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Chronicling Oregon's conservation battles

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Conserving Oregons Environment author Michael McCloskey says he wanted to share lessons about how environmental gains were made with younger activists. When you stroll along Oregon’s beaches, slip a boat into Waldo Lake or drive through the Columbia River Gorge, it’s easy to imagine these landmarks have been around forever — set aside long ago by a benevolent government for future generations.

But, as former Sierra Club Executive Director Michael McCloskey reveals in his new book, it was only within the last century that ordinary, outraged people fought to protect these areas against scheming, theft and exploitation.

McCloskey’s newest book, “Conserving Oregon’s Environment,” pays tribute to the heroes of Oregon’s conservation and environmental crusades, detailing the battles they fought and the methods they used to win. Names vaguely familiar to Oregon parks visitors — from Oswald West to John Waldo — jump to life alongside lesser-known but equally dedicated activists who worked hard to protect large swaths of the state from destructive development and overuse.

McCloskey, who grew up in Eugene, was hired as the Sierra Club’s first field organizer in 1961, when the California-based environmental lobby had 25 employees. He returned to Oregon after a long career with the Sierra Club, and now lives in Southwest Portland.

For its size and population, McCloskey concludes, Oregon is a national leader not only in environmental efforts but in innovative solutions to the inherent tension between construction and the environment.

“It was just too good a story not to tell it,” McCloskey says. The retired Sierra Club leader says he also wanted to give younger generations the “keys to effectiveness” by outlining how major environmental victories were won.

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding in the movement today as to how you can make things better,” he says, arguing that bringing pressure to bear on the powerful through letter-writing campaigns and lawsuits has historically been more effective than “venting frustrations and expressing your hopes” in public protests.

McCloskey also wanted to preserve his own legacy in the environmental victories where he played a role. The idea for the book began when he visited Redwood National Park — for which he had been a chief proponent— and noticed there was no mention anywhere of the people who had struggled to establish the park. In his retirement after a long spell leading the national Sierra Club, he visited park after park, but, McCloskey says, “hardly any of them give adequate recognition.”

So he committed to chronicle the legacy of those who, as early as the 1870s, fought for environmental causes. The result is story after story of the men and a few women who worked to circumvent special interests and build legal cases to establish Oregon’s environmental heritage as it is today.

“My underlying hope,” McCloskey says, “is to show to new generations how things have been accomplished over time.”

Shasta Kearns Moore is a writer and author living in Canby. Find her online at ShastaKearnsMoore.com.