Member Highlight - Catskill Mountainkeeper

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Interview with Wes Gillingham, Program Director at Catskill Mountainkeeper, located in New York.

As a New York based organization, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities the region faces from climate change?

Extreme weather events like Hurricanes Irene and Sandy have shown us that New York communities stand to be significantly impacted by the effects of global climate change.  Yet these named storms are only the tip of the iceberg.  Over the past decade, numerous and intense unnamed storms and other extreme weather have been affecting rural communities and the agricultural lands on which they depend. The impacts of extreme weather events are both physical and financial, causing damage to infrastructure and crops, yet individuals and communities affected by unnamed storms receive little attention or assistance.  

The fact that New Yorkers are experiencing climate change firsthand has forced them to consider the urgency of the challenge and to become more engaged. We saw this engagement in action with the massive turnout for the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City in September.  Our opportunity lies in harnessing this real sense of urgency and citizen engagement to further pressure elected officials and industry to end the fossil fuel-based policies and practices that are causing climate change.


New York recently banned fracking – can you tell us how Catskill Mountainkeeper helped contribute to that?

First and foremost there was no magic bullet in this long fought victory, but rather a progression of variables – some strategically created and some created by industry in other states. We will have a fracking ban in New York, thanks to the efforts of thousands of New Yorkers who were concerned about their farm, their children, their favorite place to hike or the future of this country.

Educating and engaging the public was a core focus of our work from early on in 2008. We worked to make sure that New Yorkers throughout the state were informed about the potential impacts that fracking would have on our communities and environment.  We held forums across New York, where we brought people impacted by fracking from other parts of the country to share their experiences.  

In 2008, we founded the first statewide coalition, to pressure the governor to re-open New York’s regulatory process and develop a new set of permit conditions for drilling. By doing so, we created an on-going educational platform for citizen engagement, and facilitated the submission of 3770 comments on the drilling proposal to the Department of Environmental Conservation – more than had been received for any other proposal under their review in NYS history. We strengthened that movement by co-founding New Yorkers Against Fracking, which greatly increased public participation throughout the state, and led to over 100,000 written comments on a later version of the permit conditions.

One of our key strategies was the Health Impact Campaign, where we called for a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment to determine the true risks of fracking. This campaign drew the support of scientists, doctors, nurses, and medical societies, whose expertise could not be ignored.  Acting Department of Health (DOH) Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker cited the findings of the DOH health review when he gave his ultimate recommendation to ban fracking, going so far as to say that after reviewing the science he wouldn’t have his family live in a community where the practice is being done. 


What will Catskill Mountainkeeper be working on next to address climate change? 

Mountainkeeper believes that addressing the global issue of climate change requires local solutions, including the development of sustainable, locally-based agricultural and renewable energy systems.   In the agricultural sector, we are working to incentivize and enable responsible farming methods, and promote decentralized, local food systems that aren’t overly resource intensive and are nutrient rich for communities and area residents. This includes providing business planning assistance and farmer-friendly loans to qualified local farmers and food producers, and organizing area farmers’ markets.

To move New York away from climate change-causing fossil fuel dependency, we’re working to change the energy paradigm. Central to this is transitioning New York’s communities to clean, renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal, and encouraging increased energy conservation and energy self-sufficiency. For 2015 we’ve been awarded funding from NYS authorities for a pilot project to implement solar energy bulk-purchasing and job training campaigns in the Southeastern region of New York, with the aim of replicating the model statewide in the future.  We’re also engaged in a state-led process to re-write New York’s energy policies and practices, with the goal of making the state into a national leader in renewable energy policy.

Lastly, in all of our work, we’re increasingly prioritizing collaboration and cooperation between all affected and potentially affected communities and stakeholders. We believe that the bigger and more diverse the movement, the more that different perspectives, strategies, and tactics can be harnessed as an invaluable source of strength in working towards systemic change in these areas.