Stewardship and Citizenship at the City Level

I would like to offer a few posts that explore ways of getting involved in the political process, from an LDS perspective and particularly in relationship to the environment. I want to start at the city level, which is a good place for anyone to start, especially if you are new to political involvement. My perspective is informed by my experiences, and I don’t mean to suggest that my experiences should be considered the ideal nor do I pretend to know what the right course of action is in every case. However, I want to suggest to others ways in which they might similarly draw upon their own passions and convictions and find ways to enter into the civic sphere in a way that makes a political difference. This is one way to translate your beliefs into meaningful influence in society.

Some weeks ago now I responded to the debate that had begun among fellow Mormon environmentalists about the role of political advocacy for LDS Earth Stewardship, an organization which is the brainchild of a good friend of mine, Peter Ashcroft, and which is growing and maturing under his able leadership. The board of LDSES decided to encourage its members to pursue political action on their own, rather than preferring to act as a group. We do not preclude the possibility that we might take some positions as an organization, and we will pursue opportunities to exercise influence where and when we think it most effective and appropriate, but we are eager to invite people of all political persuasions into our camp and we recognize that, at least in the context of LDS culture and in the intermountain West where many of our members live, environmentalism is already perceived categorically as a partisan concern. We recognize that others find our position too patient and not radical enough and that they might desire other organizational frameworks for political action. As I see it, the more efforts we have to work for change, the better. I am glad, however, for the model of LDSES because I think it has a good chance of reaching the heart of conservative LDS culture.

In my years of activism, I have generally stayed away from partisan identification and tried to appeal to people’s generic understanding of the principles of stewardship in order to garner more support from the center and the right of the political spectrum where people tend not to be as vocal or active in environmental causes. This is because there has been over the last thirty or forty years an increased polarization around environmental topics, making them almost non-starters for people on the right. Previously this was not the case. Historians widely recognize, for example, that Richard Nixon was one of the nation’s most effective environmental presidents and that, before him, Teddy Roosevelt was an avid conservationist. I am convinced that until conservatives rekindle their passion for conservation, places like Utah, and maybe even this nation, stand little chance of making meaningful change in policy.

Not all environmentalists agree with one another on the right course of action, of course, and that is as it should be. I say this because in light of this drift away from conservation on the right and what is perceived to be their entrenched refusal to even concern themselves for the environment, the left has felt the need to become increasingly dogmatic about what the best solutions are for the environmental problems we face. So dialogue, genuine dialogue, between the right and the left about the environment is almost non-existent.

When it comes to local environmental issues, however, I have learned that common ground is easier to come by than when we debate the big issues. One of the reasons for this is that local issues are more tangible to people from their own experience and they do not already have their information filtered through their favorite conservative or liberal news media source or political party. That way, we don’t end up debating ad nauseum, the proper role of government or the virtues of Al Gore.

For example, when Rock Canyon here in Provo came under siege by a man who had purchased on old mining deed and began ripping out the precious rock at the mouth of the canyon, the entire community stood up against him and a powerful coalition was formed between the Forest Service, the mayor of Provo, a conservative State Senator, and a group who formed the Rock Canyon Preservation Alliance, people some might suppose to be “liberals” or “environmentalists.” The canyon has many different entities that have various responsibilities for it, so it has been a challenging but necessary task to bring people together. I have been a witness to the process that has ensued since that coalition was formed, and I have marveled especially at the power of two women, Ginger Woolley and Francine Bennion, who have worked tirelessly for many, many years simply as self-assigned stewards and proactive citizens of their city. They keep the conversation going, and they keep people focused on the big picture regarding the canyon’s well-being, not just for the short term but for future generations. There is no doubt that Rock Canyon would be a different and more damaged place if it weren’t for these two women.

There are still differences among those who have come together for the canyon, but one thing is clear: this canyon is a local treasure and is too meaningful to too many people across religious, ethnic, generational, and political lines and no one is willing to see it become damaged. This is a wonderful thing and something that should be a reminder of how our common love for our home can motivate dialogue, compromise, and serious deliberation about meeting the high demands of good stewardship.

It may still become damaged, however, unless this coalition can help to form some meaningful policy, so a group of us decided to create a manifesto on behalf of the canyon, something that could guide decision-making well into the future. Ginger Woolley recently arranged to make a presentation to the City Council of Provo. A small group of us joined her. She showed slides of the canyon and provided documentation that she has carefully gathered over the years of how it is used and by whom. I read our manifesto to the Council, and we answered questions. You can read more about the canyon and the manifesto here. It was a small step in the long process of building a lasting consensus. Having been to City Council meetings in the past where such ideas as recycling were quickly shot down, I see a change in attitude in our elected officials. I see greater awareness that we cannot assume that the proverbial “market” will take care of our resources and that we need to be proactive in building a culture of caretaking and that this must be manifested in good policy. We have a thoughtful mayor and a concerned City Council, and this bodes well, especially since they enjoy the favor and support of a very conservative community. I think they have this support because they are focused on principles and not in political grandstanding. I don’t mean to suggest that Provo is some kind of environmental Nirvana, but I am optimistic about its future.

In sum, I believe that local political action is a great place to start in your individual path to making a political difference. Although not without their own controversies, local elections are much less likely to be tainted by partisan politics. You also have a greater chance of being heard. Go to your City Council meetings. Learn about the issues. Develop relationships with your elected officials. They should know you by name and they should know what you care about. You might even get asked to serve on a relevant committee for the city, as I was on a Sustainability and Natural Resources committee, and this provides front-row seats to what is happening in your city. And, when and where appropriate, for those of you who hold religious convictions about environmental stewardship, I think it is a good idea to let people know that you care about environmental issues because, and not in spite of the fact that you are a person of faith.

This is cross-posted at


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