Building a green foundation
New FLC environmental director feels suited to the task

Marcus Renner enjoys a short break from the confines of the Fort Lewis College Environmental Center office on Monday morning./Photo by Todd Newcomer. 

by Ken Wright

"Our society is set up in a lot of ways to frustrate young people. You’re told how to make a difference, then hit walls,” says Marcus Renner. “But the more you can give people a sense that hope is possible, the more we can cure the cynicism that plagues this generation.”

Such is the bright vision that Renner carries with him, and that has guided his life and work since he graduated from Brown University in 1991.

And now he brings that vision to the Fort Lewis College Environmental Center – and, he hopes, beyond.

“The Environmental Center can do this entire region a service,” Renner proclaims.

Renner took the reins of the Environmental Center from longtime coordinator Michael Rendon at the start of the college’s winter semester, in January. Since then, while learning the ropes of the job, the campus culture and the community that he has adopted, Renner has been focusing on “just keeping the train on the tracks.” His main objective right now is supporting and bolstering the EC’s established projects: reducing waste on campus and in the community; keeping the EC accessible with its library, staffed office and website; and reaching out the Durango community with the EC’s newsletter and its “Making Waves” radio show on KDUR (Thursdays 9 to 9:30 a.m.).

Once he gets his bearings, though, the fun begins. And if Renner has his way, that will mean making the EC a vital part of Durango and the Four Corners.

“The question in this area is, ‘How can we learn to talk to each other in a very diverse region, with lots of different cultural traditions?’” Renner asks. “We need to create opportunities for relationships to form. It’s hard. There’s a history you have to deal with, things that have created divisions in the past.”

For the Four Corners – where, he says, key issues are agriculture, immigration, growth, affordable housing and land use – he thinks the center could be a tool for finding answers. “I see the EC as a place to help bring together all the different efforts people are making in the area on ways to live sustainably in the Four Corners,” he explains. “The role the EC can play is to help those people talk to each other, to get their message out to a broader audience, and collaborate. For those goals, the EC can be a catalyst to try to frame issues in a way that is inclusive and promotes understanding.”

The parties involved in the area’s issues need to create “a new foundation of understanding and trust,” Renner argues. “The EC can give a space where those relationships can form, then disseminate the new stories that come of these discussions.”

These are tall ambitions. But these are the very challenges Renner has been seeking and addressing for more than 15 years.

Originally from Pasadena, Calif., Renner graduated from Brown University, in Providence, R.I., in 1991 with a degree in environmental studies and social justice. His senior thesis was on youth leadership programs – he worked with youth in New York City and with anti-gang initiatives in Los Angeles.

Also while at Brown, he spent a summer at another job that would have fortuitous consequences later – he worked as a wilderness ranger in the Weminuche Wilderness.

This diversity of experiences – urban and rural – would grow to shape the philosophy and vision that he has brought to Fort Lewis: that both urban and rural culture have something of value to offer our understanding how to live better, more sustainable lifestyles. “I’ve come to think there are answers in come out of both places,” he says. “Because of media, youth today understand both cultures.

“Focusing local is important,” he adds, “but we have to look at how our local community connects to the larger world.”

Those connections became his later work. After graduating from Brown, he taught at Teton Science School, in Jackson, Wyo. He then found himself in Costa Rica, working with an indigenous-rights group on community development.

These experiences combined to add another piece to his view of things. He developed an interest in combining his work with youth and with communities. Another question began to guide him: “How do we set up communities to offer young people a context where they can thrive?”

Pursuing this led Renner next to a graduate program at University of Wisconsin, where he studied conservation biology with a specialty in community education from 1996 to 2000. His masters thesis: “How to create a culture of stewardship in an area,” he explains. His task: Developing strategies that conservation groups can use to get involved where they live, particularly in the West.

Doing research for this assignment led Renner on a grand road trip – putting more than 9,000 miles on his old Honda – talking to people and conservation organizations up and down the Rocky Mountains. A trip worth taking in and of itself, but a trip that also included yet another fortuitous event.

In 1998, while camping near Wolf Creek Pass, Renner was driving down a beaten old forest road he probably ought not have taken his little car on, when he struck a rock that knocked out the car’s power steering. He limped the wounded machine into a shop in Pagosa, but they told him that to get it fixed, he’d have to bring it to the big city – Durango.

So he did. And while his car sat in the shop, he spent a day walking around this town he had visited briefly years before. He liked what he saw.

In the fall of 2005, he was finally able to come back. Renner moved to Durango, where he hoped, he said, to meet his latest challenge: “To make a difference and make a living at the same time,” he laughs. He spent his first weeks here learning about and visiting with community groups and volunteering at Durango Nature Studies. Then in October, he stumbled on the announcement for the FLC Environmental Center Coordinator position.

Perhaps it was meant to be.

And so now in place at the Environmental Center, Renner says he aspires to apply the many lessons learned on his journey so far to answer one more question: “How we can we relate and talk about the environment in a positive way?”

He has no delusions of grandeur of answering that question right away.

“People have been knocking their heads together in this region for a long time,” Renner observes. “But you have to go slow to form those relationships, to build that foundation, to make tangible progress that is longer lasting.”

He warns there will be a lot of short-term work seemingly without tangible results, but those are necessary steps on the long-term path. But he believes that based on what he has seen on his travels, that those relationships can form in the Four Corners.

“Unlike in a lot of other places,” Renner says, “there’s a really positive attitude in the community and at FLC in terms of making things happen, and saying ‘yes’ to possibilities.”

 

 

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