‘Powerful work’: The Sierra Fund poised to continue holistic legacy of former director
As Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin retires after 19 years as executive director of The Sierra Fund, the foothills celebrate the legacy and lament the loss of one of their greatest advocates.
The fund is a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the ecosystem and building community resiliency in the Sierra Nevada. In a year marred for many by financial strain, the nonprofit is in a strong and stable position to transition to new leadership, Martin explained, which is part of the reason she’s leaving.
Martin said her career and mission have evolved with society’s understanding and appreciation for environmental issues since she began her vocation as an advocate on the very first Earth Day celebration in the San Francisco Bay area in 1970.
“It has really gone from being a movement mostly around land conservation in a national or state park context, and broadened to reach out into air and water quality,” Martin said.
From the way her storyline arcs, Martin’s work over the last two decades has helped not only shape, but ground environmental movements through effective educational and political tactics.
“When I was young, we had to invent the environmental movement,” Martin said, referring to her work with farm workers who were also pesticide victims in the 1980s and 90s. “I do think the various organizations working for justice in the world have taken a lot of shape — no kill pet shelters, organic farming.”
Martin said she played a large role in the current availability of organic food options at chain stores like Safeway and Walmart.
Troubleshooting is the means by which the environmental movement evolved.
“It’s in any institutional growth and development phase — you walk around as a kid, then you get taller and start to break yourself and things,” Martin said. “That’s when you learn how to be good at this work, and how to be a successful change advocate and the nature of what it is to be a leader.”
According to Martin, the environmental movement and its leaders are growing in awareness in both the political and scientific realms.
“You have to think through the details, respond to the profile, take a 360-degree look at what you’re doing,” Martin explained. “How is an electric car made, or does transportation itself need to be rethought?”
Good leaders have a sense of where they’re going, she said, how to get there and how to optimize available resources — human or otherwise.
Martin encouraged sustainable climate-resilient communities to approach problem solving with all stakeholders in mind. That way, all parties are invested in the solution and take ownership and pride in their shared communal responsibility.
Cynicism and subsequently shirking one’s personal responsibility is the easy way out, Martin said.
“’Even though we created this mess, it was inevitable and there’s nothing we can do,’” Martin said, describing one unproductive strain of thought related to climate change issues. “Change is what you actually do when you figure out what must be done.”
Martin said that process begins with education.
Many people in her lifetime were unaware and unappreciative of both the good and bad impacts the Gold Rush had on the region. Now, according to Martin, locals have a pretty good idea of the effects of hydraulic mining in the area, the genocide and the pox.
“Those mountains that we blew up are laying in bits and pieces all over and used to build roads and schools of California,” Martin explained. “How do we help that stuff improve?”
Martin said she is all about creating multi-faceted goals with pragmatic steps.
For Martin, removing mercury to improve the watershed for fish and restoring a “long-crushed” Indian cultural site are not unrelated.
ENVIRONMENTAL, CULTURAL HEALING
Shelly Covert, a spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria, said years of project work and mutual dedication to the environment are the foundation by which The Sierra Fund can collaborate with the Nisenan.
Covert said The Sierra Fund was key in acquiring the 32-acre parcel along Deer Creek that is now owned by California Heritage Indigenous Research Project, of which she is the executive director.
“Unfortunately, this land remains burdened with the toxic destruction left behind from the Champion and Providence mines,” Covert said. “TSF’s steadfast stance on dealing with the legacy of mining directly reflects Izzy Martin’s determination to address this destruction head on. I don’t have to guess if TSF values the tribe’s voice, because I can see it in their project work.”
Martin said she built trust by being trustworthy — keeping her word and being as straightforward as possible about complex issues.
“It’s my job to speak the truth and demand solutions,” Martin said.
Martin’s grassroots advocacy and time spent as a regional planning commissioner put her in a position to run for the Nevada County Board of Supervisors District 4 position in 1998. Martin said the original candidate she supported dropped out too late to remove her name from the ballot, so Martin added her own name.
“There were three people on the ballot and then me,” Martin said. “Then the top two went to the general election.”
When she lost her reelection bid in 2002, The Sierra Fund hired her the next day.
Martin said The Sierra Fund had barely been formed when she was chosen to head it, so her responsibilities included developing a mission statement and recruiting a board of directors.
That mission statement is rooted in inclusion.
“We want to know everything — the perspectives of the founding fathers, the Nisenan, forest ecologists, miners and the current government,” Martin explained. “One we’ve identified all the problems, now we can identify solutions, try to do pilot parts of projects and research and propose best practices.”
Martin said one of her greatest accomplishments was helping secure the funding for the creation of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency dedicated to restoring and protecting natural resources in the area, with the help of then state Assemblyman John Laird, along with bipartisan support.
“I’ve been more on the green side of things, but if you can work with common interests across parties, really powerful work can happen,” Martin said.
Angela Avery, the executive director of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, said Martin’s willingness and even desire to work with all involved parties, political or otherwise, is why she is a “powerhouse.”
Avery said Martin first made an indelible impression at a county supervisors meeting in 2007 as she discussed the issue of abandoned land mines.
“She demonstrates amazing strength, grit, determination, knowledge and expertise,” Avery explained. “I was like, who are you and how do I get to know you?”
Avery said as a state agency, the conservancy cannot advocate for any political issue, but Martin taught her the benefit of cultivating powerful relationships in Sacramento.
Avery said she feels fortunate to cultivate a personal friendship with Martin, and hopes to continue her legacy of radical, solution-oriented collaborations.
Covert said she trusts that the new executive director — who hasn’t yet been chosen — will take to heart Martin’s philosophy of change and incorporate and prioritize all stakeholders.
“I am certain whoever is next at the helm will only build on Izzy’s life work, allowing her to enjoy her retirement with pride and ease knowing TSF has been left in good hands,” Covert said.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun and The Union, a sister publication of the Sun
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