The NEC’s Collaborative Conservation Legacy

By Chad Roberts, NEC Life Member


Conservation was a central focus of the countercultural upwelling in the North Coast in the late 1960s, more so than the civil rights movement or even the Viet Nam misadventure. In my mind this North Coast focus really sharpened when Tim McKay transferred to (then) Humboldt State College. HSC already enrolled many people motivated by conservationist objectives, but Tim’s activism helped sharpen our focus on environmental decision-making. That focus, and Tim’s activism, led to his involvement in HSC campus politics, where he served as a major environmental spokesperson, including serving a term as Vice President of the Associated Students. 

When I returned to the North Coast at the end of the 1970s, the NEC was already an important player in environmental issues, with Tim at the helm. The ‘70s had seen the local growth of chapters of major conservation nonprofits, including the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, as well as groups with more regional environmental concerns. It was mutually advantageous for all these groups to collaborate, and the NEC became a virtual ‘Center’ of collective conservation activism in the North Coast. 

Already an Audubon member, I joined the Redwood Region AS with a primary focus on the Conservation Committee, as a member for the next 20 years, and its chair for about 11. One of the lessons that came from those experiences is that productive conservation outcomes typically emerge from collaborative actions with like-minded people. As an Audubon conservationist, I often worked closely with Tim at the NEC. In the early 1980s Lucille Vinyard and Susie Van Kirk of the Sierra Club were really no less important for local conservation activism than Tim was, but there truly were many folks who carried parts of the load. I’d also call out the significance of Connie Stewart’s contribution during the late ‘80s and early 1990s. Some agency staff in the region also helped us define conservationist objectives during this period, as well as helping us achieve the outcomes described below; David Solis, then a Forest Service wildlife biologist, deserves particular recognition for his contributions. During this entire period, the NEC was a central place of a North Coast ‘environmental coalition,’ with a reach that extended far beyond the region. 

Several major NEC ‘projects’ in which I was involved directly revolved around National Forest planning. In the early ‘80s, the Six Rivers National Forest (SRNF) had embarked on developing its (mandated) forest management plan. The ‘80s was a period of rapidly changing regulatory circumstances, and the SRNF didn’t develop an actual draft plan until the middle of the decade. From the outset the conservation community was adamant that the draft plan’s focus didn’t address many real values or processes in federal landscapes in our region. In 1987, NEC members collaboratively developed our own version of what the SRNF plan should include, the Green Forest Plan for a Sustainable Future, which we submitted to the SRNF as a substitute version of its draft. The SRNF didn’t adopt our plan, but it also didn’t pursue the ‘standard’ draft it had produced. 

In preparing the plan it finally did adopt, the SRNF enlisted a broadly based contingent of public members and incorporated most of the objectives of the NEC and other local conservation groups. The four Klamath region National Forests were the last in the country to develop their required plans, as similar dynamics affected the development processes for the other three Forest plans. I also represented the RRAS and the NEC in the development process for the Klamath NF (KNF) plan. Ultimately, the NEC’s involvement in these planning processes turned out to be a harbinger, pointing to the development of the Northwest Forest Plan (more on that below). 

In the fall of 1987, the first of the ‘megafires’ in the North Coast region blew up, the 100,000+hectare King-Titus Complex in the Happy Camp Ranger District, in western Siskiyou County, the known home of many Northern Spotted Owls (NSO) and a lot of unentered old-growth forest stands. The KNF followed its usual procedure for the ‘80s, attempting to salvage large parts of the fire footprint with minimal environmental reviews. The NEC and its member groups appealed the environmental reviews for all the proposed projects. The appeals were largely unsuccessful, and in 1989 the NEC sued the KNF, demanding a full environmental assessment covering the entire King Complex process, including an EIS (see photo). Tim could not get the major environmental law firms active at the time to carry the suit, so the NEC teamed up with Dave Krueger, a local labor law attorney admitted to practice in federal courts, although he had no actual experience in environmental law. The KNF concluded (correctly!) that it would lose, and settled the suit by agreeing to prepare an EIS and to change the basis for its environmental assessment process to incorporate effects on wildlife species and their habitats in ‘ancient forests.’

Northcoast Environmental Center review team, King Fire EIS lawsuit vs. Klamath National Forest. From left: Jude Wait, Greg Blomstrom, Dave Krueger, Susie Van Kirk, Tim McKay. Photo by Chad Roberts. Photo date: December 1988.

The late ‘80s was, any way it’s sliced, a time of significant change for conservation causes. The NSO was proposed (more than once) for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) by locally focused conservation groups, an outcome which federal land-management agencies and the timber industry strongly opposed. The major conservation groups in the United States treaded softly around this issue, fearing that an NSO listing could result in the repeal by Congress of the ESA, notwithstanding the fact that their local PNW chapters usually prevailed when challenging the review processes for local decisions by federal agencies because the agency projects so clearly failed to comply with adopted regulations. 

This functional impasse led to a regional conservationist summit in late 1988 in Portland, OR, with the national leadership of the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the Wilderness Society present, together with representatives of local chapters and independent conservation groups throughout the range of the NSO. The NEC headed a contingent of people from northwestern California, which as far as I can recall included at least one representative from every affected local group in NW California and western Oregon and Washington; the total attendance was around 120 people. The summit had several significant conservation outcomes, including the commitment by the national groups to support NSO listing and to support the work of all the local chapters in dealing with the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at a policy level in DC. To this day I believe this conservationist concord contributed directly to the 1990 ESA listing of the NSO as ‘Threatened’ by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

An additional outcome of the summit was an agreement among the national conservation groups and the locals to develop a ‘lobby’ for ancient forests in DC, which led to the creation of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign (WAFC). The NEC was a significant factor in the WAFC’s engagement (especially Connie Stewart’s role), and a North Coast resident (Jim Owens) was its representative in DC. The WAFC, the strengthened presence of the national conservation groups, the support of several electeds in DC (particularly Jim Jontz, a Congressman from Indiana), and the NSO listing led the Forest Service and the BLM to halt their ongoing liquidation of ‘old-growth’ forests throughout the Pacific Northwest. The elevated political stakes this created gave the issue a role in the 1992 Presidential election, which led subsequently to the development by federal agencies of the Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team (FEMAT) report and the subsequent 1996 Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), based on FEMAT’s ‘Option 9.’ The NEC and its conservationist allies had a direct role in generating this outcome.

When I returned to the Sacramento region at the end of the ‘90s, I brought along my NEC experiences with collaborative conservation. I served for 16 years as the Conservation Chair of the Yolo AS, working collaboratively with numerous agencies and conservationist groups in the Central Valley, Sierra Nevada, and Coast Range on shared interests. In 2002 I was a co-founder of Tuleyome, a regional nonprofit with a focus on conservation and recreational issues, and served on its board for 15 years. Tuleyome’s founders had extensive experience with a variety of conservation organizations, including Audubon, the Sierra Club, the California Wilderness Coalition, and the California Native Plant Society, and we all knew the value of collaboration for accomplishing conservation objectives. Tuleyome and our allies achieved the designation of a new Cache Creek Wilderness, and then in securing the 2015 Obama designation of the 330,000+acre Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in Forest Service and BLM landscapes in the inner Coast Range. 

As Tim used to say when answering phone calls late in the evening: “Your environment never sleeps!” These days I find myself again allocating an inordinate amount of time and energy to National Forest planning, in an era of climate change and increased fire, as we rapidly approach the required updates of the Northwest Forest Plan and the individual forest plans in NW California. I think that a fundamental, lifetime commitment to collaborative conservation is the real legacy that many of us old-timers still carry from our NEC engagement.