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

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

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

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

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


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