Sacramento Riverkeeper

Longtime president of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust steps down

John Merz in the Sacramento River Preservation Trust office in Chico.

John Merz in the Sacramento River Preservation Trust office in Chico.

PHOTO by karen laslo

Merz roast:
John Merz's retirement party and roast will be held at Sierra Nevada's Big Room on Saturday, July 21, at 6 p.m. Email to RSVP. Tickets are $25.

After nearly three decades as president of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, tenaciously dedicated environmentalist John Merz is stepping down from his position. But his retirement won’t entail moving to Florida and investing in a wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts.

“I’ve never understood how people could even do that,” Merz said during an interview at his office. “Chico is my home and there are no plans to change that, ever. This is a very special place.”

Since he settled in Chico in 1974, that passion for his community has fueled Merz through countless board meetings, hearings and court proceedings regarding of a host of environmental issues. In the words of his longtime friend and fellow activist Kelly Meagher, “There is no truer defender of the regional environment. He’s one of the most dedicated people I’ve met in my life, and he’s never wavered. His legacy will live on for generations.”

Merz, who currently sits on the Chico Planning Commission, managed the Butte Environmental Council in the early 1980s, served as a board member on the Chico Area Park and Recreation District, co-founded the Snow Goose Festival and has been an “eternally vigilant” community activist, Meager said.

But his most notable work has come as leader of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, an organization he founded and that he believes has helped “turn the tide” for the improvement of the valley’s riparian habitat.

“Our major accomplishment has been changing the nature of the conversation so people really do regard a living river system as something of value and worthy of protection,” he said. “There’s always work to be done, there will always be issues, but the Sacramento River is a much more viable ecosystem now than when we started.”

The trust was formed in 1983 in response to a proposal from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State Reclamation Board, which were in favor of riprapping every bend in the river between Sacramento and Red Bluff to prevent erosion that could compromise the flood control system downstream. Riprapping, which involves stripping vegetation away from the riverbanks and replacing it with rock, often has unforeseen ecological consequences, Merz said. The trust successfully sued the State Reclamation Board for improper environmental review, ultimately stopping the project entirely.

“Our lawsuit added impetus, but it also let us know we really needed to get organized, so the trust was born of that as a private nonprofit,” he said.

Merz said the trust has since been instrumental in the resurgence of salmon in the Sacramento River, particularly spring- and winter-run chinook salmon, and a riparian ecosystem with “real legs under it now.” He admits his levelheaded demeanor has helped him navigate the political maze associated with environmental activism.

“When you’re yelling at somebody, they’re probably not hearing what you have to say,” Merz said. “I’ve raised my voice on more than one occasion, but the issue is not raising your voice, it’s speaking up, period. There aren’t a lot of people speaking for the river, and that’s what the trust has done.”

As for retirement, he plans to maintain roles with the trust and in the community in a limited capacity.

“Retirement isn’t a word I’m entirely comfortable with,” he said. “It’s more of a refocusing for me. I’m stepping away from running the organization. I’m done with all that entails; it just gets kind of old at some stage of life.”

Meagher pointed out that Merz could have gone a different route long ago but felt an obligation to Chico and its environs.

“He and his family made a life choice, because John’s a talented fellow,” he said. “He could have had an excellent job, a nice house and new cars and all that. But he chose not to; he chose this path, and the community of Chico, Butte County and especially the Sacramento River are all better for it.”