The environmental movement has been slow to build a coalition "that looks like America," says Jerome Ringo, who served as the first black chairman of the National Wildlife Federation.
Ringo said minorities, who are disproportionately poor, are often left out when it comes to efforts to protect the environment.
"Poor folks can't afford to drive a Prius," he said. "If you give a poor person money for one of those twisty light bulbs that save energy, he will take the money and buy eight regular light bulbs."
And he says Congress hasn't discussed ways to include minority interests when "carving up the pie" of a proposed carbon tax that could generate $80 billion to $120 billion for the development of alternative energy.
Ringo made his comments at a recent business conference hosted by the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs.
Michael Styles, state director of Black Affairs, said it was important to include environmentalism in the conference, especially given the emerging alternative energy market.
"This is a way for the ethnic minority community to get involved from the ground level," he said. "This is a new industry ... it's a growing industry. I don't think it's something that has been introduced to a lot of people in the ethnic community."
While environmentalism may be a new concept to many in the minority community, it's nothing new to Margene Bullcreek, who found herself butting heads with other members of the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians over a proposed nuclear waste repository.
The deal was seen by many members of the band as a multimillion-dollar opportunity for economic development on the rural Tooele County reservation. The band is still pursuing that opportunity through a lawsuit against the Department of Interior, which stymied the deal.
After years of fighting the waste proposal, Bullcreek has turned her sights to alternative energy and has recently had a solar panel installed at her home. She said she brought the idea to the tribal council but found little interest.
"I think people can profit from this; they can profit from obtaining solar energy," she said. "This is another direction, a new door that could be opened."
In poor communities with high unemployment, there often is pressure on local officials to bring in economic development projects that promise jobs, said Robert Tohe, environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club's Flagstaff office. At sites across the nation, poor, often low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental and hazardous waste, he said.
"They lack the resources to even question or get assistance — legal or advocacy — to question projects that are dumped on them," Tohe said. "Often, there's really nowhere for them to turn. That's where our program comes into effect, and so what we do is we provide some of the basic necessary tools, a way of training them on how they might start voicing their concerns."
In Utah, Lawson Legate, regional director for the Sierra Club, said that while on the surface environmental and economic interests may appear disconnected, they often work hand-in-hand. He sees opportunities for development in areas such as alternative energy.
"Anything we can do to help a community explore alternative ways to make a living that does not threaten public health and the environment is a good thing to do," he said. "We understand people have a strong desire to make a living to support their families."