In a massive grassroots campaign to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, thousands of citizen lobbyists descended upon the U.S. Capitol yesterday to protest drilling plans and lobby Congress before a pivotal vote this fall. The Arctic Refuge Action Day events were coordinated by a number of major environmental groups, grassroots organizers, and volunteer “bus captains” who drove protestors from as far as Oregon and Alaska to Washington, D.C.

Grist was lucky enough to catch up with one such vanful: Brad and Alicia Black and their two tot-sized greens.

Brad and Alicia, both teachers, dropped everything to begin their journey from St. Louis, Mo., to D.C. 10 weeks ago. Piloting an Arctic Refuge Action logo-emblazoned van, they made pit stops throughout the Midwest to appear at zoos, bicycle races, farmers’ markets, parades, concerts, and other public events to raise awareness about the upcoming rally and the issues at stake. They also maintained a blog — along with the drivers of a rally van from the Northeast — detailing their adventures throughout the trip.

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Brad describes the range of people they spoke to on their trip across the country:

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At all the outreach events, my wife and I dispelled many myths, educating farmers, teachers, musicians, engineers, and people of just about every other profession out there. Many people thought this issue had already been decided in the energy bill and that drilling was certain. Others believed there was a lot of oil in the Refuge, but we pointed them to U.S. Geological Survey information revealing that there is an insignificant amount of oil there. It was nice to hear from so many folks who had been following the news and were upset by the greediness of oil companies and politicians who want to see the Refuge drilled. Many also knew that gas prices would not come down if we do drill. I asked a number of citizens how high they thought gas prices would have to get before Americans would demand our government give bigger incentives to renewable energy companies. The general response was $5 a gallon.

For Brad and Alicia, the most inspiring parts of the rally weren’t the speeches by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) or enviro big-wig Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., but rather the collection of 6,000-some citizens making their voices heard.

Grassroots action has always been the cornerstone of our democracy. Attending the Arctic Refuge Action Rally on the grounds of the Capitol was to see democracy in action. Some 6,000 people exercised their First Amendment rights. Kids on field trips came and drew pictures of what the Refuge meant to them. Hundreds wrote postcards. The pieces of artwork and postcards will be sent to the people’s elected representatives. It is with this type of citizen action that Congress can hear loud and clear the collective voice of the people. It is “we the people” who breathe life into the government, and this campaign has reminded us of that.

A budget-reconciliation bill up for a vote this fall could thwart the drilling plans. Though many greens are skeptical about the chances of that happening, Brad and Alicia remain hopeful — “When our kids get older, we hope to take a trip to the untouched Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to see its majestic beauty.”

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