Ronald Lee Guenther

by AVA News Service, January 27, 2010

Ron Guenther

Ronald Lee Guenther passed away on January 22, 2010 at home with his family by his side.

Ron was born April 3, 1938 in Los Angeles, California to Herman and Frieda (Klemme) Guenther. He began hiking the high Sierra Nevada mountain range in his teenage years.

Following in the footsteps of his inspiration, John Muir, Ron often carried nothing more than a small backpack and a rifle. Over the years, he extended his long, solitary hikes deep into Baja, Mexico and north into Oregon. He joined the Sierra Club when he was 18 and was an active member for 53 years.

Despite his additional interests in building and racing hot rods and his East Los Angeles gang membership, Ron graduated at the top of his class from Manual Arts High School in Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1956. He was accepted with scholarships into the University of California at Los Angeles physics program in 1957. At UCLA, he was a member of the Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Honor Society and president of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity. His pledges in Phi Delta Theta were the UCLA Bruins football team members. Ron, however, was a long distance runner.

With his first son, Eric Warren Guenther, on the way and short of completing a master’s degree in atomic theory, Ron was recruited by Rockwell Atomics International to work as a physicist at one of its Santa Susana nuclear reactors to make plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons. He became deeply disturbed by the earth-annihilating implications of his work, which was determining the failure point of the reactor. His supervisors ignored his repeated warnings of an impending disaster.

Ron was 24 years old when he suffered what is now understood as a first-break schizophrenia episode. Though he recovered, Ron struggled much of his life to conceal his recurring symptoms of schizophrenia by retreating into the wild until the symptoms abated. (In the mid-1990s, information was released revealing that the reactor Ron had warned about had indeed failed in 1964 and several times thereafter, releasing radioactive material throughout the Simi Valley per Ron’s warning.) Ron was divorced and unemployed when he took up residence in Venice Beach, California in the mid-‘60s.

In the Venice “Beat” community, Ron continued to run long distances on the Santa Monica beach and hike the mountains and deserts of the Southwest. He made a good living as a garage mechanic. Ron became very active in local politics, and was one of the founders of the California Peace and Freedom Party in 1967.

In 1968, Ron was a leader in organizing community demonstrations against the LAPD Metro Squad’s arrests of Venice Beach residents contrived to purge the area of “hippies.” The illegal arrests were backed by the LA City Council as an assist to would-be developers. By harassing the residents and forcing them to move, the low-income bohemian cottages could be purchased and demolished to build “new Miami” luxury-priced condominiums. Several attempts to build some of the high-rise buildings were halted by arson. The rebellion concluded with the LA City Council backing down and officially recognizing the Venice Beach Town Council as having a say in local land-use decisions.

At the same time, Ron was strong supporter of David Brower as executive director of Sierra Club and Brower’s efforts to reshape the Club from a purely recreational organization to an additional political focus on environmental conservation. However, Ron opposed Brower’s compromise in trading off the building of the Glen Canyon Dam to preserve Dinosaur National Monument on the upper Colorado River. There were several schemes to raze the dam shortly after it was built, including blowing it up using Ron’s expertise to build a small neutron bomb. While none of the Glen Canyon Dam destruction schemes came about, many of the activities of the time and the people involved were later memorialized in Edward Abbey’s classic novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

When Ron moved to the Mendocino Coast in the early 1970’s, he continued acting on his strong belief in public participation in government decisions. He was particularly distressed at improperly regulated land divisions and development which, on the Mendocino Coast, meant the closing off of public views and access to the Pacific ocean. Today, much of the open space, and ocean access along the Mendocino Coast, can be attributed to Ron’s early efforts. Back then, almost all Mendocino ocean front parcels were subject to development plans. Ron meticulously, and often single-handedly derailed many developments by objecting to planning decision irregularities, thus preserving the opportunity for future community preservation efforts.

With boundless energy (usually sleeping in his car when he traveled up and down the state), Ron was active in the macro politics of state environmental legislation and policy-making. At home, he was busy with solitary activism, for example, shooting out “big purples,” as he called the large incandescent yard lights PG&E was installing for homeowners of beachfront properties along the GP Haul Road from 10 Mile River to Fort Bragg in the 1980s. Ron would regularly run the 10 miles along the beach at night, outraged that these yard lights blotted out the stars. The yard lights are now prohibited by law in the coastal zone.

Ron strongly believed that any and all efforts to halt environmental destruction were worthy of his support and time, from Dave Foreman and Mike Roselle’s Earth First! Road Show (which first publicized monkey wrenching in Northern California in the early 1980s), to working closely with the International Woodworkers of America union members, to preventing logger’s job loss through Louisiana-Pacific’s overharvesting of its Mendocino forest land.

Ron was a strategic participant in the passage and implementation of the California Environmental Quality Act of 1970, the Z'Berg-Nejedly Forest Practices Act of 1974, and the Coastal Act of 1976, the most progressive land-use laws in the nation. Sometimes, with the support of Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and sometimes times raising funds, and hiring and training attorneys on his own, Ron created well-crafted public input over the lack of implementation of these laws. In doing so, he formed the legal basis for successful court review. He overturned many destructive local and state governmental land-use decisions more often than not with these lawsuits and in some instances created new state environmental protection law through the Appellate Court.

Ron helped form EPIC in Garberville, the Mendocino Environmental Center, the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club, Friends of Fort Bragg, Rural Institute, the Ocean Sanctuary Coalition, and many, many other neighborhood groups and single issue coalitions. He introduced the concepts, and patiently taught countless people the technical legal process and the value of citizen participation in government land-use decisions. Throughout the 1980s he wrote the “Coastal Waves” environmental education column for the Coast Peddler/Commentary newspaper. He was a prolific writer of letters to the editors of the county’s newspapers and continued this practice up until his death.

Ron had an astounding amount of “firsts” and credits to his name but always attributed his work to the collective “we” with the understanding that change for the better comes from building a shared movement. For example, in the early 1980s, Ron collected input from several environmental and fishing groups and Native American tribes to author and advocate for the first “Citizen’s Plan for the Mendocino National Forest,” which was adopted in its entirety by the US Forest Service. This Plan became the model for public participation, riparian salmon stream protection, Native American artifact preservation, endangered plant and animal habitat protection and selective logging forestry, all of which conservation groups are still striving for today in their own watersheds. His name does not appear on the Plan, but the roster of groups he corralled for the effort all recognize his pivotal work.

In the early days of Ron’s activism, he paid a heavy retaliatory price for his politics, but rarely shared what had happened to him in order not to frighten others away from “the cause.” Ron’s water supply was contaminated with a crank case dumped in it and the road into his property east of Fort Bragg was regularly strewn with roofing nails. He was arrested and jailed on phony charges with a falsified warrant created by a Fort Bragg City councilmember. He was shot at, run off the road, sued, investigated, targeted for traffic tickets, banned from the offices of the “Advocate News” and “Mendocino Beacon” newspapers, and regularly received death threats. He never backed down, and as time passed more people began to speak up, organize and participate in local government decisions. The “developer thugs,” as he called them, eventually faded away.

Ron loved Fort Bragg with an undying passion, and in return, after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991, the community embraced him as he became more and more disabled. No longer able to run and hike long distances, Ron would walk all over Fort Bragg, later riding his bicycle when his legs no longer functioned. Ron often collapsed on the street, in Purity Market and in Rossi’s hardware store where compassionate friends and strangers would make him comfortable until his medications enabled him to walk again. He often lost his hat, his wallet, his keys in town and they were always returned.

Ron’s family deeply appreciates all the care and support he received over the years of his illness from the larger community, his friends, his doctors Larry Heiss and Peter Glusker, the members of the Parkinson’s Support Group, Mendocino County Adult Protective Services staff, and the In-Home Supportive Services program.

Ronald Guenther is survived by his sons, Eric and Lieben, his brother Steven Guenther, sister-in-law Jan and their sons Scott and Jeff, and Lieben’s mother, Roanne Withers. Ron has been cremated and a ceremony to scatter his ashes will be announced in the Spring. Ron’s very last effort just a few days before he passed was to painstakingly type a letter to the “Anderson Valley Advertiser.” In keeping with his thoughts, donations are suggested for the new on-line non-profit version of the “Anderson Valley Advertiser” at http://theava.com/donate.

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