Four decades and thriving

Butte Environmental Council marks its fourth decade of existence

Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, says the 40-year-old organization is in solid financial shape after a couple of lean years.

Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, says the 40-year-old organization is in solid financial shape after a couple of lean years.

Photo by brittany waterstradt

Forty years ago this month a group called the Butte Environmental Cooperative put out its first monthly newsletter to announce its formation. The cooperative was made up of five environmentally based groups—the Sierra Club, the Northstate Wilderness Committee, the Community Garden Project, the Student Environmental Collective and Forces to Restore Earth’s Environment.

“Dear Friends,” the newsletter began. “An effort has been made since the beginning of the year to bring all environmentalists, ecology groups, and eco-freaks in Butte County a little closer together.”

Today, the Butte Environmental Council (the name was changed to meet state tax-law requirements) is still alive, active and effective after surviving a couple of financial hits that almost closed its doors. The organization is best known these days for its efforts in educating the public about water issues, hydraulic fracturing, dioxin contamination in South Oroville and saving trees throughout Butte County.

“I’m turning 40 this year, too,” said Robyn DiFalco, who was appointed executive director in 2012, during a recent interview in her office. “It’s interesting. Here I am, the next generation carrying on the legacy that was inspired by a group of young people back in 1975.”

DiFalco said she first became aware of BEC when she came here to attend Chico State in 1993 and became commissioner of the Associated Students Environmental Affairs Council.

“There was just a bit of involvement through that,” she said. “I was mostly aware of them because of things like the Endangered Species Faire and the Bidwell Park Clean Up.”

DiFalco took over as executive director of BEC after some tumultuous years—including 2011, when it came close to shutting down because of financial problems stemming from a lawsuit that tied up the organization’s money. There were also personnel issues. In 2009, longtime Executive Director Barbara Vlamis, who’d served since 1992, stepped down after a falling out with the board of directors. She was replaced by co-directors until 2011, when one quit and the other was laid off.

“BEC’s finances were pretty grim and the board determined that they needed to lay off the leadership because they couldn’t afford to pay them anymore,” DiFalco said. “Part of the reason was so much of BEC’s funds were tied up in litigation with the Department of Water Resources.”

The lawsuit claimed that the California Drought Water Bank had made water transfers without proper environmental review. BEC won the case and eventually got some of its money back.

“We needed to rebuild the organization with those funds,” DiFalco said. “At the time people wondered, ‘Should they just shut the doors and throw in the towel? But instead people stepped up and said, ‘Nope, let’s save this thing. It’s too important. There is a legacy that we should be carrying on.’”

One of the people DiFalco credits with helping save BEC is former Chico City Councilman and Mayor Michael McGinnis, one of BEC’s founders. In 1975, he was the director of Forces to Restore Earth’s Environment. He’d graduated from Chico State by then, but took a few classes to qualify for a student loan, which served as an income while he worked to set up BEC for no pay. He was also BEC’s first executive director.

BEC’s founding mission was to bring to the public “a general awareness of concepts of ecology.” By 1976, it moved into a building with a warehouse at Cherry and Seventh streets, where it purchased—with a $50,000 state grant—a flatbed truck, as well as cardboard and newspaper bailing machines, and got into the recycling business. Every Saturday the public would bring in their recyclables and socialize with BEC workers while doing something that made them feel good about themselves—helping save the world one recycled can, bottle or newspaper at a time.

That lasted about 12 years, until a state law was passed forcing local governments to start recycling programs. The city entered into contracts with local waste disposal companies to divert recyclables from the county landfill. BEC could not compete with companies that offered curbside recycling pickup, and had to give up recycling and focus on its other programs, including park and creek cleanups, as well as advocacy and education. 

For years, a good part of BEC’s funding came from the city, but that source of money eroded as public support and awareness seemed to decline, dropping from from $17,500 in 1991, to $12,600 in 1994 and $3,800 in 1996. That source of financing ended in 1997, the same year BEC joined a local pilot’s organization in a lawsuit that named the Chico City Council as defendants. The suit, which was eventually dismissed, charged that the council was allowing too much residential growth near the Chico Municipal Airport.

DiFalco said today’s strong board of directors, competent staff and annual dues from an 800-plus membership association, along with grants and community funding events, have put the organization into a solid financial standing.

McGinnis, who is now executive director for ARC, praises DiFalco for her intelligence, hard work ethic and a “sense of energy that gets things done.”

“It’s a good group,” he said. “They have a strong advocacy agency and are still doing environmental education. Without education and outreach you can’t do advocacy. BEC’s become really well-versed in those two things—advocating for the environment in Butte County and doing things locally that also affect us on a statewide level.”