Four Questions for a Conservation Champion: Mike McCloskey

Few people know conservation history as well as Mike McCloskey. This is true in part because he just wrote a book on the topic, but more to the point—because he has lived it.

On April 17 in Salem, 1000 Friends welcomes Mike McCloskey for a free conversation about Oregon conservation history: what sets us apart and why. Learn more here.

It has been over fifty years since McCloskey, a Eugene native who was then a University of Oregon law student, began volunteering with conservation organizations and met some representatives of the Sierra Club. In 1961, they created a new position for him: Northwest Field Representative, the organization’s first field organizer.

Within eight years, he was the Sierra Club's executive director. By that early point in his career, he had already been directly involved in creating North Cascades and Redwood National Parks, designating multiple wilderness and primitive areas, and stopping harmful logging and mining projects around some of the Northwest's most sensitive and beautiful places.

Mike McCloskey

He had also learned the meaning of grassroots activism, uniting people around a vision of conservation at a time when such ideas were still fairly radical. “It means taking people’s interest where they are,” McCloskey says. “You have to respect their decisions and judgments,” and work from there to find common vision and create positive action.

By the end of his tenure as Sierra Club Executive Director in 1985, McCloskey had helped create the first Earth Day, lobbied Congress to pass over a hundred environmental laws, and overseen the expansion of Sierra Club into a national environmental power.

A few years ago, McCloskey returned to Oregon and decided to “catch up” on conservation progress since he had left. As he puts it, he couldn’t find a book that described exactly the history he was looking for. So he decided to write it.

Conserving Oregon’s Environment, published last year by Inkwater Press, is the result of that effort. The book is a sweeping but highly readable chronicle of key milestones in Oregon conservation history, beginning with the creation of the first forest reserves in the 1890s and Oregon’s original beach bill in 1913, through the landmark 1970s, all the way to the establishment of marine reserves in 2010. 

The book's subtitle, "Breakthroughs That Made History," makes a clear case for Oregon as a pathbreaker in environmental vision and action. Indeed, McCloskey presents a litany of reasons for Oregonians to be proud of what we have accomplished. But what makes the book truly unique is McCloskey's personal perspective about what has and hasn’t worked in conservation history, a perspective informed by decades of work in the field.

At our event April 17, McCloskey will delve into these accomplishments, read from his book, and present his thoughts about where Oregon conservation stands today.

We sat down with McCloskey to ask four questions about conservation history and its future.

What are some important moments in Oregon’s Conservation History that people forget?

McCloskey offers a list, in roughly chronological order. All of these are discussed in his book.

  • Keeping dams off celebrated rivers like the McKenzie in the 1940s-1950s
  • Oregon Senator Richard Neuberger’s efforts to reform nineteenth-century federal mining laws in the 1950s
  • The addition of the Minam River Valley into the Eagle Cap Wilderness of Wallowa County in 1960—one of McCloskey’s first victories as an activist, this was significant because it added lowland areas suitable for timber production to a wilderness area
  • The demise of nuclear power in Oregon
  • The defeat of the Nestucca Spit Freeway, late 1960, which ended a plan to turn much of Highway 101 into a freeway.
  • The end of herbicide spraying in National Forests, 1970s
  • The creation of Newberry National Volcanic Monument, 1990s

McCloskey notes that all of these victories were hard-fought examples of citizen organizing and activism, and several of them took many years to come to fruition. He believes that bringing together unique coalitions was a key element in their ultimate success.

How did the conservation movement change during your time?

“It expanded vastly, with many new groups and leaders. But it also lost some of its unity, with different wings emerging reflecting implicit political positioning from left to right. And it failed to learn enough from its experience—e.g. tailor-making its tactics, not just doing things the same way all the time.”

What are some key challenges facing the movement in Oregon today and in future?

McCloskey offers several ideas in no particular order:

  • Getting a lot of Oregon’s energy-efficiency improvement programs implemented and reaching our carbon reduction goals.
  • Holding on to spotted owl reserves—rescuing old growth.
  • Stopping the backsliding on water pollution and moving ahead again.

What is the most important issue conservationists should focus on today? What will be necessary to address it?

“Nationally, climate change is the most important one, though globally the loss of biological diversity is the most worrisome. But it is caused by the cumulative impact of all the human impacts, including climate change.

The magnitude of the climate change challenge makes it seem overpowering. It cannot be met in one grand step. But persistent focused programs can make a difference over time, as is happening with the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, which has played a role in the abandonment of many plans for coal-fired power plants.”

Mike McCloskey speaks Thursday, April 17,  5:30-7:30 PM, at the Willamette Heritage Center’s Dye House, 1313 Mill Street SE in Salem.  The event is free and open to the public. RSVP and learn more at friends.org/mccloskey.