In 2012, Grassroots Democracy Led in Boulder County

"Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers." -- Aristotle

Over the last few months, democracy has reared its beautiful head in Boulder County, Colorado. In an age when large-scale corporate capitalism -- and indeed even large-scale corporate-like progressive and environmental organizations -- seem to have taken over the public and political landscape, the citizens of Boulder County are proving that democracy is about citizens first and foremost, and if bureaucracies don't pay attention, the citizens can seize control.

First, over the last year, a group of moms in Erie, Colorado calling themselves "Erie Rising," organized and staged one of the first and largest anti-fracking demonstrations in our state's history. These moms were and still are incensed that Encana Oil and Gas drilled and fracked a well a few hundred feet from their kids' elementary school. These moms have since made statewide and national headlines with their ability to speak truth to power, whether it be to Encana or to Governor Hickenlooper. And, much of this democracy occurred before any of the mainstream environmental organizations were paying close attention to the issue and the group. Very recently, the Denver Post named Erie Rising as the state's "Top Environmental Thinker" for 2012.

Second, a few citizens in Longmont, Colorado (also in Boulder County) pushed forward and passed the state's first official local "ban" on fracking. This campaign and political endeavor occurred with no help from any mainstream environmental organizations, most of which had written the idea off as unlikely to succeed. But succeed it did, by a 20-point margin at the polls last November, thereby fundamentally and completely changing the political landscape around drilling and fracking in Colorado. As a response, more local bans are being considered around Colorado and mainstream environmental groups are now paying close attention and may be adjusting their policies accordingly.

Finally, very recently, a larger group of Boulder County citizens successfully lobbied the Boulder County government to not accept an agreement with the City of Denver to build a hugely expanded dam and reservoir southwest of Boulder at the present Gross Reservoir. The Boulder County Commissioners -- apparently surprising everyone, including themselves -- did not accept the agreement after hundreds of eloquent and well-educated citizens showed up at three public hearings. Even further, these citizens continued to push forward without the backing from almost every mainstream environmental group.

At the national level over the last year, the founder of, Bill McKibben, has repeatedly been saying that our elected leaders can't do it anymore, and that the citizens have to lead. Folks in Boulder County seem to be taking McKibben's words and putting them into action. The laws of Colorado allow for considerable citizen control if citizens choose to take that control at the ballot box and beyond. City, County and State ballot initiatives are relatively easy to put to an election, and when hundreds of citizens show up at public hearings, elected officials generally pay attention.

As we head into 2013 facing a continued battle on both of these environmental issues -- fracking and dams -- as well as others, the State Legislature, elected leaders at the local level, and mainstream environmental groups should take heed: If you don't lead, the citizens -- who you are supposed to be representing -- may do it for you.

Gary Wockner Ph.D, is an environmental activist based in Fort Collins (