A Ground-Floor Environmentalist— from Earth Day I… and On


A final view of the 1500 year old rightfully named Big Tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Before the beginning of the environmental movement, many people believed that trees such as this 1500 year old redwood should be cut down to provide homes, jobs and decks.

Peggy and I drove down to Sacramento, California on Thursday. She wanted to visit her mom. I came down to do an oral history interview for the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS). The organization has been protecting Sacramento’s environment for so long it had forgotten its childhood.

I think ECOS wanted to catch up with me while I am still around. (Yikes!) Or at least while I had my memory left. Fortunately I have a long memory, or at least notes, and I was there for the organization’s birth.

My connection with the environmental movement started on April 22, 1970. For those of you not familiar with the date, it was Earth Day I. At the time I was running Peace Corps’ Northern California and Nevada’s Public Affairs office out of Sacramento. It was a great job, but I was getting tired of the recruitment business— I’d been at it for three years. So, I was easily distracted away from my recruitment booth at the University of California Davis that day.

Earth Day was my type of happening. UC Davis puts on great fairs. It probably has to do with an event it calls Picnic Day. Picnic Day is a rite of spring event with roots as deep as humankind. The birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and the snow is melting in the mountains; let’s have a party! All of the departments become involved, put on shows, put up displays, and do silly things.

Earth Day was like that but it also incorporated a vitally important message.

Somehow we had forgotten where we came from in our rush toward progress and the good life, in our deification of the dollar, in our maximizing of profits, and in our greed. In the process we were chopping down our forests, polluting our streams, poisoning our air, destroying our last remaining wilderness areas, and saying goodbye forever to innumerable species whose only evolutionary mistake was to get in our way.

We had forgotten that birds can make music as beautifully as any stereo, that peace and balance can be found in the wilderness, and that somehow, in some yet unfathomable way, our fate might be tied to that of the pup fish. It seemed okay that the last Brown Pelican was about to fly off into the sunset forever so we could squeeze one more bushel of wheat from our crops, and that it was appropriate for the last of the great Redwoods, silent sentinels who had maintained their vigilance for over 4000 years, to die for our patio with a lifespan of 20 years.

“Once you have seen one redwood, you have seen them all,” Ronald Reagan would proclaim.

Rachel Carson, in her landmark book Silent Spring, had sounded a clarion call to a Holy Crusade: saving the earth. Others, too, were raising the alarm. Earth Day I was an expression of growing concern. Its message struck a deep chord within my soul. The years I had spent wandering in the woods while growing up, my exploring of the rainforest around Gbarnga, Liberia during Peace Corps, and my hiking in the wilderness as a backpacker, all came together in a desire to join the environmental movement and help save the wilderness. (The urge, I cheerfully admit, was closely connected to my desire to disappear into the woods as much as possible.)

How to go about pursuing a career in saving the wilderness wasn’t all that clear, though. My occupations to date had been political science major, teacher and Peace Corps recruiter. None of those spelled environmentalist. I committed myself to look around, however, and to be ready for any opportunities that came my way.

Serendipity or synchronicity, being what they are, an opportunity arose immediately. I read an article in the Sacramento Bee about an Ecology Information Center (EIC) that was being organized in Sacramento as a response to Earth Day I. The organization was forming different committees to focus on a variety of environmental issues and was seeking volunteers. Lights went off in my head as I was struck by one of my brainstorms. What if I went in and volunteered to set up a committee that would focus on environment and politics, two of my passions of the moment? Certainly the environmental movement in Sacramento needed a political arm and would benefit from a focused effort. I further reasoned that EIC would have a tough time turning down a full-time volunteer.

A church out in Carmichael, a suburb in Sacramento, had donated the Center some free space so I took a break from the recruitment business and drove out to see what I could learn. When I walked in, two people were in a hot debate, almost yelling at each other. My presence seemed to make little difference. It was my introduction to the world of grass-roots organizations.

“I’ll come back another time,” I announced and turned to leave. This was not a situation I needed to be in.

“Oh, we’re sorry,” the young woman half of the debate announced and sounded like she meant it.

“Yes, please stay. We’re finished with our discussion,” the older man added, obviously a little embarrassed.

I hesitated and walked back in. The man introduced himself as Chuck Wiederhold. The young woman was Katie Easterwood and they had been arguing over the direction of the Center. Chuck felt the organization’s primary direction should be environmental education while Katie was more into environmental action. She was specifically interested in implementing a major recycling project in Sacramento modeled after one she had initiated at American River College. They both seemed like bright, capable people and Katie was particularly impressive at 18 years of age. The two of them were founding members of the organization and on the Board.

“I am interested in another area,” I said with a smile, throwing another option into the mix and wondering how long it would be before the two were yelling at me. I outlined my thoughts on creating a committee that would focus on electing environmentally concerned people to the City Council and Board of Supervisors. I added that I was willing to work full-time as a volunteer and outlined my background. The Director of Peace Corps Public Affairs for Northern California and Nevada sounded more grand that it was. Apparently my resume, or possibly my willingness to work full-time for free, impressed them— more than I had intended.

“I have an even better idea,” Chuck had announced with Katie’s concurrence, “why don’t you consider becoming EIC’s Executive Director.”

There it was, just like that. After a 15 minute discussion based on a whim, I was being offered the opportunity to become a card-carrying environmentalist, a leader in Sacramento’s fledgling environmental movement. I was in on the ground floor.

Three months later, I was up to my ears in garbage. Katie’s idea to run a once a month, community wide recycling drive was underway. Ten thousand families were dropping off tons of newspapers, cans and bottles at six sites we had set up throughout Sacramento City and County. EIC was running an operation that involved 300 volunteers and 15 rental trucks with one wildly enthusiastic young woman and one totally exhausted executive director, who was receiving a whopping $100 a month in compensation. Twenty-four hours after starting, we stored our last bundle of newspapers in a vacant building in Old Sacramento (later to become Frank Fat’s restaurant) and limped off to sleep. Shortly afterwards, the Board doubled my salary to $200 per month.

As crazy as the recycling drives were, I managed to become involved in other environmental issues. One of the most memorable was Proposition 18, a 1970 California Initiative spearheaded by the Tuberculosis and Respiratory Disease Association of California (later to become the Lung Association). Proposition 18, as it turned out, would serve as the foundation to ECOS.

The TB folks had gone a long way toward conquering tuberculosis and were looking around for other challenges. Since they were experts in matters pertaining to the lungs, it made sense to tackle other lung diseases. Research was showing that smoking and air pollution were two major causes of lung disease. Proposition 18, the Clean Air Initiative, was designed to raise money from the motor vehicle fuel tax and license fees to control automobile caused air pollution and develop mass transportation alternatives.

In Sacramento, a coalition of organizations ranging from the League of Women Voters to the American Association of University Women, the Audubon Society and Sierra Club had joined the TB Association in its effort. It was a natural for EIC to join as well. I was soon attending meetings and helping out with the campaign.

The highway interests (with money provided by the oil companies) defeated Proposition 18, but the coalition had worked well together. I had enjoyed the opportunity of working with leaders from other community-based groups and knew I would miss the interaction. At our wrap up session after the November election, someone suggested we should maintain the coalition. I jumped on the idea. There were a wide range of environmental issues that would benefit. It was one thing for EIC to make a point; it was something else when the Tuberculosis Association or League of Women Voters spoke out on the same issue.

Pulling together a variety of organizations to support environmental issues recognized a central tenet of the ecology movement. Solutions to environmental problems demand multi-faceted approaches. Everything is related. Urban sprawl encourages extensive automobile use, which, in turn, leads to air pollution. Reducing urban sprawl supports mass transit and has the added advantage of protecting valuable farmland and rapidly disappearing natural areas. It was clear as we talked that coalition members were excited about the potential of working together and believed we could make a difference in the quality of life in Sacramento.

“I move we create an ongoing organization,” I offered. The motion was immediately seconded and support was unanimous. We decided to call our organization the Environmental Council of Sacramento, ECOS. Each organization could have two representatives. Membership would be open to any organization concerned with improving and protecting Sacramento’s environment. Kris Corn, the young woman from the Tuberculosis Association who had headed up the Clean Air Initiative, was selected as the first president.

ECOS continues to function in Sacramento today as one of the longest continuing community environmental coalitions in the nation. I worked closely with the organization for several years and am proud of my early involvement. I am even more proud of what the organization has been able to accomplish in the 45 years since.

28 thoughts on “A Ground-Floor Environmentalist— from Earth Day I… and On

  1. Wow! What an inspiring story, Curt. You’ve led and lead such an interesting life. It just goes to show what a few people can accomplish when they put their hearts and heads together. You must be very proud. And I’ve seen some of those redwoods and they’re most definitely not the same. :).

    • Thanks Brigitte. It has been a privilege working with all of the people I have over the years who are committed to making this world a better place to live in. And I am a firm believer that a small group of committed people can make a substantial difference. –Curt

  2. Whatever Reagan did or didn’t mean, there is another way to understand, “Once you have seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” Every redwood, every monarch, every wetland, stands in some sense as a representative of all. While we often don’t get very far saving redwoods, or monarchs, or wetlands in the abstract, if we truly see just one, and go about preserving and protecting it, then we’re on our way to doing the same for all.

    • There is an organization in Sacramento that Peggy’s sister Jane has worked with closely over the years called the Tree Foundation. It has planted literally thousands of trees in the city and county over the years, one tree at a time. But major steps can be accomplished as well, Linda. Think of all that Teddy Roosevelt accomplished. –Curt

      • Absolutely, re: Roosevelt and etc. But there are a lot of people who assume there’s nothing they can do because the problems so large. Make the problem a little smaller and a little more specific, and what they start with may not be what they end with. 🙂

      • One of the books we put out at the Ecology Center was 50 Things an Individual Do to Lessen the Strain on the Environment. And the whole recycling drive we did (It was before recycling became a government supported business.) was provide 10,000 families in Sacramento with something they could do. 🙂 –Curt

  3. Interesting to learn about this part of your life. What an impressive accomplishment. Sometimes people wonder how best to get into a certain line of work or land a job at a coveted site. Volunteering can often be an inroad.

    • Actually, I am amazed it is still there, working away, Cindy. It speaks volumes about the need for such organizations, and the leadership down through the years. I was really impressed with the staff I met when I id the interview. –Curt

    • You caught me, GP. 🙂 I have never been able to pass up a fair… from county fairs, to state fairs, to world fairs and everything in between. And how could one resist wandering around a beautiful college campus on a warm spring day with all kinds of fascinating booths. It was half environmental fair and half Age of Aquarius happening. It was 1970, after all. –Curt

    • Steve became EIC director after I went to work for Lung, Tom. So it was probably sometime in the spring of 1971. Not so clear on Lynn, maybe about the time I hired Steve to help with the first Sierra Trek in 1974? –Curt

  4. A wonderful story about how a vital cause, drive and serendipity can be behind so important a movement. I remember the effect of reading Silent Spring even now, and think of the book as we feed the birds. I hope you are ‘still around’ for many, many years to come, but when your time does come, you will know it wasn’t wasted.

    • I’m with you on hoping I’m around for many years to come, Hilary. 🙂 Thinking about what you said, Peggy and I have had rich lives, rich in experiences. Each day is a new adventure. And each day is an opportunity to give back in some way… even if it’s only writing a blog and sharing the adventure. (grin) We are very thankful for the lives we lead and the opportunities we have. –Curt

  5. Amazing what a group of people with a unified vision can do. I’m reading in between the very interesting lines and seeing the challenges you and the others must have had to overcome. I chuckled when I read that your salary was doubled to $200 🙂

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