Guest Post | Restorative Moments at Sears Point

Sears Point in Sonoma County. Photo by: Julian Meisler
Unexpected flooding of Sears Point in Sonoma County brought thousands of birds to the site in late December. Photo provided by: Julian Meisler

Julian Meisler is the Baylands Program Manager for Sonoma Land Trust, responsible for overseeing Sonoma Land Trust’s holdings and projects along the bay including the 2,327-acre Sears Point Wetland and Watershed Restoration Project.  When project construction wraps up and levees are breached later this year, tides will rush in and connect this land with the rest of San Francisco Bay for the first time in over 120 years.

Every once in a while there are moments in our jobs, in our careers, when the significance of our work surfaces. I can attest as a field biologist turned project manager that these moments sometimes seem a little too infrequent.  Certainly our goals are lofty and pure but there are times when the day to day blurs to weeks and even years of permit negotiations, grant applications, reports, and presentations.  Alas, there are restorative moments that punctuate individual days of the year – a frog survey here, a rare plant survey there – and serve as reminders of why we do what we do.

But I’m talking about bigger moments.

For a little more than five years I have devoted myself almost entirely to a single project, the restoration of the 2,327-acre Sears Point property.  In 2005, Sonoma Land Trust (SLT) completed the purchase of this property which had come awfully close to being a casino.  The purchase set in motion years of work that would build and refine plans for management, enhancement, and restoration of the hilly pastures and riparian corridors of the uplands and the farmlands of the diked agricultural baylands below.  The most ambitious element of the plans would be the restoration of nearly 1,000 acres of the baylands to tidal marsh.

I came to the project after a lot of hard work had been done.  Surveys, studies, and assessments were compiled into a conceptual restoration plan and a draft EIR/EIS was complete.  My predecessor and a host of top consultants had laid the groundwork for the project.  My job was to get it done.  With our project partners at Ducks Unlimited and several agencies we slogged through more complications than the untrained eye would expect.  There were radio stations concerned with loss of power, PG&E installations and removals, threats from the NRA, evictions, deals, demolition, remediation, and budgets as convoluted as a fifth order tidal channel.  Not a single one of these topics, I might add, was ever mentioned in the tattered ecology textbooks of school, there were no references to such work in the Jepson Manual, nor even a nod in the soil survey.  This was project management through and through.

Yet we finalized the plans, we secured the permits, and we raised the money, and we began, in earnest, in 2014.  Beginning last summer, construction proceeded from dawn to dusk, six days a week for six months straight (without a single safety violation!).  The land was transformed and a buzz began to sound in the community.  By mid-December I was ready for a break and headed to cold and gray Pittsburgh, PA for visit to the land where I was raised.  It happened to be the week that the elusive El Nino briefly reared its head unleashing an atmospheric river that would rapidly and unexpectedly flood our future 1,000-acre tidal basin under three feet of fresh water.  Sunken from view were the six miles of channels that we’d excavated to build a 2.5-mile flood control/habitat levee.  Protruding from the water’s surface were the heads of 500 marsh mounds we’d built for the primary purpose of suppressing wind waves and thereby encouraging sediment deposition when the tides ultimately return next fall.  Ironically, rows and rows of oat hay sprouted along the crest and sides of the new levee overlooking the drowned fields that had grown that very crop for decades.  In fact, we had asked the farmer to seed our levee in order to buy us time to plan our ecotone and prevent the seemingly inevitable influx of non-native species.  All of this was rather remarkable for me to return to, having missed the storm entirely.

But the punctuation occurred on New Year’s Eve Day.  I visited the site to reoccupy the various photo points that I’d set up the previous year to track change over time.  This made for a long trek down the 2.5 miles of the new levee and the five miles of the old levee.  In the late afternoon, having covered a good number of these miles, I looked out over the water where farm houses and barns once stood.  Over a mile away the engines of the interminably busy Highway 37 were quieted by a typical afternoon backup.  Their sound was replaced by the flutter, the splash, and the whistles of what must have been thousands of ducks, geese, and shorebirds.  It was remarkable how quickly it had happened.  The site had been flooded for such a short period but these birds, some resident, some migrants, had found it.  It was habitat that hadn’t been seen on that site in generations.  I was struck and I was silenced.  Five years of work blended into a single meaningful moment. A moment of true punctuation.

The final denouement at Sears Point will actually occur this coming fall when we breach the levee.  It will mark the return of the tides for the first time in more than 120 years.  Unlike my private celebration on the eve of 2015, it will be public, the way it should be, for all to witness and enjoy.  Look for an announcement in the months to come.

– Julian Meisler

Volunteer Spotlight | Frederica Bunge

Photograph of Frederica Bunge
Frederica Bunge volunteered at Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline in Oakland on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. Photo by: Vivian Reed

How many times have you volunteered with Save The Bay?

3 times.

How did you get involved with Save The Bay?

Via First Congregational Church of Berkeley.

What is the best thing about volunteering with Save The Bay?

Being outdoors and saving the bay with friends

What other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

Crafts and writing.

If you could be one Bay plant or animal, what would it be and why?

Otter – they have so much fun!

Who is your environmental hero?

David Brower.

What is your favorite thing about the San Francisco Bay Area?


What else do you do to protect the environment?

Participate in the “Green Ministry” at our church (FCCB).

What is your fondest memory of San Francisco Bay? 

Sailing on the Bay – it’s heavenly!

Anything else you want to tell us?

You are doing a crucial piece of environmental preservation. Thank you!

Volunteer opportunities are available throughout the Bay Area. Sign up here.

The Three Kings of January 19, 2015: The tide, the location, and one man’s legacy

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January 19, 2015 — A day that could only be described by Martin Luther King Junior himself, “everyone can be great, because anyone can serve…”

Perhaps it was the significance behind this observed holiday, the opportunity to restore the wetlands at Martin Luther King Junior Regional Shoreline, or the anticipation of the King Tides that excited and inspired Save The Bay staff, volunteers, and myself to give back to my community.

My role was to capture still images of the event. During the King Tides walking tour, the volunteers and I learned about the King Tides phenomenon and the vital role our wetlands play in mitigating the impacts of sea level rise.

Not to be confused with climate change, King Tides are the result of a strong gravitational pull exerted by the sun and moon. But, scientists say the high water levels you see in the photographs (above) are projected to become the daily average high tide in the year 2050. This is primarily due to a rise in sea level and destruction of our wetlands which act as a natural buffer. Healthy wetlands help protect coastal communities by soaking up and slowing down water from severe storms, which are expected to become more severe and occur more frequently as sea level rises.

Following the conclusion of the event, I returned to the same restoration site and snapped a few photographs to capture the extremes between high and low tide.

“Who drained the slough?!” I thought to myself.

Within the span of 6 hours the water level fell dramatically, exposing saturated mounds of mud and revealing plants that were once entirely submerged!

As I peered through my camera lens, staring at the muddy puddles in astonishment, the importance of wetland restoration and impact of volunteering became clear to me. Having seen the tide rise as high as the frontage road off of Interstate 880 near the Oakland Coliseum, I know that every acre of restored tidal marsh will help Bay Area communities brace for what is to come – extreme regional flooding over time.

From social to environmental movements, Dr. King taught us that it does not take much to be great. Simply put, a little help will make a lasting impact.

While covering this event is my small contribution to help improve our local region, there is nothing more powerful than seeing what we are capable of together as a community.

To view more photos from this restoration event visit our Facebook Page!



Guest Post | Our Wild and Civil Rights

Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an award-winning national network that supports connections between African Americans and the natural world. This blog was originally posted on Outdoor Afro’s website. Save The Bay, Outdoor Afro, and Golden Gate Audubon will be hosting volunteer events at the MLK Jr. Shoreline in Oakland to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday January 19, 2015. 

Frank and Audrey Peterman
Frank Peterman, conservationist and civil rights activist, with his wife Audrey.

Frank Peterman, a conservationist and civil rights activist, was in his twenties during the 1960s. He recalls a great and daily sense of urgency about civil rights issues versus that of environmental concerns. For him, the March on Washington, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, was a galvanizing event that called for equitable access to jobs and quality of life for blacks in America and an end to institutionally protected physical brutality. “As a part of the NAACP to advance the Civil Rights Act, we did not discuss the Wilderness Act,” Peterman says, “and we were not invited to participate in their caucus.” He goes on to share that even though the momentum of each act was politically symbiotic, those driving the wilderness protection agenda may not have included African Americans deliberately as a key impetus of the Wilderness Act was about protecting the wild from the spoilage of human impact versus creating equitable access to it. From his perspective, “the Wilderness Act was about the protecting the wild, not people.”

While it does not appear that the Wilderness Act and Civil Rights Act shared a public platform back then, some believe an opportunity was missed to bring the acts more pointedly together that might have altered the course and progression of these respective movements today. Dr. Carolyn Finney, Assistant Professor at the University of California was a young child during the civil rights era, and while she personally remembers few specific events of the era, like most African American children of her generation, she grew up with the movement’s tales and heroes evergreen on the family tongue. “Civil rights? Yes, I always knew what that was about!”

In her book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, she plots out the interwoven chronology of social and political events that lead up to the civil rights and wilderness act. Even though linked by a common timeline, Dr. Finney believes that the wilderness preservation movement—and the environmental movement, more broadly—missed a golden opportunity to address race that might have helped put conservation on a path toward greater harmony between people and nature, and especially between African Americans and the natural wild. “The conservation movement has traditionally prided itself on a concept of nature as pure,” she says, “which for some, can also be translated to mean whiteness.” She contends that had the Wilderness Act considered the human experience in nature, the traditional conservation movement might not struggle with understanding the connection between its work and that of civil rights—making it better equipped to engage with issues related to diversity and inclusion.

In the collaborative efforts around the country to re-invent African American connections to the environment—my organization, Outdoor Afro, is one of them—it is often essential to address fears that linger about the wild. These fears are not only about potential contact with wildlife: there are still perceptions among black folks that one might be susceptible to violence in the cover of the wild. Because of this pervasive thinking, some of the sturdiest urban brothers and sisters are less likely to warm to the idea of wandering alone in the woods to this day. Within the memory of a living generation, many recall the world in which the plaintive refrain of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit rang true:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

While Jim Crow-style terror in nature is no longer a common occurrence, the legacy of institutionalized exclusion of black people from recreational areas persists. The result of years of discrimination is that, for many people, the experience of being outdoors can feel more like an effort to conquer a fear than enjoyment for its own sake. And, still too often, many black and brown folks face unwelcoming (or over-welcoming) stares, questions, and attitudes while recreating in wild spaces that spell discomfort in places that should be a safe respite from the pace of urban life. This is why we find that so many African Americans from urban areas choose backyard wilderness close to home, surrounded by a reflection of familiar faces and defensible cityscapes versus venturing alone into a remote wilderness area far from home.

Shelton Johnson has been a park ranger with the National Park Service in Yellowstone National Park for nearly two decades. His work has flourished on the topic of making the parks more relevant and welcoming for everyone, especially for African Americans. Illustrating both real and composite narratives of the Buffalo Soldier in his guest interpretation talks and in his book Gloryland, Johnson maintains that access to parks in our wild places is ultimately about freedom and provides a platform today to continue the work of civil rights. “The Buffalo Soldiers were sons of slaves, who were compelled to join the military to earn respect and find purpose within the close memory of slavery,” he says. While these soldiers were charged with stewarding land distant from their African roots, Johnson suggests that it proved to be a gateway for belonging and a sense of “owning” in America.

This is the same possibility available to African Americans today in our National Parks. “We are not truly home here in America, unless we engage with the earth to re-connect with the Africans we once were – the hunters, gatherers, horticulturalists – earth bound people,” says Johnson. “So visiting the biome of Yellowstone might also mean a chance to reclaim what it means to be Yoruba, Mandingo – or African American. Whatever you call yourself, it matters little, because it is all the same people, the same earth.”

While the sixties may have been tumultuous, what emerged was a country that dreamed big, had every reason to hope, and found agreement to protect and envision a future for people and resources seen as most vulnerable. In today’s divisive political climate these same actions seem unfathomable, yet remind us of what is possible when we pull together.

We know the work is far from done, but we can pause to celebrate wild lands and the movement to protect them while also respecting the still-sharp memories and historic tensions between people in the wild. With a vision of healing, Outdoor Afro and many other organizations are helping people re-invent connections to natural places both near and far through a variety of peer led activities. One experience at a time, we can replace old fears and reservations about the wilderness with joy, curiosity, and wonder for all ages in our lands.

While the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act may not have been originally conceived out of a common network, we have a chance now to make their real connections come alive today, recognizing the delicate and essential links between people and the wild all around for the betterment of everyone.

Where shall we go together in nature from here?

— Rue Mapp, Founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro

Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service Events Around the Bay

Bay Area environmental groups are linking the increasingly popular Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service to growing concern about rising sea levels and their impact on vulnerable communities. This year’s MLK holiday coincides with this winter’s highest daytime tide. These King Tides are increasingly being used to understand and plan for the rising seas expected to result from global warming. Many groups have planned events around the Bay, including hundreds of volunteers expected at Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline in Oakland.

Outdoor Afro, Golden Gate Audubon Society, and East Bay Regional Park District
OAKLAND: Habitat restoration and celebration of Dr. King’s legacy.
At Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline, near the observation tower off of Swan Way, 9 a.m. to noon
Over 50 people will be rotating through activities that include planting native plants to restore wildlife habitat; cleaning up trash; and viewing and learning about local shorebirds. The habitat we are restoring is home to the endangered Ridgway’s (former Clapper) Rail.

Save the Bay and East Bay Regional Park District
OAKLAND: Habitat Restoration and King Tides walk
At: Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline, Damon Slough
9:00 am – 12:00 pm
About 75 people signed up to go on a walk with Save The Bay’s staff scientist, Hayley Zemel, who will take them along the shoreline and teach about King Tides. Afterwards, they will participate in wetland habitat restoration by planting native plants in Damon Slough and learn about the benefits of tidal marshes.

Acterra, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, and City of Cupertino
CUPERTINO: Young Audubon Day of Service, 9 a.m. to 12 noon.
At McClellan Ranch Preserve, 22221 McClellan Rd., Cupertino.
About 65 people have signed up to work on creek and native meadow habitat restoration at the preserve.

Environmental Volunteers
PALO ALTO: King Tides Walk, 10:15 AM – 12:00 PM
At Environmental Volunteers EcoCenter, 2560 Embarcadero Rd., Palo Alto.
Please register in advance
Participants will be observing and recording the effects of a “king tide” and learning about its impact on shoreline and marshland ecology.

Friends of Five Creeks and Citizens for East Shore Parks
RICHMOND: King Tides Walk, 10 AM – noon
At S.E. entrance to Pt. Isabel Regional Shoreline, N. end of Rydin Rd.,
Shoreline walk from Point Isabel north will explore history including Native Americans and dynamite making, enjoy thriving restoration, see how rising sea levels threaten infrastructure and wildlife, and talk about possibilities for using wetlands to buffer some of the effects.

Friends of Sausal Creek
OAKLAND: King Tides Walk, Tue, Jan. 20, 10am – 12pm (NOTE: This is on Tuesday, not MLK Day.)
At Fruitvale Bridge Park, Oakland (Fruitvale and Alameda Ave., immediately S. of Fruitvale Bridge)
Local historian Dennis Evanosky leads a walking tour exploring the fascinating history of the waterway between Oakland and Alameda, where Sausal Creek now empties into the estuary via a culvert.

The Watershed Project and East Bay Regional Park District
RICHMOND: Shoreline cleanup, 9 a.m. to noon.
At Point Pinole Regional Shoreline, 5532 Giant Highway
Remove invasive plants and clean up trash.

Friends of the Richmond Greenway, The Watershed Project, Urban Tilth, Pogo Park, the City of Richmond, and others
RICHMOND: Planting gardens and Celebrating Dr. King, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
At Richmond Greenway,
 8th St and Ohio Street and 16th and Ohio St.
Plant trees and gardens along the Greenway, build a rain garden, clean up trash and celebrate Dr. King’s legacy with speakers and presentations.

Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate and The Watershed Project
RICHMOND: Habitat Restoration, 9 a.m. to noon
Point Molate Beach Park, Richmond
Install native plants and observe King Tides.

Other events at the MLK Shoreline on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2015:

Martin Luther King Jr. Rally
99 Pardee Drive, Oakland, 9am to noon
Speeches and rally

Boy Scouts of America and East Bay Regional Parks District
Martin Luther King Grove, 8:30am to noon
Restore grove, plant shrubs, rake leaves, pick up shoreline  litter and spread mulch

East Bay Regional Parks District, Waste Management Civicorp, and Kaiser Permanente
Oak Port Fields, East Creek Slough, and Damon Marsh Trail, 9am to noon
Pick up shoreline litter, remove invasive French broom.

UC Berkeley Freedom Center and East Bay Regional Parks District 
Tidewater Boating Center, 12pm to 3pm
Pick up shoreline litter.