Aspen environmentalists re-energized with Biden taking office
After being on the defensive for four years under Trump, enviros ready to press on important issues
It isn’t far-fetched to say some Aspen environmentalists cried tears of joy when Joseph Biden replaced Donald Trump as president on Tuesday.
The staff at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies couldn’t watch the ceremony together because of the pandemic, but they shared a sentiment.
“The mood was elation,” ACES President and CEO Chris Lane said. “We all watched the inauguration and cried.”
Trump kept environmentalists on their heels for four years. The administration shrunk the size of national monuments, rolled back methane emission rules, neutered the regulatory power of the Environmental Protection Agency and lowered fuel mileage standards for vehicles. Trump proudly withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement and dismissed climate change as a hoax.
Biden reversed course on numerous fronts in his first few days in office, including rejoining the Paris accord.
Veteran environmentalist Bruce Gordon, a founder of Aspen-based Ecoflight, said it is a relief to be able to stop playing defense even though he believes environmentalists “held the line well” during the Trump years.
“It will take on a much more positive and optimistic demeanor,” he said.
Aspen Skiing Co. senior vice president of sustainability and community engagement Auden Schendler said Biden’s personnel appointments show the direction the administration is moving on issues.
“The way to understand this is he’s put climate people not only in climate positions but in all positions,” Schendler said.
He believes it is particularly telling that Brian Deese, one of the top climate advisers for President Obama, was appointed by Biden as director of the National Economic Council.
“His top economic adviser is a climate hawk,” Schendler said.
Gina McCarthy, a former administrator of the EPA, will hold a cabinet level position in a post nicknamed “climate czar.” McCarthy accepted an invitation by Skico and green groups to attend Aspen’s Winter X Games in January 2015 while she was at the EPA to help spread the word on climate change. Schendler said her appointment to the administration bodes well to achieving goals on climate.
“The point is Biden isn’t screwing around on climate,” he said.
“This election was do or die,” he continued. “We don’t have any more time.”
Lane said other Biden picks show a serious approach to social justice, an issue that ACES has become increasingly active in. Deb Haaland of New Mexico was the first Native American to be appointed as Secretary of Interior. Cecilia Martinez, a Latina environmental justice advocate, is senior director for environmental justice. Michael Regan is the first Black man to lead the EPA.
“That’s new and different and progressive,” Lane said of the diversity of personnel picks.
Lane is also thrilled that an administration again will trust science. Trump picked appointees to suppress, water down or ignore scientific information, Lane claimed.
But just because a more favorable administration is in office doesn’t mean environmental groups will rest easy.
“It’s not like all the bad stuff suddenly goes away,” said Will Roush, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, the oldest homegrown environmental group in the Roaring Fork Valley.
He concurred with Gordon’s assessment that environmental groups now will be able to get off their heels with Biden’s arrival.
“It puts it much more in an opportunistic setting rather than reactive or defensive setting,” he said.
Roush produced a laundry list of issues that Wilderness Workshop acts on that will be positively impacted by the change in administrations. Top among them is oil and gas leasing and development. Biden put a 60-day freeze on the sale of oil and gas leases on federal lands. Existing permit weren’t affected. A longer pause might be in the works as the administration prepares new rules for development on federal lands.
“I think it will have a big impact locally,” Roush said. The regulation potentially affects lands such as Thompson Divide southwest of Carbondale, the North Fork Valley around Paonia and Roan Plateau of other lands in the lower Colorado River Valley, he said.
Wilderness Workshop is a key partner in a coalition to protect Thompson Divide and other areas. Roush said it will keep working for permanent protections. As it stands, The White River National Forest has prevented future oil and gas development through an administration action. But administration actions can be reversed and part of Thompson Divide is in the Gunnison National Forest, where there aren’t protections.
Wilderness Workshop will continue to seek Congressional action to withdraw mineral leasing in Thompson Divide.
Another big opportunity is conservation of public lands. Congressional Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado have proposed the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature. The goal is to conserve 30 percent of national lands and waters by 2030.
The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act would play a big role in that national effort. It would protect about 400,000 acres of public lands in the state, including 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide. It would also establish Camp Hale, training center for the 10th Mountain Division, as the nation’s first national historic landscape.
Roush is also optimistic about conservation efforts targeting Bureau of Land Management holdings. “There’s a lot of BLM lands in Colorado that haven’t seen protection like forestlands,” he said.
Conservation apparently will have to be achieved without the help of U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, the Rifle Republican who won the 3rd Congressional District seat in November. Environmental efforts aren’t on the list of priorities she’s outlined thus far (see related story). On the other hand, Roush said, Colorado gained another conservation-minded senator in November with the election of John Hickenlooper.
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Rifle Republican, co-sponsored a bill Thursday to prohibit Congress from spending money on the Paris Climate Agreement unless it is ratified by the Senate. President Joe Biden has said the U.S. will rejoin the agreement. Boebert labeled it a “job-killing” accord.
“Simply put, the Paris Climate Agreement places an economic handicap on the U.S. for generations to come while yielding no discernible benefit to the environment worldwide,” Boebert said in a news statement. “It allows bad actors, like China, to keep increasing CO2 emissions until at least 2030 with no penalty.”
Roush noted that the CORE Act passed the U.S. House twice even though Scott Tipton, the area’s representative at the time, wasn’t “super supportive” of the effort.
Skico’s Schendler said environmental organizations and individuals cannot sit back and expect Biden to pursue action on its own.
“He, like all political people, needs a movement behind him,” Schendler said.
Skico will work with Protect Our Winters to rustle up support for Biden’s environmental agenda. “We’ll basically be the NRA on climate,” he said, referring to the National Rifle Association, which has had legendary lobbying power on gun issues though now is facing bankruptcy and an uncertain future.
ACES, which tends to skip politics and focus on environmental education, will be consistent in its mission during the Biden years, Lane said. Part of that mission is seeking “common ground” among people on conservation issues.
“Everybody likes clean air, clean water and clean food,” he said.
For Ecoflight’s Gordon, Biden’s presence will mean he won’t be “waking up at night in a rage” over environmental issues like he was with Trump in office.
One issue that Ecoflight will focus on is restoration of the Bear Ears National Monument to the scale approved by the Obama administration. Ecoflight worked for roughly a decade on the process that resulted in the monument designation. Ecoflight’s specialty is getting decision-makers in the air for a better view of landscapes and to better understand issues. It helped bring together five Native American tribes on Bears Ears issues and brought the climbing community into the fold.
Other issues Ecoflight works on includes limiting oil and gas development on public lands and protection of endangered species. Gordon said both issues benefit from Biden taking office.
“We’re excited that protection of public lands will now get an opportunity,” he said.
But without Trump around, will environmental groups be able to rally the troops or will the rank-and-file members become complacent?
Grant Stevens, communications director for Wilderness Workshop, noted that use and hopefully appreciation of public lands has soared during the pandemic, when other activities have been curtailed. The challenge and opportunity is to channel that interest in public lands into protection of public lands, he said.
Wilderness Workshop’s Roush said it remains to be seen if “hope is as great of a motivator as rage.” He is confident hope will prevail.