Remembering Two Fallen Giants: Susie Van Kirk
The late 60s were a time of great change on the North Coast. A decade-long battle had resulted in the establishment of Redwood National Park in 1968, and in the formation of several active conservation groups in the region by 1969. Susie planned to complete her MA in biology at HSU, where her husband Bob Van Kirk had been appointed to the faculty. She began to study and explore the local area, where she met environmentalists Lucille Vinyard and Dr. Rudi Becking. Inspired by the first Earth Day in 1970, local conservation groups formed an umbrella organization, the Northcoast Environmental Center, and Susie joined the first board of directors in 1971.
In 1972, Caltrans proposed conversion of Highway 101 through Arcata from a four lane highway to an eight lane freeway, calling for the removal of more than 200 homes and businesses in the heart of the town. The Van Kirk’s home was located at the eastern boundary of the demolition zone so she could see the scale of the damage. Susie joined the student based Stop-at-Four Committee, and represented the Committee when they submitted a petition to the City Council to halt the project. While the Council turned down the initiative and construction moved forward, the conflict spurred major changes in the composition of the City Council and a shift in local politics. Chris Beresford, a longtime NEC volunteer who resided in the same neighborhood, recalls “Get-Out the Vote” meetings at the Van Kirk house.
Beginning a long collaboration with NEC director Tim McKay, Susie soon became an integral part of the NEC’s team of researchers and advisors; often representing the Sierra Club’s-North Group and providing detailed analyses and comments on timber harvest plans and environmental impact reports. Logging on adjacent private lands was considered a threat to Redwood National Park, and by 1972, the student organized Emerald Creek Committee began working with the NEC—joining a larger effort led by the Sierra Club to expand the Park.
In 1973, California’s Z’berg-Nejedly Forest Practices Act had increased public regulation of private logging. When the National Forest Management Act of 1976 directed national forests throughout the country to prepare forest plans based on sustained yield of all forest resources, Susie’s comments helped to shape the direction of plans for Six Rivers, Klamath and Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and later provided analyses of herbicide spraying on forestlands. Archivist Edie Butler would later observe, “Through her grasp of the complexity of an issue (the result of countless hours of research and study) Susie has helped others to be informed and to advance the quality of discussions and public deliberations.”
The freeway expansion project in Arcata had aroused public concerns about housing shortages and the loss of historic buildings and structures. A volunteer group had been organized to inventory historic properties, the Historic Sites Society of Arcata (HSSA), and Susie became their primary researcher and documentarian. The first historical resources survey of Arcata was the basis for her best known book, Reflections of Arcata’s History: Eighty Years of Architecture.
Applying her thorough and methodical approach to historic preservation, she would write more than three dozen historic property nominations, a dozen publications on regional architectural history, and numerous local histories and reports. In 2000, she collaborated with preservation consultant Kathleen Stanton on the “Local Legacies Oral History Project” to document the post WWII logging boom and subsequent environmental movement of the last half of the 20th century. Cited by local librarians as the foremost authority on Humboldt County newspapers, in 2004 Susie completed an extensive study of Northwestern California Newspapers for the HSU library (https://library.humboldt.edu/nwcnews/).
Her unique understanding of both natural and cultural history was evident in her work on the Lyons Ranch in the Bald Hills, a National Register of Historic Places nomination. The Lyons family was mixed race, Mrs Lyons was Hupa, and the ranch was in the Chilula home territory. As historian Jerry Rohde explained, “She told me that if she could do anything she wanted it would be this—trying to restore what years of genocide and repression had cast asunder.”
Susie’s historical research, like all of her projects, reflected a strong sense of social justice and a conviction that she had a responsibility to serve as an advocate. Susie had begun to work with food programs, homeless and houseless shelters in the 1990s, and befriended many individuals, helping each in important and lasting ways. In nominating Susie for the 1999 Woman of Achievement award, Edie Butler stated, “Susie Van Kirk works quietly and diligently to make this region a better place for all of us. I wish that she were in the limelight more but she would not want that. Her works have touched every one of us and they will have a positive impact for years and years to come.”