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The Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year: Christine Canaly

The Fund for Wild Nature’s Grassroots Activist of the Year for 2017 is Christine Canaly. For nearly three decades, Christine has worked tirelessly to protect wild nature in the Colorado Rockies. As Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC), she has been at the heart of the campaign to protect Wolf Creek Pass from the proposed Village at Wolf Creek, an intensive 8,000-person development that would harm wildlife such as Canada lynx, degrade fragile wetlands, and destroy the rural nature of the area.

 

Wolf Creek straddles the Continental Divide and functions well as a wildlife corridor connecting two of the Southern Rockies’ largest wilderness areas. But a scheme by the Texas billionaire developer Red McCombs, and a U.S. Forest Service that bends to his will, would replace this unique area with a town the size of Aspen, forever squandering the wild nature of this area.

 

The coalition resisting the destruction of Wolf Creek Pass has good reason to celebrate, with a court victory in 2017 that has halted the project for now. The effort has required constant vigilance: Christine’s organization has participated in every court case, local and federal, to resist the Village at Wolf Creek development, for nearly 20 years.

As Matt Sandler of Rocky Mountain Wild explained, “Christine has been working to protect Wolf Creek Pass for decades. She’s been a backbone of this multi-organizational campaign, doing everything from helping to draft comments, gathering intel, and overall community organizing. She is a pleasure to work with and an inspiring member of the Colorado conservation community.”

Where did Christine get her inspiration? Growing up in a working class neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, she remembers when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire when she was 10 years old. She recalls her brother reeling in fish from Lake Erie that had growing tumors on them. That bothered the young Christine. Over the years, she was shaped by personal experiences as well as by authors such as Terry Tempest Williams, Margaret Murie, Dr. Theo Colburn, and Wendell Berry.

During much of the 1980s, Christine had a career as an engineer, working for CNN Headline News in Atlanta and then NBC-TV in New York City. But when General Electric bought NBC, she became disillusioned by media consolidation and the shift from news as a public service to profit-seeking. She headed for parts West; New York City’s loss was our gain.

Christine’s philosophy is that “if you bring people together to solve a problem, it has a much higher rate of success.” She works in a complex local context and negotiates that setting well. She’s sensitive to, and has advocated for, environmental justice concerns, reporting that a local long-time Hispanic colleague pointed out to her “we are treated like a third world country here, they just come in and take the resources.” She organized farmers and ranchers in the San Luis Valley, helping to achieve the bi-partisan Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000. The Great Sand Dunes, and her efforts to protect them, are a particular source of pride for Christine.

For her tireless and innovative efforts in defense of wild nature, Christine received the Jasper Carlton “Activist in the Trenches” Award from Rocky Mountain Wild in 2015. Other awards she’s received include the EPA Environmental Stewardship Award in 2008.

In addition to her work to protect Wolf Creek Pass, Christine has also helped nurture an impressive array of environmental organizations and actions in her region. She has helped to start or promote Citizens for San Luis Valley Water (1989); the Technical Assistance Grant (1992) to oversee the Summitville Mine Clean Up of the Alamosa River; Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, which ties private property to water rights with conservation easements (1998); Orient Land Trust, which protects the Valley View Hot Springs (2000); San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (1995), which advocates for public lands; Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, to preserve cultural and historic resources (2009); and the Conejos Clean Water, an environmental justice organization based out of Antonito, CO (2010).

Says Christine, “I am very proud of all these organizations who have taken off and are going in some wonderful directions, in their own way. Most of these organizations needed someone to help them (voluntarily) build/guide their infrastructure to be able to pursue non-profit/environmental work and get through the IRS credibility. It makes sense to have all these organizations now, but they needed effort and nurturing in the beginning.”

For her long-term dedication to safeguarding nature and ability to achieve results, the Fund for Wild Nature is proud to honor Christine with a $1,000 check and a badger statue in recognition of her selection as our Grassroots Activist of the Year.

Nicole Rosmarino, Ph.D., is a Board Member of the Fund for Wild Nature and the Executive Director of the Southern Plains Land Trust