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If it takes a big old lawsuit, then so be it

Regna Merritt

Personal: 51, executive director

Home: Northwest Portland

Group: Oregon Natural Resources Council, www.onrc.org

Big influences: Parents, 'Silent Spring' author Rachel Carson, environmentalist Mardy Murie

Favorite quote: 'The one process ongoing É that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. That is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.' Ñ Edward O. Wilson

Annual budget: $1.1 million

Notable funders: Bullitt Foundation, Patagonia, REI

Critics say: Lawsuits put rural Oregonians out of work

Members: 6,800

The first time Regna Merritt saw an old-growth forest, it changed her life.

She had driven with her mother to the Little Sandy River watershed east of Portland to meet Joe Miller, a retired physician fighting to block logging in his back yard.

Merritt, born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, fell for the massive trees Miller was trying to save and for the elderly man's determined passion.

Not long after seeing that forest, she filed her first formal appeal of a commercial timber sale on public land. The people at the U.S. Forest Service congratulated her on a well-written document. Then they tossed it.

'They told me they only dealt with the appeals from groups that could sue,' she says.

The message was clear: If you want to block timber sales you disagree with, you'd better learn to sue. Merritt promptly got involved with the Oregon Natural Resources Council, one of Portland's more litigious environmental groups.

North Portland-based ONRC has won some huge lawsuits over the years. The group has also had success in the political arena. In 1996, Merritt and ONRC helped persuade Congress to grant wilderness protection for 60,000 acres of forest in the Bull Run watershed, the source of Portland's drinking water, and also for Opal Creek, a stunning hiking area east of Salem.

After 13 years with ONRC, Merritt is still fighting the timber industry, still pressuring elected officials and still suing. With an annual budget of $1.1 million, her group is a party to seven suits, including one over the Klamath Basin water controversy, much to the chagrin of Klamath farmers.

Merritt and ONRC frequently are rebuked for suing too often with little regard for suffering rural economies and lost jobs.

Merritt is unapologetic: 'There's broad support for protecting our ancient forests, and ONRC has held up some of the most terrible timber sales in the region.'