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1970s: A New American Paradigm of “Environmental Law”

Founded in 1977, EPIC (like so many of the environmental orgs we know and love)

was born out of America's new environmental legal paradigm of the 1970s, which

have been called a “seminal” decade for environmental protection in the United

States because of several landmark laws and court cases that have defined

environmental law, policy and conservation ever since. 


The term “environmental law” was coined in 1969, although many written laws

and policies previously addressed the issue by other names, and, for time

immemorial, Indigenous peoples throughout the world have and continue to foster

a caring, reciprocal relationship with the non-human world as a central tenet. 


In 1970 the U.S. Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),

and the California legislature enacted what would become the California

Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) — the legal pillars that make EPIC’s (and all of

our) work engaging in environmental democracy possible. These pieces of

landmark legislation respectively require U.S. federal and California state agencies

proposing projects on federal or state/local lands to evaluate potential

environmental impacts, and if identified, mitigate all significant adverse impacts to

insignificance through respective environmental impact reporting processes,

including explicit public review and comment periods. Without the public processes established by NEPA and CEQA, EPIC and similar organizations would have no way to oversee or intervene in projects proposed on our public lands. The spirits of NEPA and CEQA helped to bring about environmental awareness and consciousness in the public debate about growth, development, and industry in the 1970s.


A slew of other foundational environmental laws and court cases followed the establishment of NEPA and CEQA during the 1970s: 

  • After Congress originally established the Clean Air Act in 1963, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was subsequently authorized to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to protect public and environmental health in 1970.

  • In 1970 the California legislature enacted the original California Endangered Species Act, which was repealed and replaced by an updated version in 1984 and then amended in 1997.

  • In Bayside Timber v. Board of Supervisors (1971), a California State Appellate Court ruled that the existing Forest Practice Act was unconstitutional because the Board of Forestry, which regulated the private timber industry, was composed entirely of the industry itself.

  • In 1973 Congress enacted the U.S. federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), providing a framework to conserve and protect imperiled species and their habitats, and the California legislature enacted the modern Forest Practice Rules, creating the regulatory system for state forestlands that we have come to know today.

  • In 1976, in order to harmonize the Forest Practice Act and CEQA, the Secretary of Resources certified the Forest Practice Act and extant Forest Practice Rules as a certified regulatory program — an alternative program under CEQA that exempts the private timber industry from preparing Environmental Impact Reports (EIR), so long as proposed projects contain all of CEQA’s substantive requirements.


Greg King self portrait: practice climb 1998

©2016 Greg King

Late 1970s: The Herbicide Wars & EPIC's Founding

It is in the context of the 1970s’ new environmental legal and regulatory landscape, previously unprecedented in the United States, that our story truly begins. EPIC was founded in 1977 by Humboldt County locals during the herbicide wars of the 1970s.


In the late 1970s, warnings about “an association between spontaneous abortion rates and herbicide spraying in the industrial forests near their homes” from a group of women from Alsea, Oregon and Erik Jansson with Friends of the Earth caught the attention of Native American clinic workers in Northern California. Among them was Klamath River Karuk health advocate Mavis McCovey, who “began tracking miscarriages and birth defects” and “found that during the time Agent Orange was being aerial sprayed by the [U.S.] Forest Service there were virtually no normal births among the Indians living along the Klamath River. The vast majority of Klamath River residents drew drinking water directly from streams that originated on national forest land that was being clearcut and sprayed with Agent Orange.” (Source)


“Ruthanne Cecil organized an ad hoc group to oppose herbicide spraying in [1977]," wrote EPIC co-founder Robert "Woods" Sutherland in 2002. "At that time EPIC was named by a timber faller who was worried about the environment. His name was Jim DeMulling and he worked by contract for [Pacific Lumber Co.] and Barnum and others.”


“It wasn’t until later, in 1981, that I incorporated EPIC and put together its first board of directors and wrote its bylaws. Richard Gienger and I were the only full time activists in the area. We were in way over our heads. I gambled and thought if we could have a structure in place it would help others get involved and lift some of the burden off my shoulders and Richard’s.”


“For awhile the offices were in a potato chip truck that was parked behind the Ruby Valley store. EPIC has gone through some growing pains to try to stay connected to the community. It was originally people who came here to homestead and have families.” (Wild Humboldt Quarterly, Winter 2002, pg. 7)

1983: Sally Bell Grove & EPIC v. Johnson

In the mid-1970s, the area now known as the Sinkyone Wilderness on the northern Mendocino County coast, which is situated within the traditional territory of Sinkyone tribal peoples who have lived in and cared for this region for millennia, became a battleground for conservation efforts that would eventually lead to EPIC’s first court case and a landmark legal precedent.


In the 1970s, Georgia-Pacific Corporation (GP) held title to thousands of acres of land within the Sinkyone and other traditional, unceded tribal territories, and was aggressively clearcutting the remaining old-growth redwoods. Through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) environmental impact report (EIR) process, EPIC commented on all of GP’s proposed timber harvest plans (THPs) along the Sinkyone Wilderness Coast between 1977 and 1986.


Directly linked to these efforts was the California Department of Parks and Recreation’s designation of the eventually 7,250-acre Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. First the Bear Harbor unit in the north was established after most of that land was acquired through the 1975 purchase of the old Bear Harbor Ranch. The Usal Beach unit in the south was added following the 1986 purchase of additional lands. EPIC, the public, and tribal interests worked with the state legislature, State Parks, and land acquisition interests including the Trust for Public Land to secure funding for these purchases of GP’s holdings along the Sinkyone Coast.


In 1983, GP filed a THP proposing to clearcut one of the last groves of old-growth redwoods and Douglas fir trees on the Sinkyone Coast, which the California Department of Forestry & Fire (CDF) approved. By this time, GP had already clearcut nearly all the surrounding areas of old-growth redwoods, causing extensive damage to culturally and ecologically sensitive areas of the Sinkyone region. 


According to former EPIC Biodiversity Network Director Cecelia Lanman, in response to GP’s THP, “local community activists occupied the grove to stave off the destruction of the forest and sacred sites” (Wild California: Ecosystems on the Brink, Winter 1993, pg. 2). EPIC took the legal approach and filed our first forestry-related lawsuit, EPIC v. Johnson. Alongside the International Indian Treaty Council, we sued CDF Director Ross Johnson, CDF, the California Board of Forestry, Secretary of Resources Rex Timber, and GP aiming to stop GP’s proposed clearcutting of 75 acres of old-growth redwoods in Sally Bell Grove — named by activists after the last of the native Sinkyone to survive the massacre of her people. EPIC and our allies won the lawsuit in appellate court on July 25, 1985.


“Some of our attorneys were not into bringing in new arguments like cumulative impacts. They wanted it black and white — to fight it on the basis of laws that were already clearly in place," wrote EPIC co-founder Robert “Woods” Sutherland in 2002. "I really stood on their toes and we won. The decision was one of the cornerstones of EPIC’s success.” (Wild Humboldt Quarterly, Winter 2002, pg. 7)


According to Lanman, “the lawsuit to protect Sally Bell Grove…became a major precedent ruling which established that state agencies must consider the cumulative effects in a watershed on water quality, soils, and wildlife habitat when reviewing logging plans.” EPIC went on to try to enforce this precedent “in over a dozen lawsuits…to protect forest biodiversity on the North Coast.” (Wild California: Ecosystems on the Brink, Winter 1993, pg. 2)


EPIC’s challenge to the long, deep-seeded historical relationship between the timber industry and corporate-interested CDF in EPIC v. Johnson also attracted the attention of other environmental activists in Southern Humboldt County, and helped contribute to the rise of the North Coast Earth First! chapter. However, the early members of Earth First! soon grew tired of watching timber companies continue to harvest redwoods while they waited for slow court processes, and turned to direct action. “What developed was a ‘campaign of EPIC lawsuits and Earth First! blockades,’ where Earth First! acted as the on-the-ground force to immediately halt timber harvests and cultivate public attention until EPIC could permanently strike down the THP in court.” (Source, pg. 5)

1988: Sierra Club & EPIC v. Board of Forestry

In 1988, EPIC and the Sierra Club sued the California Board of Forestry for approving two timber harvest plans (THPs) filed by Pacific Lumber Company without any information on old-growth-dependent wildlife species within the plan areas as requested by the California Department of Fish & Game.

EPIC and our allies won Sierra Club & EPIC v. Board of Forestry in the California Supreme Court on July 21, 1994 when the court ruled that “the [California Board of Forestry] did abuse its discretion when it evaluated and approved the plans on the basis of a record which lacked information regarding the presence in the subject areas of some old-growth-dependent species, information which both the [California Department of Forestry & Fire] and [California Department of Fish & Game] had determined was necessary. By approving the plans without the necessary information regarding those species the board failed to comply with the obligation imposed on it by the California Environmental Quality Act and the [California] Forest Practice Act of 1973” (Source).

1989: Forests Forever & Proposition 130

According to former EPIC Biodiversity Network Director Cecelia Lanman, “after years of fighting on a grove by grove and species by species basis, it became apparent that this approach is limited, and a more comprehensive ecosystem based approach is the only long-term solution,” so, “in 1989, environmental activists from the [North Coast] formed the Forests Forever organization and wrote an initiative (Proposition 130) to protect ancient forests and implement sustainable forestry practices on private lands. The campaign, along with Redwood Summer, helped to bring nationwide attention to the plight of the ancient redwoods, especially the Headwaters Wilderness. Unfortunately, Prop 130 lost by a small margin [in 1990] and forced the issue back into the legislature” (Wild California: Ecosystems on the Brink, Winter 1993, pg. 2). 


Proposition 130 would have imposed new restrictions on logging operations on nonfederal lands and on the sale of state-owned timber and state purchases of timber products, and authorized the sale of $742 million in general obligation bonds to acquire old-growth forestlands.


“Knowing that legislative solutions are politically motivated rather than biologically based, Forests Forever embraced a larger vision in an initiative for [November 1992]," Lanman wrote. "This initiative addressed the need for forest rehabilitation jobs, protecting riparian areas and oak woodlands, and strengthening the California Endangered Species Act. Although we did not qualify for the ballot, the campaign taught us about the need for solidarity within the environmental community” (Wild California: Ecosystems on the Brink, Winter 1993, pg. 2).

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