Corless at work in her “other” office. (Photo: Todd Vogel/FOI)
Friends of the Inyo turns 25; Director Corless looks to the future
Stacy Corless is Friends of the Inyo’s current Executive Director, but her involvement with the conservation and advocacy organization all started with suburban sprawl … in Lancaster, Calif. In fact, when FOI was first established 25 years ago this month, Corless hadn’t even heard of it.
“In 1986, I was in high school in Lancaster, though I had skied in Mammoth before,” she recalled. “I got interested in the environment about that same time, though, because of the rapid development that was going on in Lancaster and Palmdale during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.” Corless didn’t grow up hiking or camping, but nonetheless found herself taken by the beauty of the desert.
“I spent a lot of time in Germany as an exchange student, and learned ‘classic’ nature worship. During Germany’s ‘romantic’ period, the literature was filled with a sort of idolization of nature,” she explained.
At that same time, locally the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society, Sierra Club and other orgs were banding together to form an ad hoc, cohesive group — to be called “Friends of the Inyo” — to work on a new Inyo National Forest Management Plan.
“There was a shift towards recreation and away from resource extraction,” Corless pointed out. “During that period, there was a move on to connect Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain ski areas, and there was a plan to log old growth red fir trees in Glass Creek Meadow and surrounding territory.”
Corless said that among the issues addressed in that new plan, ski area expansion, logging and the White Mountains were three of the main concerns. The young FOI racked up considerable success: 25 years later, Glass Creek
Meadow and a big chunk of the White Mountains are wilderness. Even ski area expansion has benefitted by what Corless indicated is now a thriving partnership between MMSA and FOI, which collaborate on the Summer of Stewardship trails program, among other projects.
By the late 1990s, a major evolution was underway. During 2000, with the hiring of its first full-time “staff” member, former Executive Director Paul McFarland, its scope was widened to include a service component. “FOI helped gather data for new wilderness proposals, Paul led hikes and did a lot of early mapping,” Corless recounted. “Around 2004-2005, he made ‘stewardship’ a big part of FOI’s work.”
Corless arrived in Mammoth Lakes in 1998, just on the cusp of the changes McFarland was to usher in. “I still hadn’t heard of FOI or been involved with them at all until about 2005, when I was a writer for The Sheet. I saw all these calendar listings for hikes and events, and that pushed my environmental button.”
She gradually gravitated to FOI, which was more McFarland’s style. “I’m a little more ‘in-your-face,’” Corless quipped, always looking to bolster membership numbers. “I’m straight-up asking [the readers] to join!”
Today’s members are part of what Corless thinks is more a conservation-oriented FOI, whose mission is simply, directly caring for the Eastern Sierra’s public lands. “We have three main tenets: preservation (which includes advocacy), exploration (which includes the hiking and backcountry programs) and stewardship (which includes support systems and services for trail maintenance). It’s all about balancing sustainble land management, recreation, wildlife habitat and maintaining healthy ecosystems.”
Stewardship, she’s convinced, will play a major role in FOI’s next 25 years, as a way to engage people in public land use issues and to get boots-on-the-ground work done. With forest service personnel being cut, large swaths of forestland are in constant need, and thus Friends of the Inyo and other similar groups are filling in as best they can to maintain them. “We’re doing work that used to be done federally, but there’s little or no funding available in a growing number of areas,” Corless said.
She admits there’s some tension with what could be viewed as privitization of government work. “That makes us a mini, green Halliburton,” she joked. Still, the overarching goal, Corless said, is to care for the land. “We’re not taking over; we see it as purely supplemental.”
Sitting in the Director’s seat has given her a look at both the good and bad parts of public land management. Corless laments aspects of government bureaucracy that make up the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management status quo. “You can close campgrounds with a simple signature, but to operate them under a different business model would require a lengthy process.”
Meanwhile, FOI plans to celebrate its anniversary with a dinner at June Mountain on Saturday, Sept. 10, at the June Mountain Chalet. Part of the menu will (fittingly) include locally grown produce, and (also fittingly) wine donated by Bill Hanna of Muir-Hanna Vineyards. One of Napa Valley’s finest vintners, Hanna is a direct descendant of famed naturalist John Muir, thus the name. Local musicians The Littlest Birds will perform throughout the evening.
Expect tributes to and appearances by past and present board members, and others who played important roles in FOI’s founding. A few names she mentioned include McFarland, James Wilson (President of FOI’s Board of Directors and owner of Wilson Sports in Bishop), Mike Prather (an original board member who’s still with FOI), Frank Stewart and Lisa Jaeger, who Corless credits with setting up the administration that keeps FOI’s business heart beating. “All these people had the foresight to help develop FOI into what it is today,” she notes.
Then, FOI turns its attention to the next 25 years. “I go to a lot of meetings with [Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access founder] John Wentworth, and a lot of his visionary thinking has rubbed off on me. After a year at this job, my Myers-Briggs psychological type has changed from sensing to intuition. I’m now really big picture; it’s important to keep that out there while still looking after everyday details.”
In 2012 FOI will begin work on its next multi-year strategic plan, including addressing the ever-increasing need for stewardship, and new funding streams. “The key is to have more people, volunteers and partners involved.”
Flexibility is also an attribute Corless thinks can’t be overstated. “Plans change. When they do, you have to change and keep on going.” One thing not expected to change is FOI’s basic methodology. “Our top two criteria for evaluating goals and projects is what’s best for the land and what’s best for the people,” Corless relates. “Millions love this place. We have to continue to find new ways to give back, and constantly refine the old ways.”
See FOI’s ad in this issue on page 11 for complete details on anniversary dinner tickets. And don’t miss the final Summer of Stewardship day at Convict Lake, starting at 8:30 a.m. the following morning, on Sunday, Sept. 11.