Environmental Work a Matter of Justice

From the Cap Times, November 19, 2010


A couple weeks ago when I emceed the Community Shares of Wisconsin awards event, we presented a number of awards, including the Linda Sundberg Civil Rights Defender Award. This award went to Erin O’Brien of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association.

Probably like most of you, I consider myself fairly attuned to civil rights issues. The civil rights movement of the last 50 years was a turning point in our society, an impetus to extend rights to all people.

Civil rights are the primary reason I volunteer for the Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools. I think the group’s focus on anti-bullying efforts for all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, is essential.

Environmental protection has been connected to issues of injustice and inequity for the past 20 years. And I’m proud to say that CSW member groups work to both advance civil rights and defend our environment. My involvement with CSW has helped me better understand how civil rights and environmental protections are closely aligned.

So it was a great honor to recognize O’Brien’s work with Wisconsin Wetlands. I also had the opportunity to learn more about how wetland protection is something we must all defend.

Protecting our remaining wetlands is critical, since in Wisconsin we drained or filled half of our wetlands decades ago. That doesn’t mean that we need to continue down that path.

Consider some of the ways that wetlands affect our lives.

# 1: As nature’s filters, wetlands serve an important role for anyone who wants clean water: for drinking, swimming or fishing.

Do we defend our right to clean water — or do we turn a blind eye to those who pollute?

# 2: Wetlands store and slowly release rain and snowmelt. So their role in flood control and prevention may be of special interest to anyone who recalls the flooding of 2008.

Do we defend our right to flood prevention and control — or do we let moneyed interests fill in wetlands?

Wisconsin Wetlands is the only group of its kind in the nation. In fact, Wisconsin is held up as a model in other states for the attention we give to wetlands protection.

In her job as wetland policy director at Wisconsin Wetlands, O’Brien’s role has been to help interested citizens statewide save the remaining wetlands, which affect their landscapes, their local water sources, and their quality of life.

In her acceptance speech, O’Brien pointed out that participating in decisions that affect our water resources is a civil right — in the same way that participating in any democratic process, regardless of your cause, is a civil right.

When you think about the underappreciated or even maligned wetlands (consider the negative connotations of “swamp” or the phrase “bogged down”), start to see them for what they are: a vital environmental resource.

People’s efforts to save their local wetlands may not have the cachet of other types of justice work. But protecting our environment is part of ensuring a good quality of life for all Wisconsinites.

Emily Dickmann is board president of Community Shares of Wisconsin.

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