JASON KIRKPATRICK IS A POLITIcian. But you would never think it to look at him. For one thing, he never dresses for work in anything more formal than a flannel shirt. And although it’s the 28-year-old Green Party member’s third year in office as an Arcata, Calif., city councillor, one of his proudest achievements has nothing at all to do with government. On a cool evening, bicycling home from a food co-op, where he works, with a backpack full of organic groceries, Kirkpatrick, who doesn’t own a car, beams with satisfaction at having bought only a single food item packaged in a new, unrecycled container—a carton of soy milk. “I’ve been getting better at consuming less and less,” he says cheerfully.
This guy is the vice mayor? Yes, he is. For this is Arcata, pop. 16,000—arguably the Greenest, most environmentally friendly town in America. Here, among towering redwood groves 300 miles north of San Francisco, the multihued earth flag flutters along with the Stars and Stripes above the town’s central plaza. Dutiful residents divide their garbage among as many as a half-dozen different recycling bins. According to the local caterer, who serves strictly vegan fare (vegetarian dishes without even eggs or dairy products), more than 150 area households feasted on tofu “turkey” this past Thanksgiving. So it’s not surprising that, last November, Kirkpatrick was joined by two other Green Party members on the five-person city council—the nation’s first-ever dominated by Greens. “There is a different consciousness here,” Kirkpatrick says.
Thus, the town has declared itself a nuclear weapons-free zone. Hundreds of residents attend the annual All Species Day celebration dressed as their favorite life-form. And each fall there’s a student-organized hemp festival—at which participants celebrate the virtues of cannabis as a renewable source of fiber for clothing, paper and rope and munch on hempeh, a delicacy made of hemp seeds. Even worse, say locals critical of the town’s countercultural bent, was the 1993 rally, on the quaint central plaza, when feminists marched topless under the banner “Free your breasts, and your mind will follow.”
“The liberals have taken over,” grumbles homemaker Margaret Stafford, 58, an unofficial spokeswoman for Arcata’s beleaguered Republicans. “Who knows what next week will bring?”
If the Greens have their way, it will become even more “eco-groovy,” to use the term favored by one former mayor. Last November—when Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader outpolled Bob Dole locally—voters replaced the two Republican city councillors with Greens Jennifer Hanan, 29, and Bob Ornelas, 43. Hanan manages a store specializing in recycled goods and hemp-fiber clothing, while Ornelas, who in 1982 helped organize a successful effort to close a nearby nuclear power plant, is part-owner of a local microbrewery. (Unlike his Green colleagues, however, Ornelas drives a car and eats meat, a habit he picked up as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. “They have a hunger season there, and you pretty much eat whatever is available,” he says. “If anyone kills a cane rat, you eat it.”)
The city council’s two Democrats—Mayor Jim Test, 51, and Connie Stewart, 30—are no eco-slouches either. Both are members of the North-coast Environmental Center, the oldest of seven activist groups that make the town a tree-hugger’s mecca. Visitors come from as far away as South Korea to inspect the municipal sewage-treatment “marsh,” a surprisingly attractive—and efficient—series of reed-lined lakes and bogs where the Audubon Society offers walking tours. And at Arcata’s 1,100-acre community forest, lumberjacks selectively harvest trees in a variety of sizes to mimic the damage done by fires and storms, while generating up to $500,000 in timber sales for the town in a single year.
Long before the first hippies arrived, Arcata was a gritty outpost of Northern California’s timber industry and home to some 40 polluting sawmills. But by the ’60s a shrinking lumber supply was forcing mills to close. In the early ’70s the Arcata campus of Humboldt State University, which offered an Environmental Sciences program, became a magnet for nature-loving students. Graduates now make up a sizable portion of the town’s population. The school’s Campus Center for Appropriate Technology, an energy-efficient demonstration home with a live-in staff, provides a model for eco-conscious Arcatans with its solar panels, a windmill to generate electricity and a bicycle-operated washing machine. (A load of laundry can be done in 15 minutes if you pedal hard on the stationary bike.) Staff members also rely on a composting toilet that requires regular aeration with a shovel—a daunting task even for committed environmentalists. “We take turns,” says staffer Marnin Robbins, 24.
Nobody embodies Arcata’s quirky activism better than Kirkpatrick, a blacksmith’s son who is a part-time cashier at the Northcoast Cooperative natural food store. He traces his environmental awakening to his job at the Canoga Park, Calif., lumberyard co-owned by his uncle and his mother, Linda, where he worked after graduating from high school in 1986. “There was so much waste,” he says. “Someone would buy a 10-foot 2-by-4 and want it to be 8 feet long, so you cut off 2 feet and throw that in the landfill.” A registered Republican, the part-time business school student quit and headed north to enroll at Humboldt State. By the time he graduated with a degree in political science in 1994, he was already campaigning for a city council seat, which he won later that year.
For Kirkpatrick, who is single and lives in a four-person vegan communal household, it’s not always easy being a Green. The town’s conservatives, who tend to gather in a smoke-filled bar on the central square, have been vocal opponents of city council efforts to block new housing developments and to keep chain stores like Wal-Mart from opening downtown. “I’m not happy,” says former Republican Mayor Carl Pellatz, 51, “and I’m not going to be silent.”
Still, with two years’ experience under his belt, Kirkpatrick is taking steps to broaden his political base. “The agenda is to let the town speak and to listen,” he says. “We want to…try to make everyone happy.” He has proposed a skateboarders’ park to get teenagers off the town plaza (a conservatives’ bugaboo) and supports financial incentives to attract small eco-sensitive industries. After all, he says with a grin, “usually the vice mayor becomes the next mayor.”
LAIRD HARRISON in Arcata