Every skier, climber or mountain biker is familiar with the concept of the No Fall Zone—technical terrain that requires maximum focus, where mistakes are not an option. You fall, you die.
We have just entered a new kind of No Fall Zone. It’s gaping below those of us who care about climate change and science, who are concerned about the conservation of our public lands and hope to save our remaining unspoiled places, who value the diversity of wildlife that inhabits the West, who understand that economic prosperity and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. We all cannot afford a mistake.
We are in this No Fall Zone because the solid ground upon which the conservation community stood for the past eight years crumbled away with the 2016 election. The crony capitalists and climate deniers are back in power. And with their ascension comes the jarring realization that environmental progress is not a continuum, and that instead of moving forward, the conservation community must now play defense and attempt to limit the damage.
These are anxious times. The angst meter is red-lining. Existential dread afflicts many. The only cure is to do something. The moment requires focus. “Now more than ever we need to work and to act,” says Auden Schendler, sustainability director at Aspen Skiing Company and chairman of the climate action group Protect Our Winters (POW). “There is so much to do that I don’t have time to feel anxious. Times may seem unremittingly bleak, but the flip side is that there are so many victories to be had and fights to be waged.”
If you’re an outdoor recreationalist, many causes need help. Democracy requires citizen participation. The tools of Democratic resistance are well established: engagement with elected officials, protest and direct action, organizing and economic boycott. Visit, call or write your member of Congress, governor or state representative. Show up at their public events and tell them you want action on climate change. Yell if necessary. It’s your First Amendment right. Getting loud works.
Just look at Utah, where U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) withdrew legislation seeking to transfer your federal public lands to the states after facing an angry online backlash from hunting and angling groups. The volume in Utah keeps going up. Chaffetz’s home state is the epicenter of the movement to dispose of public lands and revoke the protections for the Bears Ears National Monument, a terrible idea that would go against national public opinion, not to mention usurp Native American participation in the process of creating and managing the monument. It would also set a bad precedent for devaluing protected public lands. In response, some of the biggest brands in the outdoor recreation industry decided to throw their economic weight around and boycott Utah by announcing they will move the Outdoor Retailer trade show out of Salt Lake City. “That was a master class in how to wield economic power,” Schendler says.
Will it work? Will Utah politicians change their anti-public lands stance? It’s hard to tell yet, but it feels good, and hopefully it will inspire Utah voters to change their electorate to one that better reflects their values.
If you’re an outdoor recreationalist and are feeling anxious, join the fight. Here are some causes and organizations to follow, and some issues of vital importance to conservation-minded citizens.
The prospects for progress on climate at the federal level appear to be nil, so activists are focusing on state-level action. “There is a lot of good stuff happening at the state level,” says Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters. POW is the leading climate action nonprofit in the snowsports and outdoor communities. The group founded by snowboarding icon Jeremy Jones has done more than any other organization to unite the snowsports industry and rally outdoorspeople around climate. If you are a skier or snowboarder and you don’t belong to POW, you need to step up. protectourwinters.org
At the state level, POW is working to promote carbon pricing schemes, also known as carbon taxes or “carbon fee and dividend” initiatives. These, in a nutshell, are the free-market solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and kickstarting the renewable energy economy. British Columbia has a carbon tax, so does Boulder, Colorado. Life’s pretty good in those places.
The revenues generated by a carbon tax would be returned to citizens as a dividend, in the form of tax relief, direct payments or subsidies for renewable energy generation or conservation. There are now state-level legislative efforts to pass carbon dividend programs in Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York. The goal is to build momentum for passage of a federal carbon tax in four years. It’s not just lefty liberals pushing a carbon tax, either. In February, a group of well-known Republicans released a carbon tax manifesto of sorts, “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends,” hoping to win support from the millions of conservation-minded Republicans whose party is ignoring their wishes. “Now that the Republican Party controls the White House and Congress, it has the opportunity and responsibility to promote a climate plan that showcases the full power of enduring conservative convictions,” say the signatories. Amen.
If you want to learn more about carbon pricing, check out the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and read up on their carbon dividends program. As its name implies, this is a grassroots organization that is trying to empower citizens by providing talking points and tips and tools about how to write, call and engage with your elected representatives and build momentum for action. citizensclimatelobby.org
Another state-level fight involves incentives for rooftop solar installations. A massive deployment of rooftop solar is one of the solutions for de-carbonizing the economy and stimulating job creation. Unlike manufacturing jobs, you can’t outsource solar installations. Sadly, some states—Utah, doh!—want to eliminate rooftop solar incentives. Concerned Utahans should attend public hearings scheduled for this summer before the Public Services Commission to voice their objections. Learn more at Utah Clean Energy, utahcleanenergy.org.
A similar fight is taking place in Nevada, but with a twist. The state’s utility regulators have already voted to kill incentives for new rooftop solar installations, but in November the Nevada Statehouse flipped from Republican to Democratic control. Democrats are proposing a legislative fix to restore and promote solar, and they are also considering a proposal to go 80-percent renewable by 2040. Nevada residents who care about climate change and want to support renewable energy need to voice their support.
If you’re a hunter or angler, your voice is more important than ever. Join Conservation Hawks, a group devoted to fighting the biggest threat to fish and wildlife: climate change. conservationhawks.org.
Drilling and Mining
While shouts of “Drill, baby, drill!” echoed through the Republican campaign, it’s an empty slogan with an implicit message that onerous environmental regulations have shut down energy extraction on our public lands. Quite the opposite is true. The nation has been on a drilling rampage since the Clinton administration. Hydraulic fracturing, fracking, has enabled a massive increase in natural gas extraction that has helped the nation reduce its reliance on coal power–the biggest climate killer—albeit at a cost to our lands, wildlife and waters.
Drilling has slowed in recent years because there is a glut of supply, which is why there are efforts to build pipelines and export terminals to ship our oil, natural gas and coal overseas. “We’ve got hydrocarbons coming out of our ears,” says Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, a Carbondale, Colorado-based nonprofit that spent eight years fighting to rescind drilling leases issued improperly on Colorado’s Thompson Divide during the Bush administration.
By some calculations, 90 percent of Western public lands are open to drilling, while only 10 percent are reserved for recreation, wilderness, wildlife conservation and other activities valued by society. Approximately 32 million acres of public lands have been leased to oil and gas companies, according to the Center for Western Priorities, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Denver that operates like a think tank for sensible public lands policies. The companies that own many of these leases, covering millions of acres, are sitting on them and declining to drill because prices are low. Some of these leases, by the way, were sold for as little as $2 per acre.
Federal mineral leasing rules are out of date and riddled with loopholes that provide a sweetheart deal to energy companies while shortchanging American taxpayers, who get royalty payments that are far lower than those charged by states. For example, oil-happy Texas charges a 25-percent royalty rate to drill on its state-owned lands; the federal government charges just 12.5 percent.
Despite having a public lands leasing system that is already skewed toward pro-drilling policies, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans have made moves to cancel environmental protections related to energy extraction—including a rule prohibiting coal companies from dumping waste in streams. Another rule on the chopping block would require gas drillers to reduce the amount of methane they waste during extraction. Large amounts of natural gas drilled on public lands—your gas, your money—simply spews into the atmosphere because of sloppy procedures and leaky infrastructure.
“Congress is rolling back safeguards and protections just for the sake of giving handouts to industry groups and campaign supporters at the expense of taxpayers and citizens,” says Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities. You can learn more at westernpriorities.org.
Public Lands Takeover
No issue has received more widespread condemnation from citizens and politicians of all political persuasions than the proposal to transfer your public lands to the states, who could then sell them off to the highest bidder. Fortunately, this proposal appears to be going nowhere due to opposition from conservative hunters and fishermen and sensible Western politicians. Trump and Donald Trump Jr., as well as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have also spoken against efforts to dispose of public lands.
But the issue of giving away public lands, which would be a gift to natural resource extractors, who would be able to operate under more lenient state environmental laws, illustrates how out-of-touch some anti-government congressmen are with the wishes of the American public. Colorado U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (R) ran as a supporter of public lands, but he joined fellow House Republicans in voting for a rule that specifies that any public lands transferred to the states have no value. “That vote was one of the first things the House did,” Zimmerman says. “It sends a clear message about the House priorities.”
If you’re concerned about the fate of public lands, check out the Conservation Alliance. Thanks to donations to from brands including Patagonia, The North Face and Elevation Outdoors magazine the alliance has created a Public Lands Defense Fund. Check out conservationalliance.com.
Looking forward to 2018, the Land and Water Conservation Fund comes up for renewal next year. This is the fund that takes royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling and spends them on conservation efforts. This program has widespread support, but conservationists will need to speak up to ensure it remains alive.
Conservationists and recreationalists need to keep their eyes on GOP efforts to undermine the Antiquities Act, which gives the president the authority to create national monuments. Republicans are pushing bills that would require congressional approval for any use of this act, essentially killing it. President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law precisely because Congress was failing to do its job to protect national treasures like the Grand Canyon from industrial robber barons.
That brings us back to the 1.4-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which Obama created following years of deliberation and at the behest of multiple Native American tribes whose cultural artifacts were being looted and destroyed. Conservationists and recreationalists should stand firm against any attempts to alter the Antiquities Act, which Obama used to create not just Bears Ears. The President created 29 national monumnets in all, more than any of his predecessors, including the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada and the popular 21,586-acre Browns Canyon in Colorado.
“This election was not a referendum on our public lands system. On Election Day, voters nationwide approved 68 funding -measures to create more than $6 billion for parks and conservation—an 80 percent approval rate,” writes John Sterling, executive director of the Conservation Alliance. “Public lands are one of the few institutions left in our society that transcend political affiliation. They are our common ground.”
Skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, hiking, camping, climbing, wildlife watching, hunting and fly fishing—these are all activities that can be harmed by misguided public lands policies. Now more than ever, participating in these activities is a political statement. Step up to that cornice. Rail that line. Climb that pillar. Hike that ridge. Stalk that elk. And moreover, get involved.
“Anxiety,” wrote the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is the dizziness of freedom.” Anxiety and angst are a symptom of life’s immense possibilities and innumerable choices. The cure is focused action, forward movement. That’s what we do as athletes when crossing through a No Fall Zone. Dizziness and inattention are not an option.
Paul Tolme is a former Coloradan now living in the soggy bottoms of the Pacific Northwest. He is a longtime outdoors and environmental writer whose work frequently appears in SKI, National Wildlife and other publications.