Kin to the Earth - Robert J. Morris

June, 2014

When Robert J. Morris died at age 78 in October 2013, the Trinity Alps Wilderness Area lost one of its most influential supporters.

Robert was a grandson of California pioneers, gold miners, and cattlemen who grew to become a respected engineer, technology pioneer, musician, outdoorsman, and environmentalist. Throughout his life, he channeled his energy into celebrating and preserving the mountains where he was raised.

Early on, Robert demonstrated that he was a hard worker and a detail-oriented thinker, earning multiple electronic engineering degrees from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while still in his early 30’s. After college, Robert bought the Lower Waldorff Ranch, an old homestead up the Little French Creek drainage. Robert worked weekdays as a manager for the local telephone company in Weaverville,  but he and his wife Susy spent nearly every weekend and vacation at the ranch, which boasted an old cabin, steep meadow, an apple orchard, and ancient walnut trees. 

Renovating and maintaining the homestead was a lot of work. The biggest project was replacing the old log-and-dirt bridge across Little French Creek with a concrete-and-steel structure. To accomplish the heaviest labor, Robert rounded up a rag-tag band of family members and local hippie kids.

Many of these relationships would become important again during what became Robert’s greatest contribution to Trinity County: the establishment of the Trinity Alps, an achievement that went on to influence the designation of other wilderness areas within the county and state, and across the nation.

When the original Wilderness Bill passed Congress in 1964, re-designating a number of what were then called “primitive areas” of federal land, Robert realized that there was an opportunity to protect the snow-capped mountains and pristine backcountry forests and streams that he and three previous generations of his family had explored and cherished since the mid-1800s. At the time, the Trinity Alps were known as the Salmon–Trinity Alps Primitive Area.

Robert’s subtle but determined organizing style was exemplified by the bumper sticker on his pickup truck: “Mountain man; not demagogue.” Over the next twenty years, he built a diverse team of supporters that methodically mapped, planned, and field checked the area, gained the support of the Trinity County Board of Supervisors, and lobbied Congress in support of the Trinity Alps.

Many of the Alps’ supporters, including the young people who had helped Robert build his bridge, were long on enthusiasm but relied on Robert’s methodical guidance. Those kids, now in their 60s, vividly remember more than one story about late-night frivolity with Robert nestled soberly in a corner during their anarchic late-night planning sessions, observing, smiling, and writing down plans of action for the following day on his ever-present pad of yellow graph paper. Robert’s parents also contributed to the effort and helped manage the crew, with his mother insisting on certain supporters getting “proper haircuts” before leaving to lobby in the halls of Congress.

In 1982, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Public Lands and National Parks held a public hearing in the Trinity High School gym, and Robert and other key players accompanied the Congressional members and their staff on a helicopter tour of the Trinity Alps—an up-close experience that was pivotal in winning over the legislators to the preservation effort. On September 28, 1984, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan subsequently signed, the bill that designated the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

A memorial service is being planned for summer/fall 2014 to coincide with celebrations of the 30-year anniversary of the Trinity Alps Wilderness.  Dates and details will be
distributed widely.