Mike Cipra, Executive Director Friends of the Dunes
Carol Vander Meer is many things: environmental educator, collaborator, organizer, fundraiser, facilitator, campaigner, trainer of naturalists, trails advocate, and land conservation visionary. Her ability to move between these different roles, and her passion for investing herself fully in conservation projects for the benefit of the land and our community, are what makes Carol Vander Meer Kin to the Earth.
Carol was born and raised in Nebraska, and her first conservation job was there — as a naturalist at Fontenelle Forest Nature Center where she learned to lead hikes, train volunteers, and run a nature center.
“I understand a nature center as a welcoming place,” says Carol. “It can be an important gateway for those who haven’t had access to nature before.”
Carol’s early experience working in a nature center — and the open, rolling Sand Hills of her childhood — would have echoes years later in Humboldt County. After a variety of environmental education experiences in the Midwest, Carol packed up her things and headed to Humboldt County in 1994.
Upon arrival in Humboldt, Carol worked for a few years as an interpretive park ranger at Redwood National Park, leading tours through the ancient forests and across coastal prairies. During this time, she took a docent training led by John St. Marie, a volunteer with a grassroots community group called Friends of the Dunes.
Carol jumped in with Friends of the Dunes immediately. At her very first Friends meeting — this was before the organization was incorporated as a nonprofit — John St. Marie asked if anyone was willing to step forward to be the group’s Volunteer Director. Carol raised her hand immediately.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she laughs.
The dunes were going through changes. The Nature Conservancy, which had previously acquired and managed the Lanphere Dunes as the first coastal dune preserve in the Humboldt Bay region, was conveying their property to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and leaving the area. Many people who had worked to protect and restore Lanphere were concerned about the future. Carol jumped into the breach, leading the effort — along with John St. Marie, Jeannine Kaprielian, Linda Lee, and Bev Prosser — to establish Friends of the Dunes as an official nonprofit organization that could provide support and conservation leadership.
In 1996, Friends of the Dunes incorporated as a nonprofit. Within the first year, Carol worked with Shayne Green and Jennifer Bloesser to establish and fund the Bay to Dunes outdoor environmental education program. Bay to Dunes continues to this day, and has educated more than 15,000 students — a generation of Humboldt County kids growing up learning about coastal ecology in the outdoor classrooms of Humboldt Bay.
Carol quickly recognized the importance of Friends of the Dunes having its own land base for the organization’s growing education and volunteer habitat restoration programs. Friends of the Dunes made an initial attempt to acquire dune habitat, engaging the Coastal Conservancy and a private landowner in conversations about the Poovey Tract, which includes an ecologically significant coastal dune forest located directly south of the Manila Dunes Recreation Area. The parties had an agreement, until real estate developer Security National swooped in at the 11th hour to outbid Friends of the Dunes.
Disappointed but undaunted, Carol began a conversation with the Stamps Family about their dune property in Manila. Eventually Carol, assisted by Rondall Snodgrass, Su Corbaley, Bill Weaver, and others, negotiated for the purchase of the Stamps House and the dune habitat which lay to the west. Carol saw in the Stamps House a vision of a nature center as a gateway to the coastal dunes, and she worked tirelessly and collaboratively to clean up the property (“Volunteers hauled thousands of tires and tons of trash off that land,” she recalls) and to transform the Stamps House into the Humboldt Coastal Nature Center.
Around this time, Carol and the Friends of the Dunes Board also saw emerging opportunities for buying adjacent land and adding it to the conserved dune habitat of the Humboldt Coastal Nature Center. Carol worked with private landowners, the Coastal Conservancy, and the Wildlife Conservation Board to steadily acquire land until Friends of the Dunes was able to connect the habitats of the Manila Dunes Recreation Area in the south with the Ma-le’l Dunes and Lanphere Dunes in the north.
“I began thinking of this as one entire connected landscape, and realizing that we had an incredible opportunity,” she says.
That opportunity continues to be realized today. Carol stepped out of her role as Executive Director of Friends of the Dunes in 2014. She rejoined the Friends of the Dunes Board of Directors in 2019, and today serves as the organization’s Board President.
On October 15, 2020, Friends of the Dunes took ownership of the 357-acre Samoa Dunes and Wetlands Conservation Area, which includes the ecologically important land that was long ago bought out from under Friends of the Dunes by Security National. These dunes are now permanently conserved, and form a crucial part of a network of 1,600 contiguous acres that are managed for appropriate public access and habitat conservation.
Carol is quick to give credit to all of the partners and collaborators who have made these conservation gains possible, and she’s right — it does take everyone working together across years of effort to achieve a conservation legacy this significant. It’s also correct to say that Carol Vander Meer has been a visionary and a leader in growing this long-term project to protect our unique coastal habitats, to engage the community in conservation, and to inspire the next generation of conservation leaders. And for that, Carol is Kin to the Earth.