Huey Johnson, self-described environmentalist and practical visionary, is widely recognized for his pioneering work as a conservationist and natural resource policy maker. Through nearly five decades of inspired leadership and perseverance, Mr. Johnson has protected an amazing array of parks, public lands, wildlife, and other natural resources. A resident of Mill Valley, California, Johnson's interest in conservation can be traced back to his youth in central Michigan.
"I was born on the kitchen table at the end of the Depression," says Johnson. "With the countryside close to the town, my siblings and I could run out into the fields as toddlers." Johnson recalls exploring a river that flowed through a nearby park. "It was safe for us to roam the woods. And we did!"
Johnson credits his parents for his lifelong love of the outdoors. "My mother taught literature and always had a love of nature. She made a point of taking us on wildflower walks and tree studies." The local Carnegie Library was "the high point of the community," says Johnson. "It was my passport to the world," he says.
On their weekly visits to the library, Johnson's mother introduced him to Wordsworth's poems and other writings about nature. "I suspect she wired me so I had no choice but to read them." When Huey was in ninth grade, the Johnson family moved to Lansing, Michigan, where his father held a white-collar job in personnel at a General Motors assembly plant. He hunted and fished with his dad and joined the Michigan United Conservation Club. "I've been an ardent hunter ever since," he says.
Awarded a week at a summer conservation camp run by the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Johnson heard a lecture by a wildlife biologist who set him on the path of conservation. "Being a biologist was a new concept to me," he says. The experience was formative, ultimately leading to a B.A. in Biology from Western Michigan University and, subsequently, an M.S. degree in Wildlife Management from Utah State.
During those early years, a boyhood friend invited Huey to join him and the boy's father, who worked for the Michigan Agricultural Extension Service, as they drove around the countryside talking to farmers, which earned Johnson a broad understanding of soils and farming.
With his newly minted biology degree and agricultural background, Johnson embarked on a sales job with Union Carbide. His job took him to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Manhattan, and the Rocky Mountain States from Mexico to Canada. "I got an inside look at how a corporation operates and I discovered the importance of managing energy – especially my own," he says.
While working for Union Carbide in San Francisco, Huey discovered the Fairmont Hotel, cable cars, and salmon fishing. When the company transferred him to Denver, he worked hard to earn first place in a national sales competition, then sent a one-sentence telegram to headquarters: "I quit." The San Francisco Bay Area has been his home ever since.
Following his deep-seated ethical and environmental principles, Huey left his successful career with Union Carbide to work for the Nature Conservancy in 1963. He served as its western regional director for eight years and later as president. "I have a memory bank of many transactions that defined that era of my life," Johnson says, "Connecting Hawaii's Haleakala 35,000 acres outside of Helena, Montana; saving three and a half miles of coastline at California's Point Reyes National Seashore – those were gigantic conservation victories. And I was able to acquire these places for free."
With his experience in sales and biology and a passion for the land, Johnson proved to be a master dealmaker. For example, a swath of coast just northwest of the Golden Gate, formerly an army outpost and largely undeveloped, had been sold to Gulf Oil, which had big plans to house some 65,000 people in the new city of Marincello. The county Board of Supervisors was inclined to approve the plan, but a groundswell of opposition among local conservationists portended a long fight for Gulf Oil if it were to proceed. On behalf of the Nature Conservancy, Johnson optioned the property for $100. The still largely wild and open land was clearly a candidate for a park, and Johnson helped bring powerful political interests to the challenge to make it so. It became the first acquisition for what would become the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), today a national park that comprises over 70,000 acres around the San Francisco Bay Area.
The struggle to establish the GGNRA resulted in a magnificent conservation achievement, but because the land didn't harbor endangered species, it was considered outside the Conservancy's scientific mission. A similar fight to secure Point Reyes National Seashore led Johnson to envision an organization dedicated to conserving land for people – The Trust for Public Land (TPL), which Johnson founded in 1972. Today it is one of America's largest land conservation organizations, having protected more than 2.8 million acres – from the paved canyons of Manhattan to the rock canyons of the Southwest. Its "Land for People" mission extends to protecting urban parks, community gardens, and a diversity of natural landscapes where public recreation is welcome, Huey recognized that people in urban areas needed to experience vibrant open spaces if they were to truly steward the country's natural resources, recalls Peter R. Stein, an early staffer at TPL. "Huey was one of a handful of folks 40 years ago who understood both the socioeconomic and political imperative of bringing functional green spaces to America's underserved urban populations," says Stein.
Johnson maintains that he prefers to hire generalists, "skilled communicators with enough passion to move an idea into someone's head." But he always tested the environmental philosophy of jobseekers, asking them, "Have you read Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac?" A Sand County Almanac is a sacred text to Johnson. Leopold's vision balanced the "how" of conservation with the "why." Leopold holds that land and its human and non-human residents are a "community of interdependent parts," and his quote, "weeds in a city lot teach the same lessons as the redwoods," inspired TPLs founding mission. According to Johnson, "We recognized that as cities grew, urban voters were going to determine all future environmental issues, including wild rivers and wilderness, water quality, wildlife habitat, and land conservation."
Johnson came to believe that the very act of organizing to protect land could infuse a neighborhood with a sense of pride, empowerment, and community ownership that could mobilize residents for other social good. "We learned that human involvement with the land is as important as saving the land itself. Acreage for open space is not enough. Involvement with the citizenry is needed to create permanence and a sense of stewardship."
In 1978, Governor Jerry Brown tapped Johnson to be California's Secretary of Resources, Johnson's leadership of the agency, at times controversial, reflected the new environmental sensitivity of the times. Johnson brought in young staffers intent on promoting solar and wind farms, saving salmon, growing chemical-free food, and planting urban forests. During his five years as secretary, Johnson published and began implementing "Investing for Prosperity," a hundred-year plan for managing California's natural resources. The plan led to lasting gains in water and energy conservation; improved forest practices; and the protection of wildlife, parkland, and some 1,200 miles of wild rivers.
"Investing in Prosperity" became the basis for Johnson's work after his government service. In 1983, he founded a nonprofit think tank to incubate ideas and practices for sustainability. Today, the Resource Renewal Institute promotes approaches to long-term, integrated resource management, such as the Green Plans in use by the European Union and a growing number of other countries. "Green Plans offer a comprehensive approach to managing the environment as a whole instead of taking issues one by one," Johnson explains. Tire Resource Renewal Institute also has been a launch pad for several other environmental organizations, including the Green Belt Movement International, which promotes citizen-based tree planting worldwide, and Defense of Place, a front-line organization that provides strategic advice, public relations, technical information; and legal assistance to landowners, communities, citizen activists, and land trusts to protect land in the Public Trust.
In 2001, Johnson received the Sasakawa Prize from the United Nations, considered the world's most prestigious environmental award. The Sasakawa Prize is presented to those who "have made an outstanding global contribution to the management and protection of the environment." At the award ceremony held in New York at the UN, Johnson admonished, "The environmental movement needs to think bigger than it ever has before. We've done great work in the past several decades saving land, but the focus has been on our own backyard. Now the context is one of worldwide environmental degradation. What has been missing in environmental policy is the link between environmental restoration and economic growth, both in America and around the world. There will be no peace without ecological restoration, but with restoration, over time, will come the economic growth to eliminate poverty and build societies that value human rights."
Johnson's book, Green Plans: Blueprint for a Sustainable Earth, now in its third edition, is popular among resource managers seeking models of sustainability and increasingly in use as a college text. He frequently consults with international leaders, having traveled to China, Russia, Norway, Belgium, and The Netherlands at the invitation of governments and environmental leaders.
In April 2005, Johnson received the Fredrick Law Olmsted Award, presented to those whose life's work exemplifies commitment to tree planting and conservation for improvement of America's communities and landscapes. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from Utah State University (2009) and Dominican University (2008) in California.
While Johnson's lifelong commitment to land, open spaces, and natural resources is in itself exemplary, those who know him personally describe Johnson as inspiring example – an authentic, non-compromising, principled individual who has earned wide respect as a visionary leader.
"There's a community of Huey disciples," says Susan Ives, a long-time friend and colleague who counts herself among those whom Johnson inspired and mentored. "Working for Huey is tough love, but Huey's passion and dedication led many people to lifelong environmental careers."
Of utmost significance is the respect of his wife and two children. Sue, his wife of nearly 50 years, recalls receiving a copy ofv4 Sand County Almanac from Johnson before their wedding with the inscription: "Sue, this may be the drum."
"It was his drum," Sue Johnson says. "He discovered his mission, and he went straight at it!"
Indeed, many in America and the world have heard the beat. We all are beneficiaries of Huey Johnson's conservation and environmental passion.