Think the battle for social and environmental justice is a new thing? How about these six longtime Colorado activists who have dedicated their lives to conservation and building a better world?
For a relative newcomer to the sport of politics and protest, just hearing the words “Bears Ears” can make your blood boil. Mention the stripping of provisions in the Endangered Species Act and watch an environmentalist’s head explode. Or try to discuss it on Twitter? You might as well kiss your mental health goodbye.
Watching the next generation take up the fight for public lands and social and environmental justice, I started to itch for some perspective from our elders on the current political climate. For veterans of protest movements and advocacy, is our current level of consternation valid, or are we creeping into hysteria? I wanted a long view, and—I’ll be honest—some hope. My conversations six longtime advocates for the West and its people and wild spaces offered that—and something that was much more instructive.
During the 30 years she worked for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Loretta Pineda wasn’t consciously trying to hire more women, she said. In fact, she didn’t realize she’d done it until she was leaving the agency.
“When I left, one of the managers said to me, ‘I have a lot of women working here,’” Pineda said. “I didn’t really think about it at the time—they were just candidates.”
Now, Pineda is mentoring young people on the other side of the hiring equation, trying to get more diverse candidates into jobs in the outdoor industry. Pineda serves as the executive director of Environmental Learning for Kids, or ELK, a nonprofit based in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, which helps urban kids get more involved in Colorado’s outdoor spaces. Eventually, she always hopes, these kids will find outdoor jobs. But it’s an uphill push, and not because of the kids.
“I send a student on an internship and I think, great, they’re in the Park Service, they’re really going to shine, maybe they can get a job,” she said. “And all of a sudden, times up and there’s no further pass, no job. So you get a lot of fatigue with that.”
When the kids don’t land the job, they don’t get as down about it as she does, she said. “They find other things, or they make progress in other ways, and we just keep battling it out. That’s what keeps me going.”
Pineda said one thing that has changed for the better over the years is that there are more organizations focused on diversity. “You have Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, more national groups—a lot more opportunities for our students, because they can get involved in those groups, too.”
Pineda was on ELK’s founding board, so she’s been involved with the organization for more than 20 years. Like other nonprofits, they’ve had to ride out some funding roller coasters. But being a local nonprofit helps them through the challenges. “Local action is real—you can see things happening in your backyard,” Pineda said. “Some of our local people are still, despite everything going on nationally, doing things locally and regionally for good. That’s the workaround. A lot of us are tied to federal grants, and we have to look for other ways to get that funding. Other people step up. We’ve seen the outdoor industry step up, and others realize what we need to do to make places and people and opportunities for our community.”
When I called Jim Nowak, co-founder of the dZi foundation, the organization’s U.S. staff was preparing for a celebration in Ridgway Town Park. The nonprofit was marking 20 years of partnering with communities in rural Nepal to improve facilities, public health and education there.
“Anyone who has done anything for 20 years—a business, nonprofit—they’ve had challenges, that’s just how it is,” Nowak said. “You just have to keep your head down. There’ll be a brighter day.”
Nowak and Kim Reynolds started dZi in the wake of a climbing trip on Pumori, in Nepal. When they learned a girls’ school was in danger of closing, they did some fundraising and ended up saving the school.
But that took some grunt work. “I’m a grinder. I just like to latch on and just keep moving,” Nowak said. It’s just the way he tackles all big objectives, whether it’s a climb or his work with dZi. “You take an impossible task and break it down to its possible parts. And the next thing you do is get busy.”
When I asked Nowak what he’d learned through two decades of advocacy, he said, “One of the most important things is the integrity of the organization. It’s really easy to have mission drift.” It’s hard not to chase money from a donor, even when it comes with strings attached that are off-mission. “And that gets really tough, because you’re talking about people’s lives, not just the beneficiaries, but the staff. That’s a learned lesson. That’s not how we started out.”
Though dZi’s mission is still to help communities in Nepal, which sounds incredibly global, it’s impact feels local. Nowak noted that the current administration’s diplomatic policies don’t have much effect on dZi. “We’re not one of these big aid organizations (like USAID), he said. “Our key model is to work with the community individuals directly, certainly with government oversight, but it’s the cultural fluency that makes our work possible, and realizing that we need our Nepal staff to make this work in those communities.”
There’s another side to that small, local feel in their work—here in Colorado. “We live in a town on the Western Slope of Colorado with less than a thousand people,” he said. “And we raise $1.5 million and serve 31,000 people on the other side of the world. We’re doing this from the Western Slope. I think it’s a real message that, you can do anything anywhere these days.”
Protest has been part of Tink Tinker’s life for decades. He’s been involved with the American Indian Movement for 40 years and started protesting Columbus Day in Denver in the late 1980s. His goal back then: “to alert America that as much as they want to celebrate this guy Columbus, it’s damaging to Indian people,” he said.
“It’s exhausting emotionally as well as the time and energy that gets invested in it,” Tinker said of activism. “I’ve been doing that work, what we call an activist-scholar, going back half a century. And I suppose it developed little by little in my youth until it became really descriptive of who I am in the world.”
Tinker, the Clifford Baldridge Emeritus Professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions at University of Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, retired earlier this year after more than 30 years of teaching. Like Pineda, his students helped to inspire his continued activism.
“At Iliff School of Theology, where I had my teaching career, students were inordinately receptive, and they helped me even further my thinking from year to year,” he said.
It’s humbling to ask Tinker, a stalwart of activism, about how he has continued to fight for what he believes in for so many years. “As an American Indian, that struggle has been going on for so many centuries now. Even when we take to the streets in Denver, we know ahead of time that we’re going to lose, but at least we’re letting America know that we’re still here, that we didn’t just go away and die off.”
When I asked whether he felt they’d made progress, he said, “It’s an obvious culture question out of our Christian culture, because. our Christian world is framed by temporal thinking in progress.” He then expounded on the idea of progress as a construct in capitalism and Marxism, saying, “We’re not temporal in our thinking. We’re more spatial. So no, I wish I could agree that we’ve made some progress. But I don’t think so. I think we have to fight for it over and over and over again. And I think we’re committed to doing that.”
“What I tell my students is, keep doing the critical analysis,” he adds. “Don’t buy into the American romance. And progress is part of the American romance, this notion that we’ve made some progress. But keep doing the critical analysis, and keep speaking out.”
The Habitat Defender
Ann Bonnell was disinvited from a public meeting for her persistence on conservation, but she knew her rights under the Colorado Sunshine Law for open meetings. So she kept returning—for years. Persistence has been her hallmark as an activist.
“It’s better to keep the lines of communication open and not just shut them down,” Bonnell said. “If you can go to the meetings you can find out what’s going on and maybe make some suggestions. They’ve taken some of my suggestions at some of these meetings that I’ve crashed.” Then she laughed.
Bonnell’s first fight for conservation was at Chatfield State Park. “They had decided they should trap beavers, and they were using these big metal traps that would drown them,” she said. “And I was not just concerned about the beavers, but I was concerned some kid would get in there and get trapped and drown. I ended up with my picture in the Littleton Independent standing on top of a beaver house to save the beavers. So I guess that was the beginning” of my activism.
An avid birder, Bonnell became involved with Audubon Society and the Sierra Club—and with their conservation efforts. Earlier this year, she received the of Colorado Field Ornithologist’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her years of activism. But it feels like the work is never-ending. “We just keep eating up the habitat, piece by piece, and the poor wildlife has to figure out what to do without places to live and things to eat,” she said.
Bonnell said she has always been one to research deeply and search for solutions when public land is under threat. “What kinds of compromises we can do here to make it better? Because in most cases, you’re not going to stop it—the developer has already bought it. And city council wants to have the golf course, because they can play for free. I fought one of those.”
You study up and figure out some things that might even save the developer some money, or save the city some money,” she adds.
She has started coaching the next generation, walking them through the weeds of municipal entities, telling them what paperwork to file.
“People are more aware and are working harder to save habitat,” she said. “Before, it was the big, wild, wooly west. They just thought there’s infinite open space. But now, when someone says, let’s just sell off this piece of open space, everyone gets together and says, ‘you can’t do that.’”
Roger Briggs has thought carefully about the words he’s used over the years, since he started the distance-running program as a teacher at Fairview High in Boulder in the 1970s, when he formed the stewardship-focused Boulder Climbing Community in 2010, and now, as he moves on to another stewardship project.
“People still get entrenched in their causes,” Briggs said. “They’re fighting for their cause. I don’t ‘fight.’ I try to get people together to work together.”
“One of the things I’ve really emphasized is relationships,” he said. “ If you don’t have that, you can’t do anything.”
Eight years into his project to create community around taking good care of Boulder Canyon, which is a virtual labyrinth of property owned by multiple entities and used by climbers, hikers and mountain bikers, Briggs is increasingly hopeful that people can be “benevolent caretakers” of the canyon. He’s formed a partnership with the University of Colorado’s Center For Sustainable Communities and Landscapes to create what he’s calling the Boulder Canyon Stewardship Zone.
“It’s an experiment in public lands management,” he said. “It’s a place for stewardship based on cooperation from all parties.”
Finding a common vision for stewardship has been the focus of Boulder Climbing Community, he said. “We’re not an advocacy group.”
“For earlier movements in climbing, I guess ‘advocacy’ was the best word,” he said. “You’re fighting for your rights to be out there, because the land managers didn’t want you there.” In Boulder, it’s different now. “We’re on the same side as land managers. they love us, we love them, because we’re trying to do the same thing.”
Briggs is an optimist at heart. He’s aware of what’s happening nationally, but he’s focused at home. “Local governments—and that’s where I’m working—they are still functioning quite well,” he said. “What can you do locally, what can you do to create value around you?”
“It gets tiresome to be against things all the time,” Briggs said. “What are we for?”
Don Thompson serves as the treasurer for seven—seven!—nonprofits in and around Alamosa, where he lives. One of the seven is the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, which pushed back against a BLM plan to sell drilling rights near Great Sand Dunes National Park. (The government has delayed a decision on the plan in June.)
“You fight an environmental battle, you think you’ve won it, but the win is temporary, because the development powers are always there waiting in the wings to go at it,” Thompson said. “In my time fighting environmental issues, the only one I feel I’ve won is stopping Denver from building the Two Forks Dam” in the 1980s.
Still, he isn’t entirely pessimistic. “You query the public about more public lands, and you see 60 something percent want it protected,” he said. “That’s a pretty good margin. Unfortunately it’s not their only issue.”
Thompson’s activism strategy is to just keep moving on to the next fight. “When I get eaten up on one issue, I move on to the next one,” he said. “Where the typical person feels it was a waste of time and burns out and stops their activism, I’ve seen some successes and want to see more, and want to make use of the backcountry such that I’m willing to fight for it even when we do lose.”
The first nonprofit board Thompson joined when he moved from Denver to the San Luis Valley after retirement was the Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue. “Unfortunately at my age they don’t let me go up in the helicopter anymore,” he said. But he recently celebrated his 80th birthday backpacking the Collegiate Loop on the Colorado Trail.
“That’s what makes life worth living,” he said. “We’re so fortunate here in Colorado.”
That, and serving on those seven boards.