“One thing about winning a prize,” Barney Flynn said. “It gets you going.”
Flynn has been going at a good clip the past couple of weeks, visiting newspaper and television offices up and down the valley for interviews, traipsing out to the Sacramento River for photos, doing everything he can to publicize being named one of the 15 finalists for the Purpose Prize and winning $10,000.
The prize, new this year, was created by San Francisco-based Civic Ventures, a “think tank and program incubator,” and honors “Americans over 60 who are leading a new age of social innovation,” according to a press release. The 15 finalists were selected from among 1,200 nominees.
It’s not that Flynn is seeking accolades. He’s an “aw shucks” kind of guy, and if he’s proud of anything, it’s River Partners, the Chico-based group he co-founded in 1998. He’s running around publicizing the prize because he knows it’s an opportunity to inform more people about what the group is doing to restore river land in the Central Valley.
Flynn, who’s 71 but has the energy of a man half his age, looks like the Irishman his name says he is. He’s a good six feet tall and has sandy hair and fair, freckled skin that he protects by wearing a boatman’s cap outdoors. He lives in Sacramento now, but most of his life has been spent in the North State area.
He says he could have waited until September, when the five winners of the prize—and $100,000 each—will be named, but he figured being named a finalist was enough to get some stories in the papers and on TV.
River Partners is certainly a success story. It has a staff of 14 professionals in its Chico office, which is located in a light-filled building on Vallombrosa Avenue, and five employees in a San Joaquin Valley office in Modesto.
Like many such groups, it got its start almost accidentally. In the 1990s Flynn, a Harvard grad with a master’s from Chico State, and his brother had taken over management of the family almond and prune farm in Gerber, west of Los Molinos.
The Sacramento River, which bordered their 1,500 acres on the west, was threatening to erode their levee. Rather than try to repair it, Flynn decided to try to convert much of the flooded land back to natural habitat—plants and trees adapted to handling flood waters.
He wasn’t sure how to go about it, however. Other groups like The Nature Conservancy had attempted river restoration but with limited success, he explains. Flynn, who among his many jobs over the years had been a computer programmer, decided to combine that skill with his farming knowledge to come up with a system.
He developed a state-of-the-art database that successfully organized large-scale restoration planting following agricultural-irrigation models. He shared his method with John Carlon, a fellow farmer and longtime friend. When they understood that it represented a breakthrough in riparian restoration, they formed Sacramento River Partners, with Carlon as president and Flynn as vice president. (The group dropped the “Sacramento” reference a few years later, when it began doing work on other rivers.)
Unlike most environmental groups, River Partners has a product to sell: river land restoration. It’s got the system, the expertise and even the labor contracts. Though a nonprofit, it runs on a business model, and Flynn says that has given it credibility with farmers, engineering firms, irrigation districts and local governments—its “partners” in river restoration.
River Partners has successfully restored more than 4,000 acres of degraded river land by planting some 500,000 native trees and shrubs along five major rivers in the Great Central Valley.
In the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, near Modesto, River Partners restored 1,361 acres back to quality riparian habitat. As the group was completing the project, researchers confirmed the presence of a nesting pair of Least Bell’s Vireo, an endangered songbird that vanished from the Central Valley 60 years ago.
Recently Flynn gave up his vice presidency at River Partners. These days, he says, he’s focusing, as a member of its board of directors, on long-range policy and development. Otherwise, he’s got a sailboat docked at Benicia, and he enjoys sailing it up into the Delta, studying water flows and riparian habitat and enjoying the wildlife as he does so.