John T. Gray 1952-2006

by David Pritchett

JGray%2008Dec2005A%20byDPritch.jpgIn this photo, John Gray is leading a tour of Goleta Slough early last December. This is how his colleagues will always remember him: marching through a wetland restoration site, fixing what humanity had wrecked, and telling us what was and was not successful in the project. We were all excited on the tour because ocean fish were entering the wetland after the tide had been blocked for 50 years.

An environmental consultant with URS Corporation, John worked with Goleta Slough Management Committee for more than 10 years on this and many projects. I knew him through this group, City of Santa Barbara Creeks Advisory Committee, and other projects to restore Ventura River. We were often on opposite sides of the “negotiations,” but with John it really was about honest collaboration to find solutions.

John Gray’s friends and colleagues consistently hail his professional integrity and capability and excellent people skills. This theme was evident during a memorial service held on May 21 for an audience of nearly 200. Brian Barnwell, a City Council member and veteran planning commissioner, remarked that we all must “go out and do the good work he did, for what he did was inside the hearts of all of us in Santa Barbara, the green spaces, the open air, the creeks, and beaches.”

Indeed, during the past 25 years, John shaped scores of local environmental projects from Gaviota Creek to Carpinteria Salt Marsh. The Santa Barbara Creeks Inventory he prepared helped kickstart the City Creeks program that began in 2001. The city’s completed Bohnett Park project that he substantially designed won an award from Santa Barbara Beautiful, and the upcoming Arroyo Burro estuary restoration project will likely win awards as well.

Jill Zachary, the city’s Creeks Division manager, noted that John “brought enthusiasm and dedication, as well as patience, as the city learned how to address water quality and habitat restoration issues.” Zachary further remembered that John was easy to work with, responded to last-minute requests with grace, provided support on complicated issues, and was always good-natured and respectful. Others who knew John agree.

John arrived at UCSB in 1977, and earned his PhD only four years later, researching chaparral plant ecology with his faculty advisor, Bill Schlesinger. John was soon offered a professorship at University of Colorado, but chose to stay in Santa Barbara with Kim, his future wife of almost 25 years. Schlesinger recalled that John was “energetic, bright, ambitious, productive, and yet a lot of fun to be around,” and contributed to the “electric” collegiality in Noble Hall. Mary Carroll, a local botanist and friend during graduate school, fondly remembered that John often helped ease academic stress by taping packages of donuts to her door, sometimes along with a poem.

Colorado’s loss was our gain. Wayne Ferren, a longtime local leader in land conservation and ecological restoration, recalls that John introduced him to California deserts in 1978. Reflecting on their 20 years working together, Ferren noted, “I had the greatest respect for John, especially his ability to develop consensus, compromise, and conclusion on often controversial and complex topics, such as Ventura River, Goleta Slough, and Ellwood Mesa.”

Since 1982, John essentially dedicated his whole career to the same local office of a large consulting firm. His firm morphed with the corporate winds several times, but John became the institutional memory and continuity of conscience there. People and agencies needing help with a project thought of him by name as whom to call, not necessarily his firm.

Despite spending his career on the consulting side of the Rubik’s Cube of environmental planning, John appreciated the needs of government agencies and understood the criticisms of public advocacy groups. Sharyn Main, one such local critic, said she felt relief when reviewing Gray’s reports, because they started off with a higher level of quality and accuracy, and then fairly addressed the comments and criticisms.

On the state and federal agency side, Mark Capelli reported that John “was a soft-spoken man who rarely raised his voice or even changed his intonation, while working in a contentious field where raising your voice is often necessary just to be heard.” Capelli recounted that John agreed in 1997 to write up a synopsis about removing Matilija Dam on Ventura River. This was before steelhead trout were listed as an endangered species, and this dam proposal was dismissed as fantasy among John’s agency clients. His synopsis later became the foundation of a complex plan that has verified that this dam removal — the largest in the nation — is quite feasible; implementing it now would require the financial equivalent of 10 hours in Iraq.

Rob Almy, a manager with the County Water Agency, recalled that in the early 1990s John facilitated and wrote the only full Environmental Impact Statement ever done for a federal water contract extension. Almy noted that Gray united and satisfied the dysfunctional family of local water agencies, directly leading to the Santa Ynez River water rights peace agreement in 2003.

I first met John in spring 1986, when he hired me for a series of rare plant surveys. John took good care of his crew, making sure we always knew what and where, and never questioning all the chocolate on our expense reports. The project was such a great experience, I skipped a UCSB philosophy class once too often and failed it, leaving me short some credits and pushing back my diploma date to the next year. But working with John Gray was worth it. I wish my subsequent corporate consulting experiences were so good.

I saw John for the last time on February 15. He looked thin as he spoke at the Creeks Committee meeting, his voice quiet but determined following open-heart surgery only 33 days prior. I had recently asked him about a proposed housing project along lower Arroyo Burro, for which his report claimed that a large bridge would cause adverse, immitigable impacts to the creek. People throughout city government openly grumbled, but his report stood unchanged. John’s integrity remained impeccable. Lesser consultants would have buckled in an industry full of selective and flexible findings to suit the client.

John’s family might have written a more personal tribute, possibly noting his experience as a contentious objector during the Vietnam War, but we in the professional community must honor the Dr. Gray we knew best: a fair and capable scientist who applied his talents to protect and restore the natural environment. He set the standard for all our work. We will miss John Gray, but find comfort in his legacy at Goleta Slough, Arroyo Burro, and the many other natural places that are now better understood and forever improved.

The John T. Gray Memorial Fund has been established for graduate student scholarships. To contribute, email or call 893-5743.

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