Living in the heart of the Sierra Nevada’s historic gold country, Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin sees years of work ahead, bringing awareness to the toxic legacy left behind from abandoned mines.
“I’m just getting good at it,” said the chief executive officer of The Sierra Fund.
Martin has a big task ahead of her. She believes environmental degradation — like the kind that happened 150 years ago in the Sierra Nevada — will continue globally until it’s proven to be a bad idea.
But trying to save the world is nothing new for Martin. For more than 30 years, Martin has remained an environmental advocate, fighting for basic rights like clean soil and water in the Californian communities in which she has lived.
Besides working with state and federal agencies to clean up old mines, she worked to promote sustainable farming practices for 20 years, led the state fight to get Wild and Scenic status for the South Yuba River and secured millions of state dollars for conservation and jobs in the Sierra Nevada and Nevada County.
On Saturday, Martin will be recognized for her years of conservation service when Bear Yuba Land Trust honors her with the William Nickerl Award for Conservation Leadership during an annual celebration known as the Oak Tree Ball. The award is given to local conservation innovators who have inspired others with their leadership.
“From a rural farm to the halls of the Capitol, Izzy brings a wealth of experience to accomplish great things for Sierra communities and landscapes,” said Steve Rothert, California Regional Director of American Rivers.
From a young age
The youngest of four, Martin grew up camping and backpacking in Yosemite. She took note of her parents who read books like Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Her mother regularly encouraged her to make a difference in the world.
“We were taught from a very young age to do service,” she said.
Martin grew up on a walnut farm in Concord. She comes from a long line of Quakers, is a fifth-generation Californian and her great-grandfather was born on a houseboat in the Delta. Water and land are central themes of her life.
“I’ve always been interested in water and how it sustains the land,” she said.
There was a lot of idealism in the household she grew up in. A conservation path, a path of service came naturally for Martin.
She remembers in 1970 when she was 13, participating with crowds of people in San Francisco streets during the first Earth Day walk.
In 1979, she graduated from University of Califoria, Davis with a degree in environmental policy and analysis.
Soon she was working with small family farmers and farm workers in a two-decade commitment promoting pesticide-free sustainable agriculture.
Martin was the founding executive director of the California Agrarian Action Project in 1980, later renamed the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. She developed the California Institute for Rural Studies program to support organic farmers and worked with people poisoned by pesticides. She helped draft and pass several pieces of legislation that protected rural communities from pesticides.
She married a farmer and lived on a 33-acre organic farm in Penn Valley.
“It was always about the environment,” she said.
In the 1990s, Martin worked in administration and project development for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation for five years before her election to Nevada County’s Board of Supervisors as a write-in candidate. While a county supervisor, Martin led the fight in the state legislature to put the South Yuba River into the state’s wild and scenic river program.
It was during that time that Martin learned of a century’s worth of mercury-laced sediment built up behind the Englebright Dam. Thus began her era of mercury remediation work, a project she continues to devote “all day, every day” to.
“Izzy is a brilliant, proven advocate for the Yuba watershed at all levels of government,” said Caleb Dardick, executive director of South Yuba River Citizens League. “Most of all she is smart, caring, and works tirelessly for the people and places in our community.”
In 2004, Martin led the successful advocacy effort to persuade the California State legislature to establish the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, working with Assemblymen John Laird and Tim Leslie. That same year she became CEO of The Sierra Fund, an organization started to bring money and investment to the iconic yet often overlooked and underfunded Sierra Nevada.
Laird, now California’s Secretary for Natural Resources, is a former board member of The Sierra Fund.
Since first heading up the organization, Martin has helped to develop more than $80 million in state funds for conservation in Sierra Nevada communities.
“Izzy has demonstrated again and again the type or sustained leadership that is critical to address problems in the Sierra. She is not afraid to reach out to diverse interests and takes on seemingly intractable issues leading with creative solutions, and a sense of humor,” said Elizabeth Soderstrom, senior director of development for American Rivers.
State funding such as Proposition 50 helped establish the eight-mile-long Tribute Trail, a popular access route in Nevada City following Deer Creek. Martin and The Sierra Fund staff played a part in ensuring the multi-use trail located near abandoned mines such as Providence and Champion was safe for public use.
In November, Martin’s state capitol connections helped secure $3.2 million in funding from the California River Parkways Grant Program to continue work on the Tribute Trail and helped Bear Yuba Land Trust to acquire 2,706 acres known as Rice’s Crossing on the Middle Yuba River. This land will open eight river miles for public recreation. Unlike the Tribute Trail, the history of Rice’s Crossing is relatively clean of mining activity, making it a good example of a “totally appropriate” land acquisition for public parks and trails, Martin said.
Over the span of her career, Martin has come to realize that it’s not just about protecting the environment for the environment’s sake. Her work benefits the people who live, work and play in the community she calls home, a place where she raised two children and resides with her husband, Dr. Greg Taylor, a geophysics professor at California State University, Chico.
“If we don’t care about the people, we’re not going to care about the river otters. I think we’re all related in that way. It’s our job to be stewards,” Martin said.
Learn more about Bear Yuba Land Trust’s Oak Tree Ball at: http://www.bylt.org.
Laura Brown is a local freelance writer.