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First TPL president, Huey Johnson, First TPL president, Huey Johnson, Trust for Public Land founder and first president, Huey Johnson in an informal portrait, probably late 1970s. TPL staff. 1975, CA, Unknown, 1975, CA, Unknown

The Trailblazer: In memory of Trust for Public Land founder Huey Johnson

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“What has been missing in environmental policy is the link between environmental restoration and economic growth, both in our own country and around the world. There will be no peace without ecological restoration, and with restoration, over time will come the economic growth to eliminate poverty and build societies that value human rights.”

-Statement from Huey Johnson upon receiving the Sasakawa Environment Prize from the United Nations Environment Programme in 2001. 

 

This week, the conservation world lost a giant.

Huey Johnson, a broad-spectrum environmental leader for more than 50 years, passed away at the age of 87.

In the early 1970s, Johnson was one of the first eight employees working for a newly formed arm of The Nature Conservancy in San Francisco when he learned about an effort to protect the Marin Headlands—the iconic rolling green hills that flank the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. To the dismay of local hikers and environmentalists who treasured the landscape, the Headlands had been slated for a massive housing complex—including high rise apartment towers and hundreds of houses and townhomes, a mall, and an upscale hotel.

ca_gerbodevalley_04272012_004.jpgHuey Johnson recruited lawyers and conservationists who had protected the Marin Headlands to start The Trust for Public Land, which would go on to protect more than 5,000 places, including nearly a dozen within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.Photo credit: Robert Campbell

Local attorneys had mounted a lawsuit in opposition to the development, eventually proving it was improperly zoned. At the same time, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) was just taking shape. Recognizing an opportunity, Huey Johnson convinced The Nature Conservancy to option the property for acquisition by the National Park Service.

While The Trust for Public Land had no role in protecting the Marincello land, the project came to loom large in the organization's consciousness as a precursor to its founding. Protecting close-to-home parklands like GGNRA would become a signal part of the The Trust for Public Land's mission—one founded on the belief that all people need and deserve access to nature and the outdoors, close to home, in the cities and communities where they live, as a matter of health, equity, and justice. 

Joining together with a diverse coalition of recruits, Huey Johnson created The Trust for Public Land. The organization completed its first land protection project—at Bee Canyon in Los Angeles—in 1973, and Johnson served as president until 1976.

ca_TPLhistoric_06082011_003.jpgHuey Johnson, second from left, in an early Trust for Public Land staff meeting.Photo credit: Trust for Public Land archive

While many conservation organizations focused on setting aside wildlands for biodiversity or habitat restoration, Huey Johnson and the founding staff of The Trust for Public Land sought to bring the benefits of parks and nature to the places, people, and communities that needed them most. 

“He was a swing-for-the-bleachers kind of thinker,” said Felicia Marcus, who served as The Trust for Public Land's COO from 2001 to 2008. “Huey Johnson operated on the idea that you only have one life, so live it and make the biggest difference you can, take risks, and if they pay off, you’ve changed the world. He came up with a revolutionary idea that saving land wasn’t the objective—the land was the vehicle by which this magic happens between place and people. And what he created has been a gift to thousands of communities all around the country—an enormous legacy.” 

This spirit of innovation would drive Johnson throughout his long and storied career, first as secretary for resources for California Governor Jerry Brown from 1978 to 1982 and later as founder of the Resource Renewal Institute, an organization dedicated to strengthening society’s ability to secure the future health of the planet by fostering innovative solutions to increasingly complex environmental problems. 

One accomplishment exemplifying Johnson's ingenuity happened in the early days of The Trust for Public Land, when he took a phone call from Nicholas Charney, founder of Psychology Today magazine and owner of 1,300 acres of ranchland overlooking Bolinas Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean. The property—40 miles north of San Francisco—was ideally suited to add to the new Golden Gate Recreation Area—but there was no guarantee that Johnson could make that goal happen. On the other hand, if The National Park Service had had to wait for the wheels of government to turn, the site would be lost. Johnson decided the risk was worth taking and agreed for The Trust for Public Land to option the land, drafting the agreement on a paper napkin over lunch with Charney.  

ca_wilkinsranch_04272012_001.jpgHuey Johnson’s protection of Wilkins Ranch, one of three projects The Trust for Public Land completed in its first year of existence, typified the advantages the newly formed nonprofit could bring to conservation—including speed and the assumption of riskPhoto credit: Robert Campbell

This humble transaction helped generate momentum for an important new type of federal public land. Historically, national parks had been located in remote areas, not within an hour’s drive of millions of people. The GGNRA would be followed by big but accessible federal parks such as the Columbia River Gorge National Recreation Area near Portland, Oregon; the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area on the edge of Atlanta; and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, south of Cleveland. In pursuit of its land-for-people mission, The Trust for Public Land would help to build all of these federal open spaces over the next 50 years, including nearly a dozen additions to the GGNRA. 

In a public statement, Trust for Public Land President Diane Regas and Chair of the National Board Tom Reeve said, “All of us at The Trust for Public Land are deeply indebted to and inspired by Huey Johnson. His legacy will live on forever: in the conversations that families have at the local park, in the smiling faces of children running down the neighborhood trail, and in the breathtaking awe that people feel when they connect to the natural world.”

Comments

Christian Miller
RIP Huey Johnson. Only met Huey once, when he visited Teller Wildlife Refuge in Corvallis, Montana with his new friend Phil Tawney. Phil was in the midst of his battle with leukemia, which he lost a few months later, but on that night with Huey they talked and laughed late into the night about their friends and stories of the fights they waged for land preservation. It was a great night.
Lauren Klein
RIP, Huey. Thank you for a life of hitting it out of the park. Blessings and condolences to the Johnson family.
Richard C Thompson
My introduction to The Trust For Public Land was being involved in the Bee Canyon transaction in 1972. What you all have accomplished in the intervening years is wonderful and most impressive.

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