A Brighter Shade of Green

Forcing the Spring:

U S. 281, a central south-north artery in San Antonio, has always made good copy. When initial plans for its construction were released to the public in the mid-1950s, the San Antonio Conservation Society rose in opposition; the plans revealed that the proposed highway would bisect a number of urban amenities. In advance of a 1960 bond vote, the society unleashed a media barrage. Under the header, “STOP THIEF,” one flyer trumpeted that the expressway would “Destroy the world famous SUNKEN GARDENS…Destroy the ZOO [and] Ruin public PICNIC GROUNDS And RECREATION AREAS.” It debunked, too, highway-boosters’ claims to frugality, noting that “to traverse as much of the park area as possible so as to save money” was a bit of “false economy.” The attacks were effective, and the bond was defeated, leading Life Magazine to chortle, “A new breed of engineers regards concrete, anywhere, as more esthetic than nature, and sometimes need to be put in their places by alert and stubborn conservationists—as San Antonio did.”

The engineers and their political allies seemed to have the last laugh the next year when a reconfigured bond package swept the polls. But nothing was quite so simple with this highway project: Over the next 10 years the Alamo City experienced its most bruising political battle, as the Society and a coalition of environmental activists across a broad spectrum of the community brawled with city hall in and out of court. In the end, they failed, but with this key legacy: Sen. Ralph Yarborough, in cahoots with the conservation society, amended the 1966 act creating the U. S. Department of Transportation to prevent its secretary, in the senator’s words, “from unleashing the bulldozer on our public parks, historic sites, wildlife refuges and recreation areas.”

That amendment proved to be a legislative harbinger for the more inclusive protections embodied in the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Today it figures in the latest struggle over U. S. 281. In response to the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) plans to expand the expressway—up to 16 lanes at its widest point—and build toll lanes along its route as it cuts across the Edwards Aquifer recharge and drainage zones in northern San Antonio, Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA) and People for Efficient Transportation filed for an injunction in federal court in December. Citing TxDOT’s failure to conduct a full-fledged environmental impact statement, AGUA’s executive director Annalisa Peace told the San Antonio Express-News that the agency had not done “as the law requires, which is to engage the community through this environmental impact process.” To put pressure on the state and local government, the two groups recruited like-minded grassroots organizations to join the fight and held a series of animated public meetings to educate the citizenry—garnering considerable media. In the city’s modern history, there has been no more divisive presence than U.S. 281.

Forcing the Spring - book cover

Although the particulars of this history of highway protest are peculiar to San Antonio, the long-standing debate intersects with similar battles around the country, from the 1960s to the present. In contemporary Los Angeles, as with Chicago and Atlanta, and everywhere in between, there has been an exponential growth in “groups to promote and mobilize around open space and Urban Nature” issues, observes Robert Gottlieb in this revised and updated edition of his 1993 classic, Forcing the Spring. They “face enormous obstacles … associated with scarce land, concrete-dominated landscapes, auto-centered streetscapes, and contamination problems.” That they are combating a set of interrelated issues is a direct ramification of the tremendous increase in urban populations—a matter of utmost significance in the American southwest, now home to seven of the nation’s 10 largest cities. Yet for all the dilemmas these mushrooming metropolises face, Gottlieb, who is director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, believes that their similarities offer an unparalleled opportunity for the environmental movement to reconceive itself as an advocate for “nature and the poor.”

The intellectual history of this form of advocacy dates back to the Progressive Era. Gottlieb recovers such critical figures as Alice Hamilton, a protégé of Jane Addams and the settlement house movement. A physician, she conducted pioneering research in the field of industrial disease. Using “shoe-leather epidemiology,” Hamilton interviewed workers on the job and at home, canvassed health-care providers, and began to unravel the links between workplace hazards and a series of illnesses confronting the urban underclass. As she worked on such dangers as phosphorous and lead, her research transformed the legal environment, producing new protections for workers, upgrades in safety mechanisms, developments that found their parallel in other progressive reforms that addressed air- and water-borne pollution, garbage disposal, open space and parkland, water quality and quantity, poverty and deprivation. If this list has a contemporary ring to it, it should. As Gottlieb makes abundantly clear, we owe a great deal to the women and men whose professional dedication led to creation of governmental safety nets, and whose energetic activism challenged “the urban excesses of an expansionary and speculative capitalism.”

Growing out of this Progressive ethos was the landmark legislation that subsequently swept through Congress between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s—the Wilderness Act, NEPA, Clean Air and Water Acts. Their passage was also a last hurrah. On the right, conservative Republicans who swept into office with President Reagan and his successors have expanded their power in part by slamming the federal environmental bureaucracy, assaults that have led to the recent weakening of the Endangered Species Act, threats to NEPA, and the dilution of the Clean Air and Water Acts, among other rollbacks. On the left, some environmentalists have dismissed the big-government, top-down, expertise-driven solutions that have flowed from federal environmental agencies. They have also criticized the cadre of professional conservationists housed at the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, and other “mainstream” green-advocacy groups. Gottlieb supports this fratricidal impulse, believing that it has widened the movement’s perspectives and deepened its constituency.

“In 1993,” he writes, “ethnicity, class and gender were not terms ordinarily associated with environmentalism.” No more. Driven by grassroots groups concerned with achieving environmental justice in areas rural and urban, encouraged by the emergence of eco-feminism as a form of scholarly analysis and a rallying cry, and reinvigorated by such developments as the “promotoras movement,” in which community members (many of whom are women) are trained in public-health issues and then serve as conduits for local organizers and national funders, these and other forces have helped redefine American environmentalism. It has become more “democratic and inclusive,” Gottlieb asserts, more focused on “equity and social justice,” out of which has come “an environmentalism of linked natural and human environments, an environmentalism of transformation.”

Gottlieb is not wrong about this nor about his prescription for this movement’s future. “[T]o reassert its identity based on values and moral imperatives,” he notes, it “needs to become a youth movement, similar to other social movements that could be potentially energized by the passion and strong moral undercurrent that has always attracted young people to movements for change.” What he does not acknowledge is just how difficult it has always been to translate youthful energy into long-term gains; history is replete with burned-out organizers whose efforts came to naught because they could not transcend their moment, could not build for the long haul. Finding ideological common ground, as well as the passionate engagement necessary to turn ideas into action, once bedeviled the abolitionist and civil-rights movements, a process that continues to this day.

So those battling U.S. 281 have discovered. To stop the bulldozers, and the resultant sprawl that will further despoil the Hill Country and the Edwards Aquifer, requires a broad coalition that links the highway’s expansion with public health and safety issues, reaching out beyond those of means who live on the city’s northside. To appeal to other, and poorer, sectors of the city on this one issue, AGUA might rip a page out of its playbook when it slowed down the development of PGA Village. In 2001, it led the charge against the controversial golf course sited on the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone in northern San Antonio, arguing for a more sustainable community writ large and for a more environmentally just cityscape, making cause with such legendary Westside organizations as COPS, Communities Organized for Public Service, an activist organization representing the poor in San Antonio’s South and West sides. Their struggle gained considerable public support, including a massive petition drive that demanded the city put the question up for a vote; only a back-door deal by the county with the Legislature enabled the well-heeled developers to continue with their plans. Although that loss was galling, AGUA’s strategy was right: Only by establishing a similarly broad-based, city-wide vision will it marshal the necessary support to slow, maybe even stop, unwarranted development over aquifer.

That strategy alone will not bring success. AGUA has discovered, as have grassroots organizations everywhere, that it needs the legislative muscle and financial clout that hitherto only national, more mainstream groups have been able to bring to the political arena, the very groups whose standing the environmental left has tended to demonize. Linking up with the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, for example, which has had a long history of successfully battling for Edwards Aquifer protection in the federal courts, would be a logical step. Making the same case is the chapter’s recent filing of a motion with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality by East Texas groups seeking to halt wastewater discharge from an East Texas paper mill into waters impounded to form Lake Sam Rayburn. Without the Sierra Club’s expertise, such a legal gambit might not have been attempted.

It would help, too, if AGUA were able to depend on another Senator Yarborough. But for the moment, a sympathetic federal agency will do. On January 11, the Federal Highway Administration stopped construction on U.S. 281 pending more complete environmental-impact evaluations. However temporary this stay—and the guess is that TxDOT ultimately will produce an impact statement that reinforces its contention that a widened toll road will have no adverse environmental impact—the federal agency’s intervention is a reminder that not all solutions are grassroots; not all power is communal; not all politics is local.

Contributing writer Char Miller is director of urban studies at Trinity University and author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism and Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas.

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Published at 12:00 am CST