by Kathryn Fentress
Lorena was recommended for this column as one of three women who had the original vision for the Whatcom Watch. She is an activist, a journalist, a meditation teacher, and writer. She and Carl Franz co-authored the award-winning “The People’s Guide to Mexico,” a book that has sold over 250,000 copies and is now in its 14th edition.
Kathryn: Please tell us a bit of your background. Lorena: I have had an interesting life in the Chinese sense of the word. I grew up in Northern California, migrated through the Haight and moved to southeast Alaska in 1968. I worked on the newspaper in Juneau as the Town & Country editor. Juneau, the capital of Alaska, was really a very small town of about 10,000 people then and could only be reached by ferry or plane.
There was a lot of socializing, especially during the winter when it was often totally cut off from the outside world. I had a list of over 350 organizations, and everyone wanted their story reported and their picture in the newspaper. I was welcomed everywhere, from the Governor’s mansion and the legislature, to annual fundraising events that the dog catcher put on. I watched how the government was run, and what those people were like when partying.
Friends who worked in various government offices taught me how most decisions were made. I realized that the people I hung out with could have actually made as good or better decisions than the politicians and business leaders. I soon lost any sense of intimidation I had about people in power, in positions of authority. I found a motto during that period that I am still very fond of: “Never question authority! They don’t know the answer either.”
The following year I began traveling to Mexico with two friends, Carl Franz and Steve Rogers. In the early years we would drive down in our VW camper and rent a small house for a month or two. When the rent came due, we would pack up and move on to some other place that caught our eye for another brief stay. During this time, we started writing “The People’s Guide to Mexico,” hoping it would encourage our friends back in Alaska to join us in Mexico. Over the next 45 years, Carl and I have spent about half of our time in Mexico and half in Washington State. We once calculated that we’ve lived in at least 60 different places in Mexico over those years.
Kathryn: When did you first become involved with environmental issues? Lorena: After the first edition of “The People’s Guide to Mexico” came out at the end of 1972, we bought a tiny river shack on Ebey Island in the Snohomish River delta, northeast of Everett. It was waterfront real estate, an old smugglers cabin on pilings, on the outside of the dike on Steamboat Slough. The Snohomish River and its sloughs are tidal, and at high tide the water came up under the cabin. One night soon after we moved in we saw headlights on Spencer Island across the slough from us, huge dump trucks driving along the dike at the edge of the island. We started making jokes about the Island Monsters. The next day we could see that the trucks had been dumping vast quantities of hog fuel, a mix of bark and sawdust from nearby lumber mills. The problem was that the area they were filling with hog fuel was all wetland!
About this time, the activist Judy Chicago came to Bellingham doing an art workshop and a lecture on women artists during the Renaissance. The lecture was very inspiring. After her presentation, I went up to her and asked if I could help her in some way. She told me: “Go home and see what needs doing — and do it!”
When I got home that evening, I wrote up a petition asking the county to stop all dumping in the Spencer Island wetlands. I took it to all of the neighbors, who turned out to be eager to protect the delta but didn’t have any idea of how to actually take action.
That first petition, signed by nearly every neighbor on the island, caused enough of a stir in the county courthouse that, a few weeks later, the planning commission held a hearing to see if the landowner should be granted a permit to legally dump sawdust and mill waste. I went into this hearing completely ignorant of details about what was going on, but I listened carefully and took a lot of notes. I was the only citizen there other than a lawyer representing Spencer Island’s owner and the lumber mills. There were also a few representatives from various state agencies involved in environmental regulations. These agency people all stated that filling wetlands was a very bad idea, but it was obvious that they had no real expectations of being “heard.”
After the agencies’ reports, the lawyer stood up and stated that if sawdust actually caused damage in wetlands, there should be a stack of documents and scientific reports several inches thick about that damage. Because such a stack of documentation about wetland damage did not exist, however, this obviously proved that dumping mill waste had no ill effects on wetlands.
I found myself walking up to the front of that room and saying that this kind of logic had turned the once pristine water in many of our rivers into something no longer drinkable or even safe to swim in.
To my great surprise, the permit to continue dumping was denied. Later one of the commissioners told me that what I’d said had tipped the balance against granting the permit. This success spurred me on. I eventually became the spokesperson and coordinator for the effort to save the wetlands on Spencer and Ebey islands and in the whole river delta.
Over the next several years, my neighbors and I joined with other local environmentalists and successfully used the state’s new Shoreline Management Act to fight off many diverse projects in the delta: from using the delta as a landfill for Seattle’s garbage, to a chemical petroleum plant and a huge pipeline going east from Ebey Island to major dredging in the delta. Once we finally stopped the dredging project, we discovered that the “Master Plan” was to convert the Snohomish River delta into a super port to receive Alaskan oil.
Kathryn: How exciting to hear once again that one person can make such a difference! Lorena: This was not the result of just one person, but of a lot of people working together on many different projects against many different threats. My role was mostly coordinating what we were all doing and finding ways that we could help each other.
Eventually we decided that we needed a way to improve communication among ourselves. We started the Evergreen Coalition Newsletter and began publishing the dates of all of the upcoming hearings, along with the main points of concern for each issue, so we could show up and support each other’s projects.
You can see the results of this work when you drive south from Marysville and cross the Snohomish River delta to Everett. All of Spencer Island and the delta’s extensive network of tidal sloughs and wetlands, with all of its wildlife, is now fully protected instead of being converted into an industrial wasteland.
Kathryn: When did you relocate to Bellingham? Lorena: By the late 70s my environmental work had seriously angered many people, especially those who bought up cheap, “useless” wetlands with the idea of making a great deal of money by developing them. There were several threats against us, one so serious that an attorney advised us to pack up that evening and head back to Mexico. When we returned a few months later, we began looking for a more remote place to live. To our great fortune we ended up here, deep in the woods among the Nooksack’s foothills.
During the years I had been working in the Snohomish River delta, I had contact with various activists in the Bellingham area. In fact, we developed a recycling program in Snohomish County based on the recycling program in Bellingham, the first such program in the state, as I recall.
Shortly after moving to Whatcom County, I attended a meeting on the water quality of Lake Whatcom. After the meeting, I met and started talking with Sherlyn Wells and Rebecca Meloy about various issues in the area. We decided to start a newsletter similar to what had been done in Snohomish County. Those first issues of the Whatcom Watch were a few sheets of colored paper (a different color each issue) printed front and back with all the various issues that we knew about in Bellingham and in Whatcom County. We emphasized upcoming hearings and the main points that needed to be made by people who could attend.
Bill McCallum and a woman, Sue [Lorentz] I think her name was, delivered issues of the Watch around town out of the trunk of their cars. Bill is still involved with the Watch. That is dedication!
Kathryn: What kind of projects are you involved in now? Lorena: My husband and I are still somewhat involved with the Friends of the Upper Nooksack. In 1990, we began practicing Vipassana meditation and were eventually appointed as teachers of the technique. We now conduct courses throughout the Americas. This is an all-volunteer tradition supported only by donations. I’m also very involved in the development of a permanent meditation center in Mexico. My husband, Carl, often conducts courses in a maximum security prison in Alabama.
Kathryn: Your work as a meditation instructor is immensely important because you are helping change consciousness in a deep and personal way. Do you miss the environmental projects? Lorena: Actually I do, but I don’t have the energy I used to, and I have to limit how much I can take on. I had polio as a child and have developed chronic fatigue as part of the post polio syndrome. I go twice a week to the Y in Lynden for their great water-aerobic classes and then occasionally come down into Bellingham for errands, mostly shopping at the co-ops and Terra Organica. I am able work at home on the computer for most of the projects I am involved in. Carl and I also spend a lot of time gardening and preserving our food. We try to live in a way that is healthy for us and the environment. We are off the grid, using solar panels and a back-up propane generator. We get our water from a spring on the hillside. We really love this lifestyle, but we’re both over 70 years old now, and it does take a lot of our energy to live this way.
Kathryn: If you had more time and energy for the natural environment, what would be your primary focus? Lorena: Recycling. This is one of the most important issues before us at this time. Our current recycling is very minimal and has stalled out at about 12 percent of the waste actually being collected. We should push harder for complete recycling of everything. Everything that is produced should also be made from recycled materials. We must stop making any new plastic. Every piece of plastic that is produced must be recyclable. No more plastic bags or containers that cannot be remade into other things. We must not only stop putting more trash in the ocean, we need to be cleaning the plastics, etc., out of the ocean and reusing that material.
I really believe this is all possible, though it obviously won’t be easy. One way to start might be to charge a fee to cover the actual disposal or recycling cost of everything that is produced and sold. In this way there won’t be a lack of recycling facilities to process all of our glass, paper, metal and plastic.
While I am absolutely amazed that the Whatcom Watch is still alive and so vigorous after all these years, I would also like to see it have better coverage of all the small environmental threats and projects that are going on. Various neighborhood groups are standing up and saying, “Not in my backyard.” It would be great if someone would check in with agencies and activists around the country each month, in order to let the community know more about what is going on and how they can help. The more we can communicate among ourselves, among the various environmental and neighborhood groups as well as human rights and justice groups, the more we can all accomplish.
Kathryn: Thank you for all the work you have done and are continuing to do to make this world a healthier and more peaceful place.
Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is in everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.