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Born again 

The new NEC fresh-faced and ready to rumble

On a sunny, nearly hot spring afternoon in early April, Susan Penn was setting up easels inside the Northcoast Environmental Center's headquarters and placing paintings on them. The office was chaotic - boxes everywhere, some with giant stuffed salmon swimming atop them. How much of this stuff would make it to the new headquarters, up the road, was anyone's guess. For now, there were more immediate concerns. Soon, the auctioneer and film crew would arrive to record a commercial for the NEC's annual art auction. Erica Terence, meanwhile, was talking on the phone to Petey Brucker's mom, who was the first person to mail in a bid for one of the artworks. They're both mid-Klamath folks, ardent activists.

Through the door came a slender young man with large brown eyes. "Hello, Ryan," said Penn. "Hi," he said. A tiny white flower on a long green stem peeked out of his curly brown hair. "I have another one, too," he said, bending down to show off the little purple bloom on top. "I had a whole crown of them, but took it off." He's one of the NEC's work-study students - although, he admitted, he skipped out on the "student" part today on account of the sudden sunshine, which needed to be loafed in. "My skin still feels charged from it," he said, rubbing his left arm.

But he did show up for duty at the NEC. And, reeking as he did of sunshine and idealism, he could have been a kid walking in straight from the 1970s. Or from last spring, even. But some might call it remarkable that he, or any of the others, showed up on this day in April 2007.

Last July when Tim McKay died , you could see in many locals' eyes, behind the shock and sorrow, the unspeakable prediction: "There goes the NEC." They hated themselves for thinking it, but there it was. How could the NEC go on? McKay had been the executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center for 35 years, all but a year since he and Wes Chesbro (the first executive director, and recently termed-out state senator) started it in 1971, along with a handful of other environmentally conscious, scrappy college students knocking about a rather conservative Arcata at that time.

"Tim - he was the NEC, and the NEC was him," said Erica Terence, who joined the NEC staff in January 2006.

Led by McKay, the NEC shed light on numerous issues, starting with recycling but soon moving to the federal landscape: pesticides, timber harvest plans, the plight of the northern spotted owl, ill-conceived roads through pristine forests, off-shore oil drilling, a plan to fill Butler Valley up with water, wilderness preservation and PacifiCorp's dams on the Klamath River. Certain closer-to-town issues did catch its attention, such as the proposed liquid natural gas plant on Humboldt Bay. But its forte was watchdogging policies on the four national forests in the Klamath-Siskiyou region - a "seed bank" zone of incredible biological diversity, with complicated, remote mountains whose creeks and small rivers form the watersheds of the Klamath and Trinity rivers, stretching from Northern California to southern Oregon.

McKay also was the NEC's obsessive archivist, storing massive amounts of information on paper and filing equally massive amounts directly into his brain cells. One of his greatest attributes, colleagues and friends say, was his readiness to share this vast knowledge with anyone who walked in the door, and to send them back out the door with the tools to wage their own battle. After the NEC office burned to the ground in 2001, taking with it 30 years of saved news clippings and an impressive, one-of-a-kind environmental and political library collection, McKay's "institutional memory" became indispensable.

The NEC drew scads of volunteers, a steady feed of work-study students, and grew to 4,000 members. It achieved a $250,000-plus annual budget, 90 percent derived from donations, according to former staffer Connie Stewart (who went on to the Arcata City Council and now works for Assemblymember Patty Berg). Over the years, many people worked just as passionately and tirelessly as McKay at the NEC. But McKay drove the thing. And his staff and board of directors went along for the ride - or got off the bus.

OK, we'll just say it: McKay was a micromanager. It's no secret. Friends and colleagues say, with admiration and frustration, that his passion - his devotion - drove him such that he had to have a hand in everything the NEC did. "I've known him forever, and I miss him a lot," said conservation ecologist and planner Chad Roberts, one of McKay's long-time friends and a 20-year member of the NEC. But that doesn't hold him back from an honest critique: "I think the NEC ... was Tim's playground to [pursue] issues he cared about. He controlled the agenda. Tim was a very forceful individual."

That could be a good thing. Or, bad.

"Before Tim died, the board had been struggling to make changes," said Claire Courtney, who's been on the NEC Board of Directors since 1994 and is going on her fourth year as president. "Administration was not Tim's passion, the environment was his passion, and being out there. And he was good at it. ... But the board was very interested in strengthening the financial position of the organization and involving more people in the community."

Also, the NEC still didn't have a permanent home - the board and McKay had wrangled over this problem ever since the fire. Some board members had quit in recent years, frustrated by the various impasses. That question of how the NEC should operate, and where, was still being hashed out even as McKay was watching a Cooper's hawk soar over Stone Lagoon that Sunday last July when his heart burst.

McKay made no provisions for a successor. The staff he left behind was almost brand-new. Not Susan Penn - she'd been hired two years prior to run the campaign to raise funds for a new building. But she was now the senior staff member. Terence had only been on the job as editor of NEC's Econews, Northern California's longest-running conservation newspaper, for six months. She was painfully new to the post, relative to the publication's former long-time editor, Sid Dominitz, who retired at the end of 2005 after 30 years as the organization's grammatical conscience and, as he describes it, McKay's "ghost writer." And the morning after McKay died was Alisha Clompus' first day on the job as the new office manager.

NEC member Roberts said he wrote a long letter to the board after McKay died, saying they needed to split the director's position into three: someone to find the money, and two program managers -- one to keep up the important federal lands issues, and another to follow more local issues. "I thought the NEC could become the local flagship environmental organization," Roberts said. "It was already, on the federal landscape." The board also, he said, should pursue an endowment.

The board called a community powwow at the local grange to ponder these and other suggestions. Penn, meantime, stepped up as temporary director - and she and the rest of the staff dug their heels into the whistling void and hung on.

Now, nine months later, things are settling down. The community has spoken - yes, the NEC must go on. Donations have poured in since McKay's death, an affirmation of his legacy. The board decided to scuttle, for now, the new building plans, and is buying a house that the staff likely will move into by the end of summer. The organization just held its annual art auction last Saturday. And the board hired a new executive director, Greg King, who barely three months into the job is exhibiting all the whirlwind multitasking abilities one expects from a nonprofit leader.

Inevitably, the NEC will be different. Will its mission - as coined by Dominitz years ago, "to educate, agitate and if necessary litigate" - remain intact? Dominitz doesn't seem worried. "It's a change in personnel, it's not a change in direction. We've expanded and contracted before. It's the citizens that drive the NEC."

True, but still - what about these new staffers? Who are they? How will they shape the "new" NEC? Who's cutting out newspaper articles and squirreling away history? And minding the idealism?

Well, first of all, not all of the "institutional memory" has fled the NEC. Dominitz, editor emeritus now, still has a spot at a desk when he wants it. Other people close to the organization have been filing through since last summer, sharing what they know and helping out. The volunteers remain loyal. And, capital funds campaign manager-turned-temporary-director, Susan Penn, 57, has 24 years of history in Humboldt County. She's been at the NEC nearly three years, and most recently organized the art auction and dinner. Now she moves into a new position, as the development director.

Actually, Penn is rather frustrated at the outcome of the new-building campaign. The site where the NEC planned to rebuild turned out to have contaminated soil; there went more money and energy, into cleanup. And the cost to actually build the new structure soared - last estimate, $3.2 million. Nobody could agree on how to proceed: McKay, Penn said, had insisted on keeping the basement in the design, which made the project more expensive; others thought the new building might be doable if they eliminated the basement and scaled things back; and some wanted to chuck the plans and just buy something already standing so they could get out of the rent sump ($36,000 a year) - which is what finally happened.

"Personally," said Penn, "I'm really disappointed that, after Tim died, the board didn't revisit the plans. Instead, they went and bought that house."

The house they bought, for $550,000 - amount due in a year - is a pretty, white, historic home on North G Street. Previous tenants planted a lush flower garden and renovated the inside. It's charming, and small. It's also a missed opportunity, says Penn, in two regards. One, it could be a home. "We have a housing shortage in this county, and we're taking a house out of circulation." And two, the new building would have been not only a progressive example of green design and efficiency, but made specifically for the NEC. "The idea was, we could expand and grow."

Though it sounds like bitterness, Penn's skepticism and concern for community issues seem just right for the NEC. She exudes citizenry - a pattern that shows up in the other staffers, as well.

Yes, two of them are very young. Erica Terence is 23, Alisha Clompus is 27. But as Terence points out, how different, really, are they from a young Sid or a young Tim or a young Connie Stewart?

"Tim always encouraged, and Greg does it too: 'Learn it by doing,'" said Terence, sitting at a table inside Café Mokka a couple weeks ago. She had to take that advice literally last summer. "When Tim died, it felt like a giant question mark. The style of the NEC was to keep all the balls in the air. ... Tim had been working diligently, for years, on restoring the Klamath River, from the upper basin to the lower, dealing with the small farmer and the fisherman and everyone in between. When he hired me, Tim knew I had a really strong connection to the [Klamath region]. So, I decided, rather than see one of those balls drop, I would keep at least that one in the air."

So in addition to putting out Econews, Terence threw herself into the Klamath quagmire. "Part of it was getting to know the people involved, everyone from who does the fish counts to the lawyers sitting in rooms haggling over details of dam removal," she said. "It's tons of people." She's traveled hither and yon - Sacramento, Portland, Redding - to attend hearings and participated in negotiation sessions with the numerous stakeholders. "There will be 28 parties in a room, and definitely I'm the youngest one there. And I'm always wishing for my lawyer and my hydrologist and my fish biologist."

McKay asked Terence to apply for the editor job when he heard she was graduating from college with an environmental journalism degree, in 2005. Her parents were activist friends of his; he knew what had shaped her. Terence grew up on the Salmon River -- "at this big river bend, on Butler Flat right next to Butler Creek," she said. "The Salmon River is very pristine, very deep and gorgeous." Her dad had moved there from Los Angeles many years earlier to live, initially, at the Black Bear Ranch commune. Her mom and dad met in the Bay Area - they both worked for "Ents," a tree-planting co-op.

Terence grew up surrounded by nature with no television or telephone, the only electricity they did consume created by a small flow-through dam on Butler Creek. She went to Forks of Salmon School with 30 other students; there were three people in her 7th grade graduating class. At age 12, she lobbied her parents to take her far away from there so she could attend a high school somewhere other than in rough Happy Camp. They moved to Haiti for a year, where her parents taught at an international school and she was exposed to concepts of poverty, crowding, deforestation and erosion. They moved, then, to the populous Santa Cruz, where Terence went to high school - and had a telephone for the first time. She chose Seattle University because of its social justice program. "I knew I wanted to preserve places like where I grew up. And living in Haiti and Santa Cruz reinforced that."

Living on a creek with a dam, she says, balanced her perspective. "It's not just, 'hydropower is bad,'" she said. "That's too much of a blanket statement. Hydropower makes sense in some places." Her family's dam, which dropped creek water into a Pelton wheel, "isn't blocking fish passage, isn't diverting a huge amount of water, and is not warming the water up - which is part of the problem with the Klamath dams. So we need to be careful when we criticize. We're not saying 'take every dam out.'"

Alisha Clompus' background is a little trickier, at first, to fit into the NEC puzzle. You could be thrown, for instance, by her tale about how a Beanie Baby is responsible for her leaving Philadelphia and moving to Humboldt County and, hence, being in the right place when the NEC was looking for an office manager last summer. You'll have to ask her for the details. Suffice to say, the Beanie Baby was but one in a pile of stuffed toy monkeys, too many to de-tag, really, that she had on account of her fixation with primates, and one day she and her little sister discovered that it was worth $4,000. "My mom went on eBay and a lady in Michigan bought it for $3,000." Clompus, fresh out of high school, took the money and went on a road trip to Berkeley and San Francisco. Really liked it. And came back to Humboldt State in 1998 to get a dual degree in anthropology and art; she also studied facial reconstruction. She traveled to the West Indies to study primates. Then, back in Humboldt, she ended up volunteering at the Humboldt County Coroner's office, making facial reconstruction sculptures to help solve cases. But she needed a real job. "I was a struggling artist," she said. "I saw the ad in the paper for an office manager in June or July, and that morning I was like, 'I need that job.'"

After other travails - McKay going to the emergency room (the warning visit) the day he was supposed to interview her, her dad having a brain aneurysm three hours later and her rushing off to Florida to be with him, and doing a rescheduled interview by phone - she was hired. "Tim had asked me how anthropology tied in with the NEC, and I said, well, that's obvious. Human rights and social justice always tie in with environmental justice."

There, now that's NEC. But even more important? Clompus takes to administrative work like a monkey takes to trees, whipping the office into shape, fielding calls, doing outreach, contributing articles and artwork to Econews. "I never wanted to work in an office," she said. "But it turns out I'm good at it. And I love my job. I love who I work with, and I love what we do. I believe in it ethically. And I figure Tim picked me for a reason - I'd better stick with it."

And then there's the new executive director, 45-year-old Greg King. Yes, that Greg King, the journalist who, with Darryl Cherney, co-founded - or revived - the Humboldt County chapter of Earth First! in 1986 to fight to save old growth forests. The same King who, in 1987, discovered the wildest, biggest unprotected grove of ancient redwood trees on the planet - bordered by clearcuts and doomed under the heightened timber harvest regime of the recently Maxxam-acquired Pacific Lumber Co. He named the vast grove, whose ridges spilled streams, Headwaters Forest. Perhaps you've heard of it. He quit his newspaper job and moved to Humboldt County to be a full-time forest activist.

A little radical, you say, for the new director of the moderate-mannered NEC? King would counter that not only was that 20 years ago, but it also was valid work. "The Earth First! stuff, I'm really proud of that," he said. "I was working 40 to 60 hours a week on research on the Headwaters. I would go to meetings. I wrote about it. We mapped it. Earth First! in the '80s was mostly college students and professionals. It was an activist community of very intelligent and committed people doing quite rational and important work. I'm proud of it - Headwaters Forest would not exist had we not done that work. ... I risked my life to save something.

"I do think [Earth First!] had devolved by the 1990s - it became highly anarchistic, and it was impossible to tell whether the leadership was viable, whether good decisions were being made. And it was highly infiltrated by the FBI."

So King moved on. "I needed something reliable and solid, with a professional orientation," he said. "Something everyone could relate to." Eventually he ended up in Del Norte County, where he founded the Smith River Project - which cast a light on pesticide use at the mouth of the Smith River - and the Siskiyou Land Conservancy. And now he's that blur at the NEC. "He's very quick," says Terence. "And he wants us to be efficient."

If there's one key similarity between McKay and King, it's an ability to connect people. "The one thing Tim was really good at -- he was able to plug people into other people," said Dominitz. "He was like a grand switchboard. He was on the phone all the time. He was the giant link."

King says NEC must remain that link. "It's important to me to provide that connectivity," he said. "For example, when I met with Mike [Thompson] yesterday [about a proposed timber harvest near Orleans], I was able to say here's some people to talk to. It's a pollination that goes on."

It's a good term: Picture pollination, in a fierce spring wind. In an e-mail from King in early April, he wrote: "My week gives an insight into my new post, and the NEC's activities: Erica and I are currently researching a farm bill that reportedly has a Klamath River element, and yesterday we were on a conference call with the Conservation Coalition involved in Klamath settlement talks. On Tuesday I attended a half-day meeting with Scott Greacen of EPIC and Stephanie Tidwell of KS Wild [The Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center] to discuss how our groups might better coordinate. Today the NEC received 1600 posters for our annual auction, and the TV ad for that auction will be filmed at the NEC at 2:30 today (with Phil Record of Wildberries, who will also be our auctioneer). Last night I spoke from 7 until 8 p.m. with a potential major donor from Sonoma County, and I'll meet with another Sonoma County supporter next week, just before attending Mike Thompson's wilderness celebration in San Francisco. Yesterday I got a surprise visit from Roger Rodoni, and tomorrow I have a meeting with Jill Geist. Also tomorrow, I am the moderator for Climate Night at the HSU Natural History Museum. Today I spoke with Michael Fay, the National Geographic reporter who recently moved to Humboldt County and is studying the redwood ecosystem. On Monday I will meet with Friends of Del Norte to discuss protecting Lake Earl from illegal breeching. Tuesday I write and record the Econews radio show. Stuff like that, plus the minutiae."

King plans to boost the NEC's $300,000 budget by $150,000. He wants to attract more grant funding. The new cash will enable him to hire a program director and expand the NEC's scope in ways that represent significant departures from past NEC work. Four key new initiatives, he says, will be to foster community and educational gardens - something he's already pursuing at Jacoby Creek School; promote alternative transportation; look at local communities' energy usage and contribution to global climate change; and scrutinize proposed developments.

"There's no central organization with as strong of a community presence [as the NEC] that's looking at the big picture of development as a whole, and that's willing to do it while working with multiple entities," King said. Already he's examining the Cutten development in Eureka, and the O, Q and Foster streets developments in Arcata. He's on guard for future battles: "What are we looking at, 'Headwaters Estates'?" he says. "Pacific Lumber lands - that's what's coming. ... We're not going to be accommodating developers at the expense of habitat and neighborhoods. But we will work with them -- it behooves us to work with the developer [when] these developments are already on the books. There are people who don't want development at all. We can't take that position of zero development. I think it's too extreme. And we can't take the no growth position. We can take 'slow' growth and 'smart' growth."

Lest you fear he's gone milquetoast, note this comment by King in the April Econews regarding Robin Arkley Jr.'s Humboldt Sunshine lawsuit: "The family that has made many generous contributions to North Coast life has all but negated the positive value of these efforts with a bullying agenda apparently aimed at making Humboldt and Orange counties indistinguishable. [The Sunshine] lawsuit against the county's planning process is a bitter salvo on behalf of tract homes and strip malls, freeways and unchecked growth. ..."

King is also diving straight into private forest land issues - a sharp departure from the NEC's traditional federal forest lands focus. First in his sights: Simpson/Green Diamond, which has applied for a permit to "take" (kill) eight pairs of Northern spotted owls - after having already taken 45 pairs since 1994, King notes. "The NEC is opposing the granting of this permit."

But federal lands haven't been forgotten: Among the battles, King is trying to stop the Six Rivers National Forest from conducting a 3,000-acre timber harvest in the Orleans area that purports to reduce potential fire hazard. King says the plan targets old growth forests (and owl habitat) and will do nothing to protect the area from fires but serves as an excuse for the Bush administration to log old growth trees. In comments on the planned timber sale, King wrote that the NEC "would not support any attempt to cut 14 miles of new road and 21 stream crossings to remove" the timber.

He and Scott Greacen, of the Environmental Protection Information Center, have been working closely on these issues. That collaboration, itself, marks a hefty change in the NEC persona. (McKay and EPIC didn't get along.) Greacen, a relative newcomer to EPIC, is philosophical about it. "The relationships between organizations are the same as the relationships between human beings," Greacen said. "They can fall in love. Or they can have friction."

The NEC will continue its other traditional programs, King says: coastal habitat and cleanup; river restoration; the push for Klamath dams removal, of course. It'll remain a grand clearinghouse, a "conduit, initiator and motivator for action." As part of that, the NEC's building an electronic library. And, says King, at some point he hopes to revisit the new building plans, which they've already paid an architect $125,000 to design. "We own that land, and our vision for a green building there is very much alive."

Man. The NEC could have more balls than ever dancing in the air. But King says the way he'll manage it all is by having "a highly independent staff" that will take on many of these projects.

Well, it's an ambitious agenda," said Chad Roberts, the ecologist and 20-year member of NEC. "I think the NEC should continue to exist. But the opportunity to fail is pretty great. Here's this institution, it's been part of the North Coast for a long time ... and that creates an expectation in people's minds that the NEC will always be there. But it will only be there if it fills a need for society." The NEC's been good at following federal lands issues, and at coordinating group efforts - he hopes that focus remains strong, he said.

King's agenda actually has a ring of the old NEC - before the fire, before McKay's health declined. "The beauty of the NEC was its ability to see what the community wanted, and to change its focus on a dime," said Connie Stewart, who worked for the NEC for 14 years. "Tim did that with the LNG." And King's development focus, for one, might be just the thing. "Land use is going to be a big issue." McKay and the NEC were already deeply involved in the county general plan process. "So it doesn't surprise me Greg wants to take on planning. Greg has this incredible opportunity to create his own niche. And he's going to need it."

Dominitz, meanwhile, said he hopes the NEC remains open to students. "To me, the important issue is bringing more and more young people into the NEC. Aren't young people the ones who are going to inherit global warming? You need that young energy, that source of idealism."

Pictured Above: The NEC's new executive director, Greg King, left, and rancher Dean Hunt discuss carving out a wedge of garden space, for students at the nearby Jacoby Creek School to grow their own lunch food, in the pasture Hunt leases from the City of Arcata. "It sounds like a neat deal," Hunt says. "If the city's in favor of it, I'm in favor of it. As long as we can all work together and get it all fenced off and [the kids] aren't running around chasing the cows."

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Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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