The New Duncan McFetridge

The guardian of the wilderness. The marshall in the war against urban sprawl. In San Diego it’s an old guy who lives in the forest named Duncan McFetridge.

An Old Picture of Duncan

He lives in a village in eastern SD County called Descanso, where he is periodically chased out of his home by wildfires but otherwise broods over real estate developers’ rape of the land. I called him last week and we had a talk similar to many past ones. He speaks in a gruff voice that sounded the same 14 years ago. But he says he’s changed.

“Tom… if you saw me today you’d see a different person.”

Duncan calls you by name then follows with a long pause to bring gravity to what he’s saying. This time he’s talking about something truly serious, which was his brush with death. He was bitten by a venomous snake and, soon after, suffered a heart attack that required heart surgery.

Did that change you philosophically? I asked him.

“Philosophically, yes. And spiritually,” said Duncan.

I had called him to ask about the lawsuit his environmental group is bringing against the county planning agency. It claims the agency’s 40-year regional transportation plan goes quick to work improving freeways but ignores public transit until 2030, a year Duncan is unlikely to see.

That brings greater urban sprawl and more greenhouse emissions. He condemned the greed of developers and their political lackeys, but then switched to the subject of his artwork; sculpture.

“Tom… I’ve become more interested in beauty. Ancient civilizations idolized beauty. San Diego used to be a beautiful place, but they’re turning it to shit.”

Duncan’s vision of a perfect San Diego County is a dense urban city surrounded by a greenbelt. He’s sentimental about preserving ranchlands even though cows have not been friends to the western wilderness.

I first knew him when he was leading the campaign for a political initiative that would have created a San Diego greenbelt by dramatically limiting the number of subdivisions you can make out of land in the back-country. People in agriculture, ranchers included, have always disliked Duncan for trying to limit the profits on their land sales.

But just within the past year the County Board of Superevisors passed a general plan that did — basically — what McFetridge wanted to do in 1998. So maybe he was right after all.

Is he right this time? Maybe or maybe not. But he will always be tough back-country loner with a face that looks like the wilderness. I don’t know if we need more like him, but I’m glad there’s at least one McFetridge.

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One Comment on “The New Duncan McFetridge”


  1. […] referred to as a “recalcitrant activist” by Carolyn Chase in Earth Times, and in a recent blog as “The guardian of the wilderness. The marshal in the war against urban sprawl…[The] old guy […]


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