Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Stewardship in Action: James Holtkamp

James A. Holtkamp

Partner, Holland & Hart LLP
Senior Fellow, Wallace Stegner Center, University of Utah College of Law


Tell us a bit about your personal background.

I learned to love the outdoors growing up in Utah County and wanted to be an invertebrate biologist (I actually had a pet leech when I was a teenager). However, I decided to go to law school after I realized that I was too squeamish even to put a worm on a hook, much less dissect one. After graduating from BYU (undergraduate) and George Washington University (law school), I worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior and became fascinated with natural resources issues. I left the government in 1977 and have been in private practice ever since, and have also taught as an adjunct professor at both BYU and the University of Utah Law Schools.

Tell us a bit about your work and interests in relation to stewardship for the earth.

I have represented mining and energy companies over the course of my career. I am often asked whether I am on the side of pollution or environmental protection. I respond that the entities I represent hire me to help them figure out the environmental requirements to which they are subject in order to be able to operate and thus to provide goods, services, jobs and economic activity in compliance with those requirements. All human activity has an impact on the environment for good or bad. In the final analysis, it is the sum of our individual decisions that determine the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.

One of the most enjoyable projects I have worked on has been representing a non-profit devoted to rain forest preservation in Costa Rica, using a unique government program to incentivize landowners to preserve forest cover, thereby protecting watershed, biodiversity, esthetic values and carbon sinks.

How has your personal and/or professional background affected your conception of environmental stewardship?

When I was about 15 I remember standing on the newly completed bridge over Glen Canyon at Page looking down at the dam then under construction and thinking that something wasn’t quite right if that great mysterious labyrinth was going to disappear behind the dam. It just seemed very sad to me that this place that no one knew (to plagiarize the Sierra Club) would be gone just like that.

I have come to appreciate that the resources God has given us on this planet are finite and that some measure of our accountability to Him at the end of the day will be how we protected, managed and used those resources, especially given the knowledge available to us. I am not one who believes that humankind would be better off if we turned out the lights, parked all the cars and shut down economic activity. But I do believe that God has given us the tools to work through this complex, mortal world to achieve health and happiness and to watch over and protect this remarkable home he created for us.

A few years ago, I was invited to share my testimony from the academic side of my career, which is at http://mormonscholarstestify.org/2113/james-a-holtkamp. As I said then, I cannot separate my spiritual conviction form the feeling of awe as I consider the extraordinary gift God gave us in creating this earth.

How does the Gospel affect how you think about earth stewardship, including the recent church statement about stewardship and conservation?

The Book of Mormon has a fascinating preview of the latter days in Mormon 8. Along with prophesying that “there shall be heard of” tempests, earthquakes, wars and “vapors of smoke in foreign lands (Verses 29 and 30) , Moroni also says “there shall be great pollutions upon the face of the earth” (verse 31). Of course, there have always been wars, earthquakes, and storms, but people on one side of the earth haven’t always “heard” of them on the other side until the modern era. However, there haven’t always been “great pollutions” on the earth, which I personally believe are not only the extraordinary wickedness and moral failings of the latter days but also the great physical harm to the earth’s environment from human activity in the last couple centuries.

We have a responsibility as Latter-day Saints to have a positive influence on the world’s morality, notwithstanding the great moral “pollution” of our time. I believe that we also have a responsibility as members of the Church to protect environmental values, notwithstanding the great physical pollutions of our time. We will be judged accordingly. 

What message do you have for Church members about earth stewardship?

A very wise stake president once taught me that in the Church we often have difficult distinguishing truth from tradition. With regard to earth stewardship, we need to separate political and cultural traditions from Gospel truths about our obligation to take care of our environment as heirs of Adam and Eve. 

So what can we do about it? We can make individual choices in how we live so that “there [are] not rich and poor, bond and free, but . . . all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” ) 4 Nephi 1:3). The Nephites did it in the generations following Christ’s visit to them. We can do it today as a Latter-day Saints.

You can find James’ profile as attorney here  and as professor here.  

This is the ninth of a series of profiles of Church members that exemplify stewardship in some aspect of their lives.  We hope to show the diverse and wonderful ways that Church members show respect and wise use of the earth’s resources.  If you would like to suggest someone to highlight in the future, let us know