On a Bay Discovery program, Khan Lab School students willfully pulled invasive mustard and radish to help create natural wildlife habitat for endangered species like the Ridgway’s rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse. Leading up to this program, the students had already investigated the varying endangered species that live in the Bay Area. Fueled by the project–based learning approach of Khan Lab School, these students did extraordinary research on local endangered species and completed awe-inspiring projects to share their knowledge about their respective species and help protect them.
I was lucky to attend Khan Lab School’s Endangered Species Carnival, a culminating event that was designed to raise awareness and funds in their local community of Mountain View. This Endangered Species Carnival was so inspirational! I still get goose bumps when I think about the dedication and hard work that each and every student put into their project about the species they chose. Community members cashed in carnival tickets to participate in the numerous fun and educational activities centered on endangered species.
A unique carnival
At the Maker Space, there were arts and crafts to re-create the salt marsh harvest mouse, western snowy plover, and the Mt. Hermon beetle. At the Game Center, participants learned about the Bay Checkerspot butterfly, the Delta smelt, the Bald Eagle, and the San Francisco garter snake. There was also Test Your Brain, an endangered species themed form of Jeopardy, complete with podiums and student crafted buzzers. In Colorful Caterpillars, participants hid a paper caterpillar underneath leaves to protect it from predators. The test? A robotic predator programmed by students to hunt for the caterpillar, and if you hid your caterpillar well in the environment, then it survived to become a San Bruno Elfin Butterfly! At the Save The Whales booth, gamers were given 3 ping pong balls to hit easy, medium or hard targets and learned about the threats humans impose on whales. In addition to all of these games, there was a student-engineered hover board ride, photo booths, and a delightful snack stand, complete with chocolate pacific pond turtles and snow cones.
The most moving part of Khan Lab School’s Endangered Species Carnival was the excitement and wonder in every child’s eyes about these species. They were eager to talk about their experiences throughout the school year and how we can all make a difference. The choreographed finale was easily the showstopper of the carnival. I was even inspired to buy a t-shirt printed with “Endangered Species Carnival”, and brimmed with pride thinking about how each student will affect the world around them. Last but not least, the proceeds were donated to multiple non-profits around the Bay Area that work to protect endangered species, including Save The Bay.
Crude oil is being shipped from Canada via rail to refineries along the West Coast, exposing millions of Californians to health and environmental risks. With five major refineries in the East Bay, the number of trains carrying crude oil into the Bay Area could increase exponentially, posing severe risks to our local waterways and communities.
Millions of Californians live near train routes carrying crude oil and may not even be aware that highly hazardous train cars are passing through their backyards and near their local rivers. Thanks to the work of ForestEthics, you can use this online tool to map the nearest oil trains to any address in the U.S. or Canada. Simply plug in your address to see how far you live from a blast zone, the 1-mile evacuation area recommended after an oil train derailment.
The Bay Area is known for local resistance and this issue is no exception. “Crude by rail will only come here if we allow it,” said Greg Karras, Senior Scientist at Communities for a Better Environment. Bay Area activists have spoken out through peaceful protest and direct action in the Refinery Corridor between Martinez and Benicia. While federal regulation changes may take years to improve the safety of tanker trains, local action may be the best way to limit the number of oil trains rolling through our communities.
The railways are governed by federal law, but the refineries themselves must abide by local regulations. Last year, the City of Richmond issued an expansion permit to Chevron with greenhouse gas emissions standards limiting the amount of high-sulfur oil it can process, which will limit the amount of dirty crude the Chevron refinery can process. Communities for a Better Environment is also leading a coalition in advocating to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for stricter emissions standards for Bay Area refineries.Stronger regulation of refinery emissions would limit the amount of dirty fuels that could be refined in the Bay Area and ultimately reduce the number of crude oil shipments into the region.
When I arrived at the at the Creative Ecology program at Cooley Landing, I was greeted by Bay Area textile artist Linda Gass and handed an artist sketchbook and field guide. I was about to engage in a range of science and art activities that would have me seeing near and far.
The activities were intended to make connections between art and science, pointing out that both artists and scientists ask questions, make observations, learn from their senses and record what they see.
A closer look
I started at the science station, where I got the chance to look at water samples that were taken directly from the Bay. A member of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo explained that in every drop of Bay water there are hundreds of microorganisms. When I looked at the water samples with a naked eye, all I could see were chunks of mud. Looking under the microscope, I was surprised to see amphipods, nematode worms and diatoms. It was so cool to see these mud creatures up close and to think that they live all over the Bay.
Next I went to the art station where I was handed a magnifying glass to look closely at the mud and rocks that neighbored the shoreline and sketch what I saw. A member of the Palo Alto Art Center told us to look for patterns and to consider lightness and darkness, using lines, dots and crosshatching to create a value scale in our sketches. Using my magnifying glass, I was able to get a better look at the mussels, crabs and pickleweed that lived in the mud at the Bay’s edge.
While we were sketching, we were told to identify what was “manmade” and what was “nature made”. Often that distinction was easy to make. For example I could see that the rocks along the shoreline were nature made, while the bricks intermingled between the rocks were manmade. There were other instances where the line between manmade and nature made was a bit fuzzy. For instance, barnacles covered large pieces of wire that lay over some of the rocks.
Art meets science
When we arrived at the third station, we were each given a viewfinder and were told to identify the horizon through our viewfinder. We were instructed to use our viewfinders to pick out a certain section of the landscape that we wanted to draw and begin sketching. Looking far, we strived to clearly outline the foreground, middle ground and background in our drawings.
I saw a fin peaking up above the water. I soon realized that this was a leopard shark and that there were tons of leopard sharks swimming around the Bay waters that surrounded us. I probably saw at least 6 leopard sharks that day, many of which came right to the edge of the water, giving us a view of all three of their fins.
As I looked out on the Bay and began sketching, I was struck by the intricate patterns that the ripples made in the water. I often found myself straying away from my drawing and observing the nearby leopard sharks instead. As I looked around at the landscape, I was able to see the Palo Alto Baylands to the South, one of the many sites along the Bay where we engage in restoration.
As I took in my surroundings, looking near and far, I tried to imagine what Cooley Landing used to look like before it was cleaned up and restored. The site was originally home to the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, who utilized the space for fishing. It was later transformed into a pier for ships to transport building materials to San Francisco. Between the 1930’s and 1960, Cooley Landing was used as a garbage dump where toxic trash was dumped directly into Bay.
In 2012, EPA and the Regional Water Quality Control Board partnered up to design and fund the site’s cleanup, filling in the Bay and sealing off soil contaminated with mercury, arsenic, PCB’s, lead, and other toxic chemicals. Additional partners such as the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District contributed land and biological expertise to plant native vegetation to enhance the wildlife habitat for the nearby endangered Ridgeway’s rail and salt marsh harvest mouse.
The former garbage dump is now home to thriving native vegetation. Cooley Landing is now part of the Bay Trail, adding nine acres of public open space in East Palo Alto.
The Creative Ecology program brings people of all ages out to open space preserves like Cooley Landing and gets them interacting directly with the Bay. While out on the program, I watched kids become immersed in the art and science activities they were doing, using their imaginations to picture what the space may have looked like years ago and asking questions about the mud creatures that they saw. I watched longtime Bay residents enjoying the space for the first time, seeking more information about the site’s history and restoration.
Save The Bay’s own educational materials were used to answer questions and provide context. I was proud to tell program participants that I was a part of the Save The Bay team. As we looked at historical Bay maps, we identified parts of the Bay that had been converted to salt ponds, filled, or developed. When Linda asked which parts of the Bay were still neighbored by wetlands, I responded “not enough”. She smiled and informed the group that I was a part of Save The Bay.
Marking Historic Shoreline
Linda showed us historical maps of Cooley Landing overlaid on top of Google maps. Looking at historic maps of the site from 1857 and comparing those to current maps, it was evident that a lot of the Bay had been filled and a significant portion of the marsh was gone. Linda explained that she was working on a land art installation project in order to illustrate how the landscape has changed overtime and what we have lost.
Linda invited us to help her with the project, explaining that it was a community-based effort. She told us that we would be using blue survey whiskers to mark the historic shoreline of Cooley Landing, explaining that the space in front of the blue whiskers represented historic Bay water and the space behind the blue whiskers represented historic wetlands. Linda said that with each program, the art installation grows in size, further documenting the historic shoreline.
We were each given a handful of blue whiskers and were instructed to place them however we wished, using the orange tape that was already in place as a guideline. As I began sticking the whiskers into the ground I started chatting with the couple next to me. They explained that they were avid readers of the Bay Monthly, Save The Bay’s monthly newsletter, and asked more about my work as an office volunteer. I was happy to share my experiences with them and hear that they were curious about the work we are doing.
After attending Linda’s field program, I got a better idea of how other groups and organizations are working with the San Francisco Bay and how art and science can be applied to inspire and educate Bay stewards of all ages. Read more about the art and activism Linda Gass here.
Ronosaurus Rex, a.k.a. Ronald B. Richardson, recently completed a 350-mile walk around San Francisco Bay. His journey inspired these reflections on the biodiversity of our region.
On June 20, 2015, I finished a walk around the San Francisco Bay at every accessible point, including islands, bridges, piers, and docks. I had many incredible vistas, and I saw some wildlife, especially birds—but not as many animals as I would have expected on a 350-mile or more trek. That’s surprising, because the San Francisco Bay is a biodiversity hotspot, which is a biogeographic region rich in biodiversity that is under direct threat from humans.
The Bay is the heart of the California Floristic Province, one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots: biologically rich areas that are threatened. These hotspots cover only 2.3 percent of the earth’s land surface, yet they support “nearly 43 percent of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species,” according to Conservation International.
So where are all the animals that rely on the Bay?
You do not need to look fearfully skyward to find the cause—no mile-wide asteroids are smashing into the Gulf of Mexico and kicking up vast clouds of dust to block out the sun. No, this time the cause is much closer to home: you have only to look in a mirror.
The Wildlife I Saw—and Didn’t See—On My Walk
On my walk around the Bay, I saw many birds, including snowy egrets, great blue herons, pelicans, cormorants, geese, ducks, sandpipers, turkey vultures, and golden tail hawks. There are a lot of birds on the Bay, and we can thank Save The Bay and other environmental organizations for their numbers.
As for mammals, I saw some sea lions, a couple of deer (driven into urban areas by the drought), a red fox (a non-native species), squirrels, cats, dogs, and the carcass of a coyote, but little else. True, I am a loud and clumsy human who tends to scare away wildlife, and many animals, like the coyote and the bobcat, prefer to hunt at night. However on a recent trip to the Grand Canyon, I saw elk and deer everywhere, which shows that protected habitats do help wildlife flourish.
Reclaiming the Bay
The biodiversity of the Bay Area has radically diminished since the arrival of Westerners. One reason, besides overexploitation, is that settlers were trying to tame and reclaim the Bay. For the last 150 years, humans have tried to straighten out the line of the Bay, removing the tidal marshes that they saw as “wasteland”—literally “land that was wasted”—because they were not obviously useful for humans. Tremendous efforts were put into these projects, as well as huge amounts of money.
It is only relatively recently that we have grasped the importance of these wetlands. I learned from signs on my walk that salt marshes are the kidneys of the Bay, cleansing the water by removing toxins and filtering trash. They are habitats with distinct plant and animal communities, including over 250 species of migratory birds.
Also, over 30 percent of the Bay has been filled in, reducing its area from 787 square miles to 548. In the mid-twentieth century, there were plans to fill in a full 60 percent of it. Following the Reber Plan, only a narrow shipping channel would have remained by 2020. Imagine the Bay Area without a bay! Not only would this have been a horrendous loss of natural beauty, it would have been a major tragedy for biodiversity. The Bay fill project was stopped, but unfortunately, about 80 percent of the wetlands around the Bay and Delta had already been filled in or dyked.
Because of the loss of habitat, as well as invasive species like the invasive cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora hybrid (which has dominated many tidal marsh ecosystems, crowding out native species) and pollution (more than 250 million tons of raw sewage have been dumped into the Bay, not to mention all the industrial waste), 90 animals and plant species in the Bay Area are currently threatened with extinction, including the California Coast steelhead trout, California tiger salamander, the Bay checkerspot butterfly, and the Suisun thistle, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Ongoing Mass Extinction and the Importance of Biodiversity
The loss of biodiversity in the Bay Area echoes trends worldwide. Currently, the extinction rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the normal background rate at which species go extinct. The current mass extinction, which began about 12,000 years ago, is actually occurring at a faster pace than the one that killed the dinosaurs.
Why does biodiversity matter? Ecosystems are interdependent webs, made up of species that have co-evolved to maintain a specific balance. When one species is lost, it can affect the other species in its ecosystem, sometimes catastrophically. According to “What is Biodiversity” from the National Wildlife Federation, biodiversity offers humans access to foods and materials, thereby contributing to a healthier economy. Many medical discoveries have come from research into new species. Each time one is lost, so is a potential human resource, such as medicine. Biodiversity makes it easier for ecosystems to adapt to disasters, such as the drought California is currently experiencing.
And, as the National Wildlife Federation puts it, we need to preserve biodiversity “simply for the wonder of it all. There are few things as beautiful and inspiring as the diversity of life that exists on Earth.”
Saving the Bay
When I first visited the Bay as a boy, I remember how it stank. Now, sewage must be treated, and industrial waste has been greatly reduced. Much more needs to be done, but feel free to take in a deep breath as you walk along the shoreline.
Yes, there is good news. Many migratory birds have returned to the Bay Area, and of the 90 threatened or endangered species in the Bay Area registered under the Endangered Species Act since 1973, none have gone extinct!
So, don’t you dare tell me that your individual efforts will not have an impact on the future of the Bay and the well-being of this planet. Every action you take affects the environment, whether positively or negatively. It is time for all human beings to come together to end the mass extinction that we have wrought.
What You Can Do
Here are a few things you can do: donate time and money to organizations like Save the Bay working to protect and restore the wetlands around the Bay, including the removal of invasive species and the restoration of native species. Do not dump pollutants into city streets, as they drain into the Bay. Recycle and reuse, as much as you can. Pledge to achieve zero garbage. Support politicians and policies opposed to global warming, as this phenomenon will have a dreadful impact on the Bay and our fragile global ecosystem.
However, my best advice for you is to take a walk around the Bay, even a short one, so you can see, as I have seen, how beautiful and important this grand estuary is to plant, animal, and, yes, human life!
Ronald B. Richardson teaches composition and literature at San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco. He has written a book on the influence of narrative language on perception and behavior called Narrative Madness, and he has a successful blog at ronosaurusrex.com, where he writes fiction, poetry, and nonfiction and writes about metafiction and teaching. You can read more about his walk around the San Francisco Bay under nonfiction.
Every year, our Save The Bay team spends a summer day out of the office engaging in recreational activities around the Bay. The Summer Staff Outing is a day for staff to enjoy each other’s company and expand our understanding and appreciation of the Bay and the areas around us. These annual outings are also a great way for us to enjoy the beautiful Bay that we work to restore and protect every day.
Last year, our staff rented bikes and spent the day cycling around Angel Island. This year, we spent the day canoeing around San Leandro Bay, followed by a picnic at Crab Cove in Alameda.
Our day began at Tide Water Boating Station, along the Oakland Estuary at Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline. We had the privilege of going on one of the East Bay Regional Park’s recreation programs, a guided canoe trip that took us out on the Bay and gave us a unique perspective on our MLK nursery and many of our restoration sites.
After receiving a quick safety briefing from our instructors, we grabbed paddles and PFDs and began launching our canoes into the water. As I got into my boat, I spotted a familiar name written across the side of it: Esther Gulick, one of our organization’s founders.
It turns out that many of the canoes that we used that day were boats that had been donated to EBRP from Save The Bay. Our pilot education program Canoes in Sloughs, used to take kids canoeing out on the Bay to learn more about the estuary and the native species that depend on it. While we now teach by doing hands-on restoration programs with local schools, the tradition of Canoes in Sloughs lives on the through the EBRP recreational programs
While we were out on the water, we saw many of the native creatures that we work to save, including seals, pelicans, egrets, and cormorants. During our paddle, we got the chance to learn more about the natural history of the area, hearing stories from one of the EBRP naturalists about the formation of Arrowhead Marsh and it’s population of endangered Ridgway Rails, as we explored the perimeter of the site from the water.
After a few hours of paddling, we returned to the shore and got ready to head to Crown Memorial State Beach for lunch. When we arrived at the picnic site, we were greeted by a beautiful spread of fruit, salad and more. After eating we took to the beach, where we tossed around the Frisbee, watched the nearby kite surfers and played group games. We ended our day with a quick talk fromBay writer and natural history educator Joel Pomerantz.
After a fun-filled day of no work and all play, I returned to the office the next day feeling restored and inspired. It was great to be able to enjoy the Bay with my fellow Bay Savers, all of whom are so dedicated to protecting and restoring our most valuable regional treasure, the San Francisco Bay.