get an answer, but I was bragging. I said, ‘We got a 20-something year old.’”

Knibbe said he joined the NKY Sierra Club about two years ago because he is an outdoor enthusiast who wanted to get more involved in local environmental issues.  

“First and foremost, I’m a climber and a hiker, and I enjoy getting to experience the outdoors,” he said. “I’ve always been a person who paid lip service to do better with the environment and things like that. I always had a drive or desire to help in some way, but I didn’t know how to start outside of recycling and things like that. It was kind of an unknown to me.”

Knibbe said he first heard the Sierra Club name through an uncle involved in a Utah chapter. He decided to test the waters by attending some trail outings and meetings.

“I thought, this seems like a great way to get more involved and definitely can leverage some of the more knowledgeable people within the group to better my knowledge of what can be done outside of the basics,” he said.

Knibbe said looking locally is a good starting point for anyone looking to get involved in issues that don’t seem to have a local solution. 

“I think, for young people, our generation, you may see things on social media that aggravate you and inspire you to act in some way, but you don’t really know how to get involved,” Knibbe said. “The local level, I think, is a really easy entry point. Not only because you can kind of actively see the changes that you’re hoping for, but it also just blurs that barrier to entry.”

FInd more information on how to join the NKY Sierra Club at www.sierraclub.org. 

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