Nona Dennis


Recorded: January 25, 2013

Biologist and educator, Nona Dennis, talks about the human role in wilderness protection and management; she poses some questions as to how we might manage our wilderness areas in the face of climate change. Nona speaks about the future of environmentalism, about environmental heroics, and how she has contributed to the environmental field as a consultant and educator, as President of the Marin Conservation League, and now as a retired environmental consultant.

A biologist, educator, and pragmatist, Nona Dennis is a pioneer in conducting environmental analyses pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In the early 1970s, Ms. Dennis and two other women founded Madrone Associates, one of the first biological consulting firms owned by women. Ms. Dennis is a foremost authority on the California Environmental Quality Act and continues to be involved in CEQA project reviews on a volunteer basis.

Education is crucial to Nona’s sense of giving back; she is a retired Adjunct Faculty in the University of San Francisco graduate program in Environmental Management and a past Board member and Life member of the Environmental Forum of Marin. She is also an Instructor in the Environmental Forum’s Training Program.

Ms. Dennis is a past President of the Association of Environmental Professionals and Director of the National Association of Environmental Professionals.  She has also served as a Planning Commissioner in Mill Valley, California.  Ms. Dennis has been active on numerous boards and commissions, including the St. Vincent’s/Silveira Advisory Task Force and on the Sustainability Group for the Marin Countywide Plan update. Nona is also a past President of the Marin Conservation League.

Nona Dennis:    What forms the relationship between humans and the natural world and has a long and rich history?  What is the human place in the natural world?  It’s a philosophical question as well as a practical one, because in our wilderness system, it’s virtually impossible to simply let it be.  It can’t be.

We have to actively manage wilderness in some manner and how much we manage, how much we interfere, where we draw the baseline for restoration, for example–should it be 100 years ago?  Should it be 50 years ago?  And in particular, our concern over how climate change now will affect our wilderness areas and how it becomes increasingly important to set aside large areas of blocks of land which will give resilience and space for species to move into, to survive in the face of climate change? You were interviewed by the Pacific Sun several years and it stuck in my craw; that is, you said that Marin Conservation League had not done anything heroic…

Huey Johnson:    Right.

Nona Dennis:    since Harold Gregg…

Huey Johnson:    [unintelligible].

Nona Dennis:    Oh yeah– since Harold Gregg threw himself in front of the logging trucks on Bolinas Ridge. I was just coming in as president of MCL and I was also wondering about its relevance. You know, why is this organization even– why does it even exist?  And I began to burrow into the history of the organization and to look at the legacy that we depended upon, not just Harald Gregg but going – preceding him too.  And while I thought, you know, maybe the big fights in Marin County have been won, but the little fights go on and on.

Huey Johnson:  That’s a very important idea and I haven’t really heard that before: sustaining…

Nona Dennis:    Sustaining what has happened and it doesn’t stand still.  It’s extremely important that we, that we not take for granted where we are now, environmentally speaking, because of the 40 years, at least 40 years that have preceded it and brought us to this point where we expect clean water, we expect clean air, we expect to have in Marin County our open public lands, and so forth.  Every one of those achievements came at the expense of people and battles, constantly fighting in order to achieve them.  Those battles don’t go away, we continue them.They may be small, but they continue.

I sort of came into this late–into the environmental movement late.  That’s the reason I feel such a huge debt of obligation to those that came before me. I was in my 40s before I really found… began to find my voice.  And it was only after retiring that I really began to find a public voice and a public reason for all of this… this education that I had been acquiring, either in school or through the act of being an environmental consultant, which was a huge, huge learning experience.

I’m immensely impressed with young women now in their 20s and 30s doing things that I didn’t dream of doing, as I was bringing up a family in those years.  I just hope that they’re going to be able to turn it around and give it back to the community.

Today–is an example perhaps of the last few days– is an example of what I’ve been doing over the past numbers of years and it’s not heroic at all.  It’s simply kind of piecemeal, chipping away at issues as they occur and there are multiple issues. Today I finished an op-ed for the IJ (Marin Independent Journal) on the–on “CEQA Under Siege.”  This is – it’s been under siege for some time, it is not the first time, and so forth.  Yesterday, I spent an hour giving a presentation to the current Master Gardener training program on how we got our binomial, botanical Latin system for naming 300,000 plants.

So that’s, you know, sort of the history of how we came to where we are now.  And then sitting on my desk is Marin County’s local coastal program amendments, which have been in process for 3 ½ – 4 years and have now reached the Board of Supervisors’ attention for eventual approval.  There are still small issues:  how wide should a buffer be from a stream?  How wide should a buffer be from a wetland? And so forth, no heroics.  Most of the heroics have been done, and I wasn’t there.

For me, learning is probably the great motivator and if I can learn at the same time that I’m helping others, then I’m satisfied.