Ellen and David Drell, founding directors of the Willits Environmental Center, will receive the 2014 Sempervirens Lifetime Achievement of Environmental Activism Award at EPIC’s 37th Annual Fall Celebration Friday evening, November 7th. Perhaps best known for their efforts opposing Caltrans’ Willits Bypass, the Drells are lifelong forest protectors and wilderness advocates whom successfully campaigned to add more than 140,000 acres of forest into the Federal Wilderness System.
Born in Ohio, Ellen Drell attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs, graduating in 1970 with a liberal arts degree and a major in music. After college, she dabbled in archeology and geology. On her way home to Ohio from a summer field course in geology, Drell stopped to visit a friend living the “back-to-the-land” life north of Covelo. She stayed, and for a year hiked the mountains and swam in the streams from Covelo to the Yolla Bolly Wilderness. It was the first time she was fully immersed in wilderness and at that time she just fell in love with the rocks, the trees, and the rivers and became so passionate about them she knew she had to work protect what she loved.
In 1977, Ellen sent her rocks back to Ohio and stayed in California with the mountains. When she learned that the forests that she had fallen in love with were under threat from logging, agency mismanagement and other controversial projects, she had to get involved. It is during this effort that she met the man who would become her lifelong partner and husband, David Drell.
The couple educated themselves about environmental laws, public resource agencies, electoral politics, forestry, economics, and citizen organizing. In 1984, their group succeeded in adding 40,000 acres of public lands to the Yolla Bolly Wilderness. The 1984 Wilderness bill was a statewide effort with David and Ellen heading to Washington DC to advocate for the forest. “The influence of the public was way more significant in 1984. Regular people could influence congressman and federal senators. There were real champions, real statesmen and women who worked for the forests because they knew it was the right thing to do,” said David. “When we went back in 2006 to fill in some gaps in the wilderness protections, the strangle hold that corporations and lobbyists had was palpable. Getting support in Congress in 2006 was very different.” Despite the difficulties in working with Congress, the Drells helped add an additional 100,000 acres of public land in Mendocino County to the federal Wilderness system in 2006.
The Drells’ effort to protect the forests of Mendocino County is a lifelong pursuit. In the late 1980s, with David and Ellen’s help, the community of Willits banded together to stop a wood-fired power plant from being built in downtown Willits. After successfully defeating the power plant project and inspired by the Mendocino Environmental Center, in 1990, Ellen, David and others founded the Willits Environmental Center to give environmental advocacy a public face in Willits. Their goal was to have an organization that would be able to quickly organize the community to respond to destructive projects. Within a year, the Drells and the WEC were deeply involved with the California Department of Transportation’s Willits Bypass Project. For fourteen years, David and Ellen have tried to convince Caltrans, their elected officials and the community that there is a better, safer, less expensive, less environmentally damaging solution to traffic congestion in Willits than constructing a four-lane freeway bypass through the wetlands and streams of Little Lake Valley.
When final approval for the project came in 2012 and still failed to include any substantive recommendations from WEC, reinforcements were needed. A legal challenge was filed in federal court by EPIC, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and the Willits Environmental Center. Despite the best efforts of the legal team, the judge did not grant an order to halt construction of the project before the case would be heard, and in January 2013 construction for the project commenced. Throughout 2013, a combination of direct action opposition and legal initiatives slowed construction of the Willits Bypass, garnering widespread attention and scrutiny of the project. Activists and agencies that identified shortcomings in the project’s ability to adequately protect environmental and cultural resources further strengthened the movement and made the sting that much harder when the Federal judge found in Caltrans’ favor allowing the project to move forward.
The disappointing ruling came despite the fact that construction has destroyed and damaged sensitive wetlands, the headwaters of salmon-bearing streams, oak woodlands and endangered species habitats. The effort to compel Caltrans to reduce the size, impacts and costs of the four-lane freeway bypass segment of Highway 101 around Willits continues, organized by community groups: Save Little Lake Valley, Redwood Nation Earth First! and the Willits Environmental Center.
Over the years of struggle and victory, the Drells and the community members of Willits have forged friendships that will last a lifetim