Susan Nelson, an influential environmental advocate and community activist affectionately known as the mother of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, has died. She was 76.
Nelson, a former Mandeville Canyon resident who moved to Echo Park about 20 years ago, died May 4 at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center of injuries she suffered when she was struck by a car while crossing Sunset Boulevard near her home.
Nelson was president of the Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains, Parks and Seashore, a group she helped form in 1964.
Known as a spirited and visionary activist, she played a key role in creating the national recreation area, working closely with then-Reps. Phillip Burton (D-San Francisco) and Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills).
Legislation establishing the recreation area, which has grown to 153,750 acres, passed Congress in 1978.
“She was very much the single greatest private force behind our working to create the park,” Beilenson, who introduced the original legislation, said this week.
Nelson was appointed to the recreation area’s advisory commission and spent the next decade lobbying in Washington for funds to acquire additional parkland in the Santa Monicas. She also led numerous projects to map the flora and fauna of the park and to survey its Native American archeological resources.
“If you go out and hike in any of the parks in the Santa Monica Mountains, you wouldn’t be there if she had not been there,” said Sarah Dixon, a former advisory commission member who met Nelson in the 1960s.
Woody Smeck, superintendent of the recreation area, said Nelson “was a person of tremendous courage and dedication to the cause of protecting parks for the enjoyment and inspiration of not only the people today, but ... the generations to come.”
Until her death, Smeck said, Nelson actively lobbied for more resources for the parklands in the Santa Monicas and was involved with the National Park Service’s efforts to map vegetation and inventory wildlife species.
Dixon said Nelson was “a catalyst for community efforts to save open space and create parks not only in the Santa Monica Mountains, but in other parts of the city,” including along the Los Angeles River.
Among her many efforts, Nelson worked to keep high-rise development out of her Echo Park neighborhood, to save the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles and to protect Los Angeles’ urban parks.
“And if there was a [California] Coastal Commission hearing on some important land that might be developed, she was there,” Dixon said. “She was just everywhere.”
Nelson was also a prominent member of the Central Committee of the Sierra Club, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Green Party and many other organizations.
Dixon said Nelson had an “instinct for knowing what was going on behind the scenes and confronting people combatively.”
She was “a very warmhearted person and very supportive of people who were trying to accomplish something worthwhile,” Dixon said. “At the same time, no matter who you were, she could explode at you.
“She yelled at me a few times. I’d just go, ‘You know, you’re probably right.’ I didn’t let it bother me, because her accomplishments were so great and her perceptions were so accurate.”
“She was a feisty person, and she didn’t take detours to get to the point,” said Frank P. Angel, an attorney specializing in environmental public interest litigation who worked with Nelson. “She was really instrumental and indispensable in the parkland legacy of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.”
Born Susan Barr in Syracuse, N.Y., on April 13, 1927, Nelson grew up in Los Angeles. The daughter of an accountant father and a schoolteacher mother, she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA in 1948. That year, she married Earl Nelson, with whom she had four children before the marriage ended in divorce.
In 1960 she launched the Mandeville Canyon Rose, a neighborhood newsletter that served as the springboard for her political and community activism. While her children were growing up, Nelson returned to UCLA and received a master’s degree in urban planning in 1969.
In the weeks before her death, she was planning a commemorative brochure that would acknowledge the work of early advocates and workers for the national recreation area, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in November.
“It’s real important for people to understand we have open space and wild lands because people worked so hard [to secure them] and we should not stop,” Dixon said. “Sue was such an example of that kind of dedication and that kind of work -- never for personal gain, but just because it needed to be done.”
Now, Dixon said, “someone else has to get busy.”
Nelson is survived by her children, Brad Nelson of Davis, Sara Horner of Calabasas, KT Nelson of Oakland and Peter Nelson of Los Angeles; five grandchildren; and her brother, David Barr.
Memorial services are pending.