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Mike McCoy

Eye on the Locals: In the micro-world of our communities, many people dedicate their lives to bettering our neighborhoods and end up bettering the world. Mike McCoy of Imperial Beach is heralded as the individual who helped save the largest coastal wetland in Southern California. Here is his story:

Who is Mike McCoy?

Mike McCoy grew up in Boulder, Colorado and came to San Diego in 1970, the year he graduated from Veterinary  School. He was awarded an internship at the San Diego Zoo. While going to veterinary school, he worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a biologist doing studies on the Northern Fur Seal on the Pribilof Islands in the Bearing Sea off the coast of Alaska. This experience, among other things, helped qualify him as a recipient of the San Diego Zoo Veterinary Medical Internship. It was the first extended internship offered by the zoo.

It was here that he met his wife, Patricia McCoy, an Englishwoman originally from London. She and her mother fled to Gloucestershire after losing several homes due to Hitler’s bombing raids during WWII. She eventually became a city council member in Imperial Beach and they both were avid environmental activists.

During the zoo internship Mike met and worked with Dr. Harold J. Hill who had a practice in Imperial Beach. Dr. Hill was formerly a professor at Colorado State University specializing in Theriogenology or the study of reproductive biology. He applied this knowledge at the zoo when it was needed.

When the zoo internship was completed Mike joined Dr. Hill in his practice and worked toward being his associate. Mike moved to Imperial Beach and began to live and work in this small border town. During this time McCoy began, among other things, to treat injured wildlife in San Diego County and used the Imperial Beach Pet Hospital as the base of operation. Initially the endeavor was within the bounds of the Wildlife Section of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club but eventually became what is now Project Wildlife.

McCoy did the veterinary repair. Bob and Martha Hall along with Margery Kanothe rehabilitated and released reptiles, birds and mammals when they had recovered.

Mike also realized Imperial Beach was geographically located between south San Diego Bay and the Tijuana Estuary.

Most of the central and north Bay are heavily trammeled by humanity but the South Bay still has some remaining relatively natural salt marshes. The Tijuana Estuary is the largest estuarine system left in southern California that has not been disrupted by railroads, roads, power lines or sewer lines. The estuary is relatively pristine compared to most salt marsh ecosystems in this region. Over 90% of the wetlands in California have been altered or destroyed due to lack of planning, ignorance, greed and corruption. Wetlands have only recently been recognized as valuable natural assets worldwide.

The Border in the 1970s

When Mike moved to IB, the border was basically open. You could freely cross back and forth within the Border Field area and you didn’t have any restrictions. The marsh was in good shape and there wasn’t a lot of sediment. There was even a golden eagle nest at the international border. Although the golden eagles used to come to the estuary, their home was disrupted by the border fence constructed starting in the 1990s.

The Fight Against A Marina

Proposed IB Marina in 1957

Proposed Imperial Beach Marina in 1957

McCoy’s lifelong political activism in Imperial Beach first began during the 1970’s when developers wanted to dredge the estuary, create a concrete channel going from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Pacific Ocean and create an upscale marina.

Actually, talk of a marina started way back in the late 1950’s when businessmen dreamed of making money from a new luxury beach area. Plans for the marina continued to be discussed throughout the 1960’s.

This is where McCoy got involved. He was influenced by the research of local biologists Joy Zedler and Paul Jorgensen who maintained that an estuary was vital to water quality, air quality, ocean health and to humans. The area was also along the Pacific Flyway, with about 370 different species of birds, both resident and migrants, relying on the area for their survival.

Mike began to organize local environmentalists and Imperial Beach residents in 1971. He enlisted Zedler and Jorgensn to resist the developers and together, they fought against the marina idea for over a decade.

April 15, 1974 was a turning point for the Tijuana River Valley. The cities and the county had decided upon three plans:

  • one would develop the entire valley, including a concrete channel that would run from Mexico to the Pacific Ocean along with a marina replacing the Tijuana Estuary.
  • The second plan would develop the area from about Saturn Boulevard east to the border, and the rest would be open.
  • The third plan would be to leave the whole valley open discouraging the development of a marina in the estuary. This was the major agenda item at the County Planning Organization, CPO, now SANDAG, that day.

Imperial Beach was the only city to vote for development of the Tijuana River Valley and the Tijuana Estuary. All the other cities in the county and the county voted to keep the valley free of channelization and development and from that day to the present this is the way it has been. Prior to this meeting McCoy met with Pete Wilson, the Mayor of San Diego, and tried to convince him to leave the Tijuana River Valley open. He also met with Richard Ripinski who was the Chairman of the County Planning Organization, at that time.

In June that year, Mike made his first trip to Washington D.C. He was taking part in a National Wildlife Conference and was able to speak with Nathaniel Reed, Undersecretary of the Interior, about the protection of the Tijuana Estuary from development as a marina. McCoy told the Undersecretary that they had a tremendous opportunity to save a national treasure, the Tijuana estuary.

McCoy hoped he could either work with the city of Imperial Beach to protect the estuary or work around them if need be. The Undersecretary explained that he needed to meet with the Congressman from the district. The goal became to protect the estuary by having the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquire and manage it.

By 1978 the Helix Land Corporation proposed a $200 million residential marina that would house 6,000 to 7,000 people, have a yacht club, a commercial and an extensive residential development. In June 1980 a newly appointed Imperial Beach representative to the Port Commission, Daniel Spurck, said he would work hard to ensure the commercial development of the Imperial Beach waterfront.

Richard Raymond Gets Shot

By May 1980, everything came to a head. That’s when a friend of the McCoy’s and an environmental activist, Richard Raymond, was shot.

The river had flooded in January 1980, which wrecked havoc in “Cartolandia” in Tijuana (the ‘cardboard’ shanty area) and then the floodwaters destroyed a lot of the Tijuana River Valley area.

There were a large number of citizens cleaning up the estuary after the flood. That evening everyone gathered to celebrate the cleanup at the old I.B. fire station. Suddenly, four seedy looking men walked in and one pulled a gun and shot Richard Raymond point blank in the face.

They went to the penitentiary, but Mike McCoy maintains that nobody ever linked up the people who put those guys up to it. Any ideas of a potential set up to get rid of the environmentalists remain unsubstantiated. There was certainly lots of speculation.

During this same time period, McCoy and his wife Patricia, got onto the freeway and found that the lug nuts on their car wheels had been loosened almost causing an accident.

There were many threatening phone calls during the entire process. Tempers flared and lots of money was involved.

“My feeling inside was, you know, if we’re gonna have anything left on this planet, you’re gonna have to put your life on the line. That was my feeling, directly, just you gotta do it. Either you’re gonna do that or you’re gonna lose it an inch at a time and I still feel that way today. It isn’t as violent today as it was then because there are a lot of laws in place today, but it’s just as dirty,” McCoy said.

Success and the Environment

Mike recalled that in November 1980 he and Patricia got a phone call. They’d been working from about 1977 onward with the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Ecological Services. The Division Chief, Ralph Pasapia, would come to their house and discuss a plan to protect estuary against development. Finally, after working with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of California Department of Fish and Game (now it’s Fish and Wildlife) and the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation, DPR, and other people in the community who wanted it like the McCoy’s wanted it, Ralph Pasapia from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said he wanted to meet with the McCoy’s at Seacoast Drive at 10 o’clock in the morning.

That November morning in 1980, ten years after so many people had started the battle to protect the estuary, we ventured to the end of Seacoast Drive. There sat a government car with four people inside, Ralph being one of the four. The other three were from Washington D.C. As we talked a pick-up truck pulled up and a man got out. He was wearing cowboy boots, a big rodeo belt buckle and a Stetson. He looked like a real bull rider. Patricia always called him the Marlboro Man. He wandered over to the group. Ralph introduced us: “Mike and Patricia McCoy I want you to meet Larry Dean, refuge manager for the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Imperial Beach, California.”

It was truly an emotional moment, one of those once in a life time moments. I could only look back over the years and think of people who had literally put their lives on the line to save the estuary. Some are no longer with us but I will always remember them. Those who wanted to protect the estuary against development had prevailed against what I thought were insurmountable odds. It just did not seem possible. It was a moment that defined a tribute to the Tijuana estuary and the people who dedicated their lives to protect it. Some of the same people continue to protect and restore it today.

They were told to say nothing. It was just Mike and Patricia. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told them they had bought the 500-acres from the Helix Land Corporation for $7.6 million (acre-for-acre the most expensive refuge yet purchased), so that no development could happen.

“Christmas Day 1980, boom, we had a National Wildlife Refuge,” Mike said.

Then, in January 1981 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they wanted to site select the Tijuana Estuary as a National Sanctuary. The name then changed to Tijuana River National Estaurine Research Reserve.

By 1982 the TRNERR was formally established. A management team was appointed by the agencies and jurisdictions that were involved. The National Estuarine Research Reserve System requires a formal relationship between NOAA and a recognized and appropriate state agency. The State of California Department of Parks and Recreation was and is recognized as the appropriate state partner at this site.

They then selected Paul Jorgensen as the first reserve manager. His research on the endangered Light Footed Clapper Rail, (now known as Ridgway’s Rail) recognized that the estuary provided critical habitat for the rail’s survival. Since the rail was protected by the Endangered Species Act, Paul’s research was essential in the ultimate protection of the estuary and the listed Light Footed Clapper Rail.

Finally, in 1979 McCoy was involved with the founding of the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association, SWIA. SWIA is a cooperating association with the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation, DPR. In 1988 SWIA and DPR embarked upon constructing the Visitor’s Center. The visitor center was completed and dedicated in 1990.

In April of 2005 the Tijuana Estuary was dedicated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

In 2010 the mouth of the Tijuana River and adjacent ocean were site selected as a State Marine Conservation Area under the Marine Life Protection Act guided by the Governor of California.

The Border Fence and Destruction of the Ecology

In the late 1980s there was a significant increase in drug trafficking and illegal immigration, so by the 1990’s the Clinton Administration launched Operation Gatekeeper. The National Guard commenced to construct the first border infrastructure barrier cutting and welding sections of a military landing mat into a border wall. There was no real permitting system in place. The planning process was minimal at best. There was little communication between TRNERR and the National Guard.

Mexico stripped vegetation from the steep hill sides in contiguous canyons connecting to the estuary making way for new settlements as the border population grew. The loss of vegetation and destabilization of the hill sides along with the building of the border fence led to serious sedimentation of the tidal channels and lands surrounding the Tijuana Estuary.

The sediment problem became pronounced. It had to be controlled or the estuary would lose its tidal exchange capability. The border fence construction and construction in Mexico started disrupting the hillsides leading to sediment accretion in the estuarine tidal channels and a decrease in the tidal prism.

“As you strip off the vegetation, you start to lay those hillsides bare and that’s what they did, they started taking the vegetation off. Anytime there was a rain, we’d start to get sediment. It got worse as time went on, it got worse and worse and worse ’til today it’s terrible because they stripped off those hillsides. That’s another thing. The immigration was getting worse and worse because of the disparity of wealth between the two nations,” McCoy said. “That started happening in the 70s and 80s. It’s been getting progressively worse. You’ve got the richest nation with the richest state in the world backed up next to one of the poorest.”

That’s when Mike started to feel the area was going to lose out. Once again, he became an activist. He says: “So we formed a group to begin to take this whole fence on. There were six environmental organizations… Basically we tried to point out, or our lawsuit  was that the way the border fence was being handled was not constitutional. But in 2005, Congress passed an Iraq funding bill in May I believe it was…”

Indeed, in 2005 Congress pass the REAL ID Act, which stipulated a double fence along the entire United States-Mexico border. Section 102 of the act gave the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security the right to waive any law that would impede the rapid construction of the walls. The Real ID Act was attached to the Iraq funding bill hence it went right through Congress without resistance or opposition.

“When you put a barrier in, it has an impact on the culture and ecology, socio-political, economic and ecological downside to putting barriers in where you can’t get cross-border fertilization. This is a rich area ecologically and socially,” Mike said. “It’s what I call it an ecotone. Cultural ecotone, ecological ecotone. It’s where two communities meet whether plant, animal or human and the richness there is greater than it is on the other side because you have more variety.”

Biggest Problem For The Estuary

What are the foremost issues that are really pressing today for the Tijuana Estuary?

Mike says sediment, trash, tires, human population expansion, invasive species and water quality issues. Invasive species are often overlooked as leading to the demise of ecological systems. They replace the life blood of ecological integrity by out-competing those plants that are critical to maintaining the food web. When the web is broken and out-competed the system starts to unravel. The major invaders include: Salt Cedar also known as tamarisk, the Giant Reed also known as Arundo and the Castor Bean. These are some but by no means all the invaders.

The Tijuana River Watershed covers 1,750 square miles and three-fourths lies in Mexico, one-fourth lies in the U.S.

A watershed is a drainage basin and because Tijuana sits 300 feet above sea level, when it rains or floods, urban runoff flows down the creeks, streams and rivers out into the sea by way of the Tijuana Estuary. Water passes across the border through the Tijuana River, and several other canyons. By the laws of the International Boundary Commission and Water Commission, four canyons and culverts along the international border between San Diego and Tijuana allow these flows to go out into the ocean.


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