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Ken Kramer: The TT Interview

The outgoing director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club on the importance of water, the growth of the Club, and how he stumbled on his future career path while hiking near Fort Bliss.

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After 23 years as the director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and 30 years overall with the Sierra Club, Ken Kramer announced last week that he will retire at the end of July. Born in Brenham and raised in Houston, Kramer got in plenty fishing and other outdoor time during his childhood, which helped propel him toward an environmental career. He has seen the Lone Star Chapter's membership expand dramatically over his tenure, as Texas has cycled through water and wildlife challenges. Kramer, who turns 65 this week, says retirement won't take him away from the Capitol altogether. He plans to keep working, as a Sierra Club volunteer, on water, which he describes as "one of the biggest challenges that Texas faces in the 21st century."

The following interview has been edited and condensed:

TT: You’ve spent 23 years as Lone Star Chapter director for the Sierra Club, and 30 years in one capacity or another with the club. What brought you to the Sierra Club in the first place? 

Kramer: I think originally it was probably the connections between Sierra Club and their outings and outdoor activities to some extent. Because when I was in the Army, stationed at Fort Bliss, especially, back in the early 1970s, I started doing a lot of hiking on the weekends and started backpacking for the first time. That’s probably when I really became aware of the Sierra Club. I didn’t go on organized Sierra Club trips or anything like that, but the Sierra Club obviously has the image and the connection of being very involved in outings where you backpack and all that. It probably was attractive to me to be involved in an organization that had that aspect of it as well as the environmental protection aspect of it. I’ve always been interested in government. As I went along, I became more interested in things like lobbying and government policy and all that. The Sierra Club was a pretty good combination of an organization that both practices attempts to change policy and influence legislation as well as emphasizing the outdoor activities. So I think that was part of it. 

TT: How did you see the club change over that time?

Kramer: In many ways, the Club is still very drawn to its roots. ... But one of the things, of course, that’s pretty obvious is that when I first started with the Sierra Club, we had probably a little bit over 100,000 members or so nationally, and 5,000 or less in Texas. And now we have well over 22,000 members in Texas and several hundred thousand members throughout the United States. And we have a much bigger staff, much bigger budget, both at the state and the national level, and I think [we] are more involved in a wider array of issues than we were before — especially in recent years with climate change and the coal work, at the national level. So there’s been a dramatic expansion of the organization and the range of issues the organization’s involved in. 

TT: What about within Texas? What changes in the issues or the engagement with the public have you seen over time here? 

Kramer: One of the things that strikes me, especially being in Austin in the past 30 years or so, is the growth in the number of people working in the environmental protection arena, both in terms of state agencies and also in terms of the environmental movement itself. We have a lot more organizations that are working on a number of different issues of an environmental nature in Texas, at the state Capitol and elsewhere than we did when I first started 30 years ago in Austin. And that has allowed us to have I think a stronger effort with regard to the environmental movement because we have more resources. ... 

I’ve also seen, I think, a lot of involvement of other groups including faith-based groups doing environmental work that you didn’t necessarily have in any organized way when I first started here in Austin. So that’s been a change. I think over the years a lot of the issues have actually stayed the same. When I first got here in 1982, we were facing the prospect of losing a source of funding for state parks and it seems like every few years, working at the Capitol, we’re battling for funding of state parks. That’s an example of an issue that hasn’t changed. … A lot of people just don’t understand; the officials who make budgetary decisions just don’t understand the value of state parks and how much they contribute to the local economy as well as giving people outdoor recreational opportunities. 

On the other hand, also water issues have been central at the Legislature throughout most of the time that I’ve been there. Obviously it changes from one session to another, but back in 1981, before I came here, water was a big issue that session. In 1983, I was already the volunteer legislative chair for the chapter. In the ’83 session, my first session here, and the ’85 session, water was a big issue with major water legislation being proposed and eventually passed in ’85. Seemed like every few sessions we’d have a new round of water legislation. In ’97, with the passage of Senate Bill 1 and in 2001 with the passage of Senate Bill 2, and the passage of Senate Bill 3 in 2007 after it had been a big issue the previous session. I suspect the next session is going to be a big session on water as well. I think water is one of the biggest challenges that Texas faces in the 21st century, and I suspect that issue will come back again and again in legislative sessions. We’ve made some progress on water over the years and water conservation in terms of attention to environmental flows, but we still have a ways to go until we have a truly comprehensive management system for water. I think that’s going to be with us for a long time. 

TT: Can you talk about some of the highs and lows you’ve had over the years? Victories and defeats.

Kramer: I think one of the low points for a variety of reasons came in the mid-1990s. In the 1991 legislative session we actually had a really big session from the environmental standpoint. We passed a lot of [environmental] legislation, including legislation to consolidate most of the state environmental regulatory programs into one agency for efficiency and also for better coordination of environmental programs. We passed legislation dealing with recycling, with response to oil spills, just a lot of important laws.

Then there seemed to be sort of a backlash the next session as the result, I guess, of some new folks coming into the Legislature as a result of some controversies over endangered species. In ’93 and ’95, we really had a very tough set of legislative sessions. In the ’95 session of course this was after George W. Bush became governor, but even in ’93 when Ann Richards was still governor, we had a tough session. In fact, I remember being the quote of the week in Texas Weekly at the end of that session when I said the best thing the Legislature did for the environment this session was to quit and go home. That was a real low point, for sure. Some of the other sessions where we passed major water legislation, which was not perfect legislation but did make a lot of progress, like the ’97 session when that one was passed and the 2007 session when Senate Bill 3 passed — those were some of the high points. 

TT: Where did you grow up?

Kramer: My mother was from around the Brenham area, my dad’s from around the Bellville area. They both grew up on farms, and we still have my dad’s family farm. ... I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm during the summer. [I] grew up mainly in Houston, and I had that farm connection. That has had a part on my outlook on things in Texas — having been aware of the role that agriculture plays. Both of my grandparents were cotton farmers for most of their lives. My dad’s father actually switched from doing cotton farming to having a cow and calf operation. My dad [did] that first on weekends when he inherited the farm, and later on after he retired from his job he would raise cattle and went out to the farm [about] every other day until he got older. I definitely have those rural connections.

TT: What else prompted you to get into the role that you have at the Sierra Club?

Kramer: Well, it’s sort of hard to say. I’ve tried to really map that out, going back. It’s just that I got interested for whatever reason in water and the outdoors. I spent a lot of time on the farm. My dad did fishing when I was young and growing up, and so we would be out there doing those kinds of things from time to time. But for whatever reason, which I haven’t totally understood, it just became interesting to me to understand nature to some extent and be out in nature. I think it was just all that time outdoors was probably what gave me the inclination to want to protect the outdoors. I think that’s one of the things that’s problematic with a lot of kids today is they don’t have that connection to the outdoors. They don’t develop a real understanding or love for the outdoors. It makes it a little more difficult to try to involve them in these kinds of activities. But once kids are exposed to the outdoors they usually develop a connection to it. I think that’s what happened to me.

TT: Going forward, what’s next for you?

Kramer: I intend to be an active volunteer for the Sierra Club at the state level, especially on water issues. Before I became a professional with the club, I was a state legislative chair, a water resources chair, as a volunteer. I will be the state water resources chair again. Most of my volunteer effort will be focused on water quality and water resource issues, and I’ll be doing some volunteer lobbying for the club next session on water. I think it’ll be a big issue. I’ll continue to be active on water issues for quite a number of years. I’ll also be involved to some extent with the political work of the Sierra Club, and I’ll follow up on some of the other activities that I’ve started. Projects that they won’t have finished by the time I retire. The Sierra Club is a very active volunteer organization, so I will do that. I’m not going to be taking another job or doing any other work.

TT: Looking ahead for Texas in the areas of water and other environmental issues, are you optimistic, pessimistic? What do you see?

Kramer: By nature I’m a hopeless optimist. That’s why I’ve been able to do this work for the past few decades.

TT: A hopeless optimist sounds like a contradiction in terms.

Kramer: I’m hopeless in my optimism. You can’t make a pessimist out of me no matter how much you try. And believe me, it’s been tried. The next session of the Legislature, we’ll still have a chance to come back and do better. I think that it’s going to remain challenging for the next few years for the environmental movement in the state because the politics have changed dramatically over the time that I’ve been here. And I don’t expect that the politics are going to transform in a major way anytime soon. So I think it’s still going to be challenging.

But I also think there is a stronger sense of awareness among more people these days about the importance of the environment and about the relationship between environmental protection and economic prosperity, that you can’t just continue to corrupt the environment and expect that you’re going to remain a prosperous society. And in addition to that, there’s more concern about public health and the environmental impacts on public health and about the need to maintain the strong quality in life, which includes the ability to be able to enjoy the outdoors. So I still remain optimistic that although we have some challenges ahead in the near future, over the long term people will recognize more and more the need to make strong environmental protection efforts. I think that one sort of cloud on the horizon is — are we going to just continue to let the population grow at such a rapid rate that a lot of the things that we try to do to protect the environment get overrun by such a large increase in the number of people in such a small period of time that it just puts so much pressure on things, that it’s hard not to screw up the environment?

TT: Is that a comment for Texas or the U.S. or the globe or all of the above?

Kramer: Probably all of the above, but definitely Texas, we have a high rate of growth. Growth is almost the god here. Talking all about even managing growth, which I think is really all we can talk about. That is almost a heresy.

TT: Anything else we should cover?

Kramer: Well I think the only other thing that I would say is that on some of the issues that I care most about like water conservation, water management, I do detect a growing sense of awareness that we need to put more effort into managing our water resources. We have a lot more understanding of how you can achieve more efficient use of water while also achieving other goals including stabilizing your revenues for your water utility and things like that. I really have seen almost a quantum leap in commitment by various people, including a lot of local officials, to pursing water conservation over the last decade. We’ve had a strong Texas Living Waters project with the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and sometimes others, that’s been a big part of our project and I think that we’re making inroads.

This interview was transcribed by Anna Whitney.

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