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“You have to do what is right”

“You have to do what is right”
Reflections on the passing of RRI Founder, Huey Johnson


One year ago, the environmental movement lost Huey Johnson. Huey’s 60-year career as an environmental leader and innovator, his integrity and his persistence left a tremendous legacy and stand as a guidepost for getting things done for the environment.

At Resource Renewal Institute (RRI), the nonprofit Huey founded in Marin 35 years ago, his spirit and lessons are an ongoing source of inspiration. Sorting through some old files I came upon a letter from former Governor Jerry Brown, who appointed Huey as California’s Secretary of Natural Resources. In it, Brown quotes Huey who, he says, imparted to him an important political lesson, “When it comes to the environment, it’s not enough to do what works–you have to do what is right”.

Over time, much of the world has come around to Huey’s vision of “what is right.” He received the United Nations Sasakawa prize in 2001, and the greater NGO and business community is finally moving toward his holistic approach to climate change – re-building degraded areas to improve habitat for wildlife, protecting our soils and watersheds, supporting economic resiliency, all while slashing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most dangerous impacts of our changing climate.


Huey Johnson receives the United Nations Environmental Program’s 2001 Sasakawa Prize

I recalled the morning in 2015 when Huey learned of the death of 250 Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore, where the largest Tule elk herd in the world is confined behind an 8-foot fence to block them from pastures the National Park Service leases to private cattle operators. Huey slammed his fist hard down on his desk. “This is not right,” he declared.

Huey’s declaration set our organization on a course to change the National Park Service’s park policies at Point Reyes—to demand the preservation of the Seashore’s natural resources, wildlife, and scenic beauty unimpaired for future generations, as Congress intended when the national seashore was enacted sixty years ago.

In 2016, Resource Renewal Institute, the Western Watersheds Project, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit over the inhumane wildlife policies that have since claimed hundreds more of the park’s rare elk. The resulting legal settlement required the Park Service to amend its outdated General Management Plan and conduct the first-ever environmental review of the impacts of ranching at the Seashore.

Despite documented environmental damage, public opposition, worsening drought and increasing risk of wildfires due to climate change, the Park Service has proposed a plan that expands livestock, adds commercial crops and eliminates native wildlife and habitat, even as conditions at the Seashore continue to deteriorate.

The largest dairy ranch in the park has closed, citing drought and falling prices for milk. The California Coastal Commission has required the NPS to address the dangerous levels of water pollution from cattle waste and impacts of climate change prior to issuing any leases to the ranchers.

There has been a groundswell of opposition to continued ranching and killing Tule elk, as ranchers demand. A diverse coalition of local and national organizations have joined forces to advocate for the Park’s restoration. Thousands of concerned individuals, including scientists, park users, animal rights and environmental justice advocates have submitted comments, sent letters, signed petitions, and staged protests in opposition to the NPS’s misguided plan. In short, the public is demanding change. We will not accept a plan that sacrifices our land, water, wildlife and the access, use and enjoyment of our park to commercial ranching.

The Department of Interior will soon determine whether or not to approve the Park Service’s preferred plan to perpetuate private ranching at the Seashore for at least 20 more years. Our organization joins millions of Americans and over one hundred conservation and social justice organizations in asking the Secretary of the Interior to instead restore the park, adopting Alternate F, the one alternative that calls for retiring the ranches, protecting the elk and healing the park after a century of extractive use.

The time has come for the Point Reyes National Seashore to truly be the park we were promised. As Huey would say, it’s the right thing to do.

Deborah Mokowitz, MPH
Resource Renewal Institute

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