Ted Siff is the current President, and if you’ve lived in Austin for any length of time, you probably know him. He has spent half of his life in publishing (including a 13-year stint as associate publisher of Texas Monthly) and half in conservation.
Early on he worked with Ralph Nader’s young activists in Washington and also worked for Texas Attorney General John Hill and Governor Ann Richards. He helped found and lead several open-space groups, including the Texas chapter of the Trust for Public Land and the Austin Parks Foundation. As the chief operating officer of Park Place Publications now, he is publisher of Legal Digest and Texas School Business, magazines whose core audience is public school administrators.
QUESTION: Austin Environmental Democrats is a branch of Texas Environmental Democrats, right? Didn’t the Austin club disappear briefly?
SIFF: Yes, for whatever reason, there was a period of dormancy. It was founded in the 2008 campaign cycle and was one of the top-performing clubs in terms of volunteer hours and campaign contributions. But then it became dormant in ’10. It was revived this year to be active in the ’12 cycle, and we were active in various campaigns. We contributed financially to Karen Huber and Donna Howard and also to the (TCDP) Coordinated Campaign.
QUESTION: And now? Is the club still active?
SIFF: Yes, we meet regularly on a quarterly cycle, at El Mercado on the first Friday of the month. We have a Facebook page. Our dues are only $10 a year — such a deal! Any Austinite can join through Act Blue. [NOTE: The next AED meeting is Friday Dec. 7th at noon at El Mercado, 1302 S. First Street. Click here for more info.]
QUESTION: How did you first get involved in environmental causes?
SIFF: My interest started as a suburban neighborhood kid who was attracted to the woods. We lived in a non-developed area of our subdivision in Houston, and my twin brother and I spent as much time outdoors as we could — and we became Eagle Scouts.
QUESTION: So your life’s work came about from romping in the woods with your brother?
SIFF: There were two igniting events in my adult life. In law school I applied for an internship and got hired by Ralph Nader, becoming one of his Nader’s Raiders and living in D.C. for more than two years. Being a part of Public Citizen, the organization he founded, was something I decided I wanted to be.
Years later, after I left Texas Monthly to work on Ann Richards’ campaign and after she was elected, a friend from college who started one of the first eco-nature tourism companies needed a person to help run Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. I wasn’t an intense bird watcher, but the job was to manage two-dozen Indiana Jones-type tour leaders who lived around the world. I did that for three years, and during that time several people in town started meeting about issues of land and planning for the undeveloped environment. Out of those meetings, SOS (Save Our Springs) was formed, and a lot of environmental things happened. I got directly involved through the Nature Tours and became the founding director of the Trust for Public Land, which protects land and helps the government create parks for people, and did that for 10 years.
QUESTION: There wasn’t a lot of talk about environmental issues in the 2012 election, either statewide or nationally. Why do you think that was, and how can we get more people interested in these issues?
SIFF: I do agree with you, but I don’t have any special wisdom about why — other than most of the focus was on the economy. And nationally, the ticket may have felt they didn’t need to do any more distinguishing on those issues than was obviously apparent. We focused on it locally, and I would say one thing that distinguishes Austin Environmental Democrats is that we consider ourselves Austinites, Democrats and environmentalists. We endorsed all the bond propositions and were very active in getting those passed, along with particular races and parts of the charter amendment.
QUESTION: In your opinion, what are the most important environmental concerns we face in Central Texas?
SIFF: Water is the most important — the quality and the quantity. Air quality is the second most important, and third is land. I’m happy that Austin is growing. I was born in Akron, Ohio, and it’s the same population now that it was 65 years ago. The tradeoff between growth and no-growth favors growth but only if we are eternally vigilant about preserving the land that should be preserved. We’ve done a good job so far, but we can’t stop. Some of it is not within our control, but we have to do everything we can do that is in our control.