A band of ‘bothers’
San Juan Citizens Alliance celebrates 20 years of challenging the status quo

Dan Randolph, San Juan Citizens Alliance's oil and gas organizer, strolls through HD Mountains old growth in this archival photo. The HD Mountains in eastern La Plata County face inundation by a network of roads and wellpads for the sake of natural gas development, and SJCA has long been fighting to keep the area pristine./Courtesy photo.

by John T. Rehorn

 An idea springs from a nexus, and ideas beget relationships, which in turn give rise to organization. In the case of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, 20 years old on April 5, that nexus was at the intersection of Highways 160 and 172, better known as Elmore’s Corner.

In 1983, a Florida Mesa 13-year-old riding his bicycle was struck by a car at Elmore’s. Harl Kendrick’s life was to forever change. He suffered a severe brain injury and was in a coma for five months. After a long recovery, it was clear that he would live with learning disabilities for the rest of his life. Jerry and Carolyn, Harl’s parents, were devastated. But after recovering from the shock, and adjusting to their changed lives, they resolved to take action.

“If there had been a light there, that would not have happened,” Carolyn said. She and Jerry started organizing their neighbors to petition the Colorado Department of Transportation for a traffic signal at Elmore’s Corner. “We had meetings and hearings,” she said. “Even the bus driver for Florida Elementary School testified how hard it was to turn there.”

By 1986, neighborhood activists had failed to get the authorities’ attention. Enter Durangoan Susan Dahl. Being familiar with the grassroots environmental organization Western Colorado Congress (WCC), this two-job-working mom was all for organizing in Durango when they suggested she take the lead.

Dahl replied in the affirmative when asked if San Juan Citizens Alliance, the resulting group, was perhaps organized for organization’s sake – an alliance without a cause.

“It was just as valuable to be an organization without a prepared goal as it was to look at the problems we had and then setting up an organization,” she said. “For years in Durango, the problem with getting anything done was that often county residents and city residents were butting heads. To have a voice for the whole area (was) a way for us to all lead together and work on some issues.”

It didn’t take long for Dahl, subsequently elected the first president of the alliance, to connect with Jerry and Carolyn Kendrick. A cause was identified.

“The Citizens Alliance was always there, and because of their presence and all of the community involvement, we did get a light eventually,” Carolyn Kendrick said. In fact, by 1987, within a year of the alliance’s involvement, a driver knew when to cross the highway safely, rather than by mentally calculating velocities of oncoming Peterbilts.

Now the San Juan Citizens Alliance was rolling. With the organizational skills of Gwen Lachelt and longtime member Jerry Swingle on board, they tackled tougher, bigger issues, like persuading La Plata County commissioners to adopt oil and gas regulations to lighten the impact of the industry upon surface owners. Mark Pearson, the alliance’s current executive officer, explained the strategy.

“We knew that the state of Colorado had no interest in protecting landowners at the state level,” Pearson said. “So we figured that the county commissioners were the friendliest venue for securing regulations that would actually improve protection for landowners. Basically, we always come back to the power of the people and that grassroots organization.”

San Juan Citizens Alliance Executive Director Mark Pearson spends a little time in his favorite office. Pearson is celebrating two birthdays these days.  His daughter, Sora, was born two weeks ago./Courtesy photo

Swingle, who has served as an officer in both Citizen’s Alliance and the Western Colorado Congress, described what it was like to make that initial impact at Elmore’s Corner. “It felt like the first effective application of grassroots democracy that I’d ever personally been involved with,” he said. “It was empowering. You get a group of determined people together, and there is very little that they can’t accomplish with good intent and sufficient energy and resource.”

Though it may sound like an empowered group of granola-chomping tree-huggers, as Pearson joked, the San Juan Citizens Alliance is as diverse as the issues it tackles. Pearson said its members have an overwhelming interest, many as landowners, in protecting themselves from a powerful oil and gas industry.

“That spans the ideological spectrum dramatically,” Pearson said. One member describes himself politically as “to the right of Atilla the Hun.” And there’s many more in the broad middle ground, according to a membership survey conducted 18 months ago “That, to me, adds a lot to the credibility of our organization to have that diversity of ideological appeal,” Pearson said.

The alliance has been a perennial thorn in the side of the oil and gas industry, including the group’s latest fight to keep the HD Mountains in eastern La Plata County roadless and oil-well padless. BP Amoco’s director of public affairs, Dan Larson, wasn’t going to wish the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance a wonderful birthday when he was contacted for this piece.

“We recognize the role that the San Juan Citizens Alliance feels they need to fulfill in the community,” Larson said. “They would have to answer why they are in the newspaper all the time. I think they feel obliged to maintain a certain level of visibility in the community to keep people aware that they’re still out there.”

Larson said it’s safe to say that BP disagrees with very much of what the alliance has to say. And in a turnabout of fair play, Larson presented BP’s side of the story.

“BP is in the business of providing energy to America,” he added. “It’s important for us to do the job correctly. And that means sitting down with landowners and reaching agreements with them in terms of a new well going in. It means working with the county to make sure the county understands what we’re doing. We abide by all the county, state and federal regulations.”

Oil and gas isn’t the Citizen’s Alliance’s only worthy opponent. The U.S. Forest Service and real estate developers might occasionally also wish the group would just go away. “I think we’ve proven that’s not going to happen,” Pearson said.

One of the pitfalls of social and environmental work is burnout. Swingle likens it to a game show. “As in ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ instead of buying vowels, you buy minor delays or minor respite,” he said. Pearson acknowledges that some leave the organization never to return. Some go away for a while. And some just keep on plugging.

“You have to be an optimist to do this kind of stuff because if you’re not, you’ll just focus entirely on the losses. Every gas pad that goes in, you’ll feel the pain of that,” Pearson said. “But the other side of that is you can go to the East Fork Valley (of the San Juan River) today or you can hike the HD Mountains today, and it’s still the same as it was 15 or 20 years ago. That provides rejuvenation to your soul and to your motivations.”

The San Juan Citizens Alliance addresses a laundry list of environmental issues but also focuses on social topics. Currently, the Los Compañeros program advocates for Latino immigrants. Affordable housing is also on the radar. The alliance’s original president thinks the future includes holding the line on environmental issues but also tackling matters like county population growth as the group moves into its third decade.

“We have issues that we can really get close to and have some impact on and feel like we’ve made a difference in our lives,” Dahl said. “I think that’s important to everybody – that they feel like they’ve contributed somehow. People who live here love Durango, and we want to feel like we did something that improved Durango.” •

 

 

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