It's Not Easy Being Green

Look who's mad at Dick Lamm now!

Lamm was a state representative from south Denver in 1972 when he helped organize a ballot initiative to stop the planned 1976 Winter Olympics from coming to Colorado. Environmentalists argued that the Olympics would further spoil the mountains, and they were joined by fiscal conservatives who opposed state spending on the games. Much to the shock of the state's political establishment, the initiative passed, and Lamm rode that success right into the governor's mansion.

During his three terms in office, Lamm came to be known as "Governor Gloom" for his pessimistic assessments of America's prospects. He often predicted disaster for Social Security, the health-care system, the federal budget and the environment. During one famous speech to seniors, Lamm said that everyone had a "duty to die" so that the next generation wouldn't be burdened with their care. Speculating about just why the governor was so gloomy became a hobby for armchair psychologists. Some pointed to his frequent battles with the Republican state legislature, while others thought it was Lamm's own bitterness over the "financial sacrifice" he made when he gave up his law practice and entered public office.

Even in those years, out-of-control immigration was a favorite Lamm topic, one he attributes to a trip he and Dottie made to India in 1967. "We both came back vowing to work on the problem of human population," says Lamm, who sponsored the country's first liberalized abortion bill in the state legislature that same year. He was also influenced by Paul Ehrlich's books warning of the dangers of overpopulation.

Brian Stauffer
Dick Lamm
Mark Manger
Dick Lamm

Lamm is well aware that today's Americans were yesterday's bedraggled and scorned immigrants. "Ben Franklin thought America was taking too many Germans and they would never assimilate," he says wryly. And even as he expresses alarm over whether the Hispanics now flocking to Colorado will become part of the culture -- "Today you can live your entire life in west Denver and never speak English. Are we becoming a Hispanic Quebec?" -- Lamm is sophisticated enough to know that the exact same things were being said about Italian immigrants a century ago. And even about his own family: His maternal grandparents were from England, and his paternal grandparents, who were from Germany, had their house in northern Illinois stoned during World War II because they spoke German.

"The last group of large-scale immigrants we had questions about were the Italians," he says. "They were fruit peddlers; their children dropped out of school. Now the average Italian family has a higher income than the average WASP family. Are Mexicans the new Italians? All of American history is on the side that the people of west Denver can and will assimilate."

The real difference today, Lamm insists, is that the United States no longer has the vast expanses of empty land it once did. "There's a psychological carrying capacity," he says. "The best thing for us to do would be for the U.S. to stabilize its population and reduce consumption. We have to become a sustainable society."

The United States admits more newcomers than any other country in the world -- more than a million per year since Congress boosted immigration in the 1980s, allowing a wave of new residents into the country. If current trends continue, the U.S. population could double by the middle of the century.

During the past decade, more than 200,000 people from other countries have settled in Colorado, most of them from Latin America. According to the census bureau, one out of every seven Denverites is not a U.S. citizen, and the numbers are almost as high in suburbs such as Aurora. The metro population is now 20 percent Hispanic, and statewide, the Latino population numbers more than 800,000. Colorado has also been affected by the immigration of several million new residents into California. High home costs and congestion prompted many longtime residents of that state to move to areas such as Douglas County, helping to make Colorado one of the fastest-growing states in the country.

"At our current rate, we'll double America and double it again in my grandchild's lifetime," Lamm says. "The difference is Colorado growing from 16 million to 20 million people. I've never met a Coloradan who wants that kind of population."

Lamm feels so strongly about the bulldozing of the West that he serves on the national board of advisors for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which is pushing to restrict immigration. His critics within the Sierra Club have pointed to funding FAIR received from right-wing Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon-Scaife as proof of a conservative conspiracy to undermine the Sierra Club. Mellon-Scaife was a million-dollar contributor to President Richard Nixon, bankrolled many of the investigations targeting President Bill Clinton, including Paula Jones's lawsuit, and helped found the New Right conservative movement twenty years ago.

But Lamm dismisses claims that the two are tied as a smear, saying an environmental organization that ignores the immigration question is guilty of malpractice. "This issue trumps the others," he says. "If the Sierra Club wins every battle over the next fifty years and doesn't face immigration, it will be a Pyrrhic victory."

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