In 1961, Oakland Tribune reporter Ed Salzman dutifully went on what he thought was a dubious assignment to Sausalito to cover the possible closure of a visitor center housing a working hydraulic model of the San Francisco Bay.
He ended up writing what he calls the most important story of his 40-year career.
Describing what the Bay might look like in 2020 if development continued at its current pace, the April 23, 1961 article prompted three East Bay women to establish the environmental advocacy organization Save San Francisco Bay Association, now called Save The Bay, and celebrating its 60th anniversary with programming to be announced in June.
“I covered presidents and governors and all kinds of big shots, but when you look back, I don’t remember those stories at all. But this story I remember in detail, because let’s face it, the saving of San Francisco Bay is still going on,” said Salzman, 89, an Oregon resident who’s also the former editor of the Sacramento-based Golden State Report and California Journal magazines.
“Astounded” at the shallowness of most of the Bay, which made it subject to filling, Salzman took a report supplied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which still operates the Bay Model Visitor Center today — and shaded in the Bay’s shallow areas on a map. What was left, he said, “was nothing more than a river or shipping channel.”
He brought the map to Tribune artist Frank Kettlewell, who created a print-quality version that became part of a full-page spread on “Our Shrinking Bay” overseen by editor Dick Fogel.
Alarmed after reading the story in the paper, Esther Gulick, Kay Kerr and Sylvia McLaughlin — whose husbands were scholars and leaders at the University of California, Berkeley — began a fundraising and public relations campaign toward stopping Bay fill.
“They literally phoned — dialed — all their friends and asked their friends to call their friends,” said Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis, who added, “We frequently remind ourselves that when the three women started, they had very few of the advantages we do now. There were almost no environmental laws. The shoreline was almost entirely owned by private companies.”
While people in individual cities had their own notions of what to do with the Bay, and women were largely absent from power, the ladies, as they’re affectionately known by those who followed them, were fighting an uphill battle.
“All they did — it changed the future of the Bay,” said Lewis.
Barry Nelson, Lewis’ predecessor and Save The Bay’s first executive director, goes even farther: “You can make a credible case that their movement to stop Bay fill was the birth of the modern environmental movement globally; it certainly was the first coastal protection movement in the nation,” said Nelson, mentioning that Earth Day wasn’t established until 1970, and that groups such as the Sierra Club were focused on preserving wilderness, not nature in urban areas.
The women began by sending a newsletter to members who paid an annual $1 fee to be in their volunteer organization.
“It was groundbreaking. They charged a buck. People laughed at them, but they had $2,500 in no time,” said Larry Goldzband, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a regional agency established as a result of Save San Francisco Bay’s efforts with the 1965 passage of the McAteer-Petris Act. In 1969, BCDC became permanent under Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Today, with the most of the shoreline protected for nature or already developed, the group’s original task has been accomplished, although Lewis said, “Every once in a while we have a battle like 15 years of trying to stop Cargill from building on salt ponds.” Earlier this month, Save The Bay and others claimed victory when the corporation said it would not appeal a federal judge’s ruling that Redwood City ponds adjacent to the Bay are protected by the Clean Water Act. In 2012, Cargill and its developer partner proposed building 12,000 homes on the 1,365-acre site, to considerable public opposition.
Save The Bay has also made strides in terms of public access. In 1961, there were only six miles of access along the entire shoreline. Today there’s a “necklace of shoreline parks,” Lewis said, as well as the 500-mile Bay Trail (a recent connector was created in Berkeley and Albany in McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, named after the Save The Bay co-founder) and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
For Lewis, Save the Bay’s role in collaborating on issues — with fellow advocates, policymakers, citizens, regulators and business — has led to accomplishments including the establishment of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban wildlife refuge in the nation, in the 1980s; preventing San Francisco International Airport from filling the Bay for expanded runways in 2000; and Measure AA, a nine-county $12 per year parcel tax for 20 years funding shoreline protection and restoration projects, which passed by 70 percent in 2016.
Calling Save the Bay’s history “our region’s story about coming together to make this a better place for people and wildlife, for cities and nature,” Lewis said the group has worked closely with San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, San Mateo Supervisor Dave Pine and state Sen. Scott Wiener toward finding regional solutions to regional problems.
And Save The Bay’s most important legacy, Lewis said, could be that its success in protecting the Bay is being emulated toward creating affordable housing for all and an efficient, environmentally sound Bay Area-wide transportation system.
“In addition to being loved for all the obvious aesthetic and ecological reasons, Save The Bay gives us hope and encouragement that we can act as a region to solve regional challenges like adapting to climate change,” said Lewis, by protecting infrastructure on the shoreline — in some cases moving it — and by restoring as many wetlands as possible in the next decades.
Since Lewis started in the job in 1998, Save The Bay’s staff has grown from seven to 23, its budget has increased by almost five times, and its mission has changed from stopping the Bay from getting smaller to stopping it from getting bigger due to sea level rise.
With an expanded focus not just on shoreline, but on urban greening inland, too, Lewis said, “We have a really bright future. There’s a lot of exciting, challenging work to do, and with the new federal administration, there’s a lot more we can accomplish in the next few years.
“We have huge volunteer program that’s restoring wetlands on the shoreline and teaching kids in schools,” Lewis said, adding, “None of that was envisioned by the ladies. But they weren’t wrong not to envision it. They did what they needed to be effective, and that’s what we do now.”