Guest Commentary: ‘Damned Environmentalist’ Mother Took Lead in Natural Area Creation

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My 1960s childhood was spent in the woods bordering my Seminary Hill home. My neighbor, Barbara, and I pretended we were horses and galloped down the trails, leaping fallen logs. In junior high we got real horses and rode the trails on Scout and Shadow. We blazed a few trails of our own and penciled crude, not-to-scale maps on notebook paper. And yes, in high school, I rendezvoused there with my boyfriend.

In the 1960s and ’70s, my mother, Stellajoe Staebler, and her friend Chloe Palmer hiked in the woods every week, rain or shine. Their route from our home took them to an area called Dry Park — an ironic name since it was owned by the Centralia water department. 

My mother tells me this story: 

“As Chloe and I walked we often talked about the area needing to be protected. We had been taking our Girl Scout troop to the day camp there for years to hike and identify plants; we were concerned about the loss to the community if the area was logged. When we heard a rumor that there was talk of selling the trees so water rates wouldn’t have to be raised the next year, and that there was an interested buyer, we realized we couldn’t wait for someone else to lead an effort to save it; it had to be us. In 1980 we set out to see if we could do it.

“The first thing we did was try to recruit our husbands, George and Ernie, to join us. Chloe’s husband, Ernie, a math teacher at Centralia High School, agreed to help. George called me a ‘damned environmentalist’ and said those trees were mature and ready to cut. ‘That’s what trees are for,’ he said. ‘They should be harvested and replanted and it will be a forest again.’ I don’t know why he finally came around. He would not have publicly opposed me, and I wasn’t backing down, so I guess it was a case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ He became the face of the campaign.

“The first thing I did was join every environmental group I knew about; including the Sierra Club — which George detested. I wanted to know what they were doing and what we could learn from them. We put together a group of 12 and started what would become the Friends of Seminary Hill Natural Area.

“We got the city commissioners to sign a resolution that they wouldn’t act on selling it; but that would only be in effect until the next election of commissioners. To save it in perpetuity, there had to be an ordinance. For consideration, we needed 1,000 signatures. We held a press conference. We staffed a table with the petition at meetings and festivals. I don’t know if anyone else went door-to-door, but I did. We got more than 2,000 signatures.”

The Seminary Hill Natural Area was voted into being by the City Commission in 1982 under the leadership of Mayor Bill Moeller. Following the death of my father in 1995, and my mother’s resignation as co-president, our neighbors Robert and Sandy Godsey alternated leadership of the Friends’ group — which currently has more than 50 members — until Sandy stepped down this month. A debt of gratitude goes to them for their dedication and passion.

This month the Friends of Seminary Hill Natural Area received the Urban Forest Stewardship Award “in recognition of their contributions to Urban and Community Forestry in Washington” from the Washington Community Forestry Council and the Department of Natural Resources. I am button-popping proud of my damned-environmentalist mother.

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Gretchen Staebler is a Centralia resident who grew up in the Hub City.

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