EPIC’s Tom Wheeler presenting the award To Eileen Cooper
If you didn’t know better, you might discount Eileen Cooper. Eileen is rather petite and, usually buried under a large knit hat and cozy sweater with a small Chihuahua in her arm, she gives off distinct grandma vibes. But, as many in Del Norte and Humboldt have learned from Eileen: it is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that matters. Eileen is a fighter: for peace, for the common person, and for the environment. Through her decades-long work on behalf of the Friends of Del Norte, she has made her little corner of California a better place. She is a kin to the Earth.
Eileen grew up in New York City. (You can still hear a tinge of an accent in her voice.) Surrounded by the hustle and bustle, she took refuge in a nearby park. From this experience grew a dream: someday she would live in a place where nature dominates and the city is small.
Eileen moved to the wilds of Del Norte County—that very place of her dreams—to start her wild-harvested seaweed business. Shocked that the only seaweed available in California health food stores came all the way from Maine, Eileen recognized both a business opportunity and a way to be paid to be outside. The rocky shores outside of Crescent City were her office. I love to think about my friend bound up in a wetsuit with scissors in hand to harvest just enough of the seaweed for her needs, while leaving enough to regrow in perpetuity, then hoisting her harvest ashore and carefully hanging the seaweed to air dry. And, because the ocean was good to Eileen, she returned the favor. Eileen would become almost an unofficial member of the Coastal Commission, mastering the Coastal Act to preserve the shoreline that she fell in love with.
The fearlessness with which she approaches her work is inspiring. Local people with shovels had been breaching Lake Earl, the largest estuarine lagoon on the West Coast, and one of the most important migratory bird stopovers in the state, during the dark of night because they had issues with the rising waters. The Friends of Del Norte organized all-night vigils to head off this illegal activity; the trick was to keep watch without revealing one’s location. Eileen would ride her bike two miles in the dead of night—without lights—and then walk to a spot overlooking the lagoon, where she would lie in wait, armed with nothing but her conviction, to catch and report the perpetrators.
Don Gillespie of the Friends of Del Norte, reflects on Eileen’s work: “For the past forty-seven years the Friends of Del Norte has positioned itself as ‘the local watchdog group’ to protect the local environment. But for the last twenty of those years, Eileen was our bulldog. She was tenacious in her research on many issues and relentless in attending our local Board of Supervisors, City Council and Coastal Commission meetings to represent environmental perspectives. For years she has constantly called on members to rally the troops to attend important public events where environmental decisions are at stake. She has constantly kept us on our toes when we may be growing complacent about a local issue, a true thorn in our side to keep us all motivated to pick up the fight when needed.”
Eileen removing invasive scotch broom. Photo by Sandra Jerabek.
A map of Del Norte County shows the impact of her work. The Sitka spruce forest on the way into Crescent City? Those trees still stand because of Eileen. The forest, which sits atop coastal wetlands, was proposed to be logged. No one but Eileen had any hope or vision to save the forest. Through her trademark spit and vinegar, Eileen put up an enormous fight against the logging plans, inspiring many others to take action, and laid the groundwork for these old trees to eventually be acquired by the State.
Also, the lovely pine and spruce forest bordering the Airport terminal at Point St. George? Eileen led the successful fight to scale down the terminal to a more realistic size, and to keep this forest from being cut down to accommodate the parking lot. The Coastal Commission agreed with her.
Perhaps you also appreciate walking the wild headlands farther out on Point St. George? Again Eileen, and others active with the Friends, waved maps around and squawked so much about all the wetlands and rare plants there that the property owner was convinced to give up his plans for a hotel, five acre ranchettes and gated community. Today the Point is public land beloved by all residing in Crescent City and beyond.
Eileen Cooper restoring the Lake Earl lagoon by removing invasive European beachgrass.
Put the main solid waste transfer station smack in the middle of Tolowa Dunes State Park? Not on Eileen’s watch. Again the Coastal Commission agreed. And surely you have enjoyed the marshes and forested edges of Lake Earl, still so intact and rich with birds? Higher water levels and State acquisition of hundreds of acres happened because a small group of people persisted for many decades in the fight to restore water levels in this great lagoon – instrumental among them during the last critical 20 years was Eileen Cooper!
In recognition of Eileen’s work, EPIC is proud to award her our Sempervirens Lifetime Achievement Award. We realize, however, that this recognition pales in comparison to the legacy that Eileen has left on this planet.
This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of the EcoNews.