Don Steinke didn’t want to go to San Francisco.
Not because he didn’t appreciate that the Sierra Club wanted to give him its 2015 Special Service Award, which came with an invitation to a ceremony where he’d be honored alongside retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Alan Rusbridger, the recently retired editor of London’s The Guardian newspaper, among others.
To Steinke, the flight’s carbon footprint was too much.
“I don’t believe in burning fossil fuels to get an award. … I think climate change is so serious — I’m with the archbishop of London who said taking a vacation on an airplane is akin to sin, and that’s the way I feel,” Steinke said while sitting at his dining table in Brush Prairie, the room illuminated only by what shone through the windows.
“I won’t travel — unnecessarily burning fossil fuels — unless it’s for an important reason like achieving the goal of protecting our grandkids from climate change.”
But this award was a big deal. His wife, Alona, and Laura Stevens, the Sierra Club employee who nominated him, had to convince him as much and prove that one trip without direct action wouldn’t be so bad.
In the end they compromised. The Steinkes went, but they took the train, which Don believes to be the most fuel efficient way to travel over land for long distances.
“Aside from hitchhiking or riding a bus that’s going down there, anyway,” Don Steinke said.
Actually, in 2006, the Bishop of London Richard Chartres said flying overseas for vacation is a symptom of sin, but for Steinke it’s a distinction without a difference.
Politics aside, the Steinkes’ commitment to their cause is impressive and reaches heights unparalleled by the average person. They treat environmental activism like a small business, one that requires weekend shifts, odd hours, lots of overtime, homework and a zealot’s unwavering conviction. Sometimes it takes a personal toll.
“The sheer scope of things they do on a daily or weekly basis … I’m a professional organizer and I don’t know how I’d get to all theses places and do what they’re doing,” said Ryan Rittenhouse, conservation organizer for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge.
In 2016, the Friends named the Steinkes 2016 Volunteers of the Year, not for their work with the friends group specifically, but for their work rallying supporters to testify at coal and oil terminal project hearings, leading rallies, canvassing and just being everywhere.
Since jumping into the environmental movement five years ago, the Steinkes have remained loyal not to any group but only to the cause of fighting climate change. As a result the Steinkes have established themselves as revered elder statesmen by the Northwest’s environmental cohort and gadflies to their detractors.
Lately they have been campaigning for state Initiative 1631, which seeks to reduce pollution by putting a fee on the largest carbon emitters and putting the revenues toward clean energy and other green initiatives.
In the drive to get it on the ballot Don Steinke gathered 2,444 signatures, the most of anyone in the state and out-performing the second person by more than 350 names.
Now that voters will decide its fate this November, he’s knocking on doors, urging people to vote and to ignore what he says is industrial-strength spin.
“The oil companies spent $20 million to fight this initiative,” he said while canvasing Vancouver’s Carter Park Neighborhood. “There have always been snake oil salesmen, but oil companies hire the best.”
So this is how 75-year-old Steinke fights them, walking from one door to the next, proselytizing to anyone who will listen.
At one point, he was walking up to four miles a day and had knocked on 600 doors in about a month, the most of any volunteer, until he walked so much a sore developed on his foot that required two weeks of rest and antibiotics.
Most people are nice, even if they’re not interested. But not always. One guy listened to his pitch, then walked Don around the side of his house so he could watch him throw his I-1631 flyer in the garbage.
“It takes courage and guts to be out there. There’s a lot of backlash and he’s been really willing to take that on,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper. “Not only that, but that constant pushing of your friends and neighbors and allies, that’s hard to do too.”
Nick Abraham, communications director for the Yes on 1631 campaign, said it’s easy for campaign staffers to burn out and lose a little perspective, but Don occasionally reaches out to them to keep them going.
“His rhetoric of keeping up the fight helps keep us going — which is usually the opposite. Campaigns usually are rallying their volunteers,” Abraham said. “Don has been our rock.”
An energy activist
Steinke, a member of the Sierra Club’s local arm the Loo Wit group, defines himself as an energy activist and believes whole-heartedly that we all are morally obligated to reduce our resource consumption. Energy waste drives him crazy, yet he sees it everywhere. He’s got examples on his iPhone he’d be happy to show you.
He studied physics in college and taught high school for more than 40 years. More than once he tried to build a career as a conservation specialist for large local organizations — offering to set his pay at half of whatever money he could save them on the power bill.
When he built his house in the 1970s, a stately two story home in a rural setting, he calculated the amount of energy required to heat every square foot. Taken aback by how much heat the windows lost, he shrunk them all by half.
He always bought cars that got the best gas milage, each with manual transmissions because they were the most fuel efficient.
“I had one exception where I said I’m entitled to have a fast car. So I got one, it was a (Toyota) Camry with a V-6,” Don said.
Today, the Camry is gone. A Honda Civic and an all-electric Nissan Leaf stand in its place.
The Steinkes work both like the engine and hub of the local environmental movement — gathering information to fuel the movement, gathering and educating supporters then getting them moving and helping them know where to be and when.
They have attended and spoken at practically every public demonstration against the numerous fossil fuel projects proposed for Southwest Washington as well as local government, quasi-government and community meetings. They host tables or stand at public events to engage voters about opposing this project or supporting that initiative or candidate.
“He worked at least as hard on my campaign as I did,” said Port of Vancouver Commissioner Don Orange.
Between 2013 and late 2017, the Port of Vancouver commissioners’ meetings were occasionally acrimonious. The port had leased land to Vancouver Energy to build what would have been the largest rail-to-marine oil terminal in the country. Project supporters and opponents often packed the room and testified for up to two hours. Security guards were frequently on hand. During a few meetings tempers flared and passions boiled over, especially by those who wanted the port to end the lease.
“One meeting in March of last year, I thought they were going to physically attack me,” said former Commissioner Brian Wolfe, whom Orange replaced after Wolfe decided not to run again. “(Don) was never one of those.”
In fact, Wolfe said, even though they were on different sides of the issue, he came to have “a lot of respect” for Steinke and was impressed by his persistence and ability to organize his compatriots.
“Respect breeds respect and he and I respected each other through that process, even through we didn’t agree,” Wolfe said. “He brought, I thought, reasonable thoughts as to why we needed to be more engaged in climate change and less use of fossil fuels.”
Wolfe said Steinke attended and spoke at so many port meetings that it was weird when he wasn’t there.
Don Steinke frequently writes letters to the editors of newspapers from Portland to Seattle and is a constant commenter on news articles online. He also maintains a strong social media presence where he relentlessly tries to convince people, on the opposite side of the political spectrum, of the perils of climate change.
He said he had faith in elected leaders through the decades when they promised to address the greenhouse effect, regulate carbon dioxide, cut back emissions, but no more.
“We’ve waited for Congress to act for 30 years and they haven’t. So we’ve got to take action in each city, each school district, each public utility district, each port district,” Steinke said.
When the Vancouver Energy terminal was proposed in 2013, it was one of multiple fossil fuel projects proposed for the Pacific Northwest. Large environmental organizations were wrapped up in fights against coal projects and didn’t have the time, money or people to push back against the project right away. For about two years, Steinke mobilized the opposition without funding or staff support from the Sierra Club. Eventually, he built an email list of 4,000 people.
In January 2016, the state held a public meeting on the oil terminal at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds — one of the first events where the public could have its say. The day before the meeting, Steinke was rallying people, making calls, generating support, but in the process he forgot to take his medications and forgot to stay hydrated. That evening he couldn’t stand up without fainting. He had to be transported by ambulance to the hospital.
“I was so mad,” Alona Steinke said. “Had the hospital not been full to the brim, the doctor said he would have admitted him.”
They made it home about midnight that night. The next day they were at the fairgrounds for the hearing.
Alona Steinke said she kept an eye on her husband and told everyone else to do the same.
The Steinkes say even Jared Larrabee, Vancouver Energy’s executive director, brought Don a bottle of water.
“When he gave me that bottle of water, I said, Obama told those inspectors going out to the Gulf of Mexico to inspect the rigs, ‘Don’t even accept a glass of water from them on a hot day. You don’t want to be compromised in any way.’ But I took it,” Don said. “That wouldn’t compromise me too much.”