Changing of the green guard
Megan Graham takes over helm at San Juan Citizens Alliance

Megan Graham, new executive director for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, stands in front of a backdrop of Perins Peak early this week. Protection of the Perins area will be one of many items on Graham’s agenda as she takes over from longtime director Mark Pearson./Courtesy photo

by Missy Votel

As Mark Pearson steps down after 10 years as executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, there’s no doubt he will be leaving big shoes to fill. But his successor, Megan Graham, who officially started work at the conservation group on Aug. 17, is stepping up to the task, preferring to see the shoes as half-full rather than half-empty.

“There’s no doubt Mark has built the foundation the Alliance now stands on, taking it from a volunteer-run group to a fully-staffed organization of eight employees,” she said. “But, the good thing is that our experience and skills are different. I’m coming in at a different time in the San Juan Citizens Alliance’s lifecycle – what I can bring is well-matched with where the Alliance stands today.”

Graham, a 35-year-old mother of two who has lived in Durango since 1995, said she is looking forward to taking the helm at the 23-year-old organization. “I see my role as communication and community awareness and building on the Alliance’s success so far.”

Among those successes are defeat of the proposed Piano Creek Ranch near Pagosa, the creation of the Dolores River Dialogue to help to bring recreational flows back to the Dolores River, and continued advocacy for surface-owner rights and clean air. In addition to Pearson, Graham credited the SJCA staff for building the nonprofit into what it is today. “There’s no doubt I’m walking into a well-run organization.”

Graham, who graduated from Fort Lewis College in 1998 with a degree in English, has worked for the last three years as an editorial writer for the Durango Herald, where she also worked a stint as a reporter and then editor right out of college. She also served as the membership and communications director for Colorado Environmental Coalition from 2001-06. She is currently working on a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Colorado at Denver. In fact, classes started up the same day she went to work at SJCA. To make things even more interesting, school started up this week for her two children, 8 and 10, and she is in the process of moving. “Things were so hectic, I thought about dropping one of my classes, ‘Organizational Management in Change,’ but I realized that’s exactly what I need,” she said. “The program’s really going to help, and I can apply it directly.”

So far, Graham has been busy coming up to speed on the SJCA’s various campaigns and networking with local civic and environmental organizations and gleening as much knowledge as possible from her predecessor. “It’s definitely been a steep learning curve. Mark has such a deep and broad knowledge on all these subjects.”

However, even as she gets her bearings, Graham has already found herself at the fore of new environmental issues, including the Chris Park-Hermosa land exchange and a fight over protection of Perins Peak.

In 2008, the Bureau of Land Management received a request to open thousands of acres within the Perins Peak Wildlife Management Area as well as the Lightner Creek and Dry Fork areas to mineral leasing. Although the BLM denied the request at the time, it said it anticipates opening the areas up once environmental reviews are complete.

However, drilling in the Perin’s area would not only harm wildlife habitat but adversely affect recreational opportunities close to Durango and lead to increased sediment loading in the Animas River fishery. 4

Both the City of Durango and La Plata County have passed resolutions calling for protection of Perins Peak at the urging of the SJCA. Graham said the group is now working to gain support from legislators. “We have gathered significant local support for protecting Perins Peak from drilling and are hopeful that our lawmakers will be responsive to the community and see fit to extend those safeguards,” she said.

As for a stance on the Chris Park Land Exchange, Graham said the Alliance will not formulate an opinion until it has all the facts. “We feel like we can’t make a decision until we have all the answers we need, including the land appraisals,” she said.

In addition to these, the SJCA is still fighting on several other fronts, from clean air and water to river protection. However, as the area continues to grow, Graham said she sees one of the biggest challenges as protecting open space and public lands. “As more people come here, there will be more pressure on these wild places,” she said.

One promising opportunity to protect these places is Rep. John Salazar’s, D-Colo., San Juan Mountains Wilderness Bill, which would protect more than 60,000 acres in San Juan, San Miguel and Ouray counties. “We are obviously very excited about this effort,” Graham said. “It took a long time to come together on this and build a broad consensus. There was an exhaustive vetting process that included everyone from ranchers and mountain bikers to local governments.”

The SJCA is also taking an active role in river protection as the San Juan National Forest reworks its management plan. The Citizens Alliance and the Southwestern Water Conservation District are heading up the River Protection Workgroup, a series of community meetings to help reconcile water protection with water development. “We are looking at six stream systems on the San Juan National Forest one by one, looking for possibilities for protection,” said Graham. In fact, the first of the six groups, the Hermosa Creek Workgroup, will be holding a meeting next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Durango Recreation Center.

As for saving the HD Mountains from drilling – Pearson’s longtime crusade, which Graham expects to take over – the fight may not be over, either. “I think there’s some good opportunities for saving surrounding historical resource with Salazar’s proposal for a monument nearby at Chimney Rock,” she said.

However, as the recession continues its hold, Graham said she realizes that the SJCA, as a nonprofit, will be facing stiffer competition over an even smaller piece of the funding pie. Although foundation grants account for a large part of SJCA’s nearly $600,000 annual operating budget, approximately 30 percent comes from the community in the form of donations, fund-raisers and memberships. “The idea is that we represent all citizens in the San Juan Basin in environmental, ecological and social justice issues,” she said. “Our ownership comes from the community.”