A quick glance around Gene Doherty’s living room reveals what he values, what feeds his soul and what makes him work so tirelessly.
Paintings fill the walls and works of sculpture are placed around the room. Stacks and stacks of books – most with an environmental theme – are piled in front of the fireplace. Flats of native plants are in the back yard, visible through the sliding glass door.
Each shows how Gene, 45, has divided his time while on hiatus from working as a software developer. Instead of writing computer code, he is focusing on an initiative to provide a stable source of funding for state parks.
And volunteering with Arts Benicia as the organization searches for a new executive director.
Plus serving as an inaugural member of Benicia’s Community Sustainability Commission.
And continuing his post as president of the local chapter of the California Native Plants Society, among other activities.
“I’ve become a professional volunteer,” he says, laughing. “Back in December, I was tired of making money for other people and I said, ‘Enough.’ ” He finds himself busier than anticipated, working up to 50 or 60 hours each week.
He heads back to work this spring. “Right now I’m thinking about going back to work, gearing up for that,” says Gene, a Benicia resident since 2003. “I’m probably going to write mobile applications for the Army, your iPhone, androids.”
Until then, he’ll keep working on the state parks initiative and sustainability issues and Arts Benicia and Earth Day.
When did your interest in environmental issues start?
When I was growing up in Plymouth, Massachusetts, I could go out my back door and walk for 20 or 30 miles without crossing a paved road. There were cranberry bogs and woods, ponds and lakes. Right behind my back yard was what we called a swamp. It was a spring that fed the cranberry bogs, and there were turtles in there. We used to chase the turtles.
When I grew up and lived in Boston, the aquarium had an exhibit on endangered species and it had the Plymouth Red Bellied Turtles. Those were the ones I had been chasing all that time, and they only existed in those bogs.
To be touched with the extinction scenario, you realize we are part of the web of life. That began my adult process of finding our place in the world.
What is your top priority right now?
The state parks initiative … I’m focused on getting the initiative on the ballot and making sure it gets voted in because it will provide a funding source for our parks. …
I stepped up to be a regional coordinator (in Solano and Contra Costa Counties) for signature gathering. We got the forms on January 9, and they have to be in by April 15. … We need 710,000 signatures and we are well on our way. We will qualify.
Why is the state park issue important to you?
We’re trying to keep these public assets open and accessible to the public. This is something people have been talking to state legislators about for the past two years. It didn’t happen; and we’ve been spending all this energy and wasting all this time and we still don’t have a reliable source of funding. I know people are tired of initiatives, but Sacramento is broken and that fix is huge. …
In the meantime, while we’re waiting for Sacramento to be fixed, do we close our state parks? This initiative would not just keep them open, but it would let us fix them to where they should be.
How would the initiative help state parks?
It would set an $18 vehicle license fee surcharge, with an exemption for some commercial vehicles. So you’d have a funding source for the state Parks and Recreation Department, and the Department’s functions would not change in any way.
In exchange, it offers free parking for everyone. At Benicia State Park, it costs $6 to park.
This would solve the funding problem.
Gene became involved with state park funding as an outgrowth of his work with the Forrest Deaner Native Plant Botanic Garden located in the Benicia State Recreation Area. Threatened closures in 2008 sparked his involvement in a grassroots effort to keep state parks open.
How will the Garden celebrate Earth Day this month?
Our annual Earth Day workday is April 17 from 9am to 1pm. We had more than 80 people last year, and we’re encouraging more people to come down. We begin with a little introduction, break into teams and get to work. We’ll be mulching, weeding, planting. We’ve got lots of work to do. There are 3.5 acres out there – not all of it planted.
We’re hoping for about 100 volunteers. It’s especially important to bring kids to Earth Day programs so they can understand our place in nature. … Nature is not something we should fear, and we’ve gotten to that point to some degree. … Doing things yourself helps you reconnect to nature.
How does the Sustainability Commission tie into your other volunteer work?
At the same time we were working on the state park closures, the other piece going on locally was the Seeno project. I started looking at that project, at what a community needs, and at how Benicia could benefit from change.
I was also aware of the climate change issue. I’d seen pieces of it during my own travels, like hiking Mt. Whitney and seeing how low the snow pack was and how far the glaciers had retreated. … So I met with the mayor and mentioned sustainability. She said there was a sustainability section in the general plan. … We started talking about this in September 2008 and we were seated in January 2010.
What does sustainability mean to you?
Sustainability has several aspects to it. One is you want to understand your own footprint. We need clean water, food and something to occupy our time. We’re not bartering any more, we’re not hunter-gatherers. … We can’t even go back to an agrarian society because of how land use has evolved over the years. So we have to work to purchase water and food, and that involves transportation and energy.
We’ve had cheap generation of electricity that’s powered our society, but it’s been built on an oil platform and soon that’s going to go away. Water conservation is really energy conservation because moving water takes energy. If we can get clean water, then we have to get food. Again, this is a transportation issue, a transportation cost.
How did your love and support of local art start?
I found the art community when I moved here. I started going into Studio 41 at first, then going to the open studios and finding other artists. … I have works from about 35 artists. About 30 of them are local – from Benicia, Vallejo, the Bay Area.
Certainly, art is very pleasing. But to me, it’s more than that. It’s the story of a community and its art that means so much, the years and years of a community nurturing its artists. It’s about a community enabling this community to thrive. Art from a physical aspect is not necessary, but all that enables that art is the story of each piece.