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A juvenile Bald Eagle soars high above Lowell Young on a sunny day in Yosemite National Park. The sight fills the former longtime president of Yosemite Area Audubon Society with admiration as he peers up at the majestic bird from a meadow rimmed by fragrant ponderosa pines. “This is where I belong,” he says.
The eagle doesn’t know its habitat has fewer protections just south, in Sierra National Forest. At age 88, Young hopes to ensure that it and countless other species can mature in an ecosystem that’s more equally preserved on both sides of the invisible boundary. Working with a grassroots group called Unite the Parks, the octogenarian has spent the past decade as one leading advocate for an ambitious proposal to convert the national forest and a smaller chunk of adjoining federal public land into a national monument.
If created as proposed, the Range of Light National Monument could be about twice as large as Yosemite and stretch between that park and Kings Canyon National Park–making it the center of the longest interconnected wilderness in the lower 48 states, says Deanna Wulff, executive director of Unite the Parks. Her campaign’s goal is to better protect habitat from foothills to lofty peaks for dozens of at-risk or endangered species of wildlife, plants found nowhere else on Earth, and water that flows from the forest to millions of Californians. Currently, some of that land is used for logging and grazing. “In essence,” Wulff says, “we want to restore the landscape, plant trees, build trails, and create a refuge for people and wildlife.”
Wulff began advocating for the monument in 2013 after she found large pine trees chopped down at one of her favorite camping spots in Sierra National Forest, where she lived for several summers. Young, then in his late 70s, caught Wulff’s attention when he received a national award from Audubon honoring his volunteer efforts that year. Her dream became his after their first meeting, and since then, he has been with her every step of the way. More than 200 scientists endorsed the monument in 2019, and legislation backing it was introduced in the last Congress, in December 2022, after Young wrote a resolution in favor of it that was adopted by the Democratic Party. Today, Young expresses his support for the monument with an idealistic energy. “We are one,” he says. “One Earth, one humanity, one spirit.”
Young’s all-encompassing attitude and enduring youthfulness has powered a lifetime of advocacy. After admiring the soaring eagle, Young shows off his whimsical T-shirt, emblazoned with floating hearts and the phrase, “Easily distracted by birds,” then bends his towering frame to scoop up a handful of lingering snow that he playfully chucks at some children engaged in a snowball fight nearby. “He thinks he’s a kid,” remarks his wife, Sue.
Her husband spent his childhood roaming salt flats around Salt Lake City, where he fell in love with the outdoors and birds, trying to mimic their freedom of flight by tossing toy airplanes off hills. Later moving to California, he pursued a career as a general contractor and in real estate, but on the side, took on a range of causes, or “crusades,” as Sue likes to call them. As a board member for what is now Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, he helped pass one of the nation’s first anti-smoking laws. Spurred by opposition to nuclear power, he became a solar energy pioneer in the 1970s, starting a business constructing solar-powered homes.
His most unexpected crusades might be the ones he’s waged for birds. Young calls himself an “unlikely” birder because of his limited hearing and colorblindness– the latter prevented him from pursuing a dream of becoming an Air Force pilot. Excelling as a birder, a passion he developed in earnest in his 60s, became a way to triumph over disability. The Loggerhead Shrike is among his favorite birds. “They’re a songbird,” Young says, “but boy, I’ll tell ya, they’re ferocious hunters.”
He employed that sweet and forceful persona to protect the birds he loves. As president of Yosemite Area Audubon over the next couple of decades, he led the implementation of a nesting box program and started new Christmas Bird Counts, along with new routes to survey raptors and shorebirds. One of his biggest initiatives was helping to found an Audubon action team to protect Tricolored Blackbirds. After witnessing the destruction of a 60,000-bird nesting colony, when a crop was harvested from a farm field before the nestlings fledged, Young traveled the state giving presentations about the birds’ plight. That work led to projects to restore nesting habitats in Sierra foothills and valley wetlands. Eventually, California listed the birds as threatened.
Len McKenzie, a former Yosemite Area Audubon vice president, compares his friend’s tenacity to a “heat-seeking missile.” It’s deftly guided by a deep kindness and “voice of reason,” adds friend Robert Snow, an Audubon California board member. “He’s just so passionate about conservation,” says Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation for Audubon California “He’s so genuine. He doesn’t have a lot of ego around it. He just brings people together in a way that you want to work with him.”
Perhaps Young’s most personal crusade is his work to strengthen protections in the Sierra. He’s resided in that mountain range, or just within its shadow, for half his life. His former Yosemite chapter, along with the Fresno Audubon Society, where he’s now a member, were among the first groups to endorse the national monument proposal in 2014. As an executive board member for California’s Democratic Party, Young wrote a resolution of support that his state party adopted in 2018 and the national party, a year later.
A monument designation, Young notes, would provide greater protections for Sierra National Forest’s 469 lakes and three major rivers that feed 11 reservoirs–increasingly precious resources in a landscape reeling from years of drought and wildfires fueled by climate change. “That’s our source of water,” Young says. “And if you degrade it, what do you have? You have nothing.”
Wulff says that off-road vehicles and limited commercial logging and grazing on the existing public lands are degrading the region’s watershed by increasing erosion, pollution, and runoff. Last fall, Unite the Parks also submitted detailed written opposition to a post-fire logging project by the U.S. Forest Service that covers thousands of Sierra miles. Dead trees are critical for some birds and other wildlife that use them to nest and den. This is the “last stand” for some species there, Jones says, and as management decisions are made, “these birds need to be part of the conversation.”
Toward that aim, Young most recently poured his energy into working with Audubon to establish an Important Bird Area to support the monument proposal. He thought two small existing IBAs in the region, covering a couple of meadows, were inadequate and urged Audubon California to expand them. A geospatial science team looked at the overlapping watershed boundaries and ranges of imperiled birds–principally the Great Gray Owl, Spotted Owl, Northern Goshawk, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Willow Flycatcher–and decided an exponentially larger IBA was warranted there.
In 2021, Audubon California named a new massive expanse the Lowell Young Southern Sierra Nevada Important Bird Area in his honor. The new IBA, part of a global network, covers four national forests, three national parks, and two national monuments, making it the second largest or around 2,800 existing IBAs in the United States, Jones says. More than 300 bird species use the habitat.
Young hopes his namesake IBA will help build momentum to establish a national monument within it. While the federal bill introduced in 2022 expired with the last session of Congress, advocates would like President Biden to consider establishing the monument through an executive order. As those prospects remain unclear, Young, who will turn 89 in January, says it’s now time for activists younger than himself to “get the job done.”
His work continues to inspire. “You don’t have to be a PhD-educated biologist in order to have a meaningful effect on conservation,” says his friend, wildlife biologist Dan Airola. “Individual people can accomplish a tremendous amount if they have the interest and the drive to do so. He’s the living embodiment of that.”