Donna Tisdale’s boundless backyard may not be God’s greenest acre, but look at it.
Stand along a gravel road on her 310-acre Boulevard spread – the Morning Star Ranch, she and her husband call it – and turn east and you can see the In-Ko-Pah and Jacumba mountains, chocolate and orange in the late-afternoon sun. To the north sits McCain Valley and a row of giant wind turbines. To the south, a short hike away, are the knobby peaks of Baja California. And to the west, some 50 miles from the ranch, is metropolitan San Diego. You can’t see a lick of it from this spot and that’s probably just as well.
In San Diego, Tisdale said, “it’s hard to find even a square inch where you can retreat from the noise and the activities of city life.”
For close to a quarter-century, the dogged activist has been standing up to big business and big-city ideas in the name of preserving the San Diego County backcountry and its rural ways.
She’s sued San Diego Gas & Electric over Sunrise Powerlink, the mammoth transmission line that will cut through East County. She’s challenged telecommunications companies over the placement of cell towers. She’s tangled with energy corporations over plans for industrial-scale wind and solar farms.
Tisdale, who has chaired Boulevard’s community planning board since 1990, believes the projects will spoil a landscape still studded with giant oaks, more dirt roads than asphalt and where you can see the Milky Way most nights.
“I never get tired of looking at the views” she said Thursday. “To me, it’s soothing to the soul.”
For this she gets dismissed by some as a chronic complainer and an impediment to progress.
“A lot of people don’t like me,” she said.
Others see someone with gumption, a sort of Erin Brockovich, without the blond locks and toothy, Hollywood looks.
Tisdale, a 59-year-old grandmother, has drawn accolades from organizations over the years. In June, she won the 2011 conservation activist award from the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club.
“I’d describe Donna as a backcountry warrior,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents East County. “At her core, I think she loves her community the way a mother lion loves her cub.”
Tisdale would like to say that all her recent hard work has paid off.
The hard-hats and helicopters crowding her community suggest otherwise.
Construction of SDG&E’s Powerlink is in full swing, despite on-going legal attempts by Tisdale, Jacob and a community coalition to stop it. Several sprawling wind and solar projects are expected to get under way soon, once the federal government gives the green light.
Yet Tisdale keeps going.
“I don’t have an off switch,” she said.
Ed Tisdale, her husband of 33 years and a retired building contractor, says there’s no use trying to get her to slow down. She’s going to do what she needs to do.
So this is what she keeps doing: Pressing government agencies and private industry officials on a range of rural issues, reminding them that someone is watching them and that that someone has done her homework.
Her dining room table at the ranch is covered with documents – topographic maps, Boulevard Planning Group agendas, critical studies on the health impacts of massive wind farms.
Speaking in a tone more mournful than angry, she said she feared what Boulevard and the rest of the backcountry will look like in a few years if all the projects are built as proposed.
She sat at the wooden table and her voice softened. Then she paused and her eyes welled with tears.
“If those projects happen … we’re all screwed.”
Tisdale emerged, rather reluctantly, as a community leader nearly 25 years ago.
When the Campo Indian band in the late 1980s proposed a 600-acre landfill for their reservation near Boulevard, it was pitched as a way for them to become economically self-sufficient.
Tisdale and others saw an environmental disaster in the making. They argued it would poison their water wells and bring in a steady stream of pollution-belching trucks.
Five years of verbal and legal sparring ensued.
Finally, the company brought in to develop the dump was forced to file for bankruptcy and abandon the project, partly due to legal challenges raised by the long-haired, blue-eyed woman from Morning Star Ranch.
“Donna Tisdale is flat out the best obstructionist I’ve seen in my life,” a company executive complained at the time.
Tisdale didn’t see herself that way. She didn’t even see herself as a leader.
Billie Jo Jannen, a reporter who covered the landfill battle for the Alpine Sun, said Tisdale came off as shy at first, “but she definitely grew into her boots very quickly.”
In the 1990s, when the federal government launched a highly-publicized crackdown against illegal immigration between Tijuana and San Diego, Tisdale was all over the issue.
She and other rural residents said the feds failed to consider the consequences to the east.
Her community was overrun by illegal border-crossers and drug smugglers, some armed with automatic weapons. The Border Patrol stepped up its presence and the area took on a battleground feel.
At one point, the agency wanted to erect 50 huge lights to thwart the crossings. Tisdale told officials it was a bonehead concept. Community concerns later prompted the government to drop the idea.
“We have a dark-sky policy,” she said at the time. “We don’t even like it when people put up porch lights.”
By then she was chair of the Boulevard Planning Group, an elected board that is the closest thing the community of 1,200 has to its own government.
More recently, she’s been researching the environmental impact of large-scale solar and wind farms, like those planned for large swathes of the backcountry.
She’s worried about those who will end up living in the shadow of the tall turbines, pointing to scientific research and firsthand accounts that suggest that exposure to the windmills can lead to nausea and other health problems.
It’s classic Tisdale, digging deep into an issue and questioning the powers that be.
“For government to work, people need to engage,” said Jacob. “Government needs more Donna Tisdales right now.”
But Donna Tisdale isn’t always sure she wants to be the activist Donna Tisdale. She was born and raised in Brawley and has lived in Boulevard since 1977.
It’s tiring, having to play David to some corporate or government Goliath. Plus, she’s often exhausted due to having chronic Lyme disease. This week, she learned she has spotted fever, also a chronic condition.
“I wish I could resist getting involved. It would be easier on me and my family,” she said.
Yet she carries on.
“It’s almost like a calling.”
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