Duncan McFetridge, San Diego’s eccentric eco-warrior, may be broke. But he’s winning.


Duncan McFetridge says he continuously consults along with his “political advisers” at his rural outpost in Descanso — a solid that features an aged donkey, a retired present horse, 9 cats and an enormous pit bull named Brutus. And don’t neglect the Guinea hens.

“I’m not defending nature,” says the 80-year-old. “Nature is defending me.”

McFetridge has spent the final three a long time relentlessly combating to protect San Diego’s wildlands, cashing in his financial savings and even mortgaging his residence to pay for limitless campaigns and lawsuits in opposition to backcountry growth.

His opponents and supporters alike have dubbed him “loopy,” an outline he embraces with oracular poise, whereas including with a smile that he’s additionally “poverty stricken.”

Now after years of ascetic devotion, San Diego’s most quirky eco-warrior could also be successful the battle for hearts and minds.

Latest elections have ushered in a brand new wave of civic leaders who’re more and more demanding a shift away from automobile-centric planning that sprawls into the agricultural countryside. Politicians as a substitute have set their sights on the kind of dense, city housing and high-speed transit lengthy championed by McFetridge.

San Diego’s environmental motion has considerably benefited from his “uncompromising imaginative and prescient,” stated Murtaza Baxamusa, who’s collaborated with McFetridge for years and was not too long ago employed by the county to supervise growth of a plan to zero out regionwide greenhouse emission by 2035.

“He was thought-about loopy, and now look,” Baxamusa stated. “The arc of the universe bends towards justice.”

Maybe it’s not shocking that the spry octogenarian is just not prepared to assert victory.

Consuming lunch at his rustic residence, he sips a glass of crystal-clear nicely water. His eyes slender, framed by bushy brows nonetheless clinging to shades of his once-black hair.

“These are phrases, and so they’re good,” he says of plans to drive new housing developments into the city core. “I need to see motion.”

The wander years

In 1940, McFetridge was born at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest. His dad and mom divorced shortly after and he moved along with his mom, youthful sister and older brother to Encinitas the place they lived along with his grandparents on a small farm that had geese, chickens, pigs, goats and horses.

“I attempted to make pets out of all animals,” he stated, proudly displaying off a photograph of a wild chook sitting on his shoulder. “I’ve a sense I used to be somewhat completely different.”

His mom ultimately remarried, and the household settled in Ojai, the place McFetridge graduated from highschool. Shortly after, he moved again to San Diego to work along with his grandfather in development.

Duncan McFetridge in the 1960s.

Duncan McFetridge within the Nineteen Sixties.

(Okay.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In a accident, McFetridge helped construct the freeway system he would come to despise. Round this time, he additionally bought his first style of philosophy and psychology whereas residing with some college students who attended San Diego State College.

Regardless of the rising zeitgeist round LSD that will come to outline the Nineteen Sixties, McFetridge stated he solely tried psychedelics as soon as. He thinks it was peyote however can’t bear in mind. He stated medicine have been by no means an enormous a part of his life.

“Hear, it’s simply pure to me,” he stated.

McFetridge spent a lot of his early years wandering, earlier than ultimately settling down in rural San Diego.

With the cash from his development job, he backpacked round Europe. He bought in a foul automotive accident in Bulgaria and hit somebody. He wakened within the hospital going through a hefty high quality for driving with out insurance coverage. He was capable of get his household to wire him cash. After about six months of authorized proceedings, he made it again to the states.

He went again to work in development to repay this debt earlier than taking off once more, this time for a study-abroad program on the College of Madrid. He hitchhiked to New Jersey in January, considering he may earn passage to Spain by engaged on a freighter ship. However when he bought to the port, the shortcomings of his plan turned clear.

“It was completely freezing, and I’m strolling the harbor,” he stated. “Everybody stated, ‘Child, you’re about 100 years behind the instances.’”

Nevertheless, he ultimately discovered a Swedish ship captain that was amenable to McFetridge’s anachronistic method. He bought on board and began the grueling work of chipping paint that will be his lot for the subsequent three weeks.

“I labored so … onerous on that boat,” stated McFetridge, using among the profanity he’s well-known for.

After one other European escapade involving stops in Pamplona, Paris and once more Bulgaria, McFetridge returned to the states in 1963. He was drafted in the course of the Vietnam Struggle, serving for 2 years as a medic at a army hospital in Fort Lewis, Washington. He was discharged a month earlier than he would have been deployed abroad.

Utilizing the GI Invoice, he attended UC Santa Barbara to check historic Greek philosophy. Ultimately, he moved again to San Diego, the place he labored as an orderly at a drug rehabilitation clinic whereas ending his bachelor’s diploma at SDSU.

For a few years, McFetridge rented a farmhouse on 100 acres in Bonita the place he would hone his expertise as a woodworker constructing cupboards and different furnishings. In 1986, on the age of 46, he moved to his present residence in Descanso.

An activist is born

McFetridge’s introduction to activism got here within the Nineties, when builders began eyeing property round Descanso, largely ranchlands within the Cleveland Nationwide Forest. Most notably, a 128-home growth was proposed for the 714-acre Roberts Ranch, which straddled Interstate 8 at Freeway 79.

McFetridge began to fret the undertaking may have ripple efforts akin to growth in Los Angeles. “We are actually speaking concerning the demise of the Cleveland Nationwide Forest,” he advised a newspaper on the time.

By 1992, the philosophical furniture-maker had shaped a grassroots nonprofit named Save Our Forest and Ranchlands and launched an anti-development marketing campaign. The group blocked a county zoning replace in courtroom, which might have allowed the undertaking. Ultimately, the U.S. Forest Service bought the land.

The subsequent 12 months, McFetridge spearheaded a profitable poll measure referred to as the Forest Conservation Initiative. He took a mortgage on his residence to pay for the signature drive. The citizen’s initiative prevented backcountry growth within the Cleveland forest by altering the minimal lot dimension on personal lands exterior of nation cities from 4 acres to 40 acres.

Duncan McFetridge next to a lion he carved out of cedar

Duncan McFetridge subsequent to a lion he carved out of cedar at his Descanso residence.

(Okay.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Jack Shu was working because the superintendent of the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park simply up the highway from Descanso. He bumped into McFetridge someday passing out fliers close to the I-8 freeway exit. In brief order, he was attending group conferences organized by the native rabble-rouser.

“I assumed, in a great way, he was loopy,” stated Shu. “He was so positive he needed to do the fitting factor, he didn’t care when advisors and mates stated, ‘Duncan, don’t try this. You would possibly lose plenty of cash.’”

McFetridge shaped the nonprofit Cleveland Nationwide Forest Basis in 1995, with Shu because the president of the board. Shu resigned from that put up after not too long ago being elected to the La Mesa Metropolis Council and subsequently appointed to the board of the San Diego Affiliation of Governments or SANDAG.

SANDAG, as soon as a goal of McFetridge’s lawsuits, has made a political U-turn in recent times. Because the area’s high transportation planning company, SANDAG is now growing a high-speed transit system cast round selling city density.

McFetridge’s unflinching persistence has proved surprisingly highly effective, Shu stated. “That was a lesson for thus many people who have been concerned with environmental and planning points. He saved us on the fitting path.”

Many lawsuits

McFetridge has additionally had his setbacks. He failed on the poll field in 1998 and 2004 to determine city progress boundaries all through the county.

Nonetheless, his victories over land use in San Diego County are quite a few, from blocking an RV park in Descanso to stopping a housing undertaking that will have reduce off the final mountain-lion corridors connecting the Santa Rosa Mountain Vary in Orange County and Palomar Mountain in San Diego County.

“I feel Duncan has loads to do with holding off San Diego from turning into L.A.,” stated Jana Clark, an environmental advocate who has labored carefully with McFetridge for years. “With out him, we’d have so many tasks within the backcountry.”

In 2005, McFetridge visited mates in Bordeaux, France, and rode on the town’s not too long ago constructed tramway. He stated the expertise impressed him to push San Diego to undertake such a system. Investing in transit, he argued, would focus new growth in city areas removed from his beloved backcountry.

In 2011, he sued SANDAG by way of the Cleveland Nationwide Forest Basis, arguing the company was focusing an excessive amount of on freeway constructing and never sufficient on rail. Particularly, the lawsuit, which was joined by the Middle for Organic Variety, the Sierra Membership and then-state Lawyer Normal Kamala Harris, contended that SANDAG’s long-term planning failed to put out a method for assembly state targets to scale back greenhouse fuel emissions, amongst different issues.

Duncan McFetridge scratches his horse Lady

Duncan McFetridge along with his adopted present horse.

(Okay.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Then in 2013, his basis sued Caltrans over its deliberate enlargement of the Interstate 5 from La Jolla to Camp Pendleton.

“It’s about how do you incentivize the fitting sort of infrastructure that may permit us to construct within the city core whereas stopping sprawl into the pure atmosphere?” stated Marco Gonzalez of Coast Legislation Group, who has carried out professional bono work for McFetridge during the last 25 years.

McFetridge ultimately prevailed in opposition to SANDAG within the trial and appellate courts, with an attraction to the state Supreme Courtroom solely partially overturning these victories in 2017. The case set a precedent for metropolitan planning group throughout the state on the subject of measuring well being impacts in addition to methods to rein in greenhouse gases.

He reached a settlement settlement a number of years in the past with Caltrans by which the company agreed to check the feasibility of a tunnel by way of Miramar Hill that will velocity up coastal rail service.

For all his native activism, McFetridge says he’s nervous extra concerning the planet. The subjects of species extinction and local weather change are by no means removed from his lips.

“Nature is in cost,” he warned. “Actually, I’m critical.”


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