Harriet Allen dies at 95; environmentalist successfully pushed for the California Desert Protection Act


Harriet Allen, an environmentalist who mentored generations of desert activists and played a key role in the 1994 passage of the landmark California Desert Protection Act, has died. She was 95.

Allen died Sept. 30 of complications related to old age at a Kaiser hospital in San Diego, her family said.

“She waged a decades-long battle to educate everyone that the desert matters,” said Elden Hughes, a longtime desert-protection activist. “The fact that the desert has sustained itself as well as it has is a tribute to Harriet Allen. She deserves a big chunk of the credit.”


In 1954, she joined the Desert Protective Council, then newly formed to protect Joshua Tree National Monument from mining.

She would hold every leadership position in the council, becoming “the cement who had almost single-handedly held the organization together for years,” Nick Ervin, council president, said in the group’s winter 2007 newsletter.

Allen was one of the leading activists who spent eight years “tirelessly working” for the passage of the California Desert Protection Act, said Terry Weiner, the council’s conservation coordinator.

“Everything I know about being an effective activist . . . was taught to me by Harriet Allen,” Weiner said.

When President Clinton signed the protection act, nearly 8 million acres of Southern California desert land became off-limits to developers -- and Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments were designated as national parks.

As a member of the council’s Anza-Borrego Committee, Allen actively engaged for years in the acquisition of lands in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California state park rangers said when they made her an honorary ranger in 1978.


On one occasion, Allen took options on land that could specifically help save the bighorn sheep in the state park area, according to the rangers.

Active in the Sierra Club, she chaired its San Diego chapter in 1963 and helped lead a grass-roots campaign that resulted in the 1970 expansion of Torrey Pines State Reserve along San Diego’s coast.

Appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Allen also served several years on the state Coastal Commission, stepping down in 1981.

Harriet Spencer Reeder was born Dec. 22, 1913, in Pasadena, the eldest of three children of businessman John Reeder and his wife, Mabel.

In the 1930s, Allen joined the Sierra Club mainly for its free monthly ice-skating in Colton, she said in a 2001 interview.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Occidental College in 1935 and master’s degrees in physical therapy and psychology from Wellesley College in Massachusetts.


After teaching at what is now Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Allen supervised guidance counselors in San Diego schools, said her son Jeff.

When her two younger brothers joined the Navy during World War II, Allen decided to join the WAVES, a division of the Navy made up of women.

“She felt that if she served in America, it would free up one more fighting man to serve in Europe or the Pacific, and this would be for the betterment of her brothers,” her son said.

Already trained as a pilot, she was assigned by the Navy to operate a control tower at an Atlanta airfield, her family said.

At a San Diego airfield in 1946, she met her future husband, Howard Allen, who was a member of the men-only flying club she planned to infiltrate.

When the club heard she was prepared to pay a $100 membership fee, they bent the rules, her son said.


After marrying in 1949, the Allens built a home in Spring Valley, a community east of San Diego. Her husband was an aeronautics design engineer.

She was “feisty, extremely witty and quick, yet patient,” Weiner said, and often persuaded people to join her cause by leading desert tours.

When Allen was in her early 80s, fellow activist Hughes spotted her in the Mojave Desert “camped in her sleeping bag at a 5,000-foot elevation -- and loving it.”

Allen is survived by her husband, Howard, 94; sons Jeff, a mathematician for the Navy, and Doug, a wildlife biologist; two grandsons; and a brother, Wilbur.