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That people are willing to work hard to save the places they know and love has long been a pillar of the conservation movement. So it’s no wonder that this principle also figures in efforts to prevent the damage caused by oil and gas development—and one of this year’s winners of the venerable Goldman Environmental Prize, attorney Helen Holden Slottje, has been saying it since the Marcellus shale boom began.

Already in 2009, just as New York State was launching its study of fracking’s environmental impacts, Helen and her legal partner (and husband) David Slottje saw the writing on the wall. They dug into the state’s oil and gas laws and saw a gaping hole: the right of communities to say no. Then they got very busy, launching the Community Environmental Defense Council, Inc. (CEDC), a pro bono, public interest law firm based in Ithaca, New York. 

Helen and David determined that New York’s “home rule” provisions give municipalities the legal authority to use zoning and other land-use laws to prohibit “high-impact industrial uses”—first and foremost, fracking. They looked beyond the control over roads and taxes presumed to be the only basis for local jurisdiction and found the right of communities to decide whether they want to keep oil and gas development out entirely.

Helen and David took their message on the road, speaking to activists, local officials, attorneys, and policymakers. They crafted a model for communities in New York, and beyond, on which to base fracking bans. First it was tested close to home, as the towns of Ulysses, Danby, and Ithaca pursued bans. Then came Dryden and Middlefield—towns that launched a precedent-setting case to be definitively settled this summer by New York’s highest court. 

Relying on the engagement of communities, the Slottje’s pioneering work certainly fits the Goldman Prize’s recognition of leaders for efforts “where positive change is created through community or citizen participation in the issues that affect them.” It also fulfills the Goldman’s goal to “inspire others to emulate the examples set.” As New York’s anti-fracking movement has grown, it’s held off shale gas drilling in the state and can currently boast 75 bans and 102 moratoria.

The gas industry has responded to such local success by trying to quash local rights—though that’s looking increasingly like a losing battle. There was passage in Pennsylvania of the industry-backed Oil and Gas Act (known as Act 13) gutting municipal zoning rights—until the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional and upheld home rule over fracking. There was Dallas’ de facto ban telling drillers right in the heart of oil country that they have to stay further away from homes. And Colorado’s wave of local democracy launched by the bold city of Longmont, despite ongoing legal threats by industry and powerful political backers. Most recently, Los Angeles became the nation’s largest city to say no to fracking unless it can be proven safe. 

These and many other declarations in the U.S. and around the world make it clear that communities won’t be strongarmed into accepting fracking whatever the cost. As Helen and David Slottje figured out years ago, local governments have not only the right, but also the legal muscle, to defend their health, their environment, and quality of life.

With the selection of Helen Slottje as a 2014 winner, the Goldman Environmental Prize has declared that putting the interests of communities first, ahead of industry’s, is a winning strategy now and for the future. 

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