BEC’s never-ending fight
The faces change, but the battle to protect the environment rages on
Barbara Vlamis sits in the Second Street office of the Butte Environmental Council trying to distill into words the history, importance and effectiveness of the local environmental organization over the past 30 years.
More specifically, she is asked how it has survived three decades in … “such hostile territory?” she offers, finishing the question for the reporter.
Indeed. BEC operates in a political region represented at the state level by one assemblyman who is a member of a family that owns a rice-farming factory and another who currently has an article in a timber industry magazine decrying environmental obstructionism, a state senator who lauds the word of an “environmental scientist” who says there is no evidence of global warming and a congressman who regularly gets ratings of 0 to 5 for his environmental votes.
Vlamis is a small, thin woman with large green eyes and a youthful face framed by silver-streaked hair that she keeps short. She has an energy and presence of determination not unlike that of Sen. Barbara Boxer. Vlamis has guided BEC as its executive director for nearly half of its existence, taking over the reins in 1991.
“What I always find amusing [is] when I talk with people who are not familiar with the politics in Butte County and they hear about some of the struggles we have in this political atmosphere,” said Vlamis. “They say if we were in the Bay Area, we would be the most milquetoast organization. But here in Butte County we’re seen as this out-there inflammatory activist organization.”
That’s not to say BEC is ineffective. In fact, it is fair to say its aggressive style and success rate are a great source of irritation for those who prefer to see it as a ragtag collection of obstructionist whacko environmentalists.
Among the victories and accomplishments are the recent court victory in establishing federal vernal pool protection and recovery plans in California and Southern Oregon and, more locally, the highly successful and attended 25-year-old Endangered Species Faire and the ongoing biannual Bidwell Park cleanup.
It was also instrumental in the 20-year battle to keep the Bidwell Ranch property open, a victory not realized until this year.
BEC was officially launched Oct. 2, 1975, and in time became powerful, respected and highly visible. For more than a decade, from its former headquarters at Seventh and Cherry streets, BEC maintained the city’s only full-service recycling center, where locals gathered on Saturdays to properly discard the glass, aluminum, cardboard, newspaper, motor oil and old batteries dutifully set aside from the trash bins by the conscientious citizens who knew such material should not go into the county landfill.
BEC had strong connections with the university, as well, providing jobs to students (including the author of this piece) who qualified for work-study funding and maintaining a contract to pick up and recycle the tons of computer paper generated in the school’s offices and recyclable containers purchased by student consumers.
Financially, BEC was always living hand-to-mouth, and did need the occasional bailout from beneficiaries like local activist, and one-time general manager, Kelly Meagher when fund-raising and members’ dues didn’t make ends meet.
In the late ‘80s, as a conservative majority ran the council, BEC city funding was cut off in two different years, but in those days, old timers say, a council snub only fueled greater support from the environmental community.
But a turning point came in 1989, as BEC pulled out of the recycling game and sold its equipment—two cardboard and newspaper bailers and a one-ton flatbed truck affectionately called “Mother”—for $25,000 to North Valley Disposal.
(Still a year later, a survey conducted by the Chico Chamber of Commerce listed BEC as the second-greatest—behind the Chamber—influence on public opinion in Chico.)
The reality was that BEC had to sell, Meagher told this paper a few years ago. A state law forcing local governments to start recycling programs had just passed and the city entered into contracts with local waste disposal companies to divert recyclables from the landfill. BEC could not compete with companies like North Valley, which could offer curbside recycling pickup, and had to give up recycling. But in doing so, some said, BEC lost a vital link to the community.
BEC’s change of profile from its once highly visible store-front on Cherry to its second-floor offices on Second Street reflects how it has changed. Recycling is a positive, high-profile activity; environmental advocacy is a behind-the-scenes, tedious endeavor.
Mark Gailey sat on the BEC board of directors from 1987 to 1998 and saw BEC go through its changes.
“I saw the transition and I know there was a bit of a schism between the old guard and the new,” he said. “Some of the things that happened, I know we agonized over them. Like the selling of the recycling center. There was concern that we couldn’t make it. We had no other money coming in.”
As public support and awareness of BEC seem to declined, so did city funding, which went from $17,500 in 1991, down to $12,600 in 1994 and $3,800 in 1996. The financial plug was finally and permanently pulled in 1997, when BEC filed a lawsuit naming the Chico City Council, the very body that decides whom the city will fund, as defendants. The suit, actually filed by a pilot’s organization and joined by BEC, said the council was allowing too much residential growth near the Chico Municipal Airport.
Gailey said he was also reluctant to make the move but in retrospect saw it as providing a much-needed makeover.
“It made us much more professional instead of a group of longhairs hanging out at a recycling yard.”
He said BEC’s work is important in that it helps make large projects that it cannot stop at least more palatable to the general public.
Steve Evans started with BEC at the very beginning back in October 1975 when he was a college student. He was hired by one of BEC’s five founders, Mike McGinnis, who would go onto become a Chico City Councilmember and mayor. (McGinnis, also once a BEC general manager, was on vacation when this story was put together and could not be reached for input.)
“BEC was going to be this corporate umbrella for all these student groups,” Evans recalled in a telephone interview last week. “It incorporated and opened up a recycling center on Cherry Street and that is where McGinnis hired me.
Evans worked on and off at BEC for the next 10 years. For five months, he said, he lived in an old mining claim on the Salmon River,
“I came back because I didn’t want to freeze my ass off in the mountains,” he explained.
Evans became BEC’s general manager in the late 1970s.
“Because of the ups and downs in the recycling business,” Evans said, “McGinnis had burned out so I was general manager for two years. Then I burned out and we hired John Merz. I held a series of positions like putting out the newsletter. Then, because of the Reagan recession of the early ‘80s, nobody worked there for awhile, except me. And I worked for free while collecting unemployment for about a year.”
As the economics of recycling improved, he said, the big waste management companies got involved and pretty much took it over.
“In the ‘80s we got much more involved in other stuff. I supported the Wilderness Bill in 1984 and we got two wilderness areas near Chico out of it: the Ishi Wilderness Area and Bucks Lake.
“And we got involved in environmental education with things like the Endangered Species Fair and the park cleanup.”
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s we were 90 percent recycling; then we became a real environmental center. That was exciting. By that time recycling had gone mainstream.”
Evans left Chico for Davis in 1988, taking a job with Friends of the River, where he remains today.
Carol Mueller was on the board of directors from 1982 to 1986. For even longer, she served as office manager.
“Oh yeah, I enjoyed working at BEC so much,” she said last week during a phone interview. “It was not really a job because it was more like a part of something you believed in. There was a shared ethic about the things that needed to be done. We all made the same wage from the general manager on down.”
This was at a time when many perceived BEC as that group of nutty longhair obstructionists out to cripple good, old fashioned free-market progress.
“I think a lot of people thought we were nuts,” she said. “We were very social and there were so many events all geared to involve the membership. We held events in the [Bidwell] Park and drank Sierra Nevada beer, met at Five Mile,”
(Speaking of Sierra Nevada Brewery, the daughter of that company’s owner sat on the board between 2002 and 2004.)
“BEC was a very important place,” Mueller said. “The recycling we all know about, but there was also the educational process of getting little kids involved through the schools and then getting them to go home and get their moms and dads to recycle.”
She is convinced she helped make a difference in world for the good.
“All the papers and materials we recycled and sold to keep the place going. I remember sitting on the curb with Steve and watching a semi haul away all of this recycled newspaper and he’d say, ‘Well that’s another breath for the forest.'”