If not for Mary Gautreaux, many good things would not have happened for Oregon’s public lands. Several wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers or additions to them would not have happened. Portland’s drinking water sources, the Bull Run and Little Sandy Rivers, would be dirtier. The view along the Mount Hood corridor would have more clear-cuts. The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument might not have happened. Millions of acres of ancient forest would have been clear-cut. Etc. Etc. Etc.
This is a pre-remembrance similar to those I’ve done previously for other living Oregon conservation legends: Bob Packwood, Jim Weaver, Norma Paulus, and Barbara Roberts. All, save Norma, are still with us. All are/were elected officials who made a dent in the Oregon conservation universe, and dents for the better. It is always an interesting exercise and a challenge to write a remembrance of someone not yet passed. This pre-remembrance is highly selective and personal, as Mary (“MG” to her friends and colleagues) and I have been friends for decades.
Who the hell is Mary Gautreaux? you may well be wondering. While she never held elected office, for more than a quarter century she has served as the trusted aide, friend, and—in matters of Oregon public lands management—the alter ego of Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). On matters of federal public lands conservation in Oregon, Mary was the state’s third senator.
Alas, MG will soon leave us. She has been diagnosed with inoperable and spreading liver cancer with a prognosis of two to six months. As if we needed another example of why life is not fair.
My life partner, Randi Spivak (of the Center for Biological Diversity), and I recently spent a lovely and touching afternoon with MG in her northeast Portland home, emptying, among others, a bottle of Argyle Winery’s Brut Rosé (an Oregon vintage, of course). MG has always loved the bubbly, but the morphine has done a number on her taste buds. Because this vintage tasted good to her, we ended up cleaning out the stock of a downtown Portland wine shop.
MG is approaching the end of her life as she ran her life previously: in charge and pragmatic. She’s in home hospice and is preparing to possibly avail herself of the option of Oregon’s Death with Dignity statute. She’s well supported by friends and colleagues at work as well as her family. In the short time Randi and I were visiting, two different sets of neighbors who had left the neighborhood had come back to see her, and two other neighbors dropped by to check on her.
Behind Every Great Senator Is Great Staff
While it is certainly the case that MG’s accomplishments are also, if not more so, the accomplishments of her boss, it’s complicated. Yes, Wyden is the one with the string of election certificates from the Oregon Secretary of State, but behind every great senator is great staff. Senators have a lot to do, and to worry and think about.
It comes with the territory, but all elected officials are politically (and a few clinically) paranoid (because there really are people, lobbies, political parties, institutions, and others who really are out to get them.) Good staff both protect and advance the interests of the official.
A federal elected official has to outsource much of the work to trusted staff. For the natural resources portfolio, Wyden has long trusted MG. Over the decades, similarly competent staff have helped Wyden achieve his public lands conservation victories, including, but not limited to, now legislative director Sarah Bittleman, former chief of staff Josh Kardon, former Bend representative David Blair, and current legislative assistant Malcolm McGeary.
While nature conservation is important to Wyden, it’s never been among his top passions. Wyden knew he needed someone working with him for which it was a passion. Enter MG.
Mary spent 1994 in DC as a Forest Service fellow, still getting paid by the agency but working for then Representative Wyden. Wyden soon figured out she was indispensable and hired her. I’m pretty sure a condition of her employment was that MG would never have to spend another minute in DC.
Wyden has this thing about holding a town hall meeting in every one of Oregon’s thirty-six counties each and every year. The tally is more than eight hundred, and MG has accompanied Ron to almost every one of them. This means countless accumulated months of quality time in the car together for Ron and Mary. Plenty of time to discuss and debate the issues, time for Ron to push MG on some things and for MG to push Ron on other things.
Mary is fiercely loyal to Ron and is instinctually protective of him in a political sense. Public lands conservation issues, if they are important, are controversial. Yet Mary knows that Ron wants to do as much as he can and still get re-elected. MG has threaded the needle skillfully.
MG and Me
My first recollection of MG was when she was working for the Forest Service. It was a bit of an agency renaissance and the timber beasts were in retreat. Mary was part of that breath of fresh air. I first heard of Mary from Oregon Wild’s legendary eastside representative, Tim Lillebo. Both Tim and Mary were living in Grant County, Oregon, working on the Malheur National Forest—Mary working for the Malheur as staff, and Tim working over the Malheur as advocate.
Another Oregon Wild legend, Erik Fernandez, and I often joked about being “gautreauxed” (verb: to be, with no notice, commanded to produce information [maps, legislative language, speech language] or action [examples omitted to protect the guilty], due immediately). Given the plethora of junk calls these days, I don’t answer my phone unless I see who’s calling. The one exception is “CALLER ID BLOCKED” as it is usually coming from Mary’s desk phone in the federal building near Lloyd Center. Occasionally, such calls would begin with “Hey, it’s me” as if I didn’t know. More often, Mary would skip any formalities and just launch into the subject at hand.
MG’s Final Wish
MG is leaving indelibly positive marks on Oregon public lands. She had a lot more that she wanted to do, but she knows that is not going to happen. Wyden and his staff will carry on, and more of Oregon’s public lands will receive permanent congressional conservation.
Ever the advocate and pragmatist to the end, MG has told Ron that she’d really like the Owyhee to be saved, if not before she goes (again, pragmatic), then soon afterward. Earlier Wyden had tasked Mary and his legislative director, Sarah Bittleman, to come up with legislation to save the Owyhee. Talks have been convened between local interests and a delegation of conservationists to explore possibilities.
“Saving” the Owyhee may be another example of the oft occurring conflict between short-term economic interests and the long-term national public interest. The incomparable Owyhee won’t be truly saved unless
• millions of acres of wilderness are protected,
• additional wild and scenic rivers are established,
• a voluntary grazing permit retirement facilitation provision is included,
• the Oregon Desert Trail is established as a national scenic trail,
• off-road vehicle abuse is banned, and
• cyanide heap leach mining for gold is prevented at Grassy Mountain and other places.
Designating a national what-have-you (conservation, monument, recreation, etc.) area that doesn’t have very high conservation standards and enforceable management language would mean that while the color on the map would change, the management on the ground would not.
It would be appropriate to name a new wilderness area in the Owyhee after Mary. It would be entirely fitting if that new wilderness area were larger in area than the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness, named for a U.S. senator from Oregon.
On the occasion of Mary’s seventieth birthday in October 2017, Ron paid tribute to MG in remarks printed in the Congressional Record. He said, in part:
The deeper truth is that anybody who knows Mary knows she is an original and unforgettable force of nature—fierce on behalf of Oregonians, bold in her problem-solving, always willing to help, and just as ready with a smile to lighten any situation. She has a gigantic heart matched only by her passion for public service and protecting the natural treasures we Oregonians all hold dear.
Oregon is a better place and Oregon’s public lands are in far better shape than they would have been without Mary Gautreaux.