Michael Brune, who gives today’s Westminster Town Hall Forum lecture, has just passed his fourth anniversary as executive director of the Sierra Club.
Unlike the chief execs of some other national environmental groups, Brune’s background runs heavily to frontline environmental activism of sometimes the most direct and personal kind, as when he invaded Home Depot stores with a bullhorn to call attention to the chain’s unsustainable lumber sourcing.
Most of his previous work was at the Rainforest Action Network, organizationally a new kid on the block compared to his current employer, which was founded in 1892 by John Muir.
His talk is titled “Protecting the Wild Places,” which is both the first and longest-lived objective of the Sierra Club, motivating both its famous fight to save the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite and its surrender of Arizona’s Glen Canyon to the dam builders in a strategic move to protect the Grand Canyon downstream.
We spoke by phone on Monday, and I asked Brune to preview his talk and to share his ideas on how the problem of saving wilderness has or hasn’t been redefined by changes in the climate of American politics — and of the Earth itself. Excerpts follow:
I haven’t finished writing my speech yet, but I know I’ll begin by talking about our country’s legacy of protecting wild places, and the work that’s been done over the last century or more, from the Grand Canyon and Yosemite straight up through today — how we were able to achieve some of our country’s biggest conservation victories.
But then, I’m going to spend the bulk of my time talking about what conservation means and looks like in an era of climate change. About the threats that fossil fuels are posing directly to public lands in the U.S., and the threats that climate change poses indirectly to lands and wildlife in the U.S. and around the world.
On the argument some will make that climate change’s sweeping impacts make habitat protection an outdated, perhaps even quaint, endeavor:
I think there’s often a large gap between what most Americans actually care about and what topics make it into the national political dialogue. On environmental issues, almost every interview I do, almost every conversation I have with an elected official, the agenda typically is about energy and climate. And those are important issues — they’re top priority issues for the Sierra Club.
And at the same time, the work that we have done and continue to do to protect lands and wildlife is also important and it’s very much connected to the climate change struggle.
Sierra Club members care about both. The average citizen cares about both.
Whether it’s a state park that’s a half-hour drive from someone’s house or a wilderness area that they may get to at one point in their lives, people of all political persuasions, all across the country, men and women, in urban areas and rural areas, continue to have a strong affinity for protecting the most beautiful places in the country. And that will continue.
So part of the job of the Sierra Club is to keep this as a high-profile issue, and to help people get out into the outdoors, and to continue to find ways to build a broad enough coalition to make sure that the gains that we’ve made in the past aren’t undermined in the next couple decades.
On where the next big battlegrounds over public-lands protection are likely to be:
The Arctic is at the top of the list — or at least in the top three or top five, let’s say.
If we’re talking about large landscapes, we have to look to the Arctic, a couple of places in the desert southwest around the Utah Canyonlands, and the Grand Canyon watershed. Those are all at the top of the list.
We’ve identified a dozen or so areas that we’re looking to see the president protect through the Antiquities Act, by designating them as national monuments. By we, I mean a coalition of the Sierra Club and a number of other conservation organizations.
Some of these would be Browns Canyon in Colorado, the Organ Mountains/Desert Peaks area in southern New Mexico, the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness in Idaho.
On what some see as Barack Obama’s reluctance to use monument designations or other executive powers to expand public lands:
He got off to a slow start. But last year there were a few designations — a 12,000-acre designation in northern New Mexico, Rio Grande del Norte, and I would say the signs look promising for an uptick this year.
In the short term, this is our best opportunity. Congress just passed a wilderness act designating 32,000 acres in Michigan, but that was the first protection in five years to get through Congress. We are hopeful but sadly realistic that the current Congress is not, unfortunately, a place to see much vision when it comes to bipartisan lands conservation legislation.
One of the things that John Podesta is doing as senior adviser to the president is looking at ways in which the Antiquities Act can be utilized. Congress has limited ability to challenge that authority.
On the argument that wilderness protection may now require active management, even manipulation of natural systems, on conserved land in place of hands-off policies of the past:
Especially as regards climate change, that philosophy is demonstrably true. We can no longer draw a line on a map, make it a park or wildlife refuge or some area with other protected status, even a national monument, and then declare victory, and put some trails in and say this place has been protected forever, because that’s no longer the case.
Places are not “protected” from the impacts of climate destruction. You see those impacts in wilderness areas and national parks across the country, Yosemite, Glacier National Park, state parks here in California and all over.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to curtail extractive development in those places. We do. The reality we face in the 21st century regarding landscape conservation doesn’t mean we have to give up on the traditional strategies, it just means we have to emphasize some others a little bit more.
On the challenges he faces in leading the Sierra Club in years to come:
That’s an easy one: Solutions! How is the Sierra Club going to be as effective and creative and relentless in driving for the things that we want, in addition to the things that we don’t.
We’ve spent 120 years being very good at fighting timber sales or mining projects, coal plants and pipelines, and over the next couple of decades we have to be at least as effective at promoting restoration, finding ways to bring resources into large-scale landscape protection, promoting clean energy.
And, also, having our members engage not just engage as citizens and voters but as consumers and investors at the same time —what people do with their money, their resources, the things they consume, making sure their financial resources are aligned with their environmental values.
Eventually, we have to find a way to make the issues that we work on bipartisan again. Land conservation is perhaps the most bipartisan environmental issue out there, still. But we’re in such a politicized, polarized world that it’s hard to get anything done, much less environmental legislation.
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An interesting profile of Michael Brune is here. Information about attending his talk, or listening to it online or in a Minnesota Public Radio broadcast, can be found at the Westminster forum’s website.