Sheehan reflects on Plumas Corporation career
John Sheehan leaned back in his swivel chair and glanced at reminders of his 20 years as Plumas Corporation executive director.
The photos, awards and mementos stand out in a room littered with boxes.
“You should have seen it two weeks ago,” Sheehan said with a proud smile. “I’ve gotten rid of about two-thirds of the stuff.”
John Sheehan sits in his Quincy office as he reflects on his 20 years as executive director of Plumas Corporation. Sheehan retired from the job at the end of December.
Photo by Dan McDonald
Sheehan’s long list of accomplishments has touched every corner of Plumas County and radiated all the way to Washington, D.C.
The retiring Plumas Corporation director will likely be remembered not just for leaving the county a better place than he found it, but also for the way he got things done.
“Everybody thinks that John is so laid back. And, in a way, that is kind of how he operates,” said Pat Terhune, chairwoman of the Plumas Corporation board of directors. “But you can see how much he does. And how much he knows is what always amazes me. John has it all in his head.”
“Can we keep his head? And retire the rest of him?” joked David Keller, director of Plumas County Community Development Commission.
Those comments were made during a ceremony at the Dec. 20 Board of Supervisors meeting, where Sheehan received a certificate of appreciation from the county.
Attorney Michael Jackson, who worked closely with Sheehan to gain national prominence for the forestry watchdog coalition Quincy Library Group, summed up Sheehan’s tireless contribution.
“I’m here on behalf of the Quincy Library Group to remind everybody how important John was to our operation,” Jackson said. “He held us together the whole time. He has been absolutely critical in Washington, in Sacramento, anytime anyone has asked for him.”
In 1997, the Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 429-1.
“The key word to John’s life with the county is the word ‘help,’” Jackson said. “There was never a time in which John wasn’t available to help. It didn’t matter whether he was paid for the help. It didn’t matter whether he was — in many cases — even asked for the help. He was just always there.
“And without him to help, we are all going to have to redouble our efforts.”
Sheehan started helping long before he became the head of the county’s economic arm, Plumas Corporation, in 1992.
After three years with the Rural Housing Alliance in Washington, D.C., he arrived in Quincy in 1978 to become a deputy manager for California Rural Development.
“I didn’t think the best things I was capable of doing would take place in D.C.,” Sheehan said. “I primarily like to work with organizing groups and accomplishing specific goals.”
He moved to Dunsmuir as executive director of Great Northern Corporation in 1981. He returned to Quincy in 1984 to become executive director of the Plumas County Community Development Commission.
When he became the head of Plumas Corporation, Sheehan thought it would be a short stay.
“I thought that this job was so high profile and contentious that I would say something mean to someone and get fired within the first year,” Sheehan said.
Instead, his persistence and disarming personality, coated with a sense of humor, helped Sheehan instill a sense of confidence and determination among county leaders and activists.
“I thought that the main thing was to make sure that everybody here realized that the relationships that we have with the federal government and the state government and large players in our lives like PG&E don’t have to be subservient relationships,” Sheehan said. “We should never be intimidated by these entities with billion-dollar budgets, because they do stupid things all the time. … Every day. The key is to learn about them and how they work and how they can work best to our benefit.”
The Rochester, N.Y., native soon put down roots in Plumas County.
In 1980 he married Mary Dovi in the backyard of the Quincy home where they still live. They raised three boys who have all earned graduate degrees and are in meaningful careers of their own.
“I can’t conceive of a better place to raise kids,” Sheehan said. “The types of opportunities that kids have around here are broad enough that there are a lot of good citizens that get produced.”
Sheehan said he plans to remain active in the community. He wants to continue painting and writing essays. He wants to help the ski hill in Johnsville start operating again “as soon as possible.” And he wants to remain active with Quincy Library Group.
Sheehan offered his opinion on a number of local topics. He also talked about people who have influenced him.
Bill Coates, Leonard Ross, Leah Wills, John Schramel and the late Gini Natali were among those who had a lasting impact on Sheehan.
Coates is one of the Quincy Library Group founders.
“He’s always been a very wise person who really felt and feels that the role of government is not to be ideological, but it is to solve things and figure stuff out and make it work a little better for a lot of people,” Sheehan said.
“Leonard Ross has always been a wonderful beacon of wisdom,” he said of the former county supervisor. “Bill and I and he worked together early on in moving and restoring the Beckwourth Cabin.
“Leah Wills nurtured the Feather River Coordinated Resource Management group from its inception in the 1980s.
“John Schramel wrote the book (actually a book) on the visual aspects of forest thinning — a good way to transmit those complex ideas.
“The late Gini Natali led the charge on many projects, including the formation of Plumas Corporation and the Wildwood senior complex in Chester.”
Sheehan also praised the current staff at Plumas Corporation “who actually like what they do, and show it.”
Quincy Library Group
Sheehan said he is proud of his contributions to QLG.
“I really was a latecomer to it. And it wasn’t my idea. But part of the persistence of getting it done, I think, is what I can take some credit for,” he said.
Would he consider it one of his biggest accomplishments?
“Yeah, I would. And it’s not so much the acreage that got done or the people who were employed. It’s that we have to constantly restructure the relationship between local government and the state government and the federal government to work better.
“The Forest Service just restricts activity so much. And those activities that are allowed are constrained, because there’s no private ownership.
“The Forest Service has to be constantly reminded of their duties to take care of the place for the rest of the country — but also to make sure that we are able to survive and thrive here.”
Thanks in part to QLG’s efforts the county has earned the Forest Service’s attention.
“We went past the stage where the Forest Service was ignoring us and not dealing with us seriously,” Sheehan said. “The reality for the last couple years has been that all the Quincy Library Group meetings have all three forest supervisors in attendance.”
The county supervisors said they are prepared to eliminate the bureau’s funding. Sheehan said that would be a mistake.
“If Plumas County wants to thrive as a tourism destination, it has to spend money to promote the county,” Sheehan said. “I believe that a centralized approach is at least partially a good way to go on doing that.
“I think it’s important that the county find some money to fund the centralized visitors bureau. I think it’s important that the county get the help of the local chambers of commerce to promote the county too.
“In 1990 the supervisors increased the TOT (bed tax) from 6 percent to 9 percent. There was a resolution passed at the time, saying that half of this new money should be spent on promoting the county.
“The reason the visitors bureau (became part of Plumas Corporation instead of a county department) is because marketing and promotion is kind of different from the service role the county departments have.
“But I really feel it’s important to have a centralized entity that’s got a marketing program for the whole county and doesn’t just get caught up in demands of the regional areas.
“I hope the county can figure out a way to do it. And I don’t know if they will.
“I really believe, as (visitors bureau director) Suzi (Brakken) says, (the visitors bureau) is a money-making operation for the county and should be seen as that. And you don’t just walk away from that kind of activity.
“If the TOT goes down 10 or 20 percent, like it has in a number of places, we would be in a lot worse shape than we are now.”
Sheehan said the key to getting things accomplished in a sparsely populated county like Plumas is getting people to work together.
“If we focus on our own little towns, we’re not going to get anywhere. There’s too few of us,” Sheehan said. “You’ve got to have enough people working on something, or they burn out. They just fall apart. And I can give you dozens of examples of where that has happened.”
As Sheehan looked toward his retirement, he offered a thought about the county’s future.
“People who live in this county understand how wonderful and beautiful a place it is,” he said. “But we’ve got to continue to figure out ways to make a living, and not mess things up around us.”