The “Footloose” Eco-Activism of Marnie Gaede

Marnie Gaede has been selected to receive the Fund for Wild Nature’s Grassroots Activist of the Year Award for 2021 for her many contributions to environmental activism. The overall arc of Marnie’s multifaceted experiences can be connected with the word “footloose.”

Long before she became involved in saving whales and other wildlife, Marnie dated an aspiring musician named Kenny Loggins. He hoped to record a song about Winnie the Pooh, but Disney’s lawyers would not give him permission to do so. In an example of her inherent helpfulness, Marnie drew on her family connections in the Disney corporation to enable Kenny Loggins to record the song. This helped launch his very successful music career, perhaps best known for his song “Footloose.”

Flashforward to 50 years later and Marnie is now helping another Footloose. Footloose Montana is the name of a wildlife protection group that is challenging the horrific use of animal traps on public lands. Footloose Montana is one of the small but highly effective grassroots environmental groups that receives financial assistance from the Fund for Wild Nature. Marnie joined the board of directors of the Fund for Wild Nature in 2000 and has become the Fund’s longest-serving president.

The Fund for Wild Nature was created by grassroots activists to get more resources to bold grassroots groups working to protect wildlife and wild places, recognizing how even a small amount of money for these groups can lead to big results. The Fund for Wild Nature depends entirely on annual contributions from the public, which it then redistributes to support worthy grassroots groups throughout North America. In addition to providing grants, the Fund sponsors the Grassroots Activist of the Year Award as another way to promote bold activism.

This award typically goes to one of the Fund’s grantees, but this year the rest of the Fund’s board of directors unanimously selected board president Marnie Gaede as the award recipient without her knowledge. We did so enthusiastically, both to celebrate a recent victory and to honor Marnie’s extensive history of bold advocacy in defense of the wild.

The Fund for Wild Nature’s board of directors consists entirely of volunteers with direct experience with grassroots biodiversity activism. That experience helps us find exceptionally effective groups as recipients for the Fund’s grants. Marnie is a great illustration of this synergy.

Marnie, who lives near Pasadena, California, became involved in assisting her community in challenging a problematic plan by the County of Los Angeles to remove almost 4 million cubic yards of sediment from the Hahamongna watershed —dubbed the “Big Dig.” The project would damage an important wildlife corridor, and the sediment-hauling diesel trucks would bring air pollution and other dangers to the community.

Marnie brought this issue to our attention, and the Fund for Wild Nature gave a grant to the Pasadena Audubon Society for its litigation with the Arroyo Seco Foundation to challenge the Big Dig. In 2020, the litigation resulted in a settlement in which LA County agreed to curtail the project, reducing it to 1.7 million cubic yards and allowing more riparian areas to grow and provide wildlife habitat, while the County also created  incentives for the use of non-diesel trucks and habitat restoration for the remaining portion of the project.

Marnie spends summers living in the remote mountains of southern Colorado where she has actively assisted conservation activists there too. One key issue has been the efforts to stop a massive development at Wolf Creek Pass Ski Area, which would harm an important wildlife corridor for lynx. That development is currently on hold following successful litigation by Fund for Wild Nature grantees, including 2017 Grassroots Activist of the Year Christine Canaly of San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.

In addition to her experience on the board of the Fund for Wild Nature, Marnie has also served two terms on the board of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.  As its board president, she helped navigate Sea Shepherd through the challenging times when the Japanese whaling industry filed a lawsuit against the organization.

In addition, Marnie has been involved in other international conservation work.  She has served on the board of the Galapagos Preservation Society since 2010 and had rebuilt the organization into Galapagos Conservation Action, where she currently serves as its president. Marnie and her husband Marc Gaede have also provided assistance to the famous Virunga National Park in the Congo. As featured in the award-winning documentary of the same name, Virunga is home to about one-third of the world’s population of the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Yet Virunga is besieged by heavily armed poachers, so aerial patrolling became essential to the survival of the park. Marnie and Marc took a lead role in securing and rebuilding three donated airplanes to support Virunga National Park rangers and operations.

In sum, Marnie Gaede works at both the local and global level to defend wildlife and wild places. Her work has brought her into contact with many remarkable people. As Marnie has observed, “If you are involved in environmentalism, you’re going to meet good people because they want to make the world a better place.” She does all of her eco-activism as a volunteer, in addition to being an adjunct professor of environmental issues at the Art Center College of Design for nearly thirty years. Marnie is especially proud of the impact of her teaching, raising the environmental awareness and activism of her students, with many of those students coming from overseas.

Some of the most impactful activism happens with little publicity and fanfare, yet this behind-the-scenes role is often crucial to larger victories. Marnie epitomizes a humble, yet highly effective approach to grassroots biodiversity protection. This is exactly the sort of work that the Fund for Wild Nature seeks to support through the donations we collect, so we think it is fitting that Marnie Gaede receives the Fund’s Grassroots Activist of the Year Award for 2021.  Our award winners typically get a $1,000 check, but Marnie has asked that her award money instead be used to help more Fund grantees. Marnie is still receiving the badger trophy given to our award winners to symbolize the feisty and bold spirit of the Fund for Wild Nature and its grantees.

Douglas Bevington is the author of The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear (Island Press, 2009), and he is a board member of the Fund for Wild Nature.