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Eulogy for an Eco-Advocate

Tom Giesen June 25,1940 - March 4, 2017

Many of the relatives, friends and colleagues gathered at Tom Giesen’s memorial on a sunny April afternoon at McKenzie River Eco-Lodge had been joggers, cyclists and hikers on the treks Tom led for decades. The adventures they described clearly tested their fortitude and often their patience but ultimately gained their admiration and respect for a man who pushed himself even harder than he did them. Lean as an alley cat, he never seemed to sit still long enough for fat to catch up with him — or complacency either.

It wasn’t reporting to boot camp that brought me to Tom’s office on Willamette Street when I was living in Eugene in the 1980s. I was there to strategize our mutual opposition to a growth-driven City Council decision that would negatively impact Eugene’s environment. As we talked at his drafting table, I remember being puzzled by the seeming discrepancy between Tom’s work as a construction cost consultant and his environmental advocacy.

Later I learned of his early membership on the Oregon Natural Resources Council board, now Oregon Wild, and his work for a year as its president; his coordination of Citizens For Public Resources, advocating stewardship on private forestland; his membership in the Association of American Foresters; and in the Isaak Walton League. Late in his life, well after he and I had worked together as environmental advocates, he went back to college to earn masters’ degrees in both forest ecology and creative writing and was an adjunct research associate in the University of Oregon’s Public Planning Policy and Management Department.

Though we communicated infrequently, what brought us together, usually by email or phone, was our responses to each other’s guest editorials or letters in The Register-Guard or Eugene Weekly. In his writing Tom was as clear and instructive, as forceful and uncompromising, as he must have been while leading his group forays up or down a mountain trail on bike or on foot. He was carefully factual as well as forthright.

In a 2001 RG op-ed Tom responded to righteous recriminations against “eco-terrorists” by pointing out those who ought to be punished: economic terrorists who clear-cut steep slopes and create dangerous landslides, then spray aerial poisons over the remains.

Despite obvious signs of global warming, he averred in a 2009 RG guest editorial, “Many people are adopting an attitude of ‘Waiting to see.’” He pointed out that instead of “a cautious approach to a gnarly dilemma with lots of unknowns… waiting is actually reckless… It’s like waiting until you’ve had an auto accident before you put your seat belt on.” He went on to explain the basic science of greenhouse gas accumulation in both the atmosphere and the ocean; how, as a consequence, the planet continues to heat up; and that, to stop the rise,  “a rapid and immediate reduction in emissions is the only rational option.”

To stop heating the planet, he asserted in a July 2016 RG opinion piece that we have to stop heating the economy with fossil fuels and deforestation. As one way to turn down the heat, he proposed a substantial tax on carbon emissions.

He also insisted, in a 2010 RG editorial, that we stop using the term ‘sustainable’ without concrete meaning and substance. “Sustainability,” he lamented, “has gone viral in more than one sense: It is suddenly everywhere and it has infected all of us…. ‘Sustainability’ is an example of the empty rhetoric that now pervades our culture.”

Whether on the trail, in the classroom, at home or in the papers, Tom was an educator — an unrelenting, passionate purveyor of ecological truths born of his own education, compassion and on-the–ground experience. He had an incisive mind honed by a keen sense of environmental justice and integrity. It was a mind still sharp enough to appreciate the irony when he told me last year that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Characteristic of his ruthless logic and responsibility, he also mentioned that when the time came, while he was still lucid enough to know that neither he nor time could brook further delays, he would kindly stop for death before death unkindly stopped for him.

Many may miss his rides in the wind. Those of us who recall his editorial insights and integrity will miss his "words for the wind."

Robert Emmons of Fall Creek is president of LandWatch Lane County, a group that seeks to protect and sustain Lane County’s soils, air and water quality. See landwatch.net.