“The deeper truth is that anybody who knows Mary knows she is an original and unforgettable force of nature — fierce on behalf of Oregonians, bold in her problem-solving, always willing to help, and just as ready with a smile to lighten any situation. She has a gigantic heart matched only by her passion for public service and protecting the natural treasures we Oregonians all hold dear.”
– Sen. Ron Wyden honoring Mary Gautreaux on her 70th birthday in the Congressional Record
You may not know Mary Gautreaux, the recipient of the 2019 Alice Elshoff Desert Conservation Award, but you are surely familiar with her legacy of protected wild places in Oregon’s high desert and beyond. As a longtime member of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s staff who rose to be his deputy state director, Mary played a key role in every conservation bill championed by Sen. Wyden over his career in Congress so far.
Her fierce and steadfast dedication to protecting the most special wild places in Oregon’s high desert made Mary the obvious choice to receive this year’s Alice Elshoff Desert Conservation Award.
ONDA established the Elshoff Award in 2008 to honor individuals who embody ONDA’s conservation values, and to celebrate their significant contributions to protecting Oregon’s desert wilderness. It is a lifetime achievement award, which in this case is being awarded posthumously, as sadly, we lost Mary to cancer in September.
Mary’s obituary in The Oregonian characterized her legacy as one of “problem-solving and a love of wild places.” This aptly describes the experience of the many ONDA staff and board members who worked with Mary — affectionately known as MG.
“Mary was an Original. Fearless, opinionated, bold, caring, immensely intelligent, and impatient for progress… she lived her life to the max,” said Kirk Richardson, ONDA board member, VP of sustainability for KEEN and a fellow Elshoff Award winner.
“She was and always will be a visionary warrior for the desert, protector of all that is special but hidden from view in Oregon. ONDA is fortunate to have had the partnership of Mary as we built the case to permanently protect the Owyhee!”
Dan Morse, ONDA’s former conservation director reflected that, “MG knew this state and the people who live and work here better than anyone I know. Her knowledge of every little issue and every person in every corner of this state was unmatched. And she took that knowledge and worked incredibly hard putting it to good use.”
Mary came to this vast knowledge through direct experience and hard work. MG accompanied Sen. Wyden to nearly every one of his hundreds of town halls in every corner of Oregon. She was the point of contact for thousands of Oregonians who wanted to talk to Sen. Wyden about their myriad concerns, and MG listened to everyone with the same attentiveness and care.
MG expected this same level of dedication from everyone she worked with, including many ONDA staff members over the years. Dan also shared his nostalgia for a particular aspect of Mary’s work ethic: the late-in-the day phone call.
“These calls were like clockwork and almost always started something like this: ‘Hey, it’s MG. What in the hell are you doing about this? I need you to tell me everything you’ve ever known about it in the next 15 minutes and I am going to need you to get me a list of a hundred people who care so much about it that there is nothing they wouldn’t do for it. And maps – I need a bunch of maps. Can you get me all of that before tomorrow morning?’ That was my cue to start talking fast and just maybe not have to work all night. Oddly, it got to the point where these were the calls I most enjoyed. On certain late afternoons, I wish that phone would ring one more time. It’d be one helluva conversation.”
Mary expected ONDA to step up when she needed us, sometimes in ways that did not seem humanly possible. Bill Marlett, ONDA’s founding executive director, reflected that she backed up her high expectations with an unshakable dedication to protecting the wildest places in Oregon.
“From the Steens to the Badlands and Spring Basin Wilderness, we could not have done it without her. Her communications were always laced with humorous insights, which made working with MG such a delight. We will miss her warmth, friendship and commitment to protecting our public lands, to saving wild places and the betterment of Oregonians.”
Brent Fenty, ONDA’s former executive director, became so close with Mary that she once asked him to help find her daughter a baby stroller. He had the opportunity to take her on a float down the Owyhee River that fully captured her heart.
“We were floating through Green Dragon Canyon when I realized that I hadn’t heard anything from her for a few minutes — which we all know is incredibly unusual for MG. I turned around to see that she was so overwhelmed by the place that she had tears in her eyes. I always joke that the Owyhee is the only thing I’ve ever known that could keep MG quiet.”
Erin Gaines, a member of ONDA’s board who previously worked with MG on Sen. Wyden’s staff, shared a similar memory of the impact her Owyhee float had on MG.
“I remember talking to Mary after her rafting trip on the Owyhee and, believe it or not, Mary was at a loss for words for how to describe her incredible experience,” Gaines said, adding “She just encouraged me to get there as soon as I could to experience it for myself.”
MG’s passion for the Owyhee and the people of Malheur County was a major driver for Senator Wyden to introduce the Malheur County Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act this fall. After receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis last spring, Mary continued working until her very last days to finally get protection for the Owyhee. Her living room walls were covered with maps of the Owyhee. She bent ears to make sure that the places most important to her would be considered for wilderness designation.
Included in the 1.13 million acres of wilderness in the bill is the proposed 223,586-acre “Mary Gautreaux Owyhee River Canyon Wilderness.” Among many special places protected in her namesake wilderness would be Green Dragon Canyon, the place that left Mary speechless on her float down the Owyhee.
As Gaines noted, “When the Owyhee is finally protected as Wilderness, we’ll toast to our friend Mary and thank her for making it happen!”