Gee Whiz

Follow the Leaders: From Grass Roots to the Wilderness Beyond

Many of you believe in a brighter, cleaner future, one in which all places can be guaranteed a road to a better existence through reclamation, restoration and continued preservation. You can only hope for the compassion of others to help influence and appeal for the environmental changes you know are right for our planet. You look at even the narrowest of waterways and fields, over flown with the bi products of American industries, yearning for the public acknowledgement it deserves. “How?” you ask. “How can I exhibit conservation… where can I do my part?” Well environmental activism calls for many roles in local and global practices. There are many areas, even businesses outside of the naturalistic sort can contribute to the encouragement of a “greener” planet. It may start simply in the organization of your peers to pick up trash in those narrow ways between your streets or lead to greater investments of a global importance.

One notable grass roots success story is that of Ventura River, a river beyond the south side of Los Padres National forest. It flows down from the hills of mid coast California and into the Pacific Ocean just south of Santa Barbara. Land here is very valuable, its beauty invites the rich to gorge in over indulgencies and its climate and soil bring in some of the country’s largest agricultural production facilities. So with that it also breeds our western intuition, mankind’s aggressive need to generate more for the progression of sales. These needs combine and bring efforts for the construction of dams and the clearing of an immense amount of vegetation. And by the early seventies there were evident signs of waste in the water as it made its way to the ocean, following the current south to wash along the shores of Huntington Beach and Santa Monica, L.A.

But the fact that this might discourage any beach goers from a day in the sun isn’t what caught the attention of the locals in Ventura. It was the wildlife. One man was able to round the floodplains and go beyond the fences of the canals to peel back the artificial veil that labeled this area as a place to be exploited. He captured his reconnaissance work on film and revealed the river to be the home of still many raccoons, eels and even steal head trout. It was a shock to environmentalists in the area when the recording was shown at a meeting in town; they didn’t believe that anything could survive in such a starved place.

Among the audience was Yvon Chouinard, a legendary rock climber that started selling t-shirts out of his car and by this time had built a business selling a multitude of sportswear and gear by the label Patagonia. As a naturalist, who’s own backyard held the draining carcass of the Ventura River, Yvon became compelled to make a difference. He offered a room and a telephone that became the first location of The Friends of Venture River organization. Activism grew as attention to the threats at hand seemed to develop. The highway was going to be expanded to cross over the western end of the river so the organization worked along with the County Game and Commission in 1973 to catalog the first Preliminary Report and Proposal of Ventura River to prevent any future degradation of local wildlife.

These first few steps were taken by those directly related to the matter; they were people who spoke up because they knew something was wrong with where they lived. Not all of them dove into the river for a personal glimpse of natural disaster but it mattered to each of them. Yvon continued to care very much and as his business flourished his environmental influence did as well. In 1985 he made sure to donate 10 percent of profits to a number of Grass Root organizations just like Ventura. By 1989 Patagonia co founded the Conservation Alliance along with other retail companies including The North Face, REI and Kelty. This alliance is still alive today and now backed by one hundred and seventy other members. Together they grant threatened lands opportunity to regain biodiversity, by giving twice a year to any in need. In 2010 they estimated $900,000 in profits went to conservation work.

(If you are curious to hear of how other individuals/groups have taken part in aiding in grass roots environmentalism and how they made a positive impact on land management in their area. Then you will be happy to know that Globe Pequot Press managed to publish a book chronicling organizations funded by the conservation alliance and their environmental victories prior to 2001. It’s called Making a Difference: Inspirational Stories of How Outdoor Industry and Individuals are Working to Preserve America’s Natural Places.)

Most people are familiar with the work of founders Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia/Black Diamond Equipment and former owner Douglas Tompkins of The North Face. Their popularity stems from their contributions to modern fashion which both the adventurous and domesticated can agree is cutting edge in its recreational ability and tasteful. They have also recently gained a larger fan base after the production of 180 degrees south documented some of their achievements and followed them on an expedition to Patagonia. During one scene Doug implies that his reasoning behind leaving the industry was that it became a sensible act as a successful and what he called “powerful” man to take care of more important things than supplying those indulged in the latest trends. He is now leading the way for supporters in Chile, helping the Grouchos (Native Horsemen) take control of their pastures and support proper grazing standards. He has played a role in compelling activism in the area to attempt to cease any further construction of hydro-electric power plants and dams to support foreign power. And above all his most prized development is the formation of Corvacado Park, a 726,000 acre National Park gifted to President Lagos in 2005.

Doug and his wife Kristine only began their South American endeavor in 1992 when they created the Conservation Land Trust and since then they have dedicated twenty years and the rest of their lives to returning Patagonia’s ecosystem back to its natural inhabitants and encouraging the growth of the endangered within their nurseries.
Yvon continues to do his part as well. Wrapped up in synthetic poly and a wealth of puffy jackets, the grandfather of Yosemite rock climbing still gets out of the office to take on some big walls. River dam demolition, is another increasingly common practice in the last twenty years that when first purposed, perplexed even Bill Clinton during his presidency as it was ridiculed by newspapers and senators. The idea didn’t seem very much worth it but when actually completed it was proven to rehabilitate a habitat within a seasons change. The fish still know to swim upstream even if there have been over a hundred years of generations spawned elsewhere. This has brought Yvon back to his roots and reinstated his compassion for the trout of Ventura River. The Matalija Dam is his new big project but it suffers from the same issues other activist are having with old dams. The sediment build up on the inside of the wall has compiled under so much pressure that removal projects across the country are at a standstill.

If this has left you disappointed then please take some time to identify with this problem. Ask yourself how you could positively affect Ventura River or any endangered areas of your own. Do you have any background in Law or Biology? Do you have a camera and a hope to even just share what you consider an environmental priority? Are you a self made man or woman looking for the honest reward of humanity? Because whoever you are, you must know that it is not only the powerful that control this world’s fate. We can all work together to further preserve our lands including all those places outside of the American border, whose wonder is threatened just the same.

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