In Memoriam: Conservationist and SEACC Founding Member Rich Gordon

Written by Mel Izard

April 26, 2023

Southeast Alaska lost a beloved conservationist when Richard J. Gordon, a legendary environmentalist and SEACC founding member, passed away at the age of 90 last October.

Rich was a fixture of the community as, during his many decades in Juneau, Rich was often spotted on trails with binoculars, Xtratufs, and his characteristic two hats — one for warmth, one to keep out rain and sun. “He always found a spot in the forest where he could lean against his knapsack and watch the leaves and flowers grow,” recounts lifelong friend R.T. “Skip” Wallen, a conservationist, artist, and also a SEACC co-founder.

Skip and Rich were at the first-ever meeting of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Coordinating Committee in 1970. One year later, that committee became SEACC.

“He viewed SEACC as his family,” shared Lynn Wallen, another lifelong friend and Skip’s wife. And SEACC considered Rich family, too. While he didn’t accept any high-profile roles within the organization, Rich volunteered his time and expertise, and donated to SEACC throughout his life.

“He was involved with SEACC since the day it was thought of,” says Greg Streveler, another friend and former SEACC board member. “He was always part of the conversation and was always a go-to guy for data.”

Rich graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1964 with a degree in biology but spent his college summers in Alaska doing research. Rich would become an advocate for the lands, waters, and wildlife he saw. Rich’s greatest passion was birding, and the constantly threatened Mendenhall Wetlands were a favorite spot. Rich and wildlife photographer and author Bob Armstrong (aka “Nature Bob”) submitted an application for the wetlands to be recognized as a globally significant Important Bird Area with the National Audubon Society. According to Bob, Rich’s extensive bird observations over the years were vital in making the application successful.

But Rich’s devotion to Southeast went further than the wetlands. According to the Wallens and Greg, Rich adored countless special places in Juneau and all over Alaska.

Rich kept an eye on the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and would quickly speak up about logging, including sales on Admiralty Island. The biggest concern at the time, the late 1960s, was a contract proposed by USFS to create a pulp mill supplied mostly with Admiralty timber. The USFS was taken to court on this contract.

“Rich was in the middle of all of this,” says KJ Metcalf, current board president of Friends of Admiralty Island and a former board member of SEACC. “The idea was to prove that people did use the island and … were harmed by the timber sale.” Rich was one of the key witnesses during the resultant legal battle. Thanks to him and others, it became clear the planned clearcuts would devastate the island.

This was all around the same time as the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980 — which created most of Alaska’s conserved lands — was being designed. Thanks to Tribal leaders, powerful advocacy by Angoon Elders, Kootznoowoo Inc., Rich, and other environmentalists, Admiralty Island was included in ANILCA and is federally protected to this day.

Rich was an expert on many areas proposed for protected status under ANILCA and was involved in selecting those lands for proposal. He often testified before Congress in Washington, D.C. on ANILCA matters and on other areas proposed for protection. “They couldn’t trip him up,” Lynn says. “His knowledge was deep.”

Rich’s effect on Alaska is undeniable, but he was also an inspiration to those who knew him. “[He was] probably the most devoted person to conservation I’ve met in my life,” says Greg Streveler. “One of the best naturalists I’ve ever known.”

Bob agrees. “He influenced me to do a lot of sitting, observing, and wondering, and that’s been my major purpose in life,” he says. “Rich helped quite a bit in getting me stimulated in that direction.”

Rich was also a fan of baseball — the game, cards, and statistics — as well as classical music, reading, and traveling. He tried to walk at least 5 miles a day and took extensive notes on his observations — many of which are being entered as museum records.

Rich wanted to be in nature and devoted a remarkable amount of time, energy, and focus to protecting every natural place he could — a legacy he ensured would be long-lasting. Not only did he dedicate a large part of his estate to SEACC, he also established the R.J. Gordon & R.T. Wallen Endowment Fund for SEACC along with Skip and Lynn (see page 11, “Plan for the Long Term”). Rich’s generosity and commitment will help protect Southeast Alaska’s lands and waters for years to come.

Join us in celebrating Rich’s life and legacy by viewing a compilation of stories about Rich assembled by the Juneau Audubon Society at bit.ly/rich-c-gordon, or send your own reminiscences to mel@seacc.org.

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