I grew up in a family that hunted and fished and valued the natural world. My father was an amateur naturalist and passed those tendencies on to us kids. As an attorney, he had a close relationship with many of his clients who were ranchers and farmers, and he shared with us what he understood about the management and stewardship of the land.
In college as a civil engineer, I studied the evolving national environmental attitudes and laws, then for most of my career I rode wave after wave of environmental regulation. My jobs allowed me to see first-hand the need for strict environmental controls and the complexities of implementing them. For the first twenty years of my career, I felt that the goals of the “environmental activists”, industry and government were aligned, even if their methods diverged. Over the last twenty, however, that fragile commonality has fallen apart.
I’m not pretending that the relationships were without contention back then, but it seemed to me that most of the differences were about degree or implementation. We didn’t argue about whether clean water was a good idea, but about how clean and how and when to achieve that. Maybe the issues then were more clear-cut: clean water and air = good; dirty water and air = bad. So, where did the focus shift? I can only relate a few of my own observations.
The siting of a WWII nuclear weapons plant near our community was extremely controversial, and the sloppy environmental and safety practices of the Cold War fueled the community groups formed to fight against it. While the practices improved some over time, community attitudes degraded as new transparency revealed more and more of the past sins. Opposition was based on both practical (contamination) and moral (nuclear war is evil) grounds.
Ultimately, with the end of the Cold War, community activism won out and the site was closed and clean up began. Employment surged, since cleanup created at least twice the number of jobs and opened the job market to a wider variety of local skills. Involved communities, companies and workers all benefited, but some activists could not celebrate their victory. Too much of their identity had been invested in the fight against nuclear weapons, and no other cause could rally the attention, the involvement and the funding. The local activist infrastructure was in place and kept dieseling on, long after the battle had been won.
A celebration was never held to commemorate the victory; the winners couldn’t even honor their own success.
In another community, a uranium mill started up in the 1950’s and in spite of some attempts to improve operating practices, created a legacy of contamination. Local community members became actively involved in opposing the mill’s sloppy practices and demanded greater regulation of the facility. The community efforts were effective, and fixes for operational improvements and eliminating legacy contamination were put in place. Offsite threats were contained, and plans for mill refurbishment and clean up were developed with community involvement. Finally, market conditions and the growing public and regulatory scrutiny caused the company to close the mill.
This success attracted national attention, and national interests took the opportunity to become involved. However, in this process, the local interests shifted to more fully address national interests and some of the local people accepted this shift in focus at the cost of swift closure of the site. Well-developed ongoing plans for clean up were postponed, work on existing problems was paused, and the momentum for working with the community to achieve clean up was lost. Meanwhile, some local activists reveled in the statewide and national attention they were gaining, misinformation and personal attacks intensified and became more extreme, and the mysteriously-funded attorneys clogged the system with unproductive legal and regulatory actions.
Rather than celebrating their success — which they would have been doing if the schedule had proceeded unhampered — the local community is strangling in an attack mentality and losing ground in addressing the site problems. While adding to the national activists’ interests and pocketbooks, the local community’s goals are lost in rancor and the legal and regulatory morass. The winners are not the community, but the secretly-funded attorneys and the national interests they represent.
The same national forces decided to intervene in a new uranium mill proposed in the middle of a historic uranium mining district. Opposition came not from the local community that supported the proposed mill, but from a Telluride-based organization, over sixty miles away, using the same attorneys and secret funding as for Canon City. Wildly distorted information was used in opposing the mill and local support dismissed as ignorant.
The primary issues for the local residents were the need for local employment, transportation improvements, family cohesiveness, education opportunities, and expanded medical and other local services. Mining and milling was historically a significant part of the community’s well-being, and the impacts were fully understood by local residents. They resented the interference by outsiders with no stake in or experience with the project.
Ironically, the external activists used the same consultants that were involved in a startling case in Ecuador. In a pollution case there, US-based activists initially won in court, resulting in significant penalties for the offending companies. However, it was learned that the activists intentionally conspired to misrepresent data related to human and environmental harm. When discovered, the conspiracy resulted in criminal charges against the activists, and elimination of the ‘favorable’ rulings. The lawyers and consultants who had conspired with the activists were penalized. In the public eye, the criminal actions of the activists far overshadowed the actual pollution concerns and their underhanded behavior undermined the progress that could have been made in solving the problems on the ground. In the final analysis, the activists showed no greater sympathy for the problems the locals faced than had the oil companies they attacked.
Similarly, the Telluride activists and their secretly-funded attorneys seem to have little compassion for the real problems faced by the local community. Their success came at the expense of the local community.
So what I have seen over the years is a shift in the focus of the discussion away from the actual environmental issues to very specific self-interest on the part of individuals and activist groups. In many quarters, there seems to be little concern for addressing the real issues and finding real solutions. Success is measured not in what was accomplished on the ground, but on whether funding was secured, legal and regulatory actions were effective in blocking or delaying progress, and in winning and making a name for yourself or your organization.
Individuals and organizations often ignore the negative effects of their actions, due in part to a personal need to maintain their status as warriors or champions. I suppose it’s human nature, but when these people have had the spotlight for a few years and are seen as the champion of good things, it’s hard to hang it up when the battle is over. (I suppose superheroes get bored, just like the rest of us.) It’s easy to find a few crumbs of issues to obsess over and maybe, if you wave the banners high enough, the past days of glory can be found again. It’s the Mighty Mouse syndrome, where only you can be the hero (“Here I come to save the day; it means that Mighty Mouse is on the way!”). Perhaps it’s just that the money and fame keeps coming, and so continuing to fight becomes more important than the goal you were fighting for. I have certainly known attorneys and professional activists that rely on the constant crisis and conflict to keep themselves employed.
The problem is that some of us want things to stay the same or go back to some idealized ‘better’ time. The world is changing around us and we need to get with it and try to understand what’s happening so we can make it happen in a way we can live with (literally).
After all, it’s our nature.