EPIC will work to save state parks vital to economy and ecology, says new ED

Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

The Environmental Protection Information Center was founded in Garberville 30 years ago. Although its headquarters moved to Arcata in 2006 and it now draws membership from all over California and beyond, "the core community is definitely here," said Gary Graham Hughes, who recently became EPIC's executive director.

The move north brought EPIC staff closer to the offices of county, state, and federal agencies, so that "we're better positioned to work with them on conservation goals," Hughes explained.

But the organization's independence is its greatest strength, he said. "We're not beholden to interests that might not agree with our willingness to take social risks to secure lasting protection for endangered species and their landscape.

"I'm fairly convinced that EPIC will continue to have an important role by being on the edges of the political establishment rather than being part of the political establishment," Hughes continued.

"Once someone assumes political office they have practical decisions to make. Our job is to continue to leverage public officials to form policy resulting in long-term, lasting protection for endangered species and the landscape they inhabit."

EPIC's current project list includes monitoring and informing the public on industrial timber harvesting by Green Diamond in the northern parts of Humboldt County, petitioning to have the Klamath River spring Chinook salmon listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, and developing a clean water program that will address both the quality and quantity of water in fish-bearing streams.

EPIC's recent success, along with California Alternatives to Toxics and several individual plaintiffs, in obtaining a temporary injunction to halt the Richardson Grove realignment project, has attracted the most attention and support in SoHum.

The Richardson Grove issue should be seen in context of other work EPIC is doing to protect public lands, Hughes said. Right now EPIC is gearing up to address the threatened closure of state parks and recreation areas, including Benbow and Standish-Hickey State Recreation Areas in the SoHum-Northern Mendocino area.

Because of state budget cuts, these two important public parks are slated to be closed permanently a year from now in July 2012, along with dozens of other parks throughout California.

Closing Benbow and Standish-Hickey is "an affront to the local economy," Hughes said, but even more importantly, from EPIC's viewpoint is the loss of public control over the protection of old-growth forest, unique watersheds, and the species that inhabit them.

Redwood parks are a "jewel," Hughes said, noting that in nature travel circles, "they talk about Alaska, Patagonia, the Amazon -- and redwoods." Redwood tourism also supports conservation of the forest politically and financially. "People come here once in their lives and yet are willing to give money to protect the redwoods."

EPIC's greatest challenge is to get people who understand what's at stake to become involved. Hughes has observed that people may understand an issue -- for example, the marbled murrelet, which lives most of its life at sea but raises its young in the tops of old-growth trees -- but don't care enough to do anything to protect it.

"What is the switch that inspires people to get involved?" he asked. "We should think about why someone from San Leandro or Richmond wants to help," while some local people "couldn't care less."

Some of this attitude may stem from the fact that people who have had to struggle with the landscape to earn their living may come to see nature as an opponent, he said.

Hughes also observed that at the same time modern Americans are "remarkably shielded from the stresses of other people on the planet. Our systems, like water and air, are still in relatively good shape."

What's more, the North Coast has been a kind of environmental island during many changes in the earth's climate. During the Ice Ages, this area was not buried under the great glaciers so local species survived while those in other areas died off.

Now the redwood forest ecosystem is one of the best carbon sinks on the earth, Hughes pointed out, and has great resilience, which makes it even more important in the current period of climate change.

Hughes's involvement in environmental protection and his roots in SoHum go back to his early childhood. Although he was born in the Bay Area, his parents divorced when he was a small child, with his mother remarrying and moving to Eugene, Oregon, while his father came to SoHum. He lived in both places as he grew up, spending summers here with his dad and attending Miranda Junior High, but living with his mother during his grade school and high school years.

His stepfather's family came from a timber background. It was from these relatives he first heard references to "clearcutting bastards" and learned about the non-sustainability of certain industrial timber practices.

Hughes attended the University of Oregon in Eugene, where he became politically active, particularly in environmental issues and in opposition to the U.S-sponsored wars in Central America during the 1980s. In 1990 he was living in Seattle when he heard about the car bombing of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney. Instead of going to Alaska as planned, he came to SoHum to join the Redwood Summer protests.

Among his mentors he lists such familiar SoHum people as Doug Fir, Rick Klein, Jared Rossman, Estelle Fennell, and Holly Sweet. Sweet was particularly a hero to him. He recalls that she "stopped riot cops by belly-dancing in front of Livermore Labs" during an anti-nuclear protest in the Bay Area.

Hughes went on to travel extensively, working as a mountaineering and climbing instructor as well as for several international environmental organizations, including the National Resources Defense Council. He worked in both Chile and Washington D.C. as NRDC's Chile Forest Policy Research Fellow.

His interest in Chile also had its roots in SoHum. "SoHum people are remarkable for their global connections.... When they know about something -- forests in Chile, midwives in Africa, food issues -- they act on it."

In Chile, he met his wife, Isabel, who is Mexican, and he went to Mexico City to be with her. "But I sensed a compass calling me back to California," he said. "I was fortunate she had the courage and interest to come with me."

At first the couple did caretaking for friends in Seely Creek, but Hughes soon became involved with International Rivers, a Berkeley-based organization, that is working to stop construction of hydroelectric dams on major rivers in Chile. They moved to Berkeley for a few years and finally came back to SoHum in 2006.

Hughes was involved with KMUD and began working with forest activists of his generation, particularly Dave Walsh and Tim Metz. In 2008 he was asked to join the EPIC board of directors.

In the meantime, Isabel Hughes was working for Ashoka, an international organization of "social entrepreneurs," people who create solutions for social problems through the private sector. Isabel is involved in HIV awareness programs in Latin America.

In 2010, the Hughes's daughter Kiara was born. After the first few months, Isabel decided to go back to work, so Hughes became a house-husband and full-time father, a role he cherishes. "Kiara keeps me grounded," he said.

He became executive director of EPIC this spring, when Scott Graecen, the previous ED, went to work for Friends of the Eel River, but Hughes continues to work at home as much as possible.

"I appreciate the opportunity to work for EPIC," he said. "The organization has received passionate love and care from so many people. It has a good reputation even outside northern California and is recognized for being a firm and strategic advocate for innovative environmental protection."

A huge challenge now is fundraising in a constricted economy and with so many important causes and organizations clamoring for the attention and resources of people already tightening their belts.

Referring back to the state parks issue, Hughes talked about State Assembly Bill 42, now before the legislature, which is intended to facilitate the creation of non-profit organizations to take over the parks.

"It's creative, but it will be an intense drain on communities trying to decide which non-profits to support," he said.

Hughes thinks that most people in SoHum give about $500 a year in donations to various different non-profits without even realizing it, since it's usually given piecemeal in the form of raffle tickets, admission to events, and other fundraising efforts that call for smaller amounts.

Giving money is an important way to support the causes you believe in, especially in difficult economic times, he said.

"The new EPIC staff believes we have inherited an organization that has increased in value over 30 years," he said. "We know there will be new people coming after us. It's our job to nurture and care for this organization, and we're really dependent on membership. EPIC wouldn't exist without community support."

Basic membership is $35, but donations of any size are welcome and are tax deductible. EPIC is also building a list of volunteers to help with projects, including the annual membership dinner in November, which will be held at the Mateel Community Center in Redway and which will celebrate EPIC's roots in SoHum.

Basic membership is $35, but all donations, both larger and smaller, are welcome and are tax deductible.

EPIC can be reached by phone at (707) 822-7711 and by email at epic@wildcalifornia.org. For more information about membership, donations, and volunteering, interested persons should ask for development director Natalynne DeLapp.

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Gary Graham Hughes, the new executive director of EPIC, has deep roots in SoHum. Although EPIC's headquarters moved to Arcata five years ago, it remains involved in SoHum issues. "It's where my heart is," Hughes said.