Green spaces, fresh faces

Meet a few of the folks making a splash in the local environmental realm

Laurie Niles kneels amongst the broccoli and kale at the Jesus Center Farm.

Laurie Niles kneels amongst the broccoli and kale at the Jesus Center Farm.

photo by meredith J. cooper

The CN&R has long been committed to writing about environmentalism, both locally and nationally. Readers see this each week in the pages of the paper, which features a weekly sustainability section, Greenways. This year, on the run-up to Earth Day, next Wednesday, April 22, we decided to introduce readers to some fresh faces in our region's green-minded community. While their environmental disciplines vary—from birds and watersheds, to food and activism—the four people profiled in these pages share a passion for the natural environment and conservation. And that's something to be celebrated and emulated in our fast-paced, consumption-driven world.

Be sure to also keep your eyes peeled for some of the other environmentally themed stories throughout this annual Green Issue. Happy Earth Month!

Seeds of love

Laurie Niles

Growing food is in Laurie Niles’ blood. Her father grew up on a small family farm, which is where she got her first taste of home-grown fruits and veggies. But it wasn’t until later in life, while working at Planned Parenthood in Chico, that she decided to make it her focus.

“I would watch what young people came in with for lunch—it was called a Slurpee—and I wondered, ‘How is this happening? How do you consider this lunch?’”

Further investigation, particularly at local schools, revealed that there was much to be done to increase awareness of good, wholesome foods as well as to introduce people to the idea of gardening.

“The interest is finally catching on,” she said during a recent interview at the Jesus Center Farm, one of almost a dozen she helps manage in Butte County. Niles is employed by the GRUB Education Program, which she’ll be co-directing starting next month, when current director Stephanie Elliott moves out of town. The community gardens are part of a program run by Cultivating Community North Valley, in partnership with GRUB, and block grants pay for things like tools and equipment as well as help with organization and workshops.

Workshops help people with skills such as canning, drying and composting to avoid food waste. They also teach how to use tools, irrigation techniques, which crops to choose and even how to cook them. “We made sauerkraut out of just-harvested cabbage,” she said of a recent gathering.

“The workshops have really helped increase interest [in gardening],” Niles said, explaining that many people are at first intimidated by the fact that they’ve never done it before. “People assume that they can’t grow food because they don’t know how, but I don’t think gardening is a skill we’re born with—it’s something you have to learn.”

Niles not only works at community gardens—everywhere from the Jesus Center Farm to the Jarvis Senior Gardens on Notre Dame Boulevard to African American Family & Cultural Center garden in Oroville—she also helps organize them. The idea is that each community garden will be sustainable, and that means gathering enough support to run them using volunteers. All community members are encouraged to volunteer, she said.

At the Jesus Center Farm, which is a little different from the others, Jesus Center clients are offered the chance to work as interns in exchange for pay and job experience.

“This garden really gives the Barber Neighborhood more of a sense of place,” said farm Manager Jim Mathys.

Niles agreed that, mostly because of Mathys, the Jesus Center Farm has worked more on community-building than some of the other gardens. That’s part of the beauty of having many hands and skillsets involved, she said, because volunteers can learn from Mathys’ and others’ experiences.

Starting this year, thanks to a renewed block grant through CCNV, Niles also is working with local schools in Chico and Paradise, bringing her full-circle to where her inspiration first sprouted. And she’s not showing signs of slowing down anytime soon—she’s also working on starting a Chico chapter of Slow Food USA.

To learn more about CCNV, including information on upcoming events and volunteering at a community garden, log onto

–Meredith J. Cooper

Lucas RossMerz and his dog Chaco pose on the banks of the Sacramento River.

photo courtesy of lucas rossmerz

Like father, like son

Lucas RossMerz

Lucas RossMerz has a passion for the outdoors, and, more specifically, the river that runs right through this region. And he wants to share it with residents of the North State.

“Once you get people to touch it—even if they just go and stand on the shore of the river—they’ll understand that it’s a special place. They’ll see an osprey; they’ll see a blue heron; they’ll see a river otter. It’s not just some pretty thing we need to protect. It’s actually a functioning ecosystem that provides us benefits that we can’t even calculate.”

RossMerz is the executive director of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, having taken over the position from his father, John Merz, at the beginning of last year. The elder Merz, a longtime local environmentalist, helped establish the trust in 1984, three years before his son was born.

The trust’s mission, according to its website, “is to protect, preserve, and enhance the natural values of the Sacramento River” between Chico and Red Bluff. Those values include recreational offerings, commercial fishing, agriculture and overall beauty. While it relies mostly on dues-paying members for its financial support, the trust also receives some grant money as well as assistance from local businesses.

RossMerz, whose last name includes that of his mother, John’s wife, Carole Ross, was born and raised in Chico and has a bachelor’s degree in environmental management and protection from California Polytechnic State University. He said what he’s emphasized and brought to the forefront since taking over the trust is the promotion of eco-tourism.

“The missing piece when I came on was the selling of experiential expression and passion,” he said during a recent interview in the trust’s Flume Street office.

A sturdy, confident fellow who’s seldom at a loss for words, RossMerz said he also has brought a sense of organization to the trust via modern-day technology.

“My dad didn’t have a cellphone,” he said. “I have a smartphone, so I get emails directly into my pocket—all day, every day. Organizing the information and data in the office allows for me to get hit by a bus tomorrow and then someone else can come in here and figure everything out.”

RossMerz has ambitious plans for the organization. He’s set a goal to raise at least $80,000 over the next year so the trust can hire a program manager and a full-time office manager.

“I want to get the board involved so I don’t have to micromanage,” he said. “The organization is all about trust. People trust us to give a voice to the Sacramento River and we have to trust that in the end every dollar we spend is going toward our mission.”

RossMerz said he is grateful for his father and to have grown up in a community like Chico, where the father and son spent “fun evenings together at City Council and irrigation district meetings.”

“I was raised by someone who knows the political environment very well,” he said. “And I feel like I’m super blessed to be part of the Chico village. I appreciate all the people who have pulled me aside to talk about issues and filled me in on different strategies and approaches.”

Despite the fact that the river and its inhabitants, including the salmon, face ongoing struggles, RossMerz remains hopeful and committed to helping the watershed through his work.

“In the time I’m here, I’d like to see the trust grow into a well-oiled, functioning nonprofit machine that gives the Sacramento River the voice it deserves.”

–Tom Gascoyne

Going grebes

Kate Brice’s transformation from city kid to nature lover was spurred by a bird.

photo by ken smith

Kate Brice

They say you always remember your first love. This is true for Kate Brice, who instantly recalls a chance encounter six years ago that changed her life forever. The object of her immediate, and lasting, affection was a rose-breasted grosbeak.

“I was living in Milwaukee and going to school there,” recalled Brice, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side and now lives in Magalia. “We lived near the river and put up a bird feeder, and that’s when I started noticing birds. [The grosbeak] is a migratory bird, and I’d never seen anything like it. It’s red and white and black and absolutely gorgeous.

“Being a city kid, sometimes you don’t realize just how beautiful nature is.”

From that moment on, Brice fell further and further into the world of birding. When she and her partner, Derek Dunn, moved to Butte County a year and a half ago, one of their first objectives was to join Altacal Audubon Society, the local chapter of the international organization of bird advocates. Last summer, Brice volunteered to be part of the Grebe Project, a study that Altacal has conducted in cooperation with the California departments of Water and Fish and Wildlife since 2004 that monitors a migratory breeding colony of Western and Clark’s grebes (pronounced with a long “e” as in “greens”) at Thermalito Afterbay. She now serves as that project’s coordinator.

Brice explained that grebes are a species of waterbird that winters along the Pacific Coast and flies inland to breed during the winter months. The birds are known for their floating nests and elaborate courtship dances, which include rubbing necks, synchronized head-bobbing and dashing across the top of the water—a talent Brice noted the grebes share with very few other animals, most notably the basilisk, or Jesus lizard.

“Grebes are very tied to water, and that makes them vulnerable for a number of reasons,” Brice said. “They can’t walk on land well, and they’re not even very strong flyers, so they aren’t good at avoiding oil spills and other pollution. The current drought also threatens inland lakes where they come to breed.”

Brice said the grebes at the Themalito Afterbay are fortunate because water levels are kept consistent there, but drought and other water issues have directly affected other grebe destinations, such as Clear Lake and Eagle Lake, where diminished food supplies of small fish and decreasing shoreline space threaten their ability to raise chicks. Drought also may affect them in other ways.

A pair of Western grebes run across the top of the water, part of their unique courtship dance.

photo courtesy of patty megann/flickr

“The grebes had a very good year last year, but we had an eruption of white-faced ibis there, which was surprising because there are no records of it happening before,” Brice said. “All of a sudden there were several thousand of them one day. We were afraid they would compete with the grebes, but it all worked out all right.”

She said the Grebe Project has always relied on volunteers, and she is working on shifting the program to be even more of “a citizen science project.” To that end, she’s been recruiting more volunteers at Butte College, where she is currently studying biology and natural resources, and through outreach at public events. She also is holding training sessions at Altacal’s Chico office, the next of which is scheduled for Saturday (April 18) at 11 a.m.

Altacal’s other conservation projects include efforts to help bank swallows, whose nesting grounds along Northern California’s waterways are threatened by artificial hardening of river banks and other development, and the monitoring of Northern saw-whet owls at Chico State’s Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve and Butte Creek Ecological Preserve. The group also recently launched a Neighborhood Habitat Certification program to encourage local residents to plant drought-resistant, bird-friendly gardens.

For more information about Altacal’s conservation projects and other information of interest to bird fans, check out

—Ken Smith

Campus watchdog

San Diego ex-pat Kaitlin Haley fell in love with Chico’s sense of community while visiting a friend.

photo by howard hardee

Kaitlin Haley

Friends warn Kaitlin Haley that she’s becoming a “crusty” environmental activist due to some of her behaviors, like hawkishly watching whether students use the correct trash receptacles on Chico State’s campus.

“Sometimes, I’ll sit by the trash cans outside the dining area and I’ll watch people. There’s compost, recycling and landfill. It’s a game I play—tally whether they do it right, because there’s a sign and it’s so blatant,” she said, exasperated. “There’s no ambiguity in the sign!”

As Haley’s academic career at Chico State winds down—she’ll graduate this spring with a degree in cultural anthropology and a double minor in managing for sustainability and environmental studies—the 26-year-old is increasingly frustrated with the apathetic attitudes most of her 16,000-or-so peers display toward the environment. Especially since, over the past three years, Haley has been hyper-involved on campus and in the community, serving as the Associated Students’ zero-waste coordinator, sitting on multiple committees, working as garden coordinator for Butte Environmental Council and playing a key role in Chico State’s commitment to divest from fossil fuels.

Originally from San Diego, Haley initially gravitated to animal rights issues, familiarizing herself with the horrors of factory farming by reading books on the subject, including Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which opened her eyes to the “environmental destruction that comes from Big Ag.” Her interest in broader environmental issues catalyzed from there, and she sold her car to become a full-time bike commuter.

Haley transferred to Chico State from Mira Costa College after visiting a friend in Chico and going to the Saturday morning farmers’ market.

“The sense of community here I knew was important,” she said. “In San Diego—the community there, well, there’s no such thing. That’s why I chose to go to school here.”

After making the move, Haley was hired as BEC’s garden coordinator and subsequently immersed herself in the local food movement and campus government, including running the A.S. Environmental Affairs Council. She believes her greatest accomplishment to date is helping bring a ballot measure to students during last year’s A.S. elections asking whether the university should divest from fossil fuels.

“For a school so rooted in sustainability that prides itself for being a sustainable campus, it seemed a little backward that it was profiting from the wreckage of the planet,” she said.

The measure passed with 80 percent of the vote last April, and in December the University Foundation board of governors voted to cease all new investments in oil and coal companies. The board also voted to liquidate the school’s holdings in mutual funds whose investments support such companies.

As for her career after graduation, Haley wants to help change how society handles its waste, likely from within the trash industry. Specifically, she’d like to work for a waste-hauling company with a zero-waste goal.

“Trash seems like a neutral way to go,” she explained. “When you talk about climate change, there are people who still don’t believe in it and will shut off if you got on a rant. Trash is something everyone, at least in my mind, should be able to relate to. … Nobody likes walking through town or campus and seeing trash in the creek.”

—Howard Hardee