The Early Days of Trees Foundation

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By Leib Ostrow, co-founder and current Board Treasurer of Trees Foundation

Ah, tracing the roots of Trees Foundation. For me its starts with fleeing my birthplace, as industrial a place as you can find, Detroit, Michigan. I had witnessed some of the worst of what humans could do to our Mother Earth and was searching for another way. Through some mysterious workings of the universe, I found myself in Humboldt County in 1976 at the age of 25. I fell deeply and madly in love with the area and scraped together all I had for a down payment on 120 acres of cutover land overlooking Redway.

I was invited to be a member of the Trees Board by Linda Dillon and Leib Ostrow. I was honored, naive, and enthusiastic about being of service to the hard working and passionate activists in our county! Cecelia Lanman, Richard Gienger, and Bob Martel to name a few…So I said yes! The first board meeting was in a hot, dusty office upstairs from the old Open Circle. Ideas were flying, passion was high, and Anarchy reigned…I was the first President…

Nobody else wanted to do it!!

The services that we began to give to support the activist community: office, tech support, financial, and creating a 501(c)3 to act as an umbrella for small but amazing groups! I remember our first overnight board retreat, when we hammered out our mission statement!

Pam Wellish kept us on point, Tracy Katelman brought knowledge and passion, my main jobs were feeding Tracy and the crew (who never seemed to take time to eat!), and listening and trying to be a peace keeper! My deepest gratitude to all the wide spreading Trees Community for so many years of work caring for our Mother Earth!

—Holly Sweet, Founding Board President

Trees Foundation’s first logo, by Holly Sweet

The term Mateel (combination of the two rivers flowing through, the Eel and the Mattole) was being coined, and our watersheds here in southern Humboldt County were filling up with many like minded “back to the landers,” many of us having very little knowledge of the workings of this magical coastal rainforest. But we saw the remnants of some of the most majestic forests that ever existed, we knew they were sacred and that they had been very badly abused and were continuing to be treated as a commodity instead of one of nature’s miracles.

It was hard to know where to start, how to help. We started learning about stewardship, about our own pieces of land and bringing them back to health, but it wasn’t enough. We continued to see the wanton destruction of the remaining 2% of the old-growth forests, the degradation of our streams and rivers, and the struggling wildlife that depended on these things.

Wow, 30 years. I was there at the beginning. Jared [Rossman] and I at Leib’s request wrote the paperwork that created the foundation. I remember a bargain Leib and I made. I would help him with his dream and he would help with mine. So the story I tell is that not only did the foundation get created but we simultaneously created an organization to assist the homeless as advocates. Rainbow Mountain Walker became that organization’s spokesperson.

In 1991 the big issues were about redwoods and salmon. The first actions of Trees Foundation were to write grants for whatever we could imagine. The first one allowed us to train a group in public relations and publishing.

One day I was looking for Cecilia [Lanman] at EPIC. We talked outside in the alley on the side door stoop. Out of the Trees Foundation office came a woman, shaven bald, freckled like only a redhead can be. She walked by me as Cecelia tried to introduce me to her. “Bob have you met Grasshopper?” By the time she had finished her sentence, Grasshopper was past us and on the street. “What’s her name?” I asked. Cecelia answered, “Her forest name is Grasshopper.”

Grasshopper and I live on a farm in Northern Michigan. We have a beautiful kid, Jack. Best thing I ever did. Thank you, Trees Foundation for attracting the love of my life.

Bob Martel, Founding Board Member

Finally, Richard Gienger, one of the most passionate forest lovers of our tribe, called a meeting of desperation. Our precious remaining coastal ecosystem was under siege. In the old Needle Rock house in what is now know as the Sinkyone Wilderness, we mapped out a strategy to save the surrounding forests. We came with our children, our anger, and our passion and we climbed trees, we confronted loggers, we made lots of noise and in the end we prevailed. Thousands of acres were protected. It was an amazing victory and I believe it inspired us all to realize we could make a difference, and it strengthened our resolve to move forward.

Many of my peers took their skills and ideas and started groups aimed at restoring and preserving our ecosystem here in the Mateel. EPIC specializes in litigation and recourse through the court system, Sanctuary Forest is focused on buying lands for protection, Earth First! is known for direct action and civil disobedience, while Institute for Sustainable Forestry develops and teaches good forest practices. They all have their place in our “David vs. Goliath” struggle against the strong arm of special interest logging concerns. It’s inspiring that our tiny community has sprouted so many diverse and powerful environmental organizations.

Trees Foundation Board and Staff in 2003
Trees Foundation Board and Staff in 2008
Trees Foundation’s Board & Staff on a Zoom meeting in 2020 during the pandemic.

A History from a Co-Founder

Who could imagine the Trees Foundation still growing and going strong, protecting our forests and watersheds for 30 years? Thankfully, a whole lot of incredible people! In the beginning—back in the ’80s in Southern Humboldt—there were so many environmental issues surrounding logging ancient forests, unsustainable forestry practices, and contamination of our watersheds, to name a few. It took a lot of committed people giving so much of their time and energy to try to protect our ancient forests and ecosystems, and all of them needing funds to accomplish their goals. So where to start?

The seed that started it all for me was Richard Gienger. For the longest time, he always had to go around trying to get enough gas money to get to Sacramento or wherever there were negotiations going on. It honestly was a heartache to see this devoted person as well as others having to always scrounge around for funds!

For me, being a part of starting a foundation could be a way to help provide the means for people like Richard to be given the funds to be active and to get support to go to these important meetings, etc.

The rest is 30-year-old history now! Thanks to all of you who have given and continue to give your precious time, energy, and funds to protect our ancient forests and ecosystems everywhere. I am in awe and forever grateful for the generosity of spirit given from everyone who continues to be part of this journey.

— Linda Dillon, Trees Co-Founder

Linda Dillon and I had taken a different path, creating a company specializing in music for families. We had grown it and had now sold half of it to Warner Brothers Music. We wanted to tithe some of the money we have received and give it back to the local environmental community. Yet, so many friends involved in so many different groups, we didn’t know how to disperse it.

Dates are hard for me to pin down, but I think I recall Leib [Ostrow] and Linda [Dillon], Bob Martel, and Kathleen Martin working to establish Trees around the time that the EPIC office was in a small building of the Sherwood Forest behind Milt’s Sawshop in Garberville. Somebody told me that a purpose of Trees Foundation would be to help support the work of Cecelia Lanman (still Gregori at that time), Woods (Robert Sutherland) & me. Organization of Trees seemed to go in fits and starts, but Bob Martel repeatedly advised me to keep checking in with Kathleen Martin, which I did for a very extended period of time. Once Trees got going its role became vital to more and more persons and organizations! Quite a crew over the years. I’ll fall down if I try to name all that were key—Tracy Katelman, Kate Crockett, Barbara Ristow, Jeri Fergus, Bill Eastwood, and of course, Leib Ostrow, and many more. Tracy (Bear) Thiele helped start Restoration Leadership Project with me in 1998 and enabled us to carry on a fair number of In Propria Persona lawsuits, including the Stable Slopes case. She also played a key role in cases against Georgia-Pacific and Pacific Lumber/Maxxam; petitions to the Board of Forestry; and achieved some serious rules changes regarding watershed and cumulative impact regulations. Thank you Trees Foundation!

—Richard Gienger

We realized that many others who wanted to support the good work were in the same position. Also, many of the groups were all having to “reinvent the wheel”, needing to incorporate, get their 501(c)3 non-profit status, learn desktop publishing skills, GPS skills, bookkeeping skills, etc. So with the help of many friends we created an “umbrella” non-profit to help support all the groups, assist with fundraising and communication, and create an infrastructure that could be used for the various needs of the groups.

These are the roots and a bit of the history. Now it is up to all of us to shape the next growth of the Trees Foundation.

Happy 30th Anniversary, Trees Foundation family! Congrats on providing 30 years of ongoing support and essential services, and for broadcasting the important work and messages of our local conservation and restoration groups up and down the North Coast! Similarly, thank you for continuing to provide the best historical record of the conservation community and environmental movement of northern California through the inspiring pages of Forest & River News. For as long as we have forests and rivers and a need to protect them, Trees Foundation will always be a valuable resource to our community. Viva La Trees Foundation! Love the Trees family and am proud to be a part of it!

—Tryphena Lewis, past Collective and Board Member