Go East, young greens

  • Paul Larmer


After college, I landed a series of internships with environmental groups in Washington, D.C. I thought I would change the world, protecting the last wild places while putting some badly needed brakes on society's insatiable appetite for growth. I ended up making vast amounts of coffee, Xeroxing dense legal documents (no computers yet), and writing short articles for activist newsletters. Occasionally I got sent to "the Hill" to attend a hearing or meet a congressional aide to push for or against a bill.

It was heady stuff for a naive 22-year-old. Once, I briefly shared an elevator with Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy; he didn't notice me as he talked intensely with a couple of his staffers, but, as he strode away, I could feel the glamour and power of politics emanating from him (along with a strong whiff of aftershave).

Most of my bosses were less charismatic. With their wide array of bad hairstyles, unfashionable wardrobes and dubious personal habits (one of them chain-smoked, and another always sported three-day-old stubble), you could describe them as scruffy, though they all kept ties and sports jackets hanging on the backs of their doors in case they needed to look presentable. But they all shared a deep passion for the public lands of the American West and a zest for political gamesmanship. They knew which subcommittee member was key to blocking a dangerous appropriation rider, or which senator could help build a coalition to pass a wilderness bill. And they had a sixth sense for detecting the handiwork of enemy lobbyists from the extractive industries.

Similar qualities also define the main character of this issue's cover story. For more than three decades, Debbie Sease, a native New Mexican, has plugged away at the largely unglamorous work of stopping a lot of environmentally destructive initiatives and, occasionally, steering proactive legislation through the minefields of Congress. Her experience and effectiveness have made her "one of the most the most influential conservationists you've probably never heard of," notes our writer, former Denver Post D.C. Bureau Chief John Aloysius Farrell. Sease and her colleagues provide an essential link between conservationists in the West and the power centers of the East, where the federal agencies that oversee much of our land and water are based.

Not everyone is cut out for life in D.C. After a year and a half, I decided that I wasn't fascinated enough by insider politics, or tolerant enough of humidity, to make a career there. But I learned a lot in Washington. It was there I discovered that many of the environmental lobbyists read a small Colorado-based publication in order to stay connected to the West they fought for every day. It's the same publication you're reading right now.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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