Robert A. Jones, pioneering environmental voice and whitewater adventurer, dies at 74


In a drought of long ago, a voice in the Los Angeles Times cast the crisis in epic terms as a battle of water haves and have-nots.

“Slowly, a nightmare scenario is becoming possible,” the writer said. “It’s this: When the supplies of available water begin to sink to all-time lows this summer, we may see the outbreak of a snatching-and-grabbing war between different parts of the state. The losers will see their economic futures imperiled. The winners will grow fat.”

The haves were, of course, the farmers who “still practice flood irrigation, using huge quantities of water while city folks ration their showers.”

Robert A. Jones, who pioneered environmental writing at The Times, interpreted life in the state and the city with caustic eloquence and in retirement guided whitewater rafts down the Colorado River, has died at 74.


Jones, who had battled lung cancer for a year, died in his Studio City home Sept. 12, said his son, Casey.

In a career spanning nearly 30 years at The Times, Jones applied an erudite mind and often prophetic eye to California’s water and culture wars, farm labor, urban sprawl, air quality, toxic threats and the changing face of Los Angeles.

Riffing in 1999 on old tropes such as L.A. being a place where “people will drive half a block to see a friend,” he mused that, “maybe, just maybe, an alternative future awaits some of us....”

“I’m talking about a surprising, even startling, enthusiasm for life in the messy core of the city itself, a love for the Raymond Chandler neighborhoods and neon-lighted boulevards of Los Angeles that few would have predicted,” he wrote. “This enthusiasm could change how many of us live and--finally--erode many of the old truths about our city.”

While working as a reporter Jones introduced three columns: “On California,” first appearing in 1974, “Coast Letter” in 1991 and “Hearts of the City” in 1995.

“During his heyday, Bob Jones’ readers didn’t have to travel any farther than their front porch to appreciate the richness, and truth, of life in California,” former Times reporter John Balzar said. “He delivered it to them, column-by-column, story-by-story, with the precision and artful control of a journalistic jeweler.”

“He was a groundbreaking journalist,” said Peter King, who followed Jones as the “On California” columnist. “He was one of the first in newspapers to specialize on the environment. He traveled the planet reporting on environmental issues in the ’70s. This was a time when The Times concentrated on longform journalism, and Bob was a master at it.”


And he stayed even-handed, said Frank Clifford, a colleague who followed Jones as environmental writer.

“At a time when partisanship among environmental journalists could run amok, Bob kept his head,” Clifford said.

Jones also had a knack for catching people in telling moments, King said, “from a youngish Jerry Brown fiddling with a handheld computer (or maybe it was a Rubik’s Cube), to a then largely unknown Wolfgang Puck personally hunting for the right greens in the field among Southern California farmers.”

Jones was born May 5, 1945, in Memphis, Tenn. As a teenager he raced dirt track stock cars. He followed a meandering college track, attending Cornell, Amherst and UC Berkeley before graduating from San Francisco State, Casey Jones said. He worked for a small newspaper in San Francisco and Newsweek before heading south to Los Angeles.

His byline first appeared in The Times in 1972.

Later in his career, Jones often zeroed in on downtown Los Angeles.

“So we have inherited these two downtowns, looking like before and after shots,” he wrote. “The old one, largely abandoned by the whites, has been partially repopulated by Latino retail districts, but otherwise stands empty. The new one shines on the hill, a robotic collection of glass towers looking like Century City’s twin brother. After 5:30 p.m., both downtowns are comatose.”

But there was also hope, he wrote, that developers like Tom Gilmore “can re-civilize the ruins of downtown’s historic district and restore urban life to the city’s core.”

After his retirement in 2001, Jones briefly joined Gilmore’s firm in a project to restore downtown’s St. Vibiana Cathedral but left before the former site of the Catholic bishop had been transformed into an event center.

Jones’ passions in retirement were traveling the globe with his sister, Bonnie Simpson, and whitewater rafting. In all he made six trips down the Colorado River, navigating one of the worlds most intense rapids. Casey Jones said he accompanied his father on one of those trips when he won a precious pass in an annual lottery.

Unsuccessful in the lottery again, Jones didn’t deign to join commercial trips, “where you sit down and go for a ride,” his son said. Instead, he finagled spots as the rower for others who had won the lottery but didn’t have the expertise to guide their own boats. He made his last trip three years ago at age 71.

“It was always something he was really proud of,” Casey Jones said.