Q: What do Ansel Adams, Edgar Wayburn, William O. Douglas, Jacques Cousteau, David Brower, Wallace Stegner, Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and Vicky Hoover all have in common? A: They all received the John Muir Award, the Sierra Club’s highest, honoring “a distinguished record of leadership in national conservation causes, such as continuing John Muir’s work of preservation and establishment of parks and wildernesses.” It was in 2004 that the Bay Chapter’s own Vicky Hoover received that honor, prompting Chapter Wilderness Committee colleague Alan Carlton to write in the Yodeler: “If anyone epitomizes the spirit of John Muir, it is Vicky Hoover. She is a legendary backpack leader, a tireless and extremely effective wilderness advocate, and a dedicated Sierra Club staff member.”
Fast-forward to 2014: it’s Vicky’s 28th year as a wilderness leader, and she is more effective and widely respected than ever. No longer on staff at Sierra Club (she retired in 2010 after 24 years of service), Vicky donates her prodigious energy full-time to protecting wild places. For the past four years her focus has been on using the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act as a catalyst to publicize and promote wilderness to a broader and more diverse American public. As co-chair of Wilderness50—a coalition of federal agencies and non-profit organizations—Vicky has organized events large and small across the country (You can find a list of events at www.wilderness50th.org, including the major National Wilderness Conference to be held this October in Albuquerque, New Mexico). Vicky has worked to ensure that every local Sierra Club chapter is involved in the anniversary celebrations. She has also helped raise awareness of the anniversary by working with the media and by pushing for official proclamations in many states, counties and cities across the country.
Vicky was born in Manhattan, in the heart of New York City, but spent most of her formative years in Washington, DC. Her family spent summer vacations in rustic cabins in state forests and parks in western Maryland or West Virginia, hiking and enjoying the great outdoors. Vicky moved west to attend college, earning her BA from Oberlin College and going on to earn an MA in economics from University of Michigan.
Vicky was a young wife and mother of two small children, Nathan and Frances, when she first got involved with the Sierra Club outing’s program in 1967. The family had moved to California in 1962 and quickly discovered the magnificence of high Sierra hiking. Soon, she and her husband Bill were climbing peaks and leading Sierra Club outings, starting with family-oriented burro trips. Through years of training and practice, Vicky became an accomplished outdoorswoman and mountaineer, by 1981 climbing all 247 peaks on the Sierra Peaks Section list (for an account of those years in Vicky’s own words, see http://tinyurl.com/vickysclimbs, pp. 8-11). Over the years Vicky has led countless Club outings, mostly in the Sierra Nevada but also in places as far-flung as Alaska, Utah, and New Zealand.
Vicky’s training as a wilderness advocate began in 1985 when she moved to San Francisco and took a part-time job at the Sierra Club National office as staff assistant to Dr. Ed Wayburn. Under the mentorship of Dr. Wayburn, who had previously served five terms as Sierra Club President, Vicky “learned the ropes” of wilderness politics, grassroots organizing, and effective lobbying. As Vicky says, “Wilderness is a political thing.” In those early years Vicky was staff for the Alaska Task Force, mobilizing people in the lower 48 states to support wilderness protection in Alaska, particularly the Arctic.
Vicky had already been volunteering at the Bay Chapter’s Berkeley office for several years when, in 1985, she joined the Chapter’s Wilderness Committee. She would go on to chair the committee from 1987 to 1997. Influenced by her years of wilderness enjoyment, Vicky would become especially involved with forest planning and the new campaign for the California desert. With Vicky at its helm, the Committee was a leader in the successful eight-year campaign for the California Desert Protection Act. Vicky remembers a marathon lobbying trip to Washington, DC in which she and Elden Hughes “tramped the halls of Congress” for a solid week. Shortly after passage of that landmark legislation, she organized phone banks to help defeat the anti-wilderness Utah Public Lands Management Act. Vicky and the Wilderness Committee went on to participate in many other successful wilderness campaigns in California, Nevada, Utah, and Alaska.
In the late 1980s, to familiarize herself with areas being considered for protection, Vicky began leading trips to the Southwest desert, which she continues to do to this day. Her trips engage activists in repairing damage to wild places, doing mapping and inventory work, and building support for new wilderness designations. Among desert activists, Vicky is said to have a magic touch: if she visits an area being considered for wilderness designation, lo and behold, it becomes wilderness soon thereafter! Veteran wilderness activist Marge Sill of the Toiyabe Chapter writes, “To be a participant in one of Vicky’s trips is an experience to be cherished. Vicky Hoover is the outstanding representative of what is best in the Sierra Club.” Don Forman, longtime Yodeler editor recalls:
I recall going on several car camping trips Vicky led in the desert—Death Valley, Joshua Tree, East Mojave—and later realized that she was ‘learning the desert’ and helping build awareness of desert issues within our Chapter. At that point she already knew the Sierra Nevada like the back of her hand. Over the course of her career, Vicky has kept expanding her range, capacities and effectiveness as a wilderness advocate, not only at the Chapter and state levels, but nationally.
On top of all this, Vicky has chaired the Sierra Club’s California/Nevada Wilderness Committee since it was formed in 1997; written numerous articles for the Yodeler, the Desert Report, the Alaska Report, and other publications; and edits Words of the Wild, a quarterly Club newsletter focusing on wilderness. In the early 1990s, Vicky received two national Sierra Club awards: one for her outstanding work in the Sierra Club’s national and chapter outings programs, and the other a Special Service Award “for strong and consistent commitment to conservation or the Club over an extended period of time.”
As a leader, Vicky patiently educates and encourages others to care for wild places and work for their protection. She works methodically over months and years, building relationships with sympathetic federal agencies and legislative staff. Her goal is to connect and mobilize individuals and organizations that share her sense of urgency. “Once harmed, once altered, the wild qualities of an area are lost and you can’t ever get it back,” says Vicky. “I’m alarmed every day as I see new developments being built and open space being torn up. I believe that every bit of roadless land that we have now should stay that way to compensate for all of the development.”
One secret of Vicky’s success is that she blends work with what to her is play: being in the wilderness. Her drive and tenacity come from her deep love of the earth’s wild places. As she puts it, “Mingling outings into conservation work has been at the essence of almost everything I do.” She is famous among desert activists for serving delicious, expertly-prepared wilderness breakfasts and dinners from the tailgate of her car. With her warm smile and gentle encouragement, Vicky clearly enjoys introducing new people, especially young people, to wild places.
Vicky often takes off into the wilderness (without a cell phone or computer). She has traveled widely on several continents, visiting Alaska over 30 times. She has traveled widely on several continents. At home she dotes on her three grandchildren, loves going to the opera, and enjoys hosting friends and family at her San Francisco “B&B.” And although she has driven thousands of miles in her “campaign car,” a Toyota 4Runner, she cycles to work daily and is a dedicated walker and public transit-user when in cities.
Of her ability to work on wilderness advocacy in a concentrated way over long periods of time, never appearing to get discouraged, Vicky says simply, “I don’t think of it as dedicating myself to a cause; the cause is not separate from me—it’s part of my life. It’s what I am.”