Saving the environment could be more "local" than we think

By Brady Jones - Staff Writer

As Americans count down the final days of Barack Obama’s administration, preparation has begun for USA’s new president, Donald Trump. For those who care deeply about preserving our key natural habitats and wilderness areas, along with fighting against climate change, the predictions are dire. President-elect Trump has made it clear that he has little concern for climate change, going as far as labeling it a hoax, and has declared his intention to withdraw from the important and symbolic Paris Agreement. Additionally, his nominee for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is currently involved in a lawsuit against the very agency he has been selected to represent in an attempt to overturn President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. It is chillingly apparent that the EPA as we know it is slowly disappearing. The battles that will be fought for the next four years over the preservation of our environment will be intense, requiring a continuous focus on situations occurring in Washington, D.C.

Despite the importance of federal environmental laws, we must not lose sight of what is taking place at both the state and local levels. In fact, the laws and amendments which are implemented there are far more relevant regarding the impact on our protected and unprotected natural areas. This is exemplified by the recent passage of Amendment 71 in the state of Colorado. The Amendment was created with the specific goal of making it more difficult to enact new amendments to the state constitution. The specifics of Amendment 71 require that, for a proposed amendment to make it on the ballot, rather than collecting an overall percentage of signatures state-wide, signatures must be collected from a minimum of 2% of registered voters in each of Colorado’s 35 state senate districts. Furthermore, once on the ballot, the amendment will require a minimum of 55% of the vote rather than a simple majority. 

Proponents of the Amendment argue that this gives all citizens of the state a say in how the constitution is amended rather than simply focusing on the heavily-populated, and mostly liberal, urban areas. However, looking beyond the words to the actual intentions, it becomes obvious what the real motivation is. Recently, the Colorado State Supreme Court overturned court decisions in favor of local municipalities that attempted to prevent fracking in their community. The court ruled that the local laws against fracking were in violation of the state constitution. Having set this precedent, the only way going forward for local communities to prevent fracking will be to change the existing laws. The restrictions set forth by Amendment 71 ensure that it has become far more expensive to try to bring a change to the state constitution. Simply put, wealthy oil and gas interests, which were, conveniently, the largest financial backers to this amendment, will have much more power to fight amendments created by local residents in the interest of preventing environmental disturbances like fracking.

The cost required to campaign and implement signature collectors in all 35 state senate districts is out of reach for those without large financial backing. Furthermore, all it takes is one district not reaching the 2% threshold (perhaps influenced by a large and costly campaign to discourage signing) to block the amendment for the entire state. It highlights the immense impact that monetary wealth has on our election process and takes the power out of the hands of local residents and grassroots efforts for change. It is a blatant attempt to artificially increase the voting power of the minority to fight against the wishes of the majority. It is the antithesis of democracy. 

Amendments like Amendment 71 succeed because many people feel that local legislation is not nearly as impactful as national legislation. But the opposite is true. The future battles over the protection of the environment must focus on these carefully-worded local and state laws that claim to have our best interests in mind but which could, in actuality, be very harmful to local communities and the environment they share with wildlife and other natural areas. Over the next four years, it will be vital that we pay careful attention to what our local politicians are doing. Many conservative leaders, emboldened by the shift in the balance of power in Washington, will seek to create new legislation that will certainly not have the best interests of the environment at heart.

Fortunately, there are legal victories for environmental causes as well. Portland, Oregon recently passed a zoning ordinance restricting the building of new fossil fuel storage facilities that exceed two million gallons and which restricts existing facilities from expanding beyond their current size. The intended effects of this law are to discourage new fossil fuel companies from coming to Portland and to further promote an increase in clean and renewable energy. In Florida, Amendment 1 was rejected by voters in a battle over solar energy production. Proponents of this amendment claimed that it was promoting solar expansion; the reality is that it would have limited the opportunity for third party companies and made it difficult to keep prices low. These state and local legal as well as political battles play a crucial role and will largely determine the future of our communities and environment. 

Although the need to stand up against the activity in our nation’s capital will be of great import, the challenge for all of us who love nature is to be extremely vigilant at local levels. Volunteering in local environmental groups, contacting local politicians, and paying special attention to the proposed legislation that will be appearing over the next four years are all ways that we can make a positive impact for the environment, locally. The long-term, successful protection of our environment will rely on it.