Folks in Orange County canyon communities, which are constantly under threat from fire, Mother Nature and development, are today mourning the loss of one of the region's longtime protectors.
Steven G. Duff, who was battling a rare form of cancer, died from complications from his weakened autoimmune system being unable to fight off an infection, according to his friends and family members. He was 64.
A memorial party honoring Duff will be held Saturday at the Silverado Canyon Community Center. It's scheduled to run from 1-5 p.m., but before you hit Silverado Canyon Road make sure to click here in case there is a potluck dish you can bring to share. Or, sign up for the setup and/or cleanup crews. Or do it all—because that's what Steve Duff did when it came to volunteering.
After receiving the most votes in an election to the Silverado Modjeska Recreation & Park District (SMRPD) board, Duff went on to serve as secretary for the organization representing Silverado, Modjeska, Black Star, Williams and Baker canyons. In January, he was unanimously elected president by his colleagues on the nonprofit Inter-Canyon League preservation group. Duff had also been the coordinator of Silverado Children's Center's annual Chili Cook-off.
The Modjeska Canyon resident was “an active community volunteer and open space supporter with a wealth of experience in business and finance as well as being a bit of a web tech geek," says fellow canyon activist Chay Peterson. "Steve and his wife Francesca have attended SMRPD meetings for years and have been instrumental in the effort to save our children's center and keep it surviving on its own.“
"Steve Duff was instrumental in our efforts to protect the Silverado and Foothill Trabuco Specific Plans and efforts to stop the Saddle Crest development," says Peterson in reference to the residential housing project that has been brewing for decades near Cook's Corner in Trabuco Canyon. "He lobbied, he wrote articles, and he supplied matching legal funds."
One of those who worked in the trenches with Duff is Janet Wilson, the former Los Angeles Times reporter whose day job is director of Special Projects with the UC Irvine Media Relations office. They co-chaired an Inter-Canyon League committee on the Silverado Modjeska Specific Plan.
"Basically, we worked very hard together on the never-ending fight to save Orange County's rural canyons, including the specific plans that lay out very nicely how canyons should be preserved," Wilson said. "He dove wholeheartedly into that. Canyon preservation was at the heart of a lot of what he cared about. You couldn't ask for anyone better to work with on volunteer activities. To know Steve would be there just made all the difference in terms of being able to preserve our way of life. He was able to keep us all moving forward with grace and wit."
Wilson recalled a time when a canyon group wanted to hold bingo games to raise funds, something Duff initially opposed. And yet, he drove down to the flatlands to learn how bingo operations worked and are regulated and licensed. "He was always willing to roll up his sleeves and get done what needed to be done," Wilson says.
Duff's most recent cause involved battling what he thought were "gawdawful" wireless cell phone towers popping up on canyon ridges and hillsides. He and Wilson persuaded county officials to ban any more wireless towers on area ridgetops. After Wilson noticed an 8 1/2-by-11 inch notice affixed to a Modjeska Canyon power pole, county staff said that 18 new wireless facilities were being proposed along scenic canyon byways, including at entrances to the national forest. Duff took it upon himself to visit all 18 proposed sites, take extensive notes and report his findings back. As recently as Jan. 3, via Duff's blog, he updated residents about Verizon's plans.
"He negotiated with Verizon and got them to keep some of their promises," Wilson says. "He held their feet to fire. We did not get everything we wanted, but it's not the worst of all worse-case scenarios."
Duff hailed from Port Washington, New York, and graduated in 1974 from Cornell University, where he majored in Electrical Engineering. He received his master's in Information Sciences from UC Irvine.
After completing his graduate work on the UCI Tolkien ring project—part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiative that would lead to the Internet—Duff worked as a freelance software developer as well as in various technology jobs with NASA, Lockheed, Santa Fe International and American Diversified.
In 1984, he partnered with Joseph Fiedeldey to form Ergodic Systems Inc., which provides contract IT integration, network and consulting services in Southern California. Duff was a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, Cisco Certified Professional and four times awarded the prestigious Microsoft “MVP” in Windows Servers and Networking from 2002-05 for his outstanding technical knowledge and support.
As a starving grad student he drove a Pinto and when he later taught at Cal State Fullerton he rode a motorcycle. Corvettes came late in life. He had a black one, an atomic orange one and his last one was red metallic. "This is the first one he bought new," explains Francesca Duff, "so it is designed to suit him, as much as common sense and money would allow."
Besides padding his wallet, Duff's tech knowledge paid dividends for his canyon causes. Developers, contractors, lawyers and bureaucrats often resort to "throwing out a lot of fancy complicated language" to keep the public and activists at bay during deliberations for controversial projects," notes Wilson, who said of Duff, "He knew how to decipher it and find out what it meant."
Along the way, he definitely got the attention of county officials.
“Steve Duff was a well thought out individual, often placing himself in another person’s shoes, especially during the most contentious discussions,” says Colby Cataldi, deputy director of Orange County Public Works. “The time commitment and effort Steve put forward to preserve the canyons' unique quality of life was admirable.”
Shane Silsby, the OC Public Works director, described Duff as "very analytical" when it came to exploring issues ranging from roadway corridors and wireless communications to the protection of certain trees.
"He liked to take in all the facts," Silsby says. "He had the community's best interests at heart. He gave a lot of his time to work on these initiatives. ... He really tried to understand the details of an issue. He was not emotional about it. It was fact-based decision making."
Silsby's last memory of Duff was sitting across from the activist and noticing he was excited about campaigning for the Silverado Modjeska Recreation Park District board seat. "I found out later he was elected to that and very excited about that," the public works director says.
At a meeting regarding the Silverado Modjeska Specific Plan, Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, whose 3rd District includes the canyons, mentioned the document was not worth the paper it was written on. This offended many canyon protectors, including Duff, who in a June 2016 issue of the Foothills Sentry newspaper wrote an open letter to Spitzer.
Mr. Supervisor: The rural specific plan we seem to have now is a “plan” to do nothing. And if nothing is done much longer, the result will be exactly what these plans were adopted to prevent: creeping, irreversible, metastatic overdevelopment of our canyons.
Mr. Supervisor: Cost and difficulty cannot be made a scapegoat here. Land-use planning is one of the most important missions county government undertakes, and maintaining specific plans is a state-mandated responsibility.
Mr. Supervisor: Will you represent us?
Spitzer, explaining he had been relating details that he had received from county staffers, publicly apologized for offending anyone. Canyon activists say the supervisor has worked more closely with them with regards to the specific plan ever since.
“Steve Duff was a well-respected member of the canyons communities and equally respected advocate for the environment in Orange County," Spitzer tells the Weekly. "As vice president of the Inter-Canyon League, Steve’s organization and leadership have been a catalyst in the causes he championed, and I admired his passion to serve the interests of his community.”
Silsby finds it "very interesting" working with people like Duff who are interested in resolving problems "not just for today but for a long time in the future." Conceding that Duff's passing amounts to a huge loss for canyon preservationists, the county official still has confidence in "a good group" of people who will soldier on. "It really hinders a small group to lose someone with such a historical knowledge base. There are a few people out there that have that context. He was certainly one of the core group. I enjoy working with people who work their way through the facts and come to a solution that gives both sides a chance for success."
Duff's widow Francesa, who married him in Las Vegas in 2006, confessed to the Weekly that she is “not as up to speed as Steve was,” but she nonetheless vowed, "I share his commitment to protect the canyons for future generations."
That happened at the first Inter-Canyon League meeting after her husband's death, when Francesca showed up and volunteered to help the new treasurer with the nonprofit's books.
Wilson considered the Duffs a power couple when it came to canyon activism—Steve was the tech wizard and Francesca was the accounting expert. Besides the groups already mentioned, they volunteered for the Saddleback Canyon Conservancy, the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary and the Helena Modjeska Historic House and Gardens.
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"If there was a canyon group or cause that needed help, they were there," Wilson says of the Duffs. "They both have been quite something. They've been quietly extraordinary people."
Of the late Steve Duff, Wilson added, "Basically we miss him every day."
He is survived by an older sister, Nancy Spradling of Colorado; an older brother, Bill Duff of Texas; a stepdaughter, Blythe Fuge; and a step-grandson, Phineas Fuge—although Steve's widow Francesca tells us, "Neither of them feels like a 'step anything;' Blythe says Steve is her second dad."
If you have any questions about Saturday's memorial party, email Paula La Bar at Paula.Labar@cox.net.