Climate change? Not on Amy Cilimburg’s watch

Amy Cilimburg, left, accepts her award before a roomful of conservationists and supports in downtown Missoula on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Around the time President Donald Trump was signing an executive order to roll back legislation aimed at slowing climate change, a group of conservationists gathered in Missoula to recognize one of their own as a leader in the very field now in the president’s crosshairs.

On Tuesday, the National Wildlife Federation and Montana Conservation Voters joined other local leaders in naming Amy Cilimburg as Woman Conservationist of the Year, an award that’s been issued just twice before.

In receiving the honor, Cilimburg joins Carol Williams and Janet Ellis, placing her in respected company with other female conservation leaders from Montana.

“To both Janet and Carol, they haven’t done what’s easy but rather, what’s right, and I’ve seen that over and over again,” Cilimburg said. “They’ve been in it for the long haul and I stand on their shoulders.”

Cilimburg traces her early days in conservation to the Montana Audubon Society, where she learned to advocate under the tutelage of Ellis. More recently, she spearheaded Climate Smart Missoula to find and encourage local solutions to global warming.

Founded in the fall of 2015, the organization has grown both in membership and reach, working to build new partnerships that address climate change in Missoula.

The efforts have ranged from a Community Climate Action Plan to the organization’s latest foray, a city-wide greenhouse gas inventory. Aimed with science-based knowledge, they plan to chip away at the city’s carbon footprint.

“I think we’re all heartbroken out of what happened in Washington, D.C., today,” Cilimburg said before receiving the award. “It’s children’s health and the health of our planet. I don’t know what planet they’re planning to live on, but we only have one and it’s such a strong message that we have to stay active, especially here locally where we can make progress.”

Climate Smart Missoula helped lead the city’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2050, and it’s working with other groups on climate mitigation and ways to adapt to hotter summers, smoke-filled skies and other pressing changes.

The group also works to inspire further action and ensure those without a voice are represented at the table.

“We think of the most vulnerable people in our community, that’s really at the heart of what Climate Smart is doing,” Cilimburg said. “If we’re not addressing things and we’re rolling things back in D.C, that’s very reckless and yet we have to move forward. All these cities are stepping up and will continue to step up and Missoula will be right there.”

Tom France, regional director of the National Wildlife Federation, praised Cilimburg for her work. Yet the reality of Trump’s latest executive order and the perceived setback it poses to curbing climate change hung heavy over what was intended to be a celebration.

The timing of the Tuesday’s event wasn’t lost on those in attendance.

Amy Cilimburg, left, talks with Carol Williams, who was the first Women Conservationist of the Year. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“This is a bitter day to do this,” said France. “Even as we gather here today, our president is signing orders to take us into the Flat Earth Society in terms of how America is treating science and denying the stark reality of our times, that being global warming and climate change and the threat it poses to our planet.”

France and Cilimburg worked together back in 2005 during what France described as more optimistic times. That was the year the Climate Stewardship Acts were introduced by John McCain, R-Arizona, and Joseph Liberman, ID-Connecticut.

While the bipartisan series of acts failed to gain enough votes in Congress, they helped elevate the discussion, setting a path to last year when then-President Barack Obama entered the U.S. into the Paris Accord and signed the Clean Power Plan.

Both actions were hailed by conservationists as a long-needed victory, though Trump on Tuesday began his efforts to undo any Obama-era regulations aimed at curbing climate change.

“It’s indeed tragic that here in 2017, not only are we not passing national legislation, but we’re turning our backs on the global accord to address climate change,” said France. “It’s appropriate that we in Missoula are honoring someone who has dedicated the last 10 years to a science-based view of the world, not a flat-earth world.”

Williams, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony with her husband and former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, also praised Cilimburg for her work. Williams was the award’s first recipient and believes the environmental movement needs more women.

“I was very complimentary to them for paying attention to women in the environmental movement,” Williams said. “The environmental movement needs more women to be in leadership. This is one way to show the amazing women that are out there, and it’s good company.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com