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A fighter for wilderness

Half a century ago, Southern Oregon environmental activist Diane Newell Meyer was working on her master’s degree in environmental science here and learning how to rally the public and politicians to her cause, which eventually led to the creation of Red Buttes, Sky Lakes, Siskiyou and the expansion of the Kalmiopsis wilderness areas.

It was an exciting time for Meyer that began with passage of the Wilderness Act in 1968 — and her taking groups hiking in the French Pete region, east of Eugene, and helping convince Oregon lawmakers to add it to the Three Sisters Wilderness — a move sharply disappointing to logging interests when it finally happened in 1978.

She worked on the Save the Beaches campaign of Republican Gov. Tom McCall, which became law in 1967 and placed all Oregon ocean beaches off-limits for private ownership.

Despite her decades of environmental work, Meyer will likely go down in history for four words — “Make love, not war” — which she wrote and pinned on her sweater in an antiwar demonstration in April 1965, when she was a senior at University of Oregon. The words got in newspaper pictures, including the New York Times, and spread like wildfire across the global counterculture.

In her pioneering antiwar work, done long before it was a national movement, she found Sen. Wayne Morse, also of Eugene, “a boon,” in peace work during the Viatnam War, and she learned to work with politicians and listen to opposing interests, she says.

At one hearing, Meyer overcame her dread of public speaking when, sitting there, she became angry enough to stand up and firmly proclaim the need for wilderness in this world.

“Getting mad is very galvanizing, isn’t it?” she asked.

Meyer and her then-husband, Bill Meyer, arrived in the Rogue Valley in 1971, cutting their environmental teeth fighting proposed development of lower Table Rock in 1973. She took groups hiking on the spectacular natural wonder, educated them, then rallied the Nature Conservancy to the cause — and the organization in 1978 bought the land, saving it for the ages.

They helped extend the Sierra Club into the Northwest, and Meyer became the conservation chair of the Rogue Group, organizing hikes, educational events, letter-writing campaigns, lobbying of politicians at all levels and being the go-to interviewee for journalists writing environmental articles. Meyer became the chair of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Sierra Club, comprising Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and western Canada.

She chaired a regional wilderness conference in 1972, forming volunteers into action groups to save Sky Lakes, Red Buttes, Rogue-Umpqua Divide, Boulder Creek, Rogue, Kalmiopsis, Russian, and Siskiyou wilderness areas, and many other areas in Northern California. Most of these became Wilderness in 1978 or 1984. She also delayed Applegate Dam in 1972 out of concern for the rare Siskiyou salamander.

The Sierra Club sent her to lobbyist training in Washington, D.C., and she developed relationships with Democratic Rep. Jim Weaver, who represented southwest Oregon — and Republican Sen. Bob Packwood, who while conservative, helped create wilderness areas.

“I met Senator Bob Dole and lobbied Sen. Mark Hatfield and made it a point to listen and understand the other side and use it,” said Meyer. “You have to present facts that are incontrovertible. You don’t get a second chance to lobby with the wrong facts.”

It was during these campaigns that Meyer coined a memorable slogan of the environmental movement, “May the Forest be with You,” a send-up from the “Star Wars” film of 1977.

Meyer was born and raised in Portland, where her dad was a sheet-metal worker and introduced her to union politics. She lived in San Francisco’s North Beach in the early, pre-hippie 1960s, reading Herman Hesse and absorbing Zen and the alt-thinking of the waning beat culture.

Meyer worked four years as a botanist and wildlife technician with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, from 1988 to 1992, at one point doing a census of the spotted owl, which “was the best gig of my life,” she notes.

“The summer I spent hooting for the spotted owl made a huge difference in my voice, and I started singing after that, says Meyer, who grew up playing viola, becoming a soprano in Ashland’s Peace Choir and Siskiyou Singers — and was a classical music deejay at KSOR-FM in Ashland for years.

Now 76, Meyer lives in a small Ashland apartment on Social Security and SSI. “With a little help from my friends,” she gets by, she says, and when her old beater died, three friends pitched in and bought her the $2,000 car owned by late artist Harriet Rex Smith. When her laptop rolled over, a friend gave her a new one on the spot.

Beset by a range of health issues, she no longer hikes, but she drives to the backcountry two or three times a week, adding more photos to her online library of some 10,000 shots of area plants and scenes.

“I love the sense of adventure and beauty in nature,” she muses. “There are new things to see every time. I like shooting the same spots in all seasons and posting them on Facebook. Going to the wild is like going home.”

Her regular posts on the environment and “Photos of Me, Pets, Friends and Music” can be viewed on her Facebook page. To see her nature collections, click photos, then albums.

It was in the hard-fought battle to save “the most gorgeous old-growth forest” in French Pete that Meyer began to find her spiritual life in the wild.

“I realized you could love these places, and they needed the highest protection they could get. I fell in love with them. I never found the (human) love of my life, so that was it.

“It came to a head one day in the Trinity Alps. I’d just hiked nine miles and came around this corner and there were three-tiered pristine lakes. A wave came over me and brought me to tears, not just from the beauty but from a sense that everything was OK and was meant to be just the way it is, a sense of wholeness, and I’ve never forgotten it.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected from a previous version. Her work in the Kalmiopsis region helped lead to additions to, not the creation of, the original wilderness area; The hiking groups she led into the French Pete area actually took place in 1968-69; She said that former Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse was “a boon” in the peace effort during the Vietnam War, he was not so on environmental issues; She was a founding member of the Rogue Group, but was its conservation chair, not the head chair of the organization and other environmental organizations actually were active in the area at the time of the Rogue Group’s formation; She was a wildlife technician, not an ornithologist, with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.