Lee Wilson Papers, MS 113
A founding member and first president of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, Lee Wilson was a lifelong environmental activist and conservationist. His papers document his efforts on environmental causes in San Luis Obispo County, primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. Wilson was particularly active in leading grassroots efforts to influence local and federal environmental policy.
Frank and Emma Wilson's son Lee was born in Rangely, Colorado, on June 18, 1904. The Wilson family made their living as farmers and instilled a love of the land and open spaces in their son. In 1914, the family moved to Arizona, where Lee attended Mesa High School. Because of his father's asthma, the family moved to California in 1921. Lee was an Eagle Scout, graduated from high school in Lindsey, California, and attended the University of California at UCLA. Wilson and his brother started an electrical contracting business. He Lee and Lillian Wilson were married in 1928.
During World War II he taught electrical engineering at UCLA and served as an air raid warden. He became a member of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club in 1948. For many years, Lee and Lillian Wilson led a group of Sierra Club members who hiked Mount Whitney every Labor Day weekend. Lee and Lillian hiked the entire John Muir Trail in the Sierra.
The Wilsons had three children: Jeannette Wilson Armstrong, Marian Wilson Sacco, and Lee Jr., who shared their parents' love of the outdoors. In 1958, Wilson moved the family business, Lee Wilson Electric Co., to Arroyo Grande so they could be near their children and live in a small community.
Wilson was an active member of the Native Plant Society of San Luis Obispo County. He researched and photographed native plants of the county with Cal Poly social sciences professor Robert F. Hoover for many years. Photographs from these trips helped illustrate Hoover's Color Supplement to the Vascular Plants of San Luis Obispo County, California (San Luis Obispo, Calif.: [n.p.], 1974).
In addition to serving as leader of Boy Scout Troop 248, Wilson also worked on campaigns to preserve the Pismo Beach Dunes and Oso Flaco Lake. In 1961, he was a founding member of the Santa Lucia Group, a local offshoot of the Santa Barbara based Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club. By 1968, the Santa Lucia Group became a formal chapter of the Sierra Club.
Wilson waged successful campaigns on a number of environmental issues, most notably designation and use of wilderness areas. He worked to ban the use of off-road vehicles in local wilderness areas. The Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs recommended that the Forest Service permit off-road vehicles use in the Garcia and Machesna Mountain Wilderness Areas, stating, "Both areas appear to have no timber or mineral values but receive substantial motorized recreation use."
Wilson and other local conservations, including Ian McMillan, knew both wilderness areas had once been home to a thriving California condor population, located along the condor flyway, where they were a common sight before the increasing use of off-road vehicles. As part of his letter-writing campaign in response to the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs' recommendation, Wilson in 1979 wrote to congressional representative Robert Lagomarsino: "I believe the elimination of the use of motor vehicles of any kind…would encourage the condor to again use both Hi Mountain & Machesna nesting sites."
Wilson also worked closely with Harold Miossi on creation of the Santa Lucia Wilderness Area, a goal of the Sierra Club chapter since the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Wilderness status was being thwarted by the district's congressional representative, Burton Talcott, and by the U.S. Forest Service, which argued that only "experts and bureaucrats should determine what tracts should be saved." When Alan Cranston was elected to the U.S. Senate from California in 1968, the plan regained momentum.
Wilson and Miossi drafted the legal description of the 22,250-acre tract, which Cranston introduced in December 1971. Wilson, Miossi, and San Luis Obispo Mayor Ken Schwartz testified several times in Washington, D.C., for passage of the bill, but Talcott continued to oppose it. Eventually, the proposed name was changed from "Lopez" to "Santa Lucia," but it was not until Leon Panetta defeated Talcott for the district's congressional seat in 1976 that the SB 3027 succeeded. In 1978, Congress designated the Santa Lucia in central California and the Rogue River in Oregon as the first Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas, which President Jimmy Carter signed.
After the Santa Lucia Wilderness Area was finally created, Wilson believed that access to the area for hiking could be improved. Wilson successfully petitioned the Forest Service to create a trail from Highway 101 to the new wilderness area. He talked his son-in-law into donating 100 gallons of gas for the trucks to haul the volunteers up the mountains to break the trail. A plaque commemorating this work is located at the trailhead.
In 1979, Lee Wilson was one of seven people honored nationally with Special Achievement Awards from the Sierra Club, for his work on the Santa Lucia Wilderness Area. Established in 1966, Special Achievement are bestowed on individual Sierra Club members or groups a particular action, campaign, or effort of singular importance to conservation or the Club.
In 1985, the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune honored him with a front-page picture entitled "Man of the Mountain" in the Focus weekend magazine. The Arroyo Grande Rotary Club honored him with a Rotarian Fellow Award for his involvement in their many community projects. He was also recognized for 25 years of perfect attendance. Lee Wilson was the subject of a posthumous resolution from the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors for his 18 years of service on the San Luis Obispo County Water Resources Advisory Committee.
In 1988, Lee and Lillian Wilson celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. On August 31, 1989, Lee Wilson died in Arroyo Grande, California. His three children and seven grandchildren, who share his love of hiking and the outdoors, survived him.
Wilson family, 2003
Neiburger, Carl, "Man to Match the Mountain: An Album of Portraits of Lee Wilson Taken in the Wilderness He Helped Save," San Luis Obispo County (Calif.) Telegram-Tribune, 24 January 1981
Social Security Administration, Social Security Death Index, Master File. Ancestry.com http://www.ancestry.com, accessed 9 June 2007