When Cristian Villegas approaches community leaders about his work for the American Conservation Coalition, the reactions are usually mixed. Small town officials hear “environment” and “nonprofit” and expect Villegas to propose banning a single energy source or “taking away their jobs,” he said.
“Once they’re disarmed from that legitimate concern about our approach, they’re very open to talking about how we can improve their community locally, or even at the state level,” Villegas said. “ACC is really unique in the sense that we’re very collaborative. We’re very comfortable working with different organizations and seeing how we can fit into those communities in a meaningful capacity.”
Villegas, a Tarrant County College and UT-Arlington graduate, joined the conservative environmental organization as its Texas state director in March. Since then, the Fort Worth-based organizer has overseen the creation of ACC branches across the state, including Tarrant County cities like Mansfield, Arlington, Bedford and Fort Worth. Dallas, Denton, Houston, Austin, McAllen and San Antonio are also in the mix.
“People are interested because maybe they haven’t realized that it doesn’t have to be: ‘Climate change is the most pressing matter and immediate threat,” or ‘It doesn’t exist,’” said Jacob Pouttu, an adjunct college professor who serves as Mansfield’s branch leader. “When you give people an opportunity to talk about it, what you realize is that they’re also trying to find a solution.”
Founded in 2017 by millennial Republicans concerned about climate change, the nonprofit organization mobilizes young conservatives around environmental action, including what ACC leaders call “natural climate solutions.” ACC now provides funding to chapters across the country, with a focus on seven states: Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Ohio, Washington, Tennessee and Arizona.
In North Texas, volunteers have hosted trash cleanups on the Trinity River, built a greenhouse at Weatherford College and planted trees with TCU students in the Fort Worth Botanic Garden’s Japanese Garden. On Jan. 15, members will travel to Bridgeport for a tour exploring oil well plugging operations.
Pouttu established relationships with Mansfield’s parks and recreation department in the hopes of working together on future environmental projects. One of the group’s proudest accomplishments was planting trees at a Mansfield food bank that will provide fresh fruit to the community for years to come, Villegas said.
“ACC’s contribution of a couple of trees to start that journey, one could argue it is activism in the sense that we’re making a statement that natural solutions can help the environment and contribute to the community,” he said.
What makes ACC different from other environmental groups operating in Dallas-Fort Worth? Like its more left-leaning counterparts, ACC’s platform acknowledges that humans are the cause of global warming and must achieve global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Where the organization diverges from the Sierra Club or Environmental Defense Fund is its belief that a “market-based approach” involving corporations and non-governmental entities is key to addressing climate issues.
At a rally last year, ACC president Benji Backer told a Miami crowd that this “new climate movement” is one that “knows capitalism and freedom” rather than regulation, according to The Washington Post.
That philosophy has its critics. Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters told the Post that “talking a good game and acknowledging that climate change is real” is not worth anything in the current age. “We really need to go big now,” she said.
Fast facts: American Conservation Coalition
- Founded in 2017 by young conservatives concerned about climate change
- Focused on branches in seven states, including Texas
- Promote ‘natural climate solutions,’ local action and ‘pro-market’ climate policies
- Conservative Environmental Summit set for June
On the national stage, ACC convinced House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to endorse its plan for investing in technological solutions to capture carbon and prepare America’s infrastructure for more frequent natural disasters.
ACC leaders later opposed the “Build Back Better Act” that dedicated hundreds of billions toward those causes, citing the bill’s inclusion of a “wide variety of pet projects, many of which have nothing to do with climate change,” E&E News reported.
There’s room for governmental intervention in addressing climate change and other environmental challenges, said Karly Matthews, ACC’s communications director. But the red tape associated with federal funding often stands in the way of investments in clean energy such as nuclear power, she added.
“We believe there’s an even bigger place for the private sector and local governments and states to really take action on climate change beyond just federal legislation,” Matthews said.
New members say they appreciate ACC’s focus on local action versus getting involved in rough-and-tumble political debates. Leaders often uses the phrase “action over activism” to describe their mission due to the negative connotation environmental activists have in conservative circles, Matthews said.
“It’s just a bunch of people who are coming together who really care about the environment and making change in our community, and that’s really what we want it to be about,” said UT-San Antonio student and ACC branch leader Dahlia Navaira.
Given the success that Villegas has experienced in North Texas, he envisions ACC volunteers in every major Texas city and university campus. Nationally, the nonprofit is ramping up its event schedule with an inaugural Conservative Environmental Summit in Washington, D.C., set for June.
The group’s “pragmatic” approach can be tailored to the needs of individual communities, including businesses and chambers of commerce looking to improve energy efficiency and implement sustainable construction methods, Villegas said.
“In my experience, at least, everyone is open to talking about it,” Villegas said. “There’s that old saying: ‘Are you talking to someone, or are you talking with someone?’ That really makes things easy to grow from there when they know that we’re both on the same team in the long run.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.