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Tree-hugging, dam-fighting green legend dies at 80

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Originally posted in E&E

Brent Blackwelder, a longtime environmentalist and self-avowed “tree hugger” who prodded politicians for decades, has died. He was 80.

The environmental institution was a founder of American Rivers and chair of the League of Conservation Voters’ board of directors. He founded the Environmental Policy Center and served as president of Friends of the Earth from 1994 until he retired in 2009.

Blackwelder died Nov. 23 in Rockville, Maryland, according to an obituary published in The Washington Post. He had dementia and Parkinson’s disease, and his death followed a fall, the obituary said.

For decades, Blackwelder was a ubiquitous presence in congressional hearing rooms and in the corridors of the U.S. Capitol, where he hoped to make his pitch to lawmakers.

Erich Pica — who worked for Blackwelder at Friends of the Earth before Pica took over as president in 2009 — remembers tracking down lawmakers alongside Blackwelder in the subway tunnels under the Senate ahead of a 2005 vote on a consequential energy bill.

“By that time, a bunch of the environmental community was resigned that this was a done deal. And Brent was like, ‘Well, no, we’re gonna go lobby on that,’” Pica said.

Blackwelder was known for telling staff, “You can’t change the world by sitting at your desk. Let’s go,” Pica said. His favorite haunt was the tunnels under the Capitol “where members are captive,” Pica added. He told staff to “get your two-minute speech going because we’re going to go sit in the tram with the senator.”

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, has always thought showing up is an important part of the job for green group leaders. “And Brent would just be there,” he said. “Whether it was a board meeting, a rally, a lobby meeting, a coalition conversation, he’d be there and offer his wisdom and his insights.”

Blackwelder was an expert on issues across the board — including obscure topics — but was humble about it, Karpinski said. “He’s not the person who needed to grab the limelight or grab the mic first. But when Brent talked, people listened, because he knew what he was talking about.”

He testified before Congress more than 100 times on environmental issues, according to American Rivers.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Blackwelder fought the construction of massive dams and organized the annual National Dam Fighters Conference, American Rivers President and CEO Tom Kiernan said in a statement.

He knew how to appeal to the press, too.

Blackwelder’s longtime colleague and friend, David Weiman, recalled an idea Blackwelder had to draw attention to Congress’ politically driven spending by highlighting individual “pork” projects.

Blackwelder suggested a program called “profiles in pork,” Weiman said. “And the kickoff press conference had Brent cooking a pig, slicing the pig and serving it to the reporters.”

Later in his career, when Blackwelder led Friends of the Earth, the group sought to sway presidential elections with early endorsements of primary candidates.

“Brent and Senator [Bill] Bradley [D-N.J.] had a really good relationship,” Pica said. “That led to our endorsement of Bradley over [then-Vice President Al] Gore in the 2000 primary.”

Friends of the Earth made waves in September 1999 when it endorsed Bradley on one of Gore’s signature issues.

“We’re sorry. It’s too bad, but the results did not materialize in the past seven years, and that adds additional grounds for saying that Bradley is the better choice for the 21st century,” Blackwelder said at the time.

“He understood that we may be small, but given the right candidate and the right type of endorsement, we can influence the overall debate on climate and environment within the presidential context,” Pica said.

Asked by Grist in 2004 which stereotype about environmentalists fit him best, Blackwelder replied, “I am a tree hugger. Clear-cutting of forests should be outlawed and only selective cutting allowed. We cannot as a nation afford to lose any more magnificent ancient forests. There are so few left that they should be off-limits to logging.”

The Buffalo, New York, native didn’t expect to work on environmental issues, he told Grist.

He received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in math from Yale University. “I thought my whole life would be devoted to teaching at the college level,” he said.

That changed after the first Earth Day in 1970, he said, after he heard Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters make presentations.

His environmental vice, he told Grist: “I have to admit that I use a clothes dryer and do not hang my laundry out on the line. Also I eat desserts with a ton of sugar.”

His favorite meal: “I enjoy pasta dishes, corn on the cob, and fruit cobblers. I also make a delicious Irish whiskey cake and a dense chocolate mousse cake. These can give you a boost any time of the day or night.”

Blackwelder is survived by his wife of 48 years, Teresa Stotzer Blackwelder, his children and grandchildren.

The post Tree-hugging, dam-fighting green legend dies at 80 appeared first on Friends of the Earth.

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