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Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve in 1980.

There's no quit in his lifelong efforts to serve, conserve



April 17, 2008


Imperial Beach resident Mike McCoy is a born environmentalist.

His first attempt at activism came at age 7 when his father, a mechanical engineer, was hired to dynamite a marsh near their home in Boulder, Colo. The boy tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade his father to turn down the job. His beloved marsh was destroyed.

“I knew then I should have done something to stop it,” said McCoy, now 66. “I said, 'Never again – never again would I let something like that happen.' ”

And he hasn't. Over the years, McCoy has worked tirelessly to protect patches of undeveloped land in Colorado and San Diego. It's in San Diego that he's had an impact like few others.

The crowning glory of his many conservation efforts was the establishment of the 2,513-acre Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve in 1980.

“The day the estuary became protected, a great weight went off my shoulders,” McCoy said. “There was some question that it would not be protected and would be destroyed forever. It was quite a climax for me to see that it would be protected in perpetuity.”

In 2005, during the estuary's 25th anniversary year, it was designated a “Wetlands of International Importance,” recognized by its size, significance, and efforts to manage and conserve it. It is one of only 22 wetlands sites in the country so honored. McCoy, who was present, called it a defining moment.

McCoy also was instrumental in creating the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association. In 1972, with the Sierra Club, he founded Project Wildlife, a rehabilitation center for injured wild animals.

For his decades of service to the environment, McCoy received the Teddy Roosevelt National Conservation Award in 1990 and the National Wetlands Award, with his wife, Patricia, an Imperial Beach city councilwoman, in 1998.

“You can't imagine how much goes into getting these projects done,” he said, citing name after name of fellow activists. “I was just a smallagent in that. The big part was people coming together. It's the people you work with who make it work.”

That absence of ego and a steely determination to protect the environment are exactly why he's been so successful, said Laura Hunter, Clean Bay Campaign director for the Environmental Health Coalition, an environmental justice organization based in National City.

“Mike has no other agenda than to do the right thing,” Hunter said. “He has an incredible ability to work with everyone, no matter their interests, without compromising his values. The world needs more Mike McCoys.”

Some of his opponents blame the early border and bay conservationist efforts for the precarious financial situation that Imperial Beach is in now.

“I haven't always been in concert with Mike,” said Imperial Beach Councilwoman Jackie Palmer. “My husband (Richard, a former member of the Imperial Beach Planning Commission) believes we would not be in this financial situation if we had been able to develop that land.

“But as time has gone by, I've come to understand that Mike's views were good. Imperial Beach still has a small-town environment, largely due to Mike and Pat's work with the estuary and the bay.”

During his internship at the San Diego Zoo, where he met his wife, McCoy became disillusioned because he felt the zoo should be doing more to preserve native species and educate the public. He no longer feels that way. But at the time, he left to help run the Imperial Beach Pet Hospital. That's when he started Project Wildlife.

“I can't remember a time when I didn't have tremendous respect for animals, wild or domestic,” he said, pointing out the influence of growing up next door to the Roosevelt National Forest. “When I started Project Wildlife, we had trouble finding vets. Not today.”

An incident with an eagle that he brought back to health became a major turning point in his life. He spent months healing the bird, only to hear that a hunter shot it a few days after its release back into the wild.

McCoy said that's when he turned the bulk of his focus to preserving the San Diego coastline at a time when conservancy was in its infancy. The Tijuana Estuary took more than three decades of his life.

“Developers were going to develop or channelize the Tijuana River Valley,” he said. “It was going to be all concrete.”

The greatest challenge lay in bringing together all the people with vested interests in the area, from various cities, the military and developers to leaseholders and environmental agencies, McCoy said.

Still, he continues what he considers his mission in life – a mission that seems to never end. All day long he receives phone call after phone call to coordinate various conservation efforts. The border fence and its impact on the environment, particularly on the mesas of the estuary, is a pet project right now.

“We have the politics of fear pitted against the environment,” McCoy said, adding that he opposed the Homeland Security Act in federal court in 2005, but his case was thrown out. “But there should be a cooperative relationship between the environmental community and the agencies that oversee national security. We need to come together rather than polarize.”

Patricia Morris Buckley is a freelance writer based in San Diego.


Published Thursday, April 17, 2008 8:23 AM by Zinnia Q.


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