We lost our dear friend Wendell Wood last August, a true champion for the wild. At age 66, he appeared overflowing with health and enthusiasm until his last moment, which was hiking in old growth redwoods. He was doing what he loved most. Without a whisper of warning, he was gone.
Starting the Northcoast Environmental Center
Wendell Wood was a dedicated environmental advocate, committed naturalist, and gifted teacher. Though most known for his decades with Oregon Wild, Wendell helped to form or support dozens of conservation groups in Oregon and California—co-founding Northcoast Environmental Center (NEC), Friends of Del Norte, and more recently Tolowa Dunes Stewards.
Wendell helped organize and staff the NEC while he was a student at HSU, considering these activities with the NEC as the beginning of his active involvement with saving the planet. With the Friends of Del Norte, Wendell was a very early advocate (in 1973) for the protection of Blue Creek, a tributary to the Klamath River which to this day provides one of its only cold water refuges and nearly pristine spawning grounds for salmon.
Every Person Can Make a Huge Difference
After HSU, Wendell began one of the most effective conservation careers in Oregon history. It is possible that he saved more old growth forests and established more wilderness areas, than any other single person in that state.
Wendell and his wife Kathy moved to Oregon in 1976 after he accepted a job as a high school biology teacher. However Wendell soon succumbed to the pull of activism. He joined the board and staff of the Oregon Wilderness Coalition in 1981 (which became Oregon Natural Resources Council, or ONRC, and is now Oregon Wild). During the 1980s, clear-cutting public forests was advancing at such a rapid pace that author William L. Sullivan reported hiking on trails, shown on his then recently purchased U.S. Forest Service map, that had suddenly disappeared without a trace under “an impenetrable mess of slash and stumps.” (Stranded, Sullivan was forced to spend the night camping on a new gravel logging road.)
As early as 1981 Wendell began the campaign of systematically appealing illegal timber harvest plans on federal lands throughout Oregon, thus igniting what later were called the “Spotted Owl Wars.” Wendell at one point filed over 100 appeals in a single day. His group got kicked out of their free University of Oregon office space as they became “too controversial.”
In 1991 Wendell published the 318 page “A Walking Guide to Oregon’s Ancient Forests,” which he and his wife produced as they spent every weekend for two years locating the best remaining old growth stands—many of them still unprotected and in peril. Too many cases, as he wrote in the book, are “still a race against time.”
Eventually Wendell’s group and others won Endangered Species Act listing for the Northern spotted owl. Appeals brought federal timber sales to a halt, forcing President Clinton to convene stakeholders in 1993 and craft the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, which sharply reduced logging on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest and northern California.
“I feel like there will always be somebody else out there who will be willing to negotiate, [that] they’ll be willing to give things up,” Wendell explained later as part of a Crater Lake oral history project. “What I think is harder is to say ‘no.’ ONRC has been asked why we are so confrontational, [and] the answer is ‘I don’t wish to be confrontational, I just don’t know anybody else that is willing to do it.’”
Upon relocating to Klamath Falls in 1993, Wendell took up the cause of the region’s forgotten, water-starved and farmed National Wildlife Refuges and endangered endemic fish species—playing a central role in ESA listings for the short-nosed and Lost River suckers.
Time and again in Wendell’s career at Oregon Wild he would voluntarily forego paychecks to ensure there were resources to hire other staff to carry out yet more conservation work. Some of these young people have gone on to do great things.
Wendell’s “Retirement” to Del Norte County
About 15 years ago, Wendell “retired” to Del Norte. He told me that he did so because our county and northernmost Humboldt are among the “last best wild places.” He became well known as a captivating trip leader willing to freely share his deep knowledge of the landscape and its species. Leading birding trips from his cabin adjacent to Klamath Marsh as well as mushroom and wildflower identification hikes across Oregon and northern California. Wendell’s love for the natural world was a gift he passed on to many thousands.
Oregon State University professor Dr. Paul Hammond has described our Lake Earl dunes as “one of the richest hotspots for biodiversity of both plants and animals found along the West Coast of the United States.” Wendell however was the one who quietly set about fully documenting this lushness of species: identifying and photographing nearly 500 vascular plant and 400 mushroom/fungi species, and 395 marine invertebrate species.
Wendell also won a ban on ATVs and dirt bikes, and worked with EPIC to end cattle grazing, in Tolowa Dunes State Park, while getting volunteers to remove miles of old barbed wire cattle fencing. Where these former ranching day remnants tangled hazardously, Roosevelt
elk now graze.
Indeed it is his wife Kathy Wood who equally deserves our undying gratitude for supporting their family, and giving all of us the gift of Wendell Wood.
We will miss you and remember you Wendell—forever. And we are grateful for the countless places that you stood up for.
With thanks to Oregon Wild, Crater Lake Oral History Project, Tolowa Dunes Stewards, and Kathy Wood