In 2001, Huey Johnson received the United Nations Environmental Programme's prestigious Sasakawa Prize. When he got the letter, he read it, then tossed it on his desk with the other hundreds of papers requesting his attention. It took a full two days until someone in the office called the U.N. and confirmed that, yes, he was the year's sole recipient of the $200,000 prize and would be honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The octogenarian responsible for saving so much public land in Marin County and beyond is modest about his accomplishments. "Saving the lands at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, what good did that do for the world?" he says over lunch, a daily ritual for him and his small staff at the Resource Renewal Institute in Mill Valley. "Made me feel good—you get patted on the head all the time, they make a movie about you—but the world didn't benefit very much from that."
Those who know Johnson aren't so dismissive about his achievements, which include starting the trailblazing Trust for Public Land.
"I think all of us working in conservation owe a lot to Huey," says Ralph Benson, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust. "He was one of the first people who really thought of conservation beginning in the inner city and extending into the wilderness. Trust for Public Land was all about land for people. He was a pioneer with that."
Johnson heads up his own nonprofit devoted to saving the environment and fixing California's fractured water system.
"I always try to look at big-scale problems," he says. "In recent years, I've realized I've been very fortunate, probably very lucky, to be able to solve very small problems."
In this case, however, "small" translates to hundreds of thousands of acres preserved as natural habitat, and planting seeds for thousands of environmental organizations to spring forth and create a national movement.
"He doesn't put a lot of time into PR," says San Rafael environmental journalist David Kupfer, who has known Johnson for about 30 years. "He's not one to toot his own horn."
'This land is protected forever," read signs erected on vast swaths of land purchased by land trusts. The North Bay has the Sonoma Land Trust, the Marin Area Land Trust and the Land Trust of Napa, but none would be possible without Johnson's initiative. He founded the Trust for Public Land in 1972, which now has over 30 offices and 300 employees nationwide, with 5,300 park and conservation projects in 27 states. But more importantly, it served as a model for land trusts, and the roots of one-third of the nation's 1,700 local land trusts can be traced directly back to the Trust for Public Land.
In Sonoma County, Johnson fought to save the 3,117-acre Pepperwood Preserve after the California Academy of Sciences, to which the land was donated upon the owner's death, decided to reverse its original promise (and the deed's stipulation) to preserve the land. In 1995, it went up for sale, and Johnson organized a publicity campaign against the decision. The academy bowed to public pressure and decided to preserve the land for research and field classes.
Johnson got into politics as Jerry Brown's secretary for resources from 1978 to 1982. "I didn't really want the job, but [Brown] really wanted me to do it," he says. "I found that as an environmentalist I could get angry and hound at them to stop bulldozing a beautiful piece of land, or I could try and get policy established so that 10,000 bulldozers would be affected."
Johnson has never run for higher office and has no plans to do so. "I accomplish more by being appointed," he says, citing the promises politicians make, to both voters and special interests, that keep them from accomplishing as much as he'd like.