Above the Waterline: Conservation voters group gets reboot with longtime activist

The Chattahoochee River

Let the mountains talk, let the river run. Once more, and forever.

– David Brower

Called the father of the environmental movement, David Brower was a larger-than-life figure: profiled by writer John McPhee, vilified by federal dam builder Floyd Dominy and twice-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. As executive director of the Sierra Club from 1952 to 1968, Brower guided the organization from a small, western mountaineering society to a powerhouse of environmental activism.

Understanding the need for political action at the national level, Brower co-founded the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) in 1969, a year before the first Earth Day in 1970. Today, LCV is considered one of the nation’s most influential environmental political action groups, as it works to turn environmental values into national, state and local priorities. Along with its 29 state affiliates, LCV advocates for sound environmental policies and holds elected officials accountable for their votes and actions.

In the early 2000s, Georgia Conservation Voters (GCV) was founded as a non-partisan organization with a mission to transform the state’s political landscape by electing leaders with conservation values and holding them accountable to implementing policies that ensure clean water and air, abundant wildlife, scenic landscapes and economic opportunities for all Georgians. Annually, state legislators who voted to support environmental initiatives were recognized by GCV and a valuable scorecard was produced to inform voters.

As politics changed in Georgia (and elsewhere) in the decade that followed GCV’s founding, it became increasingly difficult for the organization to accomplish its mission and, in 2013, it discontinued operations. Five years later – with a dynamic new director and a state population that is growing more diverse and progressive – GCV is rebooting. Polling shows that a large number of Georgia voters now identify with environmental issues.

Colleen Kiernan

At the age of 10, Colleen Kiernan became an activist. Away from her parents overnight for the first time at a basketball camp at Northwestern University, she says there were only a few ways to be “rebellious,” one of which was to drink lots of “pop” – soft drinks not allowed at home. As she and her friends consumed their pop, aluminum cans accumulated around them; at the time (the late 1980s), the college campus did not have a recycling program. At school, Colleen had learned that recycling just one can could save enough energy to power a television for three hours. She and her best friend collected cans from the entire dormitory and took them home to recycle. A lifelong environmental activist was born.

Three decades later, Colleen remembers thinking at the time: “What if everyone recycled all the cans, all the time – what a big impact from collective action!”

As the environmentalist in her Midwestern family, Colleen’s holiday presents were often “green”, such as the Greenpeace calendar and, one year, a whale adopted in her name. In the fifth grade, she continued her collective action with a petition drive to reinstate a special lunch day; the petition was signed by every student and school leaders relented.

Persuasive, organized and passionate: these are attributes that Colleen brought with her to Emory University where she joined the Barkley Forum debate team and, as luck would have it, got to debate her favorite topic her sophomore year: “That the United States Federal Government should increase regulations requiring industries to substantially decrease the domestic emission and/or production of environmental pollutants.”

In 2008, Colleen received a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from Georgia Tech which augmented her political science and environmental studies degree from Emory. After working for a local firm doing green building and sustainability consulting, she became the Georgia Chapter Director of the Sierra Club in 2010. In her six years with the organization, Colleen directed successful campaigns to shutter coal-fired power plants, add significant solar energy resources and bring MARTA to Clayton County.

Next, as policy director for Atlanta City Councilmember Kwanza Hall, Colleen drafted and helped pass a 100 percent clean energy policy in May 2017, making Atlanta the first city in Georgia to pass such a measure and the largest southern city to do so. By 2025, all city operations must be powered by clean, renewable energy sources.

In early March, Colleen Kiernan became GCV’s new executive director. She says that the organization will build slowly and strategically with a focus on the Georgia General Assembly and a goal to inform and mobilize conservation voters throughout the state. She believes that there is no better time than now to unite Georgians to protect their air, water and future generations.

For more information, visit gaconservationvoters.org.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

1 Comment
  1. Permit me to briefly fill in the missing – and possibly proudest – chapter in the history of Georgia’s politically active conservationists. In the early 1970s, those seeking protection of the Chattahoochee River were promoting passage in the General Assembly of the Metropolitan River Protection Act (MRPA). After repeatedly being blocked by hard-nosed legislators in committee, they took a new tack. In 1972, Carlton Neville of Audubon and MRPA activist Roger Buerki founded the Georgia League of Conservation Voters. They and their supporters then endorsed and actively campaigned for a candidate who then unseated one of the most obstructive of those committee legislators, other members of the General Assembly took notice, and within a very short time MRPA was enacted into law. This made quite a splash in the news media. The strictly non-partisan Georgia LCV (which drew its board members from conservation organizations representing a broad spectrum of views) remained very active until the late 1970s, when Sierra Club’s nascent political committee surged forward and the GA LCV faded away. We had influence, and we made a difference. I was honored to serve for a time as GA LCV Chairman.

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