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Rebecca Tarbotton, 39, Dies in Swimming Accident

One of the Nation’s Leading Female Environmental Advocates: “A Force of Nature”

Rebecca Tarbotton Photo courtesy Rainforest Action Network

Rebecca Tarbotton, Executive Director of the environmental organization Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a lifelong human rights activist and one of the nation’s most prominent female environmental leaders, died on December 26 on a beach in Mexico while vacationing with her husband and friends. The coroner ruled cause of death as asphyxiation from water she breathed in while swimming. She was 39 years old.

A self-proclaimed “pragmatic idealist,” Rebecca Tarbotton (“Becky” to friends and family) was admired by environmentalists and climate change activists for her visionary work protecting forests, pushing the nation to transition to a clean energy economy and defending human rights. She was the first female executive director of RAN, and a strong female voice in a movement often dominated by men. 

"Becky was a leader's leader. She could walk into the White House and cause a corporate titan to reevaluate his perspective, and then moments later sit down with leaders from other movements and convince them to follow her lead,” said Ben Jealous, Executive Director of the NAACP and a close friend. “If we had more heroes like her, America and the world would be a much better place."

Under Ms. Tarbotton’s leadership, RAN achieved tremendous victories in preserving endangered rainforests and the rights of their indigenous inhabitants. Most recently, Ms. Tarbotton helped to architect the most significant agreement in the history of the organization: a landmark policy by entertainment giant, Disney, that is set to transform everything about the way the company purchases and uses paper.  

“Becky reshaped Rainforest Action Network, and was a force against deforestation and corporate greed. She was a rising star. We need more women to be leading environmental organizations, and losing a leader and friend like Becky is especially painful," said Michael Brune, former Executive Director of Rainforest Action Network and current President of the Sierra Club. 

Ms. Tarbotton was born in Vancouver, BC on July, 30, 1973. Her commitment to the environment dates back to her youth: at an early age, she worked with Canadian First Nations communities as an environmental researcher on Baffin Island in her native Canada.

As an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, she studied Geography. She earned a master’s degree from the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Just after college she interned with the David Suzuki Foundation, working on the first letter from Nobel Laureates warning of the dangers of inaction on global warming. 

From 1996 - 2004, Ms. Tarbotton worked with Helena Norberg-Hodge, a world renowned author and filmmaker, in Ladakh, a remote region of Northern India, to protect traditional food and farming systems. While there, she helped to create a local women farmer’s alliance, eventually supporting more than 4,000 members.

In July 2012, she married her longtime partner, Mateo Williford, surrounded by family and friends at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, north of San Francisco. The couple married by the center’s pond and were treated to original songs, dances, and poems from their large community.

Her friends and family remember a “force of nature” with an infectious laugh, adventurous spirit, and a heart bursting with love. She spent much of her free time hiking near their home in Oakland and kayaking in California and her native British Columbia. She was co-founder of an adventure club for ladies, she danced her heart out with a backup dance troupe, and played the fiddle when she could find the time. Rebecca loved a good book with tea in the morning and a glass of wine with an old friend come evening.

Ms. Tarbotton is survived by her husband, Mateo Williford; her brothers Jesse and Cameron Tarbotton, and her mother, Mary Tarbotton, of Vancouver, BC.

Ms. Tarbotton’s ashes will be scattered off of Hornby Island in British Columbia, where her family owns a cabin and where she spent much time with family and friends. Public memorial services will be held in San Francisco, CA and in Vancouver. Dates are still unknown.

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An extraordinary young woman! Of course my heart goes out to her family and friends, but what a loss for all of us.

By barbara brower on Mon, December 31, 2012 at 12:26 pm

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