Connect with Mother Nature, offline

Sometimes, a new perspective of the world around us is all it takes to “disconnect to reconnect” with the self. Photo By: Vivian Reed

It seems like it was only yesterday when my Dad purchased our first family desktop computer in 1996. During that time school computer labs were furnished with clunky, colorful Macintosh desktop computers, CDs and VHS tapes predated MP3s and Netflix, and the Y2K hysteria dominated tech headlines.

My friends and I, most of whom were born in the early 1990s and grew up in Silicon Valley, often talk about the role of technology and its lightning-fast changes throughout our lifetimes. The consensus? A shared belief that the definition of childhood has evolved as today’s children are more in touch with technology, literally.

Growing up in a town where at least one member of each family worked in tech, meant every kid on the block had the latest and greatest gadget in his or her possession (and it still is the case today). Although I was often envious of my classmates who sported their shiny, razor-thin camera flip phones, I always felt happiest and more relaxed outdoors.

Swinging on my backyard swing set, puddle jumping with friends in a rain storm, playing organized sports at the local park, hiking around the Bay Area with my family, and backpacking with friends in the Sierra Nevada are my fondest childhood memories. And it is those memories of a time spent outdoors, that fueled my decision to begin my career as an environmental advocate at Save The Bay.

We are lucky to live in a region with incredible access to the outdoors, but only if we take the time to get away from our screens. Recently, I have become concerned that we’ll lose a connection that’s stronger than your wifi signal — our connection with the natural environment.

The truth is, technology is so inextricably woven into our lifestyle that it’s not just a millennial issue. Look around — anyone old enough to operate a smartphone most likely owns one (or at least has access to one). This constant connection affords an ability to know what is happening in real time, but it also takes away from using that “real time” to inspire the next generation of Bay Savers.

Today disconnecting from the world has transcended into a spiritual practice that cleanses the mind, body, and soul. This trend of “disconnecting to reconnect” opens a new area of study for social science researchers, provides fodder for a “reality” television show, and even inspires business entrepreneurs to found a tech-free, digital detox camp for adults. But here’s my question: Can the practice of seeking solace outdoors in this highly-connected era help solve the environmental problems we face today?

I’m not so naive to suggest that one glance of San Francisco Bay from the region’s tallest peaks, one day of biking along the Bay Trail, or one night of camping at Angel Island State Park will immediately inspire you to tackle today’s environmental challenges head on. But, I do believe that prioritizing and making a continuous effort to play outdoors can redefine what is really important to us as individuals. And if we value outdoor recreation, then the next logical step would be to commit to preserving and protecting this open space.

If the old adage “Today’s children are tomorrow’s future” rings true, then it’s our collective responsibility as adults to make play a priority for our children by signing off of technology and plugging into the world around us. It is time we all see and experience the world  through our own eyes — not live vicariously through someone else’s photograph of a beautiful landscape posted online.

This weekend, I challenge you to go outside and enjoy a day by the Bay free of technology. Then store those memories in your mental computer and and share them with your loved ones in person. I bet you won’t even miss your screen.

Benicia: What Could Have Been

 A modern Benicia map with the original 1847 layout of streets superimposed.
The Benicia that might of have been: a modern Benicia map with the original 1847 layout of streets superimposed, extending far up into its hills and out into the waters of the Carquinez Strait. Courtesy Steve McKee

Ever wondered how San Francisco looked with its fabled Yerba Buena Cove? Come visit the north side of the Carquinez Strait, to its pre-Gold Rush rival. In the now sleepy town of Benicia, you’ll find a 19th century street grid cutting abruptly into its naturally rocky shoreline. This is because most of the coves and inlets of Benicia were never filled in for urban development.

Growing up in historic Benicia, it was always evident to me what it could have been. Hard as it is to believe today, when conceived in the year 1847, Benicia’s founders envisioned the settlement to grow to be the alpha city of the American West. Despite its deep water port on the Carquinez Strait and easy access to California’s interior, San Francisco quickly usurped that role with the dawn of the Gold Rush.

Nonetheless, Benicia’s early optimism now presents itself as an interesting counter-example to San Francisco, which led the region with its amazing growth, but also the careless environmental degradation that came with reckless 19th and 20th century city planning.

A look at the history of each city’s name presents us a more telling tale of their early rivalry.

Benicia was originally slated to be called Francisca in honor of Doña “Francisca” Benicia Carrillo de Vallejo, the wife of Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, arguably the most powerful individual in the historic Mexican province of Alta California and one of the co-founders of the city. Perhaps, more importantly, the city of Francisca aimed to associate itself with something much larger: San Francisco Bay. A nod to the crown jewel of our region, already famous in an era when marine travel was king, the city was envisioned as the new metropolis of the West.

Fearful that the formation of Francisca would eclipse it, Yerba Buena, the small fishing village sitting on a cove of the same name, renamed itself “San Francisco,” effectively forcing the use of Señora Vallejo’s second name of “Benicia.” Indeed, the name San Francisco stuck in the minds of gold seekers around the world, who would always remember that city named after the Bay, rather than its rival Benicia.

In dramatic fashion, San Francisco erased not only its former name, but all traces of it. Yerba Buena Cove now sits underneath today’s Financial District, once a grid of carefully fought over “waterlots.”

It begs the question of how Benicia would have looked if built out as intended. The above map of Benicia as proposed in 1847 would certainly have it looking much more like its former rival. In accordance to the 1847 street grid, the rolling hills near and above Benicia’s Interstate 780 freeway would have developed like San Francisco’s Nob and Russian Hills. The thought of a majestic hill city before the Carquinez Strait sounds glamorous, but that urban development would have come at a great cost to its waterfront.

Indeed, after the Gold Rush, rampant filling of shallow areas reduced San Francisco Bay’s size by one-third and destroyed 90 percent of the Bay’s tidal marsh. For Benicia to have largely escaped this is a powerful testament to what could have been.

So perhaps, in an parallel world, Benicia would have stuck to its original name of Francisca. The gold prospectors that would have gathered in Benicia would have helped to secure its hold as a major world city. The natural contours that so define its shoreline today could have been transformed into a zigzag of rectangular geometry. High-rise buildings mounted on bayfill and plans to construct a “clean cut” shoreline like San Francisco’s Embarcadero could have taken place. Yet, for those wildlife and residents who enjoy a quiet life before the Carquinez and take pride in our town’s natural coves and inlets, this lack of development is a blessing in disguise.

Myself, having both grown up in Benicia and lived in San Francisco for two years, it comes as more of a mixed blessing. Like many Bay Area residents, I long for the urban amenities provided by residing in a city like San Francisco, such as accessible public transit. At same time, I’ve written before how the Carquinez Strait has been my connection to the Bay. My hometown’s many shoreline parks were instrumental in fostering my sense of place at a young age and ultimately my future pursuits as a student and advocate of the environment.

Why Save The Bay Talks to Generals

In our efforts to protect and restore the Bay, we often meet with local, state and federal elected officials, senior staff at resource and regulatory agencies, and appointees to state boards and commissions.

But over the last several years, we’ve left no stone unturned in our effort to prevent the largest Bay fill development in decades, Cargill’s proposal to build 12,000 homes on Bay salt ponds in Redwood City.  We met repeatedly with senior officials of DMB Associates, Cargill’s developer partner, and with members of the Redwood City Council. We even reached out to the Bay Area venture capitalists backing the project, who refused to even respond.

Last month, I traveled to the E-ring of The Pentagon to meet with the U.S. Army’s Deputy General Counsel.  And just days earlier, I had met with the General who commands the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Major General John Peabody’s distinguished military career has won many decorations – the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Joint Meritorious and Army Meritorious Service Medals, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, and others.

Compared to surviving in battle zones, it must have seemed easy to decide whether Cargill’s Redwood City salt ponds are in the federal government’s jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.  All the precedents said “yes”, and the Corps’ San Francisco District and the U.S. EPA’s San Francisco regional headquarters agreed.  But Cargill is the largest privately-held company in the country, with plenty of lobbyists and friends in high places. Cargill’s lawyers created a novel interpretation of the Clean Water Act that would exempt its ponds from federal oversight, and made major progress behind the scenes convincing senior Army Corps lawyers to adopt their view.

Even with all of Cargill’s lobbying clout, the Corps final decision was still pending after nearly three years. Save The Bay activists signed petitions to the Corps and to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Local activists, led by Redwood City Neighbors United, kept up a drumbeat of concern and stayed visible in the local media.  We met repeatedly with the staff of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who was chairing the committee that oversees the Corps.  We asked U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier to raise concerns about Cargill’s self-serving legal theory, and the damage it poses to the Bay in her Congressional district.

Then in February, Senator Dianne Feinstein, alerted by Save The Bay’s outreach, challenged the Corps’ leadership at a Senate hearing:  “I’m very concerned about this.  What makes our whole area is the bay, and we do not want it filled in,” she said, and insisted that General Peabody actually see the salt ponds before deciding to relinquish federal regulation of them.

The general flew west, toured Redwood City, and met me with grace and openness.  He acknowledged that a lot of my questions were good ones for which he didn’t have answers; he told me it was helpful to actually meet someone who had been working on the issue for a decade. But he also made it clear the Corps was about to decide in Cargill’s favor.

Continue reading “Why Save The Bay Talks to Generals”

Going Big: Building an experimental habitat for a better Bay

Horizontal Levee
A “Horizontal Levee” is under development at Oro Loma. Rendering courtesy The Bay Institute.

This spring, Save The Bay’s Habitat Restoration team laid the groundwork of an enormous and unprecedented effort to create new habitat at a sewage treatment plant in San Lorenzo.

The 10-acre project at the Oro Loma wastewater treatment plant will eventually include a manmade wetland basin and a new type of levee. It’s all part of a giant experiment to mimic historic wetlands and address three crises that loom over San Francisco Bay’s shorelines: declining water quality, threats to wildlife habitat on the Bay, and destructive flooding caused by rising seas and increasingly powerful storm surges.

Braving long days in the hot sun at the treatment plant, our native plant specialists have already constructed the site’s giant outdoor nursery. With help from an army of our amazing corporate and community volunteers, we have already begun to propagate the 70,000 native seedlings needed to establish this new ecosystem. The site will double as an outdoor laboratory for researchers who will conduct field tests to better understand how treated wastewater and this new kind of levee can address critical issues facing the Bay. Continue reading “Going Big: Building an experimental habitat for a better Bay”

Framing a vision for a better Bay

Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge. Photo by: Britta Heise.
Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge. Photo by: Britta Heise.

Picture this: You wake up before sunrise and head out the door with your camera in one hand and a half eaten breakfast burrito (with avocado, of course) in the other. You’re heading for an unexplored destination that you’ve goggled the night before.  As the dark blue and black hues of night give way to a morning sky, your adrenaline rushes you toward your destination. Upon arrival you grab your belongings, find the perfect spot to set up your shot, and wait. You wait for the “golden hour” when the rising sun gently illuminates the landscape and paints the world in those vivid, breathtaking colors only nature can produce.

Landscape photographers, does this “hurry up and wait” drill sound familiar to you?

This begs the question, why do photographers do this? Is the opportunity to capture a beautiful photograph really worth waking up early, traveling long distances, and enduring the cold, rain, snow, or wind?

By no means do I consider myself a professional photographer, but I’ve learned over time that the best photographers have mastered the virtue of patience. In other words, it’s worth waiting for the right shot regardless of the elements.

On the first day of my high school Black and White Photography course, my teacher showed the class an iconic photograph of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome and the Merced River taken by outdoor landscape photography guru Ansel Adams. After a quick critique of the photograph, she then asked us to describe how it would feel to be Adams the moment he took the picture. 

I initially thought about how cold it must have been, yet peacefully quiet. The river was still. The reflections, perfect. The warm winter sun peering through the snow-covered trees must have been a welcoming sensation. Ultimately, to me, this setting looked like heaven on earth — a place worth protecting and preserving for future generations to enjoy. Of course this image is now synonymous with Yosemite National Park, but here in the Bay Area we have our share of iconic images as well.

Even in the midst of today’s highly urbanized setting, it is still possible to take a picture of a raw, wild San Francisco Bay. However, this may not be the case in the near future with looming climate change impacts and more immediate threats including stormwater pollution and reckless shoreline development. The truth is, the beauty of our Bay is in jeopardy each day.

I always feel a deeper connection and appreciation for our home region when shooting photographs outside or scrolling through a series of beautiful bay images online. And I know that your photographs can elicit that reaction too.

The still images — documented moments frozen in time — we all capture help preserve memories and tell inspirational stories. Like Yosemite, the Bay is another slice of heaven on earth that needs to be protected and preserved for generations to enjoy. Allow your photographs to live on in Save The Bay’s 2016 Calendar — submit your photos by May 1, 2015.

Who knows, your work may inspire someone else to think about what you felt, smelled, heard, and saw the moment you snapped your photograph. And this may be just the motivation they need to take on the environmental issues we face.

Even if its just for a moment. That’s all it takes.