"I was able to do things I never even dreamed of doing," Johnson says of his time in government. "I went ahead and got into a head-on, wide-open brawl with the timber industry and saved 1,200 miles of wild rivers. And on another occasion, I saved a couple of million of acres of land from being sold for logging. In each case, I just had to take on some special interests and slug it out."
Johnson says he made adversaries, but stood his ground. "They weren't happy when I was there. Several times, I was threatened. [Lobbyists] actually had the Legislature introduce a bill that would cancel my agency." He laughs now because it didn't pass. "In the end, the governor supported me."
These days, he's not so sure it would be possible to accomplish the same feat. "The system has been so corrupted by being able to buy elections that the special interests control the Legislature."
After graduating from college in Michigan in 1956, Johnson went fishing to ponder his options in what was then a red-hot economy. "The river smelled badly, it was so polluted. There was oil on top of the water," he says. "I sat there and I thought, 'If these people in this state don't care enough to look after the basis of life, then I don't want to live here.'" So he took off for the wild blue yonder.
"When I got out of college, I worked for a company that manufactured cellulose tubing for hot dogs and hams," he says, sitting behind the beautiful, huge one-tree slab of a desk a friend made for him in his office. "I was one of their hyper-experts. There were eight of us in the country. I was transferred all over all the time."
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LORAX'S INSPIRATION Huey Johnson holds his UNEP Sasakawa Prize awarded for a lifetime dedicated to protecting the environment.
This was 50 years ago when meat was king of the dinner, breakfast and lunch tables. Johnson was often assigned to work near the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the avid sportsman liked his life. "In the trunk, I'd always have a ski box, rifle, shotgun and hiking gear, and I'd go find some dude ranch. I lived well." But then came a long-term transfer to New York City.
"I was going to meet a friend, and I was holding a martini glass and I couldn't hold it steady," he says, shaking his hands for effect like Jell-O on horseback. "I was working 24/7 for weeks. I was so afraid I was going to fail, I was just killing myself. I was doing very well, but I thought, 'Ah, this makes no sense.' And then one of my bosses killed himself—committed suicide." Johnson continues without pause, "And I quit and left and wandered around the world a couple years alone."
He adds, "It was very important that I did that."
From there, he got a job working for the Fish and Game Department in Lake Tahoe. He soon quit, but when Johnson does something, he makes a statement. One day, after being given "so many screwy instructions that were politically loaded," he says, he resigned, hitchhiked to the Reno airport that morning and flew to Alaska. Once there, he says, "I had a job with the Fish and Game Department before nightfall."
While in Alaska, Johnson discovered something important about himself. "I decided not to be a fishery biologist, because I was too close to the thing I love," he says. "I didn't want to lose the joy of life." He was destined for a position higher in the food chain. "Without realizing it, I was more interested in public policy."
Johnson got his master's degree, then moved back to Michigan, where he grew up, to get a doctorate. "I saw a tacking on a bulletin board wall for a job in San Francisco, which is where I wanted to live, for the Nature Conservancy, which I had never heard of. So I walked into the phone booth, applied for the job, got it and never looked back," says Johnson. "I was the eighth employee." The Nature Conservancy now has a staff of over 3,800 in 30 countries, including all 50 U.S. states.