Editor’s Note: This Q&A is from the Summer 2013 issue of Bay Nature magazine. Huey Johnson died on July 12, 2020.
Huey Johnson began his career 50 years ago as the Nature Conservancy’s first employee west of the Mississippi River. As TNC’s western regional director, he established more than 50 land conservation initiatives before launching the Trust For Public Land (TPL) in 1972. As president of the TPL, he helped preserve more than 100,000 square miles of undeveloped land, including many areas near urban centers.
From 1978 to 1982 he served as Secretary of Resources, the state’s top environmental official, under Governor Jerry Brown. He established water and energy conservation programs for cities and industries, helped double salmon numbers off the coast, and strengthened forestry policy. He led one effort that preserved 1,200 miles of rivers and another that preserved several million acres of wilderness in the West.
In 1983, Johnson founded the Resource Renewal Institute (RRI.org), which advocates on behalf of “green plans”—long-term, comprehensive strategies for attaining environmental sustainability. In his spare time, he has founded the Grand Canyon Trust, the Environmental Liaison Center in Nairobi, Defense of Place, and the Aldo Leopold Society. Johnson lives in Mill Valley.
DK: What was your relationship to nature as a child?
HJ: I was lucky to have parents who cared a lot about the environment and who were determined to give me experiences important to that. We lived in a safe community in rural Michigan and as little kids we would go backpacking around Battle Creek River, a tributary of the Kalamazoo. My parents encouraged us to go out by ourselves and though it wasn’t wilderness, when I was seven years old, we’d often fish and camp. My parents trusted us, and that experience certainly impacted both my sense of independence and love of nature.
DK: You worked for Union Carbide in the 1950s. How did you switch from that into doing environmental work?
HJ: I was dead broke out of college and was offered a fine job at Union Carbide in Chicago. I was in a great position as a technical salesperson and was quite successful. One day I was in New York working out of the Union Carbide office there and after work, having a drink, could not hold my hand steady. I realized I hadn’t been in nature for weeks if not months, and one of my bosses who I really liked had just killed himself. In that moment, I began to question the whole thing. I submitted my resignation.
With a round-the-world plane ticket in my pocket, I walked past hundreds of my colleagues at their desks at the New York office for my final meeting with the big boss, one of the top executives of Union Carbide. He demanded to know why I wanted to quit, since I had a great future with the company. I told him. He had his back to me and finally he turned around, held out his hand, and said, “You lucky bastard!” He patted me on the back while telling me he hoped I’d do well. He essentially conceded that I was right and I think he was jealous.
DK: What did you learn from your world travels?
HJ: Visiting many ancient places around the world taught me so much about the result of human civilization and the repeated ruin of human history through resource depletion and mismanagement. It influenced me greatly, in particular walking through and learning from the sites of struggles of ancient civilizations, right up to modern examples like the fall of Singapore in World War II, where the Japanese simply turned off the water main coming from Malaysia. No shots were needed to win that one.
DK: When did you first come to the Bay Area?
HJ: When I worked for Union Carbide back in the 1950s, they made the mistake of sending me to San Francisco for a two-week seminar. They put me up at the Fairmont and gave me an unlimited expense account. One day I took the cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf and went salmon fishing the next day. It wasn’t long before I thought, why would anyone think to live anywhere else?
DK: How did you first get involved with the environmental movement?
HJ: I wanted to come back to the Bay Area but couldn’t find an environmental job, so I did these menial jobs: First, I was a janitor for the California Department of Fish and Game. I wanted to make a difference and was soon promoted to being a seasonal biologist. My last assignment was up in Lake Tahoe. One day at lunch I was told that it looked like the state was going to wipe out a large portion of Fish and Game’s budget and the program I was working for would end. After hearing that I said, “Let’s go to Sacramento to work it out,” but was told no, I couldn’t do that as I was not a “professional.” The next morning I saw a flock of geese flying north and thought that I didn’t want to make a career in a field where politicians could cut budgets and end good work. That day I resigned from Fish and Game, hitchhiked from Tahoe to the Reno airport, and flew north with the geese to Alaska.
DK: What did you do in Alaska?
HJ: I worked as a biologist for Alaska state Fish and Game. My first project was tagging 12,000 salmon and hiking, looking for spawning salmon on Admiralty and Chichagof Islands in the Tongass National Forest, in southeastern Alaska, the largest national forest in the United States. It has some of the greatest large brown bear populations in the world. I saw them every day, and you really had to communicate with them to get around them, learn about their moods and make a noise to let them know you’re not a bear. If you didn’t, you could be punished!
DK: What did you do after your stint in Alaska?
HJ: I went to graduate school: a masters at Utah State in resource management and then back to Michigan for a Ph.D. in resource and wildlife management, but I still couldn’t find a job in the environmental field. I didn’t give up, though. One day I happened by the graduate bulletin board and saw a guy posting a flyer for the job of western director of the Nature Conservancy in San Francisco. I called them right away and got the job, and my wife and I drove out. I was so poor that for the first few nights, my wife and I slept at Muir Beach. I’m lucky to have lived in Mill Valley ever since, for the past 50 years.
DK: What are your favorite nature spots in the Bay Area?
HJ: I’ve had some very memorable times on a boat at sea out the Golden Gate, and I’ve done a lot of hiking in Marin on various trails; one of my favorites is the Dipsea Trail from Mill Valley to Stinson. I used to run the Dipsea Race. There are a lot of bluebird nests along that route.
DK: Who were your mentors in the early days of your environmental career?
HJ: Dave Brower was an important mentor in my life, and after I came out to begin my work for the Nature Conservancy, I was dying to meet him. My big chance was at a cocktail party soon after I arrived. He asked me, “What do you do?” I told him I was with the Nature Conservancy, and he asked, “What’s that?” When I told him, he said, “If any land needs to be saved, the Sierra Club will save it!” Then he turned around and walked out! But we ended up becoming good friends.
Caroline Livermore, founder of the Marin Conservation League, was something else, a wonderful and tough early environmental voice. We were able to save the St. Hilary’s Church property in Tiburon because someone had found rare endangered wildflowers, the Tiburon black jewel flower and the Tiburon Indian paintbrush, under the front porch!
Sign up today!
DK: What changes, positive and negative, have you seen in the local environmental movement?
HJ: Our popularity has certainly increased: We environmentalists have won enough to be socially respectable. People now happily pick up the green flag and adopt environmental values. But issues used to be much simpler: We used to be able to focus on a redwood tree or forest, get people fired up and create a national park. Today there is far greater complexity to issues: air pollution and chemicals in the environment, loss of biotic diversity and climate change, threats to the ocean and loss of topsoil, things like economic issues and population pressures. Those things require far more explanation, education, and understanding for leaders to lead and to get the public behind individual initiatives.
DK: Why do you think eco-consciousness and institutions have taken root and flourished here?
HJ: The Bay Area is the destination for a lot of frustrated people who grew up somewhere else where things were polluted and falling apart environmentally. People who live here care enough to take care of the place, and there are many kindred souls here who came from somewhere that was damaged. You can feel the sense of environmental kinship.
DK: What are you up to now?
HJ: I’m working on projects that can have a large impact, can really make a difference. For instance, the Forage Fish and Rice project, which could be the start of a new industry to grow small fish in flooded rice fields between rice growing seasons. This is a new method to capture protein for a protein-hungry world. Another project addresses California’s tragically mismanaged water. We have just completed an interactive map that reorganizes state water records (ca.statewater.org). For the first time the public can access centralized water flow and water rights information so citizens can have an impact on water use decisions. I’ve started a program to capture the wisdom of people, often retirees, who had a career as part of the environmental era. There are currently 75 video interviews at theforcesofnature.com.