In her career as a high-powered Boston attorney, Helen Slottje learned an important lesson: You don’t tell a client something is impossible, you just make the impossible happen.
Years later, after she and her husband moved to Ithaca in upstate New York, she adopted the same hard-hitting attitude in what would become a very personal fight to stop gas drilling companies from ripping apart her region. At the time, in 2009, everyone from local landowners and county executives to a number of national environmental groups believed the fracking rush to be inevitable. After seeing photos showing what drilling companies had done to towns in rural Pennsylvania, she did not.
“There was going to be this train wreck,” Slottje says. “The concept that something that bad was happening, and there was nothing you could do? It seemed both morally wrong and it didn’t seem like, legally, that could really be the case.”
She expected her volunteer legal research would be a summer project for herself and her husband David, who is also a lawyer. It quickly extended into the winter, and then took a life of its own.
The strategy the duo developed of helping concerned residents in the nearby towns of Dryden, Ulysses, and Ithaca use local zoning ordinances to permanently or temporarily ban fracking activities has, to date, been adopted by more than 170 municipalities in New York and is now starting to spread across the country. It’s a success that has earned Slottje this year’s prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, a $175,000 award that goes to six grassroots environmental activists around the world.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Slottje read every book on oil and gas law at the Cornell Law Library. She went down “rabbit hole after rabbit hole." There was no meeting invitation she wouldn’t accept, no person she wouldn’t talk to, she says, despite enduring her share of intense criticism and ridicule from the pro-drilling crowd, including many local landowners. A number of her newly-formed organization's early strategies failed, such as suing to stop a permit for a project and working through New York State’s environmental review process. It eventually became apparent that local laws were the way to go, and by fall of 2011, Helen and David Slottje had written and helped the first town in New York State pass a local zoning ordinance that prohibited “high-impact heavy industrial uses” (i.e. fracking).
“Part of it was just changing the way people thought about this. We really read about rural sociology and early adopters. I guess the word now is ‘disruption.’ But it’s 'How do you spread an idea?'” she says. “We spent intensive time on the first eight of these that we got done. There was a long time of really going out and pitching this idea and convincing people of like, ‘no,’ you really can do this.” Soon, she and her husband were traveling on most every night of the week at the invitation of town boards across the state.
Today, local organizers in Texas, Ohio, Virginia, California, and Florida are working to mimic the success of communities in New York State, including the cities of Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and Buffalo. “What we’re always looking for is that unsung hero at the local level,” says Goldman Prize executive director David Gordon. “When we were talking about the nomination of Helen, what really stuck out for her is the way [her strategy] was able to scale-up.”
The Slottjes’ work—the idea that towns can use New York land use law to prohibit drilling activities—has been upheld by several trial and appeals court, and a case is currently pending in New York State’s highest court. Professors at 13 major New York law schools have filed a brief backing the underlying concept of "local autonomy" in the case.
Gordon, of the Goldman Prize, sees broader lessons in Slottje's story about how anyone can successfully advocate for change. Past prize winners have included lawyers, journalists, doctors, scientists, and housewives (see the list here for all six global winners in 2014). “Anyone can be innovative. Anyone can come up with solution,” he says. “The trick is, are you going to go out beyond your comfort zone, if you will? Are you going to make it happen no matter what?”