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In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club

In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club

by Michael McCloskey

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In an age when many of the major environmental policies established over the past four decades are under siege, Michael McCloskey reminds us of better days. . .days when conservation initiatives were seen not as political lightning rods, but as opportunities to cope with disturbing threats to the quality of our environment.

In 1961, a young let's-get-it-done


In an age when many of the major environmental policies established over the past four decades are under siege, Michael McCloskey reminds us of better days. . .days when conservation initiatives were seen not as political lightning rods, but as opportunities to cope with disturbing threats to the quality of our environment.

In 1961, a young let's-get-it-done McCloskey was hired as the Sierra Club's first field representative for the Northwest. From there, for nearly forty years, he rose to guide the oldest and most powerful environmental organization in the world. He helped to pave the way for the original Wilderness Act in 1964, and successfully lobbied for the creation of new national parks and wilderness areas, the North Cascades and Redwood National Park among them. As executive director, he was present at the creation of Earth Day in 1970, directed lobbying for the enactment of over 100 environmental laws, and watched Sierra Club membership rise from about 70,000 to more than 500,000. Under less than ideal political circumstances, McCloskey helped to keep the environmental agenda moving steadily forward, even in the face of Ronald Reagan's virulently pro-development Interior Secretary James Watt.

In the Thick of It describes not only McCloskey's life as an environmental activist; it reveals the inner workings and politics of one of the nation's most influential environmental nonprofit organizations during an era of groundbreaking environmental legislation. In addition to sharing the details of battles exhilaratingly won and disappointingly lost on the environmental front, he demonstrates how it is indeed possible to turn idealism and hope into practical action that can make an impact at the national level. With this book McCloskey offers not only invaluable insight into the past, but also inspiration to carry into the future.

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In the Thick of It

My Life in the Sierra Club

By J. Michael McCloskey


Copyright © 2005 J. Michael McCloskey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-152-8


Growing Up in Oregon

My earliest recollections are of California, but I was born in Oregon: in Eugene, in 1934, at the bottom of the Great Depression. My hometown stood at the head of the Willamette Valley, where the rivers from the mountains joined on the valley floor to flow lazily northward to Portland to meet the Columbia River.

Eugene then was a town of only 14,000 people, home to the University of Oregon and to a large lumbering business. The slow rains of mild winters nourished great stands of forests on the surrounding hills. Trees were being cut as fast as conditions permitted, but the federal forests farther from town had not been much touched. These old-growth stands of Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar were among the greatest temperate rain forests that ever existed. More mass of wood was found in the average acre of these forests than in any other in the world.

Growing up at the edge of these magnificent forests, I took the lumber industry for granted, but I also took the old-growth forests as a given. Only slowly did I come to understand that the one spelled the end of the other. They could not coexist. As a child, I did not yet know the price of living in what was soon to become "the lumber capital of the world."

I exulted in the splendor of these forests in my youth. On family picnics in campgrounds at the edge of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers, I gloried in the ferns and deep festoons of moss hanging in the vine maples beneath the huge stems of the trees. As I grew up, I hiked the trails through the backcountry that roads, logging, and commerce had not yet reached. My sense of what was right in the environment was shaped by these experiences. To me, the unspoiled forests represented how things ought to be.

I was young and at large in Oregon's fir-clad mountains when its great forests were still largely intact. I could see the forests thinning on the nearby hills and knew that the families of my schoolmates worked in the mills. A procession of logging trucks trundled through town carrying immense logs, some of them so large that only one could be carried at a time. But I just assumed that logging would stop at the boundaries of the national forests—that I could count on these forests to remain forever.

I can trace my career to coming of age in this place, coupled with the shock of learning how wrong my assumptions had been. But my sense of place was also shaped by early experiences in California. In 1938, when I was four, my father took a leave of absence from teaching English at the University of Oregon to earn a Ph.D. at Stanford, and for two years we lived in Palo Alto. I remember still the flood of sunshine compared with Oregon's long, gray winters. And I remember sights of sophisticated life: San Francisco in the late 1930s, the World's Fair on Treasure Island, the foggy bay from the Berkeley Hills, and the old quadrangle at Stanford where my father had an office.

Most young people rebel when they reach adolescence, but I seem to have been most restive from the ages of four through six. In Palo Alto, I would disappear while exploring the town, making my parents frantic. Once the police found me along the El Camino Real, in search of a pony I had followed. When my parents locked me in their car after I misbehaved at a Fisherman's Wharf restaurant, I proudly sneaked out and sat defiantly on the bumper. When we returned to Eugene, I tried to run away after quarrels over trifles.

As a relatively small age cohort, my generation—"Depression babies"—was supposed to have been a quiet generation. But I didn't start out that way, nor did I seek retiring work over the course of my career. On the contrary, I often found myself deep in controversy and serving as a spokesperson for others. Yet I was usually characterized as unassuming just the same.

Parents and Family

My father, John C. McCloskey, was quite unassuming, though he gave lectures all his life and dealt with generations of students. He had the habits of a scholar and spent most evenings in our living room working on journal articles. He was the author of several textbooks on composition, but he tried to write novels too; none of them was ever published, which disappointed him immensely. He suffered from acute asthma, which, much to his lasting disappointment, led to his being rejected for military service in World War II.

In contrast, my mother, née Agnes M. Studer, was quite outgoing. She ran nursery schools and later taught in elementary schools. A natural leader, she was elected to run almost every group in which she was active. At various times, she headed the local branch of the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, and her teachers association. She was vice chair of our county's Democratic Party for a while, and after World War II she organized a strike of housewives to protest the high cost of meat when wartime price controls were removed.

I was the eldest of three sons, the others six and thirteen years younger than I. The personality of my first brother, Jim, was most like that of my father, while my youngest brother, Dave, was most like my mother. I always felt that I was a blend of both my parents' temperaments, but not a fixed blend. As the firstborn, I found my own way and set the pace: my brothers were too young to have much influence on how I behaved.

My parents grew up in Iowa, where there was no wilderness to explore, and neither was an outdoor person. My father enjoyed playing tennis and, in later years, golf, which at least got him outdoors; but he did not hunt, fish, hike, or camp. Both of my parents were avid gardeners, however. Wherever we lived in Eugene, they planted large gardens full of flowers and, for quite a while, vegetables. Dad enjoyed dahlias, and both he and Mom loved roses and chrysanthemums. For a while, they were even officers in the local chrysanthemum society. I took some satisfaction in their gardening, but could always summon much more interest in wild flowers than in those grown in gardens. I suspect now that I was quietly rebelling.

Both my parents worked, and my father was employed throughout the Depression. When he could not get a job teaching summer school, he would work at the local cannery as a laborer. We lived modestly and frugally and almost never ate out. Butter was never bought because it was too expensive. In the summer, we ate vegetables and fruit that we grew in our garden. Meat was served on Sunday, with casseroles during the week.

During the Depression, I remember men coming to the door selling their wares or asking for food and to do odd jobs. When I visited the homes of the poorest of my school friends, I saw families who subsisted mainly on fried mush and what they could grow. They had their own chicken coops, too. In the back of our house on Alder Street were the remnants of a farm where chickens had been raised and cows grazed, but my mother got our eggs from a friend at church who lived on a working farm.

After the age of six, I settled down to a happy childhood. I had good friends, enjoyed playing outside with them, and thrived on school. I seemed always to be busy and looking forward to new experiences. While I did not excel at sports, I ran around the muddy playgrounds with the rest of the boys. I can remember taking pitch from a favorite pine tree on the playground to make gum. Life seemed full of adventure.

Environmental Hazards

In my family, growing up, we were aware of the more obvious forms of local pollution, but not the more subtle hazards. I thought of Eugene at the time as fairly clean—nothing like the industrial centers of the East.

We were all oblivious to dangers such as exposure to lead from gasoline fumes and the solder in the joints of our water pipes. We'd never heard of secondhand smoke. Like thousands of other children, I liked to see my toes wiggle in the Xray machine in the shoe store, knowing nothing of how unsafe these machines were. We weren't aware of the excessive doses of dental X-rays used at the time, or of the dangers of the mercury amalgam fillings in our mouths.

Parents kept warning us to stay away from the nearby Willamette River, which was then grossly polluted from the untreated local sewage that flowed into it. Refuse at the lumber mills was burned in so-called wigwam burners, producing wood smoke that we now know was full of carcinogens. And pulp mills were built later that sent sulfurous fumes into the wind. The late summer skies were clotted with choking smoke as farmers burned seed-grass fields following harvests to kill insects.

Pollution was not the biggest environmental problem that I then understood. Bothering me most were the little red slivers from the bark of the Douglas fir cordwood for our furnace, which would get painfully lodged in my hands when I stacked the wood in our basement. I also learned the hard way that the brush in the surrounding hills was filled with poison oak, which severely blistered my skin when I touched it. We were warned about rattlesnakes in the hills, but I saw one only once. Somewhere out there were mountain lions as well, but the only ones I ever saw were dead ones brought in by a bounty hunter. And before the flood control reservoirs were built, the Willamette and its tributaries frequently pushed out onto their floodplains, rampaging across neighborhoods in their path.


From an early age, work was part of my life. In my parochial school, children at about age nine were asked to sell Christmas stamps to neighbors after school. Since my nearest neighbors were sorority houses near the campus, I went to them. I was treated like a pet and taken from floor to floor, where the girls would cry out "man on second" and "man on third" and laugh. I didn't know why, but I sold lots of stamps. The following year I sold the Saturday Evening Post door to door to our other neighbors.

When I reached age eleven, I was expected to go into the fields with the other youngsters to pick string beans in the summertime. After the war, with labor still scarce, farmers relied on child labor. It was hot, backbreaking, stoop labor, and I was bad at it. I got a rash from the beanstalks, and my meager yield dropped quickly. By the third day I quit; I knew I was not suited to be a fieldworker.

The next year I got a job delivering newspapers to homes after school, and I stayed with that for five years, until the age of seventeen. We delivery boys rode around our routes on bicycles, tossing the rolled-up papers onto front porches.

Shortly after I began, the newspaper—the Eugene Register-Guard—asked us to deliver the papers to each door, forcing us to get off our bicycles repeatedly. I thought this unreasonable—unless we were paid a lot more. The work would take us twice as long, I argued. When management refused to pay more, I organized a wildcat strike by all of the delivery boys. After a three-hour standoff, management capitulated; no more was heard of "doorknob delivery." I was only twelve at the time.

On Sunday mornings, we had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to deliver the papers by 7:00 a.m. Afterward, some of us would gather at an all-night cafe to get cocoa and toast and wonder who the bleary-eyed characters sitting next to us were. Occasionally, I filled in on other jobs at the newspaper, handling the switchboard one summer for a while. I got to know many of the writers and editors, including one who became a federal judge.

The hardest job I ever had (that I stuck with) was stacking cans in a cannery where string beans and other vegetables were processed. My father had worked there and got me in. I did it one summer during high school and two more during college. My task was to stack restaurant-size, number 10 cans in the storage vaults in the basement, in endless rows, to a height of about six feet. This meant bending up and down for ten hours a day, six days a week—sometimes even on Sunday. Occasionally, when a defective can would explode, I would have to take the whole stack down to find the spoiled can, clean up the mess, and build the row all over again.

Once in a while, I would get a break and be transferred for the day to some other task. The hardest was unloading boxcars in the afternoon heat; at least the storage basement was cool. I spent a day with a fellow weighing huge casks filled with maraschino cherries that were curing in a putrid solution. These five-hundred-pound casks could easily get away from you and crush a bone.

The most enlightening respite was a day operating the labeling machine. We were given an assortment of cans with the same ingredients and were told to put labels on them—some for the cheaper kind of Blue Lake beans, some for the more expensive version. Thus I learned that you don't always get what you pay for.

The cannery job taught me what a sweatshop was. Supposedly no one cared, because this was just seasonal work using "temporaries." Some of us were high school and college boys, but others were itinerant laborers. While I knew I could survive hard manual labor at that age, I thought that sixty- to seventy-hour weeks of backbreaking labor were a bit much. In vain, I tried to get the labor union there, a Teamsters affiliate, to do something, but they chose to represent only the interests of the foremen, who were glad that we, rather than they, were doing the worst work. In the end, I wrote an article on the plant's deplorable conditions for the Catholic Worker newspaper. That experience caused me to empathize with those whom labor unions are supposed to represent.

All through high school, I tried to get a job with the Forest Service on the crews that built and repaired trails. This kind of outdoor work appealed to me. When I was sixteen, the minimum age for this work was seventeen. When I was seventeen, it was eighteen. When I was eighteen, I decided I wanted to work as a seasonal ranger for the Park Service instead. But then I discovered that the pay was low and employees had to buy their own uniforms; I could earn more at the cannery, and needed to.

Alas, I never worked a day for a federal agency—except for a brief holiday stint in Boston for the Post Office. During a snowstorm, I kept doggedly delivering mail because I took seriously the motto that "the mail must go through," and I didn't want to appear to be a softie. Everyone else quit in that blizzard, but I didn't stop until my supervisor came out to get me and bring me in.


The town of Eugene offered various entertainments to fascinate a child. The premier event was a pageant that was staged periodically at the county fairgrounds to celebrate the pioneers who had settled the country. Old Cal Young, who was born in a pioneer's cabin, led a parade of townspeople dressed in pioneer costumes. And on campus, every fall for Homecoming, the fraternity and sorority members put colorful displays on their lawns and lit a huge bonfire.

The campus at the time was a marvelous playground for kids. I watched WPA workers dig trenches for tunnels to hold steam pipes to heat the university. I dug fossils out of the shale of excavations for university buildings. I spied on ROTC students who were trying to disguise themselves with camouflage in the nearby woods as World War II began. My friends and I learned to climb along narrow ledges on the sides of university buildings and clamber up and over them.

I couldn't resist the lure of college football games played only blocks from where I lived. Lots of us boys who couldn't afford to pay found ways to sneak in. Because mounted sheriff patrols waited to intercept us as we scaled the fences, we developed strategies to outwit them. We would avoid the places where they were concentrated, and then we'd pour over the fences in great numbers and scatter. There were too many of us for them to run us all down, and we enjoyed many good games sitting near the fifty-yard line in the bleachers.

We also were drawn to the river's edge in the summertime. Though it was polluted and going there was forbidden, it was too much to resist. There were beaches, lagoons, and hobo jungles. To get there we had to cross the highway and the train tracks, dodge trucks that were working in a sand and gravel plant, and skirt the gas works, but it was worth it. A friend and I turned an old mixing box for concrete into a scow that we paddled through the lagoons. We waded into the current and played in the sand. On the way back—if trains were coming—we would flatten pennies by putting them on the train tracks.

I did worry about some hazards. As I rode my bike to school along the main avenues, I worried when overloaded log trucks would pass me. Would I ever be crushed by logs falling off these trucks? Probably there was a greater danger that the truck drivers might not see me.

Every summer my parents took our family to the beach just south of Waldport, on the central Oregon coast. Summer after summer, we played on Big Stump Beach, and I developed a love of strolling these wide beaches, which I still enjoy. One time, a friend of my father's took us out into Alsea Bay to go crabbing. I was carefully instructed in how to safely pick the crabs out of the nets as they were pulled aboard—"pick them up from the rear," I was told. By the end of that day, I thought I had it all figured out. But when I was helping my mother put our crabs into the pot at the cabin, I got careless, and one got my thumb between his big claws. I still have that scar.


Excerpted from In the Thick of It by J. Michael McCloskey. Copyright © 2005 J. Michael McCloskey. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael McCloskey recently retired as Chairman of the Sierra Club, but remains active on behalf of national environmental issues. He is currently a trustee of the Sierra Club Foundation and has recently served as President of the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs.

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