BAR HARBOR, Maine — It is a transitional time for the leadership of some major national and state environmental agencies.
Both Carl Pope, who served as the executive director of the Sierra Club for 17 years, and Everett “Brownie” Carson, who helmed the Natural Resources Council of Maine for 26 years, have announced this year that they would be stepping down from their positions.
Pope now is chairman of the Sierra Club, and Carson said last week that he intends to remain active in statewide and national environmental issues. Youthful activists who joined the burgeoning environmental movement in the 1970s are now ready to semiretire, Pope said.
“When you’re the CEO, you have to do a lot of other stuff,” Pope said Saturday after speaking at the College of the Atlantic commencement ceremony.
He now intends to stop doing the “other stuff” and focus his energies on climate change. The Sierra Club launched a major campaign three years ago to call attention to the issue with some success, but more work needs to be done — and quickly, Pope said.
“It’s now clear, from what happened with Deepwater Horizon, that we have to get off oil much faster than we had previously understood,” Pope said. “You have a billion new Chinese consumers. We can’t do this with oil. There isn’t enough oil.”
One of his major regrets from his years as Sierra Club director is that the club did not “get energy right” in the 1970s and 1980s and also didn’t understand the urgency of the issue.
“It wasn’t what we focused on,” he said, adding that in those years, the environmental activists turned their sights more on land conservation, pollution and public health.
However, Pope does look back with great satisfaction on the battles the club waged during the 1990s to keep intact landmark environmental legislation — such as the Clean Air Act — that had been passed in the 1970s.
Efforts were made to “shred the environmental safety net” during the 1990s, Pope said, but environmental activists worked hard to keep the laws in place.
Now, Pope feels more optimistic about national environmental leadership than he has for many years.
“President Obama is the best environmental president we’ve had since Teddy Roosevelt,” Pope said. “He obviously did not take the crisis in the Minerals Management Service adequately seriously, that’s clear. But his agencies have done a phenomenally good job.”
As far as Maine’s struggles to balance conservation with development and the economy with the environment in the North Woods, Pope said the challenge is to find a way to make resources support the communities located next to or within it.
“It’s got far more value to the communities that are there as a working forest than liquidated,” he said. “Nobody ever looks back and says, ‘I wish we’d built houses there 30 years ago.’ Never ever.”