How to Vote for the Environment This Year
A guide to key ballot measures and Senate and House races that will have huge impacts on the way we address climate change
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If you care about being outside—whether that means finding solitude in the Grand Canyon or just having breathable air in your neighborhood—this year’s election is crucial for the protection of recreational landscapes and the sustainability of (among other things) life on earth. If you’re voting for the environment, the presidential race is clear. One candidate has a plan to address climate change, and the other has consistently eviscerated international climate goals, stripped environmental protections, and ignored or blocked science.
But White House residency is far from the only thing on the November 3 docket. There are also down-ticket races—from congressional battles to ballot measures—that will have wide-ranging impact on wildlife, water rights, renewable resources, and more. Those issues don’t always fracture along party lines, and many of those races have big-time local and national implications.
There is a lot to sort through in this election cycle, so to help, I’ve highlighted the state races that have bearing on the issues I think are crucial, like climate change, outdoor-access equity, and healthy ecosystems. Dig into your hyper-local races, too, because change can come from the bottom up. Voting is important, and you can’t get pissed about the outcome if you don’t exercise that right.
Ballot Measure 1
Measure 1 would increase taxes on oil-production operations in the North Slope of Alaska. In the state’s coastal tundra, where oil formations underlay sensitive ecosystems, like caribou habitat, it’s a question of how the financial benefit of the ecological damage can be spread.
Robin Brena, chairperson of Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share, the campaign behind the ballot initiative, says that just three oil-production fields—Alpine, Kuparuk, and Prudhoe Bay, which are jointly owned by major extraction companies—met those criteria, so the measure would really only target big companies. Alaska, which is currently dependent on revenue from extraction for more than half of the state’s economy, should be compensated fairly for the extraction, says Brena. The opposition, a coalition called One Alaska, received 94 percent of its funding from five big oil and gas companies, which each contributed between $1.5 million and $4.5 million to the campaign. It says the measure would hurt its bottom line and reduce its ability to invest in new projects and jobs.
In my view, companies should pay for their use and extraction of resources, especially in sensitive public lands.
Senate Special Election
The Arizona Senate race is hotly contested, because 2020 was the state’s warmest summer on record (sorry) and because the incumbent, Republican Martha McSally, was appointed to fill John McCain’s seat after he passed away during his term. So if her opponent, astronaut Mark Kelly, a Democrat, wins, he could be sworn in as early as November 30, changing the balance of power in the Senate. But it’s not just about Washington, D.C. The next two years in Arizona could be climatically crucial as the state deals with a skyrocketing population, diminishing water supplies, and threats to its public lands.
McSally, who gets the ninth most money from oil and gas in the Senate, voted for the Great American Outdoors Act and helped lead the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, but she’s been categorically bad on public-land protection and pollution. The League of Conservation Voters put her on its Dirty Dozen this year. Kelly, on the other hand, says he’s seen the impacts of deforestation firsthand—from space! He’s been endorsed by the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter and the League of Conservation Voters for his science-based plan to address climate change in the desert.
A yes vote on Proposition 114 would allow Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce gray wolves in western Colorado starting in 2023. If it passes, it will be the first time voters anywhere in the country will have a say in wolf reintroduction. The last wolf was shot in Colorado in the 1920s, it’s the only state in the Northern Rockies that doesn’t have a wolf population or management plan, and the issue of reintroduction has been volleyed around for more than 20 years. Gray wolves are currently federally protected by the Endangered Species Act, but there’s talk of delisting them and turning over management to states and tribes, because populations have rebounded in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest thanks to local programs there. In Colorado, proponents say reintroduction will create a healthy corridor for the apex predators between Canada and Mexico, and that wolves create a positive trophic cascade for ecosystems. Opponents posit that this proposition gives voters power that’s better left to wildlife managers and biologists, and that reintroducing wolves will threaten ranching and hunting economies that have long been crucial in western Colorado.
Third Congressional District
In June, Republican House representative Scott Tipton (the guy who invited the Bureau of Land Management to Grand Junction) lost his primary in a shocking upset to first-time candidate Lauren Boebert, who garnered attention for her pro-gun, open-carry, anti-government stances. She’s a lightning rod, and she’s running against low-key Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush, a former county commissioner and state House representative from Steamboat Springs, who is known as a pragmatist and an environmentalist. The Third District, which covers more than a third of the state, includes oil and gas communities on the Western Slope and recreation hubs like Steamboat, Durango, and Aspen, so the future management of public lands and the balance between extraction, agriculture, and recreation is tricky and important there. What worries me is that Boebert hasn’t put forward any policy plans on that front (or really any other front) besides saying she’s pro drilling. Mitsch Bush, on the other hand, has a legislative history of supporting agriculture, water rights, and land conservation (and she used to work for Moots Cycles), as well as the environmental ethic to be an effective representative.
Sixteenth Congressional District
The Gulf Coast of Florida has been hit hard by a rash of environmental issues, from toxic algae to hurricane storm surges to sea-level rise, and in District 16, former Democratic Florida House representative Margaret Good, who garnered an early endorsement from the Sierra Club for her action on water issues, is running a tight race against seven-term Republican incumbent Vern Buchanan. Buchanan has a lifetime score of 22 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. He’s voted against offshore drilling, which is nice, but he’s also undercut larger-scale environmental protections and any kind of wildlife bill that doesn’t directly touch Florida. This is an area that needs action, and prioritizing broader thinking is crucial to slowing the impacts of climate change on all of our coasts. Good, an environmental lawyer, championed environmental research and regulation during her time in the statehouse, and she’ll likely keep doing it in Congress.
A yes vote on Michigan Proposal 1, the Use of State and Local Park Funds Amendment, would modify the way the state’s park funds (which come from mineral, oil, and gas leases and royalties) can be spent. It would remove a cap on the funds and allow for money to be earmarked for restoration, operations, and capital improvements, in addition to conservation. The Sierra Club opposes it, worried it will take funding away from the conservation of new lands, but a broad coalition of other local and national environmental groups, like the Nature Conservancy and the Michigan Audubon Society, support it. They say it allocates more funding, and that you need to take care of places once you protect them. I tend to agree.
State Senate Race
Lindsay Bourgoine, director of policy and advocacy for the Protect Our Winters Action Fund, says that in the competitive Michigan Senate race, moderate Democratic incumbent Gary Peters has a strong track record of pushing through environmentally friendly legislation. He’s spearheaded recycling bills and funding for fisheries science in the Great Lakes. Peters, described as having a “neighborhood dad persona,” also has a 100 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. He’s running against charismatic former Army Ranger John James, a Republican businessman whose environmental platform is scant. James says he supports President Obama’s interagency Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which aims to clean and protect the lakes, but that largely he’s for environmental deregulation.
State Senate Race
In one of the tightest senate races in the country (and the most expensive in Montana history), Democratic governor Steve Bullock is running against incumbent Steve Daines. How different could two white guys in their fifties named Steve be? In Montana, where outdoor recreation is a big slice of both the culture and the economy, and where public-land governance impacts big players in ranching and oil and gas, their differences are notable, and both men are trying to talk about their environmental track records. Daines shepherded the showy Great American Outdoors Act, along with Colorado senator Cory Gardner, but his longer record shows votes to defund the same act, particularly during years when he wasn’t up for election, and bills to rescind protections for public land. Bullock has taken campaign contributions from oil and gas, but he also initiated the Montana Climate Assessment and has led the charge to remove dangerous acting BLM head William Perry Pendley, whose appointment was never approved by Congress, which is in violation of the Constitution. As governor, Bullock has done a good job of listening to constituents’ climate, water, and land-use concerns and acting on them, and I believe he’ll do the same as senator.
Nevadans might feel some déjà vu when they look at their ballots and see Question 6, a proposed amendment that would require utilities to get at least 50 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2030. That’s because, in Nevada, any amendment to the state Constitution has to be approved by voters twice, in consecutive elections, and this is Question 6’s second round. The same amendment passed with 60 percent of the vote in 2018, so in theory, this could just be a walk into home plate, but if it doesn’t pass, the amendment will be permanently killed, setting back progress on carbon reduction.
Washington governor Jay Inslee gained national attention when he entered the Democratic presidential primary on a climate-focused ticket. He washed out of the race, but his climate plans went on to become part of the DNC’s platform. As governor he’s pushed the state’s clean-energy portfolio and worked on salmon and orca conservation, which are hot topics in the Puget Sound area. In the state race, he’s running against small-town police chief Loren Culp, who identifies as a sportsman and whose platform as such is slightly obtuse: “As governor, I will measure Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s performance by a simple set of questions: Are there fish in the water? Are there deer and elk on the land? Are sport hunters content? Are commercial fishermen content?” The race is an ideological battle over government overreach (aren’t they all?), but it has the power to change the direction of the state’s climate momentum. Inslee is at the forefront of pushing climate policy on the state and national level. Let’s keep him there.