For Mary Anne Hitt, fighting to save the mountains is a personal mission. Growing up in eastern Tennessee, she hiked and backpacked the Smoky Mountains and swam in its rivers. Now, as a mom, she wonders what kind of legacy she’ll leave behind to her daughter, and she’s determined to ensure that the mountains she loves—and all mountains—are protected from the destruction caused by coal mining.
“When you stand at the edge of a mountain that’s just been blown up and wiped off the map never to be put together again, you realize the laws we have in place are not enough to protect us or the places that we love,” she says. “Some environmental problems can never be fixed or cleaned up, so the only option is to fight to stop that devastation from happening in the first place.”
And fight she has. As the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, Hitt is helping to guide the largest campaign in the 124-year-old environmental organization’s history.
She has set her sights on ending the U.S. reliance on coal for electricity—a target she sees as critical to slowing climate change and also eliminating the environmental damage caused by coal mining and coal-fired power plants. Her efforts have already seen success. Today, the United States gets 33 percent of its electricity from coal—the lowest level in recorded history—thanks to the retirement of older coal-fired power plants. At the same time, Hitt says record amounts of renewable energy came online last year.
Hitt credits grassroots campaigns for these victories, noting that they were the result of ordinary citizens coming together to thwart mining projects, support clean energy, and call for the retirement of polluting coal plants.
“I am very optimistic that we can turn the corner on climate change and power this nation on clean energy because I have seen how far we’ve come,” she said. “And no matter who is in the White House or on the Supreme Court, the true engine of that transition has come from the grassroots and that’s not going to be slowing down anytime soon.”
Bruce Nilles, the campaign’s senior director, said Hitt’s knack for connecting with people has enabled her to motivate people who are dealing with the day-to-day impacts associated with coal pollution and mining.
“She has an amazing ability to inspire folks to work locally even when it seems like tough going,” Nilles said. “Whether she’s in Waukegan fighting a coal plant or in the Pacific Northwest fighting a coal export facility or in Asheville fighting coal ash waste from a power plant, she’s always helping to inspire people and amplify their voices and empower them, so they’re connected to this nationwide and really global effort to solve climate change.”
“I came to realize that trying to stop different pieces of the coal problem was going to be very difficult as long as there was still this demand for coal,” Hitt said. “And if what I wanted to accomplish ultimately was not having the coal companies blowing up mountains and dumping coal ash into rivers, what was needed was to switch the country over to cleaner energy … and ultimately a strategy that moved country beyond coal once and for all.”
The Beyond Coal Campaign has already made significant progress toward its ambitious goal of getting half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants retired or announced for retirement by 2017. To date, more than 230 of the nation’s 523 coal-fired plants have either been retired or plan to close—more than 40 percent.
Despite these successes, Hitt acknowledges that it can be challenging to tackle big environmental problems like climate change because it can seem like there’s not much one person can do. But she says her experience has shown her that you really can have an impact.
“I’ve had the great privilege of seeing over and over again what a big difference an individual person can make once they commit themselves to tackling a big problem,” said Hitt, who now lives in Shepherdstown, W.Va. “The next decade is going to be the pivotal decade in human history in determining the fate of our climate, but in our hearts and in our own hands, we have the power to turn the corner on the big threats facing this planet. Together, we can actually solve this. It’s within our power.”