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Are you strong? Remembering Randy Udall


I think we will find a solution to climate change, but we will need each other to make it happen. Over the years, the environmental community has become fractured on the issue -- arguing over the best approach, becoming frustrated and critical. And all this is healthy, but only if seen as part of a common struggle. We must remember that we are all in this together.

That makes it hard to lose fellow fighters in the battle. And now we have lost a true brother in arms -- energy analyst, innovator, deep thinker and part-time warrior Randy Udall.

Udall was a pioneer, whose many accomplishments included Colorado's first utility green-power pricing program, a mechanism for utilities to bring clean energy online. In his work at the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, he created perhaps the country's first carbon tax, imposing a fee on energy-intensive development. Like much of Randy's work, the program was oddly bipartisan. Many homeowners happily paid, eager to be part of the solution. Randy never forgot that cheap coal and petroleum brought Americans the prosperity we enjoy today. We cannot ignore that debt or abandon our miners and geologists and utility workers. It's not surprising that Randy was beloved by coal miners and gas explorers, conservative utility CEOs and environmentalists alike.

Self-effacing to a fault, he often urged humility. Despite having a famous name, a brother and a cousin who are senators, an uncle who ran the Interior Department and a congressman father who doubled the size of the national park system, Randy shunned power and the spotlight. When I told him he ought to radically expand his work at CORE, he said: "I have no interest in building an empire."

He was always a realist. "Like it or not," he said, fracking technology "has become one of the underpinnings of our civilization, as central to the way we live as the cellphone or computer."

For the last decade, Randy had been relentlessly hammering on a key climate problem -- methane leaking from coal mines. Destroy enough methane, and we can buy ourselves some time to address CO2. He and partner Tom Vessels began working with the president of the Elk Creek Mine in Somerset, Colo. My employer, Aspen Skiing Company, helped finance their project to convert waste methane to electricity: a prototype of a climate solution that crosses partisan boundaries and represents a new frontier of cooperation.

Who owns that mine? Billionaire Bill Koch, who recognized the value of the project and allowed it to go forward. If that seems strange, it also points to a way forward in a fractured time. As a mining executive emailed me recently: "I owe you a conversation on climate change." Barriers come down slowly and painfully, but they do come down.

Not long before he died, Randy told me: "As for the work I did at CORE, that you are doing at Aspen Ski Co., that needs to be done. … It's difficult and endless and exhausting and sometimes lonely. I … look at China's emissions and try to make sense of where this is going to leave us. And the politics of it drive me nuts, Bill McKibben (a leading advocate on climate change) holding hands with 12,000, picketing purportedly the most progressive president we've had, staking out a Democrat!"

There was one question Randy always asked: "Are you strong?" He meant much more than physical strength. Are we strong enough to win this thing, to persevere despite our own doubts and limitations, to work together despite our differences? Randy saw this as the key, describing our job as: "Dozens, hundreds of people chipping away at the iron glacier." And he would want nothing less of us than that we follow through.

If there is a quantum of solace here, it is that Randy appears to have died quickly, perhaps of a heart attack or stroke, in mid-stride, off-trail in late June in Wyoming's Wind River Range, his favorite place on earth. He still had his pack on his back, hiking poles in hand, and was certainly feeling the joyful lightness we all know when we head out on a new adventure.

Under a vast, clear and blue Wyoming sky, he came to rest on his side. To quote Stanley Kunitz, one of his favorite poets, Randy was finally:

absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring….
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn't matter
which way was home;
as if he didn't know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.


Auden Schendler is the Aspen Skiing Company Sustainability VP and was friends with Randy Udall for many years. Schendler is also a former HCN intern and an HCN contributor. A version of this essay was previously published at thinkprogress.org.

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].