Aspen hydro plant splits environmentalists
November 2, 2012
ASPEN – Individuals and groups that are usually unified on environmental issues are divided over the city of Aspen’s proposal for a hydropower plant in a battle that threatens to leave scars.
Big names in the environmental movement are lined up on both sides of the issue. Connie Harvey, Charlie Hopton and Ken Neubecker are opposed to the proposed plant. Harvey was a founder of Wilderness Workshop. Hopton has been a member of environmental causes and organizations in Aspen for several decades. Neubecker has emerged as a leading voice in the Roaring Fork Valley on water issues.
Those lined up in support of the plant include Auden Schendler, Randy Udall and Paul Andersen. Schendler is executive director of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Co. Udall was the original director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency and has emerged as a national expert on energy issues. Andersen is a respected environmental essayist and a columnist for The Aspen Times.
Voters in the city of Aspen will cast ballots Tuesday on question 2C, an advisory question on the Castle Creek Hydroelectric Facility.
Hopton said he has rarely seen the upper Roaring Fork Valley’s environmental community torn apart over an issue like it is over the hydroelectric plant. He has friends on both sides of the issue and avoids discussing it with those backing the proposal. He hasn’t taken an active role in the campaign.
“As far as dividing the community, this one has gotten just like the current presidential campaign,” Hopton said of the acrimony. There is too much hyperbole being thrown around by both camps, he said.
“We’re not stupid. If they’d just give us facts, we could make up our own minds,” Hopton said.
Andersen, who has a history of avoiding controversy, said it is painful to watch “two environmental aspects collide.” It shows that there are various sides to the environmental community, he said. It isn’t a “single-vision interest group,” according to Andersen.
“This is an interesting one to watch – how the environmental community behaves,” he said. “The environmentalists are forced to take sides and define their own hierarchy of needs.”
Neubecker views it as one camp saying climate change must be dealt with at any cost. The other faction says, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said. As a member of the latter camp, he believes the city could accomplish its goals of boosting power from alternative energy sources without threatening the ecosytems of Castle and Maroon creeks.
There is a simple disagreement between the camps.
Opponents of the hydropower proposal fear that it will cause a serious “dewatering” of stretches of the streams. Proponents contend that this project is among the most thoroughly vetted in the history of the valley and that the environmental health of the streams will be monitored by an independent party.
Neubecker said he and many environmentalists opposed to the hydropower plant support the goal of taking action to reduce climate change. They just don’t support the city’s approach in this case.
“I don’t think they have to do it the way they want to do it,” he said.
Neubecker wants the city to invest its money on projects that don’t affect the streams since climate change already is affecting them. “There is greater demands on diminished flows” of water in the streams each year, he said.
While the proposal has divided the broader environmental community, Neubecker said individuals and organizations focused on river and stream health are united. Groups that oppose the hydropower plan include the local and state chapters of Trout Unlimited; the Western Rivers Institute, a group headed by Neubecker; American Rivers; and the Roaring Fork Group of the Sierra Club.
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, who is often aligned on other issues with many of the environmentalists opposing the city proposal, claimed the opposition of the environmental groups is tarnished because they won’t release their funding sources.
“I am disturbed by the emergence of three privately funded nonprofits that are secretly funded and opposing the project without disclosing donors or expenditures – American Rivers, Western Rivers Institute and Aspen Citizens Committee,” Ireland said. “It appears at least $100,000 will be spent in opposition to the project without any donor disclosure.”
Harvey countered that the divisiveness of the campaign has been driven by the press releases, opinion pieces and comments from city of Aspen employees. They have taken tough personal stances with people opposed to the project, she said, and Ireland’s efforts to stir controversy over funding sources is a diversion from the real issue – the health of Castle and Maroon creeks.
As for the split in the environmental community, Harvey said there is blind faith in the city on the part of some environmentalists who desperately want to focus on climate change.
“I think there are a lot of well-meaning people that don’t know what they’re talking about,” Harvey said. She said she supports trying to ease global warming but wonders about the daunting challenges. Reducing reliance on coal in the U.S., for example, will just make more coal available to burn in China, she said, and no progress will be made on reducing carbon emissions responsible for global warming.
Schendler said he believes the broader environmental movement is undergoing a “generational clash and an ideological clash” over direction. “It’s a clash between the old and new perceptions of the environment.”
One faction understands the size and scope of climate change, he said. The other remains focused on land conservation issues – creating wilderness and protecting streams. Those focused on climate change are more willing to see windmills off the Massachusetts coast and giant solar farms in the California desert as worthwhile steps in the battle against climate change, Schendler said.
He believes it is inevitable there will be a “changing of the guard” of the sustainability movement because of the risks of climate change.
Andersen doesn’t want to see the local environmental community alienated when there are so many big issues to face in the future. Unity in the environmental community will be vital. He is kicking around ideas to promote unity after the election.
“We should probably have a big Kumbaya moment when this is all over, have a big group hug,” Andersen said.