On April 21, the eve of Earth Day, the Wyoming Association of Churches gathered representatives of a broadly based coalition to celebrate the passage of national legislation protecting the Wyoming Range, a long chain of mountains running north and south in western Wyoming, from future mineral development.
Meeting on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, they lauded their success with speakers representing government, environmental and faith perspectives.
Part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 signed by President Obama on March 30, the Wyoming Range portion of new law is the culmination of a five-year campaign to protect the area.
The advocacy effort, which began as a partnership between the Wyoming Association of Churches and the Sierra Club, now includes nine denominations and fourteen environmental groups.
The Rev. Warren Murphy, director of the Wyoming Association of Churches and an Episcopal priest, noted that the coalition included hunters, fishers, outfitters and labor unions. "I couldn't do this by myself," Murphy said, "We had so much help from organizers from other groups."
Murphy explained that labor unions were involved because they represent many who work in stressful jobs, such as the underground mining of trona, a source of sodium carbonate. Mine workers depend on Wyoming's natural areas for opportunities to recreate and restore balance in their lives, he pointed out.
When asked who was the most surprising member of the coalition, though, Murphy laughed and said, "Us!" Before a conference called On Sacred Ground in 2007, no one in Wyoming thought of churches as partners in environmental activism.
The development in 2005 of a covenant statement among members of the Wyoming Association of Churches was the foundation on which the work has been built, according to Sally Palmer, a United Church of Christ pastor who teaches religious studies at the University of Wyoming. Since then the association has been growing its "On Sacred Ground emphasis," building coalitions and fostering six local groups around the state.
In March in Rock Springs, Wyoming, a panel of speakers on the Wyoming Range helped to lift spirits after a snag in the legislative process. Phil Washburn, a member of St. Andrew's in the Pines, Pinedale, Wyoming, remarked on his experience growing up in West Virginia, where "the impact of today's mountain top removal way of getting to coal deposits with a minimum of cost" sensitized him "to the issue of abuse by the extractive industries." In his panel presentation, Washburn said his commitment to environmental stewardship comes from life experience and belief in God which "is fundamental to this way of looking at and trying to make sense of the world."
According to Murphy the work will continue, both with the implementation of the Wyoming Range legislation, and with concern for the Red Desert, another unprotected area in Wyoming threatened by development.
The Eco-Justice program of the National Council of Churches of Christ has supported Wyoming's ecumenical efforts through grants and by providing a presence in Washington, D.C., by organizing a letter campaign, "meeting with Senators from Wyoming, and advocating for [the Wyoming Range's] protection as part of the larger land protection bill." according to Jordan Blevins, Associate Director of the NCCC program.
Blevins summed up, "It is great to see the church calling together politicians, hunters and fisherman, businessmen, and environmental activists to recognize that the work we are doing is bigger than any of us."