Off the San Francisco shore just below the Ferry Building, a wayward gray whale breaches. In Oakland’s Middle Harbor, a brown pelican and a double-crested cormorant hunt in tandem — one above the waterline, one below. At Heron’s Head Park north of Hunters Point, heavy industry yields to a thriving wetland.
For a map of wetland restoration, click on the photo to the right.
Fifty years ago, none of this seemed possible. San Francisco Bay was both a stinking cesspool and a prime development opportunity, where coastal cities disposed of trash and raw sewage and then planned to build homes and offices on artificial fill. Sylvia McLaughlin and her husband Donald, a UC system regent, watched dump trucks expand the shoreline from their home halfway up the Berkeley hills.
“It was just constant,” she recalled. “We really didn’t like what we saw.”
Nor did McLaughlin’s friends Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick, who observed the destruction from vantage points elsewhere in the East Bay hills. By the early 1960s, one-third of the Bay’s surface area had been lost, and 60 percent of what remained had been designated shallow enough to fill.
Stunned by a newspaper article noting that San Francisco Bay would become a river by 2020 at the current rate of fill — then two square miles a year and growing — the three women banded together to form the Save San Francisco Bay Association in 1961.
This year, Save the Bay celebrates 50 years of working to protect the Bay from threats extending well beyond infill to pollution, litter, fresh-water diversion, invasive species and wetland habitat loss.
In the same window through which McLaughlin, now 95, once watched the Bay befouled, the results of her efforts and those of Save the Bay are today framed like a postcard. Berkeley land that began as a city dump in the 1950s provides critical habitat to migratory species like the declining Western burrowing owl and the endangered California least tern.
The enormity of that transformation is not lost on Save the Bay’s executive director of 13 years, David Lewis.
“Not only was the filling of the Bay considered normal, but it was considered progress and almost the God-given right of a city to expand its land area and tax base,” he said.
In 1961, nature conservation in an urban setting was an alien concept: the Sierra Club and the Save the Redwoods League, both based locally, were busy preserving faraway wildernesses. The first Earth Day was still nine years away.
If McLaughlin, Kerr and Gulick hadn’t stepped up to save the Bay, Lewis said, maybe no one would have. In a best-case scenario, more of it would have been lost before someone even tried. Berkeley was only a couple of years away from filling another 2,000 acres of the Bay with gravel, rock and dirt in a bid to nearly double in size. Under pressure from Save the Bay’s growing membership, however, the city council rejected the plan in 1963.
Save the Bay’s second victory came in 1965, when tens of thousands of members helped win state legislation regulating additional filling of the San Francisco Bay. The McAteer-Petris Act also resulted in the creation of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the United States’ first coastal protection agency and a future model for the statewide Coastal Conservancy.
In 1974, Save the Bay secured passage of California’s first wetlands protection act, and in 1980 it helped defeat a proposal led by David Rockefeller to bulldoze 200 million cubic yards of dirt and rock from the top of San Bruno Mountain and throw it under a new, 23-square-mile city off the San Mateo shoreline.
Such marquee victories have been fewer and far between in the intervening decades, but another could be on the horizon: Cargill, the world’s largest private company, proposed five years ago to build 12,000 homes on 1,433 acres of salt ponds that it owns outside Redwood City. An environmental impact report is currently under way.
Save the Bay has become the project’s fiercest opponent. Bringing its mission full circle, it is prepared to fight to see the salt ponds returned to nature. “There’s really pretty much every reason not to build there, except that the land owner wants to make a lot of money,” Lewis said. “Preventing this development and restoring the wetlands would benefit the entire Bay.”
With an annual budget of $3 million, the organization counts 30,000 supporters, volunteers, and activists among its numbers today. Approximately 7,000 of them participate in 260 education and restoration programs every year, including frequent outings among both schoolchildren and adults to pull weeds and plant native flora like salt grass and sea lavender within critical transitional areas between land and tidal marsh.
Reflecting on all the work that still lies ahead, McLaughlin cites a favorite aphorism of her old friend Kay Kerr, who died last year at the age of 99: “The Bay is never really saved.”
Half a century of keeping watch on the most vulnerable wetlands
Before the environmental degradation of the Gold Rush, San Francisco Bay was ringed by 200,000 acres of tidal marsh. The housing boom a century later brought that figure closer to 50,000. And at least 80 percent of the Bay’s wetlands had been lost by the time Save the Bay formed and finally began to stem the tide in 1961.
After its early successes stopping major infill projects, Save the Bay turned much of its attention toward restoring degraded and destroyed wetlands. These shallow coastal areas are essential to the region’s continued ecological health, serving as a filter for polluted runoff, a buffer against sea-level rise, and a hotbed of biological diversity.
Save the Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin helped champion one of the nation’s most impressive wetland restoration projects to date through her work with Citizens for Eastshore State Park, which in 2002 succeeded in converting a former Berkeley landfill into a 72-acre meadow featuring coastal grasslands and seasonal wetlands. Earlier this year, California Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner introduced a bill to change the park’s name to McLaughlin Eastshore State Park.
Work since the early 1960s has yielded an increase of about 5,000 acres of tidal marsh, said executive director David Lewis, bringing the total to around 45,000 acres. Another 35,000 acres of diked former salt ponds and hayfields throughout the Bay Area, including most of the 30,000-acre Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, are owned by federal agencies and awaiting funding for restoration, Lewis said.
Save the Bay’s goal is to eventually acquire another 20,000 acres, bringing the regional total to 100,000.
Yet the organization is far from alone in its efforts.
Florence LaRiviere has fought to protect wetlands in the South Bay since 1967. For decades she has chaired the Citizens’ Committee to Complete the Refuge, which aims to secure and restore wetlands earmarked for inclusion in Don Edwards, established in 1972 as the country’s first such refuge in an urban area.
The refuge is federally authorized to expand through purchase or donation by another 10,000 acres. Like Save the Bay, LaRiviere hopes to find a willing seller in Cargill, whose Redwood City salt ponds could be reconnected to the Bay and permanently protected. Even at the age of 88, she’s ready for a fight.
“We’re not through yet,” she said.
Save the Bay timeline
1961: Save the San Francisco Bay Association formed by Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick to oppose Bay fill.
1963: Convinces Berkeley City Council to abandon plans for the city’s expansion into the Bay.
1965: Wins state legislation regulating bay fill and establishing Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
1974: Secures passage of Suisun Marsh Preservation Act, the state’s first wetlands protection law.
1980: Defeats two huge new Bay fill proposals, one in Berkeley and one in San Mateo County.
1992: Helps Citizens for Eastshore State Park secure permanent protection and restoration of shoreline stretching Emeryville to Richmond.
1995: Leads creation of Restore America’s Estuaries, a national alliance of 11 Save the Bay organizations.
2000: Launches community-based restoration program enlisting public support in restoring wetlands.
2001: Leads coalition to secure passage of San Francisco’s Proposition D, which requires voter approval for any large Bay fill project.
2003: Helps force San Francisco International Airport to cancel runway expansion project that would have filled up to two square miles of the Bay. Supports state and federal wildlife agencies in securing 16,500 of salt ponds for habitat restoration.
2008: Initiates campaign to prevent Cargill from developing 1,433 acres of retired salt ponds in Redwood City.