Five Principles of Successful Citizen Action for the Environment

By Laurie Marion  11/27/15

In the past year I contributed many hours to a successful community effort to save a 21-acre forest in DeKalb County, Georgia.  The forest was under threat of development; fortunately for us the developer had not yet purchased the land.

The proposed development required a rezoning process that allowed citizen input.  Though some people viewed this cynically as a formality that really allowed no effect, I viewed it as an opportunity to bring forth whatever arguments we could, based on the law and the facts, to show that the proposed development was not the best use of the land for the people of DeKalb County.

The Forest and Its FutureInitial Home Page of Briarlake Community Forest Alliance Website

First we had to get at some important facts.  Again, fortunately for us, the developer shared a pdf file of the proposed development that included the results of a tree survey.  This was important information because without it, no one could know what natural resources were at stake.  The land was posted “No Trespassing,” so it was not possible legally to view the interior of the forest.  The tree survey in this format allowed me to draw a much larger, readable version showing only the topography and the trees, giving people in the community the information they needed to begin to form a sound judgment.


It turned out that there were approximately 60 specimen trees, at least in principle protected by the DeKalb County tree ordinance.

Another important fact that I discovered was that the U.S. government has developed software that allows citizens to calculate an economic value for the trees in their community.  The i-Tree suite of software takes into account several different environmental services that trees perform, including natural stormwater retention.

Introduction to i-Tree

Having experienced the terrible flooding of 2009 and having made the necessary repairs to my house, it seemed that highlighting the stormwater infrastructure problems in our area was the best way to argue against developing the land.   Ultimately, it was this argument that persuaded the Planning Commission to deny the developer’s second sketch plat in February, making it possible for the Board of Commissioners to allocate greenspace funds to purchase the land.

Planning CommissionCoverage of DeKalb County Planning Commission Hearing 2/12/15

The main lessons I draw from the experience of discovering the argument and moving it through a political process are the following:

  1. Trust in God

American coins are stamped with the motto, “In God We Trust.”  Essentially this indicates that the path to success is recognizing that there is a higher power and that none of our individual egos can comprehend the providential mystery that moves a group process forward.

All seeing eye

  1. Respect Nature

In Mother Earth Spirituality (1990), Oglala Sioux philosopher Eagle Man writes, “Our survival is dependent on the realization that Mother Earth is a truly holy being, that all things in the world are holy and must not be violated, and that we must share and be generous with one another” (209).  Nature has produced a beautiful old-growth forest here that has in fact protected people in this community without their realizing it.  The air is cooler in the summer because of the forest, the air is more breathable because of the forest, our homes are subject to less destruction during storms because of the forest, and the list goes on.  Nature has given us a great resource that we can learn from if we will just pay attention.

Mother Earth SpiritualityClick to purchase on

  1. Respect People

People have emotional boundaries that must be respected to achieve willing and good participation in a political process.  Volunteers need to feel that their work is valued by the group, that the time demanded of them is reasonable and no more than is necessary to achieve a goal, and that there is a level of emotional safety within the group.

  1. Respect the Law

In old western movies, you knew who the good guys were because they were the ones wearing the white hats.  It is extremely important in situations like this one to be the guy (or gal) wearing the white hat.  The hat signifies that you are a law-abiding citizen doing the best you can to make the best life for everyone involved.  Every action that you take should show this.

  1. Respect the Process

Processes have been designed to bring important facts to light so that the community can arrive at good decisions based on sound judgment.  The world is not perfect and it appears sometimes that the processes are not serving the people well.  The fact that there is a process, however, guarantees that given the best efforts of both sides in an area of disagreement, a solution can be found that respects the basic rights of all parties involved.


Following these five principles may not always lead to the result you desire, but they do assure the people you are dealing with that you play fair.  Give your best efforts and leave the rest to God.  If you do this, your participation in a group political process will yield spiritual rewards both for you and for your community.


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