A Central Valley eulogy for George Whitmore, conservationist and environmentalist

Badlands Journal interviewed Lydia Miller, president of the San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center, about the impact on the environment of the Central Valley of the great Fresno environmentalist/conservationist George Whitmore, who died at 89 on January 1, 2021.

George Whitmore was an incredibly important environmental and conservation voice in the Central Valley, Miller said. He was a member of the Terhipite Chapter of the Sierra Club in Fresno and had a great deal to do with expanding wilderness areas in the Southern Sierra as well as his famous climb with the first team to conquer the face of El Capitan in 1953. But, although an ardent Sierra conservationist and firm supporter of the Sierra Club, he was also aware of the club's limitations  and acted outside it when he felt it was necessary to advocate for the conservation of the environment.  

Miller first contacted him when the California Environmental Quality Act had just passed in 1970 and began to appear in the paperwork of projects the Raptor Center was following.

“Nobody knew what it was,” she said. “We didn’t even know what the letters stood for and no one could tell us. I was frantic to know what CEQA was because it was showing up in projects,” she said.

“We were dealing with a project in the heart of San Joaquin Valley wetlands. We were calling all around. Long distance cost a lot of money back then. I called the Fresno Sierra Club. They said there was this guy who was a member. ‘He understands technical things,’ they said. But he was hard to reach. He had strange hours,” Miller continued. “The only time we could talk to him was late at night. I called and asked him if he could explain CEQA.”

It’s very complicated, Whitmore told Miller. I explained the project to him. He asked if I wanted to learn CEQA. I said I did and so did a representative of a citizens’ group set up to oppose the project.

“There was no  conference calling at that time, so the representative from the citizens’ group and I both called George at different times, and he assigned us tasks like writing letters, reading documents, doing California Public Records Act requests. Members of the Raptor Center helped. We’d check our work with George and when he OK’d them, we’d send them off.

“He also taught me the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA, 1970),” Miller added.

Miller and Whitmore didn’t get around to actually meeting each other for years, until the Fresno Sierra Club chapter gave a dinner to honor him. Miller said that Whitmore greeted her and told her, “You are the best investment I ever made. I always followed you and your work.”

The two got back in touch during the UC Merced project. The Sierra Club had initially committed to the project.

"But," said Miller, "they got caught in political crosshairs and felt they had to withdraw their support from opponents to the UC Merced project.  We went to a meeting in Fresno . After the meeting, George offered financial support out of his own pocket.”  

At that time, Whitmore strongly urged Miller to join the Terhipite chapter of Sierra Club, which included the Merced Sierra Club chapter, and try to educate it so that it might become more than a fan club for UC. But Miller felt that the corporate funding and influence on the Sierra Club bound it to act in a manner too compromised to oppose  UC Merced.

But, in that time period, Whitmore convinced the Fresno and the state chair person to oppose the UC Merced project. He communicated the decision to Miller and a Merced Sun-Star reporter. The reporter wrote up the story and submitted it to the editors, who refused to accept it.

“The Sierra Club didn’t quite get George. They considered him an expert on the Sierra because of his national reputation, but George had an extensive knowledge of the Valley, too. He was honest, he understood, and his environmental vision of conservation was so powerful that he was beyond the Sierra Club. He understood law and he understood necessary compromises, but he did not, as the Sierra Club lobbyists do, give it all away before the bargaining had begun.

“If it hadn’t been for George Whitmore helping us understand the new directions  offered by emerging environmental law and regulations,  we wouldn’t have seen the possibilities,” Miller said. “The Valley was way behind in understanding regulatory compliance to environmental law.

“George said: ‘Do. Read. Write. Go to meetings.’

“He was good at environmental strategies and tactics, and he was a real teacher of environmental law.

“Raptor and the citizens’ group ran with his information. We lost on the grasslands project but we won the Merced County General Plan lawsuit.

“It was all new. Environmental law was brand new. The judge told the County to produce a General Plan. The County said they had one but couldn’t find it. They didn’t have one. The judge ordered Raptor, the citizens; group, and the County to sit down and make a General Plan for the county.  It took us four years,” Miller said.

“George Whitmore understood the connection to nature, law, natural resources, and compromise,” Miller said. “All that enhanced the work of the Raptor Center’s projects on the rivers, in the Sierra, and on the Valley floor. I always had his number in my binder. I could always get in touch with him. He taught me and he got to see the results in all the work we did and he knew he’d had a hand in it.

“If it weren’t for George, I would not have done 44 years of work with the Raptor Center,” Miller concluded.