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By Miriam Raftery
April 22, 2023 (Boulevard) – For more than two decades, Donna Tisdale has been a champion for residents in San Diego’s backcountry, leading battles against massive energy projects and a dump. She started a nonprofit, Backcountry Against Dumps and chaired the Boulevard Planning Group every year since joining it in 1991. She’s filed countless lawsuits against a seemingly endless array of Goliath-scale projects and organized community opposition after San Diego’s East County was declared an energy corridor by the federal government.
But on April 12, Tisdale chaired her last public hearing, on the proposed Starlight Solar project. In an email, she announced, “After 32 years of volunteer service defending our backcountry from many obnoxious projects, including the 600 acre Campo Landfill, the La Posta toxic waste incinerator, an alternate site for San Diego’s airport, and dozens of industrial wind and solar projects, I have resigned from the Boulevard Planning Group effective April 25.”
Tisdale and her husband, Joe, have sold their 120-acre ranch in Boulevard are moving to Oklahoma to be near family members in May. “It is hard to go,” she wrote, “but it is time to actually retire.” She thanked those who have supported her efforts over the years, adding, “It was a labor of love for me.”
She also issued a warning for community members. “Our Boulevard-Jacumba area is targeted for even more industrial wind and solar. If the community does not show up and speak out, the remaining Boulevard Planning Group members and County decision makers will assume that no one cares or you support this unhealthy industrial conversion of our beautiful backcountry…If you really care, you can apply for my vacant seat on the BPG so you can vote directly on these projects.” The next BPG meeting is Thursday, May 4 in the modular community room behind the Backcountry Resource Center.”
Former Supervisor Dianne Jacob in 2020 hailed Tisdale as a “backcountry warrior” who has worked to improve the community. “She has led the way, and often stood with me, as we worked to protect our backcountry from unscrupulous developers and corporate entities looking to exploit the land. She’s sued SDG&E over transmission lines, along with industrial wind and solar developers. She fought off huge landfill and industrial waste projects. These battles haven’t always gone her way, but she’s someone you want on your side in a fight.”
East Count Magazine twice named Tisdale “Newsmaker of the Year” for her tireless efforts to battle massive energy projects and stand up for rural residents. She also received the People’s Mic Award from KNSJ radio for her advocacy on behalf of backcountry residents.
Community leaders past and present have shared their gratitude for Tisdale’s efforts.
Billie Jo Jannen, Chair of the Campo-Lake Morena Community Planning Group, told ECM, “I admire Donna and am really not happy to see her go, but I’m happy for her…She was a tremendous source of information,” she said, adding that Tisdale read each County Board of Supervisors agenda and would give Jannen a heads up on major projects in the pipeline.
She recalled that when Tisdale first joined the Boulevard Planning Group back in 1991, “She didn’t have anything to do with energy projects…Basically there was nobody else to step up to fight the landfill, so she did….She taught us all a valuable lesson, that if someone is bringing in some God awful thing that’s going to ruin your town, drive ‘em broke…they can only put money in for so long.”
Former La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid posted on Facebook, “Donna was way ahead of her time regarding environmental issues. She was focused and pragmatic. Each time she appeared before the SANDAG (San Diego Assoc. of Governments) board she intimidated some of the members because of her vast, in-depth knowledge of issues and practical solutions. It’s sad that champions like her are few and far between. It’s not just her community that will lose a fighter, but the entire region.”
Activist Jay Warren posted, “Donna inspired me to get involved and push back on destructive projects that would harm our beautiful backcountry. Thank you, Donna.”
Wildlife biologist Renee Owens says, ”Donna has been a brave and diligent warrior for the East County community. She fought to preserve the health of mother nature and its human residents for years, and repeatedly spoke truth to power as the large utility conglomerates and corporations tried to shut her down without success. And it hasn’t been easy; she suffered the symptoms of chronic Lyme disease for years, but she didn’t let that stop her.”
Dave Hogan called Tisdale “a hero who deserves the gratitude of East County residents and generations to come for her tireless advocacy to protect the integrity of the East County environment. If it weren’t for Donna, there would be a giant polluting landfill near Campo and many more destructive energy projects in the area, and that’s a great legacy.”
Tisdale does not oppose clean, green energy in concept – and has a small windmill at her own ranch. But massive-scale “green” energy projects have caused numerous problems locally, including wind turbines bursting into flames in tinder-dry brush, turbines collapsing, solar projects scraping bare wetlands, whirling blades slaughtering birds of prey, and stray voltage a thousand times higher than normal measured in homes near the Campo Wind Energy Facility.
Tisdale’s last official act was to submit comments to the County voicing concerns over the Starlight Solar project, a 565-acre industrial solar facility proposed on Jewel Valley Road that will require 250,000cubic yards of grading.
“We had about 40 people show up,” she said of the April 12 meeting. Everybody was strongly opposed, except Jim Whelan, who represented the property owner, and IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers….One couple showed up – they just bought property overlooking it and said the project be on three sides of their property. They’re in their 70s.”
The planning group hasn’t yet voted on whether to support or oppose the project, and some members are leaning toward supporting it, Tisdale told ECM. A draft EIR will be developed next and released for public comment; the developer hopes to break ground next year if approved by the County.
Earl Goodnight is the new chairman of the Boulevard Planning Group, which is now down to just five members, since the secretary also just resigned. “It takes four to have a quorum,” said Tisdale. Anyone who wants to apply for a seat on the board must be a registered voter in Boulevard and reside in the small rural town.
Asked the future of the nonprofit she founded, Backcountry Against Dumps (BAD), Tisdale revealed, “BAD is going to be closed down. There’s nobody to takeover.” The nonprofit is expected to shut down after completing final appeals against the Boulder Brush Substation.
Many other projects are in the works. “There’s about 20 projects in the ISO grid queue to connect to the substation,” Tisdale told ECM, including Terra Wind and more. “It’s a mess.”
Tisdale said activist leaders and planning group members in neighboring communities have offered to help Boulevard, which has been on the front lines battling efforts to industrialize the backcountry with wind turbines each hundreds of feet tall and solar farms covering thousands of acres.
Among those who have offered to step up and help are Bill Powers at the Protect Our Communities Foundation, Jeff Osbourne, owner of the Jacumba Spa who filed a lawsuit opposing JVR Solar in Boulevard, Cheryl Diefenbach, Chair of the Jacumba Sponsor Group, as well as Jannen.
Jannen says of Tisdale, “She will be missed in many ways…I think she has very big shoes to fill.”
The Tisdales’ Morningstar Ranch in the Tiera del Sol area of Boulevard was cherished by the couple in all seasons, from summer heat to winter, when a blanket of snow transformed the terrain into a winter wonderland.
Tisdale once fought a wildfire that scorched her ranchland, and more recently fought against a giant wind farm proposed adjacent to their land, where giant turbine blades would cast flickering shadows across the terrain.
Tisdale said managing a 120-acre ranch became too much as the couple grew older, but she admits to feeling “already homesick” even before their anticipated May 11 moving date.
She reflects on her years as a community leader spearheading efforts to preserve her community’s rural character.
“It was a labor of love for me,” Tisdale concludes. “I love the terrain. I love the area, I love the wildlife – but I just can’t do it all.”
Image Credit: Canva