Leading conservationists are mourning the death of Richard Wilson, a scion of a Southern California family who chose to live his life out on the remote Buck Mountain Ranch in northeastern Mendocino County.
Wilson, the son of a prominent Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon, grew up in Pasadena and attended the exclusive Thacher School in Ojai and Dartmouth University on the East Coast. Wilson later used his connections and his family’s allegiance to old-school Republican Party leaders to stop the damming of the Eel River at Round Valley and to promote stricter logging regulations after being appointed director of the California Department of Forestry.
Wilson died Aug. 16, and after a celebration of his life at the Our Lady of Queen of Peace Catholic Chapel in Covelo, he was buried alongside his late wife Susan Valentine Wilson, and a beloved son Richard Alexander Wilson Jr. at a family cemetery on Buck Mountain. Word of the senior Wilson’s death has been quietly circulating among conservationists, government officials, and close friends.
Wilson would have turned 90 on Wednesday of this week, said his daughter, Sarah Wilson. She grew up in Round Valley and now lives in Santa Cruz with her family. Sarah Wilson said since last February she had been with her father at the Buck Mountain Ranch where he passed “quietly and with dignity.”
“It was very peaceful. My brother and I, and his oldest granddaughter and his youngest grandson were with him.”
Sarah Wilson said she was especially close to her father because she was in grammar school when her mother Susan died. “Dad was an exceptional man. I understood him on many levels, including personal, family, and professional.” Sarah Wilson said she attended boarding school in Ojai while her father lived in Sacramento when he was Gov. Pete Wilson’s CDF director.
“Buck Mountain and Round Valley were always the center of our lives,” said Sarah Wilson.
Richard Wilson’s blueblood background did not often show itself.
Wilson’s jeans were worn and his shirts sometimes sweat-stained. He sported a farmer’s tan because he spent most of his time outdoors, either high on the mountain or on the farm in Covelo where he and his wife Susan Valentine Wilson lived while their four children went to school in Round Valley.
Wilson, however, tapped into his patrician Southern California background and friendships that went all the way to the state Capitol in Sacramento and onto the White House. His connections proved formidable when he joined forces with the local native population to stop the damming of the Eel River at Dos Rios and the flooding of Round Valley. It is home to one of the geographically largest reservations in California, a remote and wildly beautiful place with a dark history after the first white settlers arrived in the mid-19th century. Newcomers seized the valley’s best lands, and the federal government ordered the round-up of members of five individual tribes forcing them to live together on reservation lands north of Covelo.
Wilson’s family first arrived in Mendocino County in the late 1940s, a century after the upheaval of native culture and the onset of violence that still haunts the community today. His father bought the Buck Mountain ranch as a retreat in the 1940s. Richard Wilson persuaded then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1969 to scuttle a planned state water project that would flood one of the most beautiful valleys in the state.
Richard Wilson and his wife Susan married in 1955 and decided to live on the mountain and expand the family’s Mendocino County ranch holdings. Karen Schilder Keehn, a Ukiah native and Stanford University classmate of Susan’s had married into Mendocino County’s legendary Crawford timber family, and their son Billy Crawford helped the Wilsons figure out how to make timber cutting on Buck Mountain profitable while utilizing sustainable logging practices.
From his personal experiences on Buck Mountain, Richard Wilson became one of California’s leading conservationists, and eventual head of the state Department of Forestry (now CalFire) from 1991-1999 under then Gov. Pete Wilson.
Richard Wilson advocated stringent forest practices at the state level to the chagrin of corporate timber bosses. He engaged in monumental political battles with big timber executives like Harry Merlo and Texas financier Charles Hurwitz. Internal Louisiana Pacific Corp. documents leaked in the 1990s showed Merlo had ordered the level of cut on the company’s vast tract of Mendocino County timberlands at the rate of three times growth. Hurwitz sharply escalated the pace of logging after his high-profile 1986 takeover of venerable Pacific Lumber Co. in neighboring Humboldt County, grabbing an estimated $2 billion in timber profits out of the region before bankrupting the company 20 years later. About 440,000 acres of Pacific Lumber and the former L-P lands are now owned and managed by Mendocino and Humboldt Redwood Companies, an investment arm of the Fisher family of San Francisco.
Richard Wilson’s efforts to convince Reagan to block the construction of the Dos Rios Dam project and his advocacy of more stringent logging practices firmly established his legacy statewide as a leading conservationist. But those efforts were just two among others.
Wilson fought hard against a plan for a timeshare subdivision plan across 8,500 acres called ‘My Ranch’ at Dos
Rios, a fight that pitted neighbors against each other and fueled a legendary land use battle in front of the county Board of Supervisors.
Wilson also brought famed horticulturist Alan Chadwick to Covelo and helped him establish a center for organic and biodynamic farming. Chadwick only stayed five years, but Wilson continued to help the Live Power Farm, which is now operated by former Chadwick students Gloria and Steve Decater.
Stephanie and Chris Tebbutt, operators of Filigreen Farms in Anderson Valley, were students of Chadwick, and they have remained longtime friends of Richard Wilson. They worked closely with Wilson on forestry issues while he was state forestry chief.
“Richard was a classic blueblood Republican with traditional values. He was among a generation of Americans who made our democracy the greatest in the world,” said Chris Tebbutt.
But unlike today’s GOP leaders, Tebbutt said Wilson stuck to his core values and used them for the benefit of his family, his community, and the state.
“The likes of Richard Wilson are few and far between,” said Tebbutt. Sarah Wilson cited her late father’s mantra about how people should live and work the land: “Tread with care.”