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Conservation movement alive and well

Published December 30, 2010 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Forget everything you thought you knew about the health of the conservation movement in 2010.

Granted, 2010 was marked by environmental disaster compounding economic dismay about the Gulf oil spill, and discontent dominated Election Day and plenty of other days as well. But we shouldn't allow ourselves to be blinded by the headlines, because hidden behind national politics, conservation forces at the local level kicked fat fanny.

Don't feel bad if you missed the story. Nearly everyone else has, too. Nationwide on Election Day, Americans voted to tax themselves an unprecedented $2 billion for conservation.

That's right. The very same electorate that swept incumbent Democrats out of office simultaneously approved one conservation initiative after another at both local and statewide levels. According to figures tabulated by the Trust for Public Land, 80 percent of those conservation measures passed, and often by large margins.

They included several in the West, including Oregon, Washington, Utah and Colorado. Granted, California's Prop 21, aimed at bolstering the Golden State's park system, failed. But voters in that state also rejected Proposition 23, protecting their strong, clean-energy rules from a campaign bankrolled by the oil boosters at Koch Industries.

And in Arizona, voters trounced Prop 301, which would have raided the state's conservation fund. Positive change is literally in the air, or in the case of new investment in non-polluting energy plants — not in the air. This year also saw a continuing trend toward customers demanding more clean energy and less dirty, coal-burning technology to power our homes and industries.

The new, clean-energy economy is humming in the Southwest. The Arizona Republic recently reported 15 new solar projects are ready to go online in the next two years. Southwestern states are reaping the sun and reaping benefits from spinoff economies that accompany clean-energy innovation. The same can be said elsewhere for wind power and, on a smaller scale, biomass and geothermal power. It's almost as if the debate about global climate change doesn't need debating – it's become a fact of life pushing local and state action.

Meanwhile, proposals to build new coal-burning energy plants in the West continued to collapse under their own weight in 2010. Nevada's Ely Energy Center and Toquop plants are two examples. Existing coal plants in Colorado, Oregon and New Mexico are being put out to pasture, continuing a recent trend for phasing out these now-obsolete polluters.

In Colorado, for example, the Public Utilities Commission recently OK'd a plan to phase out all coal-burners in the Denver area. Experts predict this will reduce the gray pall that too often hangs over Denver; it will also cut nitrogen oxide pollution by 86 percent.

There were exceptions to this trend toward cleaner energy, particularly in Utah and Wyoming. On the downside, Utah is even contemplating a tar-sands development, akin to the giant mess overturning and polluting a sizable chunk of Alberta, Canada. Yet even Utah has joined Colorado in a process called "net metering," which means that if you have a solar panel or windmill generating electricity for your home, your meter runs backwards to factor in the power you have contributed to the power grid. You save money, the utility saves money and we all breathe less pollution.

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council gave Utah, (yes, Utah!) top marks for offering net metering and other progressive policies for plugging small solar and wind energy into the power grid. Utah shared this "A" grade with, of all places, Massachusetts.

There are larger lessons here. One is that people relate to their natural world in fundamentally local ways. What we seem to care most about is what happens in our own community, at our local water source, or in our favorite hiking or fishing getaways. Satellite images from space are impressive, but they haven't changed that parochial fact.

Second, keeping our air clean and our water pure is an American core value. Even in hard times and even in the midst of vitriolic politics, Americans will support conservation. Of course, they need to understand it and how it benefits them as well as everybody else. But once they do, they will get the job done.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is senior program director for Resource Media in Kalispell, Mont.