May 10, 2023 | By:

A Tribute to California Wilderness Conservation Hero Jim Eaton

Jim EatonThe conservation movement grieves the loss of extraordinary veteran public lands protection campaigner, Jim Eaton.

Jim was a founding member of the California Wilderness Coalition in 1976, and a driving force as our Executive Director until 1997. His wife Wendy Cohen, who was by his side when he passed, served for many years on the Board of Directors and managed the organization’s finances with great care. During his tenure as Executive Director, and well beyond, Jim was an evangelist for wilderness protection. His zeal for the cause, humor, genuine warmth, and willingness to unselfishly teach others inspired a generation of passionate conservationists. Jim’s passion for storytelling, intimate understanding of the land, remarkable memory, and unparalleled ability to connect with others, defined by his jovial nature, made him an indispensable figure in every major California wilderness protection battle from the late 1970s until his retirement.

Jim Eaton

Jim’s primary instrument for advancing wilderness conservation was to produce The Wilderness Record, CalWild’s then-monthly hardcopy newsletter. For decades, The Wilderness Record served as a forum for Jim and a multitude of others in the conservation community to report on key events, spread the word about pending actions, discuss strategy, offer land protection proposals, and educate people about public lands and their many values. Producing the monthly Wilderness Record took a great deal of work, and drafting articles was one of the first ways that Jim would engage new interns and volunteers.

Wilderness Record-Jim EatonMany successful California public lands conservation proposals, such as what is now the protected Yuki Wilderness in Mendocino and Lake counties, started out as articles in The Wilderness Record (note that Jim is survived by his beloved canine friend “Yuki” whom he named in honor of that wildflower-draped landscape and its Indigenous people). The loss of Jim, a sweet storyteller, gracious host, and kindred spirit for dogs, is what is most painful. What ought to bring us joy, and what should always be remembered about Jim, is his priceless contribution to California wilderness conservation.

His hand in passing the California Wilderness Act of 1984

Without a doubt, Jim Eaton was absolutely essential in the efforts to pass the California Wilderness Act of 1984, and a multitude of other successful protection campaigns. Those who explore the breathtaking landscapes of Snow Mountain Wilderness in the Mendocino National Forest and Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument owe a debt of gratitude to Jim for his instrumental role in drafting the initial proposals for wilderness protection in Snow Mountain. Jim’s unwavering dedication to building local support in Glenn, Colusa, and Lake counties was pivotal in preserving these precious natural wonders.

Just as the effort to pass the California Wilderness Act of 1984 was nearing its culmination, Jim and a large network of activists who cared about the California deserts started to meet to plan wilderness protection legislation for that region. Starting in 1983 Jim and the desert volunteers worked hard to identify desert wilderness candidates, develop wilderness proposals for them, build support for protecting them, and then to find a member of Congress to introduce a bill. Senators Alan Cranston and then Dianne Feinstein fought to pass what became the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, the largest land conservation bill ever to benefit the continental United States, protecting more than 9.6 million acres of desert and establishing the Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks and the Mojave Natural Preserve.

During his career, Jim not only safeguarded the beauty of untamed lands but also played a pivotal role in bolstering the local conservation movement, which was predominantly powered by volunteers. Jim inspired and mentored a legion of conservationists in the 1980s and 1990s whom themselves have gone on to protect even more lands and waters. Retirement from CalWild simply marked a new phase in conservation engagement for Jim. Given his deep love for the Coast Range, Jim served on the board, and as a frequent key advisor, to the group Tuleyome, who works to conserve and restore lands and waters in northwestern California. Jim also helped advise many conservation donors seeking to protect California wild lands and waters.

Jim EatonEveryone who knew Jim has many “Jim stories” to tell. In the wake of his passing, Jim’s friends, family, and CalWild have been receiving many stories and testimonials. We have offered some below, but others will be permanently stored for viewing at the link below.

Jim’s Celebration of Life will be on Saturday, June 10, 2023, from 3:00 to 5:00 PM at 2320 Goldberry Lane, Davis, CA 95616. A memorial hike in the Snow Mountain Wilderness is also being planned for this summer. For more details on the Celebration of Life, the hike, and to share your memories of Jim, please visit his memorial page here

A few fond words of farewell for Jim from some of the many people who loved him

“So many experiences shared with Jim, Wendy, and their dogs. In all things Wilderness, Jim was a guiding light. Forming the California Wilderness Coalition or climbing up Mt Shasta, Jim’s laughter, smile and presence made for an awesome experience. I miss you Jim. And, yet you are here in my soul. ” Bob Schneider, a fellow founder of the California Wilderness Coalition

“Jim was my original mentor. Without Jim, I never would’ve had a career in conservation. He took the time to share his wealth of knowledge with me, be patient with my incessant questions, and turn my passion for the destruction of the earth into effectiveness. Wendell Berry said in a poem “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts” and that was always Jim.”  Sally Miller, accomplished longtime California conservationist and former California Wilderness Coalition board member.

“I served with Jim on the Tuleyome board in 2005, right after the Cache Creek Wild and Scenic River designation. Jim was usually quite soft-spoken but nonetheless radiated a sense of enormous solidity backed up by long experience and impeccable credentials. Whenever he participated in the discussion his comments were always received with the respect they so amply deserved and most often brought the clarity to end the discussion. A great man, who has done more for the natural world than most of us can even imagine.”  Victoria Brandon, veteran Chair of the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter

“I first met Jim in the fall of 1972. I was getting active in my local Sierra Club chapter, and someone there recommended that I contact Jim Eaton in Davis. Jim was in the middle of the campaign to preserve Snow Mountain and lead a backpacking trip there. Jim was very generous with his time and knowledge. Most of all, I remember his enthusiasm for all things wild, and for sharing that enthusiasm with others.”  Phil Farrell, a fellow founder of the California Wilderness Coalition

“I cherish the times I spent with Jim.  He was a real mentor, friend, and inspiration for me to continue to be passionate about the outdoors. Every wilderness area I visit in California makes me think of Jim, particularly Snow Mountain.  I’ve never known that NOT to be a wilderness, thanks in large part to his efforts. That’s an enduring legacy for humanity and wild spaces, and I feel honored to have walked with one of the giants of conservation.” Andrew Fulks, Tuleyome co-founder and ardent Coast Range conservationist

“I don’t have any doubt that meeting Jim in the 1970s was part of the formative experiences that led me to include conservation activism as a major touchstone for the rest of my life. I’m equally sure that Jim’s dedication had similar effects on a variety of other lifelong conservation activists, including Steve Evans, Don Morrill, Anne Schneider, and Bob Schneider. Thank you, Jim; blessings and honor be unto you.” Dr. Chad Roberts

“It was Jim who was the clear leader in forming the California Wilderness Coalition in 1976. The model for us was an Oregon coalition group, fashioned by the work of Joe Waliki, I was busy organizing local groups throughout the state, but quite puzzled about how a coalition might start until Jim one day at a Clair Tappan Lodge meeting early in 1976 said “Let’s do this!”. He was the natural pick for Executive Director and kept CWC growing and advocating until his retirement from the helm in 1995. Jim set a permanent stage for an organization that continues to be a leading force for wild land in our beautiful home state.” Don Morrill, fellow founder of the California Wilderness Coalition

“Not only have you made a real difference in this world with all the wilderness you have helped save, but you have also brightened and enriched the lives of countless hundreds of your friends, including me, with your humor, joy, and exuberance. With your passion for wilderness, for music, for gardening, and your wide-ranging interests and intellect, I think of you as a true Renaissance man.” Alison Binder

“I remember that huge smile and I knew Jim as smart, relaxed, visionary, hardworking, friendly, approachable, liked a good time, and fought against the “greedheads,” as Ed Abbey would say. I admired him for all he did for our beloved WILDERNESS! There is no higher calling!” Madeleine Landis

“My recollection of Jim comes from inheriting the organization he founded, built, and ran for nearly two decades. Jim was always incredibly gracious and kind as I labored through learning how to run an organization and carry on the work that he began. Jim was so knowledgeable – he had literally been to every wilderness area across the state and was instrumental in establishing many of them. I would love to hear Jim’s ‘war stories’ – the true stories of creating so many of California’s wilderness areas. I learned so much from him. He will truly be missed.” Paul Spitler, CWC’s second Executive Director, attorney, and veteran public lands advocate

“The day after I heard of Jim’s passing I was working in Colusa County to build support for the expansion of the Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument. From my hotel balcony, I looked at the sun setting over a white-clad Snow Mountain Wilderness and thought about Jim, his impact on California conservation, and his impact on me. I first met Jim when I came to volunteer as a college student. He later became my first boss at CWC in 1994. I’ve been working for CalWild ever since. I owe the fulfillment of my calling – my very life’s work – to Jim. Every acre we help protect today simply builds on Jim’s legacy. I see Snow Mountain a lot as a frequent driver of Interstate 5. I always think of Jim cavorting with his succession of beloved dogs every time I see that beautiful peak. His legacy will live on in the wild lands he protected and the countless activists like me that he inspired.” Ryan Henson, CalWild’s Senior Policy Director who started as a volunteer with Jim in 1990 

This post was originally published here by CalWild on April 19, 2023. All images © CalWild. 

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