Featured Volunteer: Kirk Cunningham, Conservation Issues Co-Chair

By Mary Coday Edwards

Kirk Cunningham

With his years of knowledge and experience, long-time Sierra Club member Kirk Cunningham is the Rocky Mountain Chapter’s “go-to” man for facilitating the Chapter’s conservation efforts.  (Kirby Hughes is the other co-chair, and is another great go-to guy: keep your eyes open for a future article on him.) In the following interview, Kirk reflects on his activism, how the environmental movement has changed and why the Club remains relevant to the global environmental movement due to its unique “tool box”.

Kirk joined the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter in 1974, after moving to Colorado from the East. Then employed with the U.S. Geological Survey – where he is now retired from – he joined for the outings. With a PhD in Chemistry, he quickly moved into conservation issues as “environmental problems here were more obvious than in the East,” Kirk said, and he subsequently served as Conservation Chair in the mid-1980s, later moved over to Outings leader, and returned to Conservation Issues as Co-Chair in the 1990s – a position he still holds.

Tramping Out West

“What I enjoyed most was a certain time in the 1970s and ‘80s,” Kirk said.

“In 1976, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was mandated by law to inventory their land for its wilderness characteristics – the goal being to create a list of land parcels that could be identified as having specific wilderness characteristics that should be legislated by Congress as wilderness,” Kirk explained.  The BLM developed a draft list of land parcels which the public was then invited to comment on; the environmental community urged people to go out and actually visit these lands and get a first-hand impression.

“When I got a chance on weekends, or vacation time, I would drive around the state visiting these places – and none of them were developed recreational areas, they had no trails or anything like that. This was long before the days of GPS; you’d buy a topo map and find the nearest legal entry point and start tramping around – taking pictures, getting visual and verbal impressions of the area. I did that for several years. It got me acquainted with the state’s lower elevations and its semi-arid areas – where most of these lands are. I had never done that before and it was very agreeable.”

Groups such as the Wilderness Society and the Colorado Environmental Coalition were collecting the data, eventually putting together their own ideas about wilderness inventory, and in most places expanding that inventory to include areas the BLM had left out, Kirk added.

Vermillion Creek Canyon (Courtesy CEC)

Vermilion Creek in Moffat County, Colorado. Courtesy of Colorado Environmental Coalition.

Enforcing the Clean Water Act – Citizens Suit Provision

Another highlight was during the ‘80s, when the federal Clean Water Act allowed individuals or organizations to sue a state or federal agency if there was a polluter and the water quality regulator wasn’t stopping it. Called the citizens suit provision, it allowed citizens or groups to take the polluter to court and act as if they were the state regulatory agency, Kirk said.

“Now, the nice thing about it – in addition to getting a court order for the cleanup – was that your lawyer got paid by the polluter.

“We started out with a mine drainage tunnel in Leadville which was polluting the upper reaches of the Arkansas River and no one was doing anything about it. So the first of these cases was a suit against the federal government - BLM as it turned out – who was the polluter. That case went all the way to the Supreme Court and at each stage the Court supported the ability of citizens to sue the federal government as a polluter. I put in $5,000 for the first such suit, and years later when it was all done I got it all back – plus the drainage tunnel and the river were cleaned up and our lawyers made some money.”

Over time the law has changed, Kirk explained, and now citizens may only bring citizen suits to federal court if they have “standing to sue”- the plaintiff must have some direct financial interest, have suffered an “injury-in-fact”.

“That has put a damper on that sort of lawsuit, as most environmental groups have an ideological interest – not a financial interest – but it was interesting while it lasted,” Kirk added.


Kirk said that most people when they join the Sierra Club think of it as an organization primarily interested in the protection of national parks and wilderness areas, as that’s been the Club’s history.

“However, these days in Colorado there are many organizations which are grant supported who hire professional staff to advocate in these areas and they are very good at it. There are groups who specialize in endangered species, in wilderness protection, in recreation management, in water quality - just about anything you can think of. So, a role of the Club here in Colorado is not [necessarily] to do that sort of work, but to keep abreast of it, to know what’s going on. And when these groups prepare an alert on that particular topic goes out, we can send out that same alert – maybe slightly modified - to our members who are on our Alert lists.”


Anything’s that not wilderness now, or seriously considered as roadless, is under attack by the oil and gas industry, Kirk said.

“Like any social movement, the success never continues at the same rate – there’s a leveling off. And you create an ‘empire’ but the ‘empire’ can only be so big before your enemies start pushing in from the edges. And that’s the situation now.”

Need to Think Outside the Box

In addition, Kirk believes the level of expertise and commitment required to have a major impact on protecting the environment has increased significantly. After an environmental law is passed, “because no law can stand by itself - it has to have regulations associated with it - requiring regulatory agencies … we’re then dealing with bureaucrats who are supposed to make decisions on the basis of scientific principles or technical expertise.

“Unless you have an advanced degree in a particular subject, you’re not going to be able to master the regulatory process very easily. We [SC] do have staff, we do have lawyers, but most of our activity is done by volunteers,” he added. Hence, the Club needs to think creatively about how to best utilize our volunteer resources without straining them and how to make an impact beyond the level of our activists’ knowledge, time and energy.

Electronic Age

In the 1970s, the Sierra Club was the network on environmental issues and how to get involved. With the advancement of the electronic age, that has all changed - and it has changed the way volunteers interact with each other.

“In the early days of our chapter – in the mid ‘70s, we would have a lot of physical meetings. People were enthusiastic about driving around the State, meeting people in far-off places.  It was an easier proposition because on the weekends you didn’t have the traffic jam on I-70. Now it is much simpler and more cost effective to have electronic meetings - which is fine if you’re just sharing information but to the extent that the Club depends on social interaction, there’s a problem with that.”

But, as Kirk went on to say, the upside is that currently “an issue in Boulder County is whether or not to allow GM [genetically modified] crops on open space, and my wife – who is working on this issue – has been able to network through Facebook and other forms of social media with many people whom otherwise you would probably never hear from.”

Using the Club’s Unique ‘Tool Kit’

“We have a good tool box, but somehow we need to involve more people in using the tools,” Kirk said.

Elaborating, items in the tool kit include:
    •    Its ability to hire lobbyists, due to its 5013C tax status;
    •    It can endorse political candidates because it has a PAC (political action committee); therefore, politicians can be “rewarded” or “punished” based on their stand on environmental issues;
    •    Its well-developed policies from the SC’s National Office on environmental issues, which means that an issue person doesn’t have to “reinvent the wheel” because National develops these policies and keeps abreast of changes – all of which can be easily accessed on its website;
    •    A “pretty good system” to alert its members to act on environmental issues – “it’s just a matter of getting them to sign up for these Alerts”.

However, in Kirk’s opinion, an underused but significant tool is its Outings Programs, through which the Club provides an outlet for anyone who has a passion for a specific wilderness characteristic, landscape or ecosystem issue. “Outings not only give people a day of recreation but can also educate them about a landscape – its political problems, its environmental problems. We need to acquaint people with wilderness characteristics, and public education is a part of our mission.”

In addition, “we have insurance for outings leadings – a very important component – the Club pays a considerable amount in insurance to insure its outings leaders. Other groups may not have that.”

Another somewhat unique-by-default characteristic is that the SC tackles many issues that other groups do not, such as urban sprawl, transportation and toxics.

“Most people don’t identify the Club as being an organization with transportation expertise, but the Club has been working on the I-70 corridor transportation issue. Obviously there are environmental impacts involved with transportation over the mountains, especially when people come around with schemes to double the size of the interstate. Our Club policy allows us to play a role in that area and we have definite ideas about what should be done.”

While tramping about still remains one of Kirk’s favorite pastimes, these days you will find him devoting much of his spare time to preserving Colorado’s wilderness areas and keeping the work of the Club’s activists running “more or less smoothly”.  For how you can be involved, check out the RMC’s website or email Kirk.   

Watch this space! We will feature inspiring stories from a new volunteer each month!

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