Smart from the start

Forty years ago, three events helped transform rising ecological concerns into the modern environmental movement.

In June 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. "For decades, the river had been a dumping ground for pollutants from Cleveland and other cities along its banks," writes Rob Kirkpatrick in "1969: The Year Everything Changed." "The mixture of debris and toxic chemicals proved combustible, and the river literally caught on fire."

In that same year, offshore drilling caused a huge oil slick off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., polluting "an area of more than 400 square miles, and covered 40 miles of beach with a 'tarlike slime,' " according to Kirkpatrick.

The third event was of a different nature. A debate over the fate of a vacant lot in Berkeley, Calif., turned deadly. The lot was owned by the University of California, which planned to use it for future expansion. Students and other activists said the lot should be freed from university control and declared a "people's park." The activists took over and beautified the lot.

Gov. Ronald Reagan, outraged by the students' unilateral act, sent in 250 state and local officers, who destroyed the plantings and erected a fence around the property. Students protested, and police responded by firing tear gas and buckshot. One student was killed and another blinded. Reagan then sent in 2,700 National Guardsmen and declared martial law in Berkeley. Skirmishes and further protests followed.

The university eventually won the battle, paving the lot for parking. But the effect of the People's Park protests, the Cuyahoga River fire and the Santa Barbara oil spill went a long way toward establishing the modern environment movement.

Ever since, there's been a dichotomy: big business on one side, environmentalists on the other. The idea of those antagonistic forces working together has rarely entered the equation.

But today we have an opportunity to approach the business/environmental relationship in a new way. The change that makes this possible has come on the business side. The entrepreneurs in the renewable energy field are a different breed from their counterparts in the fossil fuels industry.

"They have a different value set than the oil and gas people," says John Wallin, director of the Nevada Wilderness Project. "Most renewable energy companies care about the environment. That's why they've chosen to be in the renewable industry."

As a result, there's a great opportunity for business and environmental interests to come together over renewable energy. It's a natural partnership, linked by a common goal of attacking climate change.

Yet not all environmentalists are ready to jump on the renewable bandwagon. The conflict goes like this: A company wants to build a solar plant in the Mojave Desert. This is a good thing, right? Not only are we weaning the country off its dependence on foreign oil, but we're reducing the carbon emissions that cause global warming.

Ah, but spreading thousands of solar mirrors across a valley has negative effects on wildlife and the appearance of pristine desert. Some environmentalists aren't convinced that this is any different from other types of development.

Terry Frewin, a Sierra Club representative, questioned such a project west of Las Vegas. "Deserts don't need to be sacrificed so that people in L.A. can keep heating their swimming pools," he told The New York Times.

Wallin aims to bring his brand of "clear-eyed pragmatism" to the debate over renewable energy development in Nevada. Rather than fighting, he wants to work with government leaders and renewable companies to designate suitable locations for development and protect other places at the same time.

"We know renewable energy is coming down the pike," Wallin says. "We know the imprint on the land is going to be substantial. Wherever these projects go, they are going to be on landscapes that somebody cares about."

Since we know this is going to happen, Wallin's view is to figure out how to steer development into areas of lowest impact and at the same time secure greater protections for other areas. His group has dubbed this approach "smart from the start."

"The green revolution isn't just development, it's conservation," he says. "We should be doing this stuff in tandem."

A great example in Nevada would be the issue of the sage grouse. Building transmission lines across the state is going to destroy sage grouse habitat, creating the risk of the bird joining the endangered species list. If we know this is going to happen, why not designate sage grouse conservation areas elsewhere?

"If we are smart from the start, the habitats can actually be better off after the development happens than they were beforehand," Wallin says.

The idea of crafting legislation that simultaneously clears the way for development and protects the environment apparently is a radical concept for federal and state decision-makers. No doubt, historical animosity between these forces dating back 40 years is the primary reason. But Wallin is right that "smart from the start" is the key to the future economy.

Geoff Schumacher ( is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.