Roundup: Science of saving the Bay

Photo: Britta Heise
Photo: Britta Heise

Report: Baylands & Climate Change

How will climate change impact the Bay Area? In 2015, local scientists released an important update to a 1999 report on the Bay’s ecosystems and habitat. The report calls for accelerated restoration efforts across the Bay to prepare for dramatic climate fluctuation. Read more about this significant research from Save The Bay’s lead scientist Donna Ball.

King Tides


All Hail the King… Tides, That Is

King Tides are the highest tides of the year that occur around the Winter and Summer Solstices. These extreme high tides provide a glimpse of the typical tides of the future as sea levels rise. Fortunately, restoration of transition zones around the Bay shoreline can act as a natural barrier, soaking up and redirecting bay waters. Read more about what the King Tides tell us about the future of San Francisco Bay.


The Science of Wetlands & Wastewater

As a partner on a groundbreaking, experimental project called the Oro Loma Horizontal Levee, Save The Bay is creating new habitat that may model how our region can adapt to rising sea levels. Meanwhile, UC Berkeley researcher Aidan Cecchetti is measuring another aspect of the project: How this habitat can filter excess nutrients and other pollutants from treated wastewater. Read more about the research at Oro Loma.


Sylvia McLaughlin, A life of impact


Touched by the news of Sylvia’s passing, reporters from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and even Sylvia’s home state of Colorado paused to write lovely remembrances of her life and legacy. Here are some notable articles and remarks from the press.

Local Bay Area News Coverage:

Remembering Save the Bay’s Sylvia McLaughlin — KQED Forum  
Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis sat down with host KQED Forum host Mina Kim for a conversation about Sylvia McLaughlin’s contributions to the environmental movement and her legacy.  Listen >

Sylvia McLaughlin, co-founder of Save the Bay, dies at 99 — San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Chronicle reporter Peter Fimrite chronicles the life of Sylvia McLaughlin from her early years to the formation of Save The Bay and her legacy as an environmental leader. Read more >

Save the Bay Co-Founder Sylvia McLaughlin Dies — KQED
Lindsey Hoshaw reflects on Sylvia’s life and the challenges she overcame to save the Bay. The piece ends with a 2008 interview with Sylvia about why she started Save The Bay. Read more> 

Sylvia McLaughlin: Champion for San Francisco Bay (1916-2016) — Bay Nature
David Loeb, Executive Director and Publisher of Bay Nature, reflects on Sylvia McLaughlin’s leadership and thanks her for showing how to get things done. Read more > 

Sylvia McLaughlin, last living founder of Save the Bay, dies at age 99 — Contra Costa Times
Reporter Dennis Cuff recounts the history of the movement to save San Francisco Bay started by Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr, and Esther Gulick. Read more >

Sylvia McLaughlin, lifelong Berkeley environmentalist, dies at 99 — Daily Californian 
Alexander Barreira writes for the Daily Californian, an independent student-run paper at UC Berkeley, reporting on the life of environmental trailblazer, Sylvia McLaughlin. Read More >

Other news:

Sylvia McLaughlin dies at 99; longtime San Francisco Bay environmental activist — Los Angeles Times 
Jill Levy reminds us that Sylvia’s activism was rooted in her love for the beauty of San Francisco Bay. That beauty inspired decades of advocacy and environmental successes. Read more>

Environmentalist Sylvia McLaughlin dies at age 99 — Denver Post 
News of Sylvia McLaughlin’s passing reported in a Colorado newspaper. Read more >

Carrying on Sylvia’s legacy


Sylvia with Monica
Monica met Sylvia McLaughlin during Save The Bay’s 50th anniversary.

When someone asks me, “Who are your heroes?” the people who come to mind are often strangers who live in other places or other times. Sylvia McLaughlin is the one whose picture I see every workday, reminding me that heroes are simply people who see what needs to be done and do it.

I started working at Save The Bay in 2011, as the organization celebrated its 50th anniversary year. It was an incredible way to connect with the history of this environmental movement. The story of these three women from Berkeley who stood up for a better San Francisco Bay is inspiring to all of us. Can you imagine if they hadn’t succeeded? Would our beloved San Francisco Bay be merely a polluted shipping channel? Before learning the history, it was easy to take the Bay for granted, a sparkling gem that defines the Bay Area. I am both inspired and humbled by the work that Save The Bay’s founders started in Sylvia’s home in the Berkeley hills all those years ago.

I was thrilled the first time I heard Sylvia speak in person, at our 50th anniversary gala event.  She quoted her friend and co-founder Kay Kerr: “The San Francisco Bay is never saved, it is always in the process of being saved.” She encouraged each of us to keep working for a better San Francisco Bay. Her words resonated throughout the room, a reminder not just to look back at the fights already won, but to embrace the work of constantly improving our Bay.

When Sylvia McLaughlin passed away last month at the age of 99, she left a long list of accomplishments and an admirable legacy.  As we honor her life, I’m filled with awe and gratitude of the impact she had on our region. The San Francisco Bay is no longer seen as a giant sewer or unused real estate. This thriving estuary is now ringed with parks and open space to give the public access to its shoreline, including McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, named in Sylvia’s honor. Each time we look out over San Francisco Bay, we can thank Sylvia.

A legacy of determination

I am so thankful to Sylvia for her persistence and determination. She and her friends faced what must have seemed like impossible challenges, and changed the course of history. Sylvia’s lifelong commitment to working for a better Bay is a legacy all of its own.

The ways that we interact with the Bay have changed in the last 50 years, and the challenges we face are new as well. In the face of climate change and the Bay Area’s growing population, the task at hand can feel as impossible as what our founders faced half a century ago.  But just as Sylvia saved the Bay for us, I am confident that we can save the Bay for future generations.

We take inspiration from Sylvia’s vision for the San Francisco Bay, rooted in her deep love for this place we all come home. We will remember her courage when we face our own impossible odds. We’ll channel her tenacity when confronted by powerful interests. And we will share her faith that ordinary people achieve great things when they come together and raise their voices as one.

In Memoriam: Sylvia McLaughlin

In the days following Sylvia McLaughlin’s passing we received hundreds of emails, social media comments, and phone calls celebrating her life and legacy. Here are some of the most moving tributes to our co-founder.

“Her vision for the Bay was revolutionary even by today’s standards. So thankful for her dedication to our region’s greatest natural treasure.”
– Allison C.

“In the face of a multitude of environmental problems, Sylvia’s life reminds us of the power of optimism and determination. To keep pushing forward even when discouraged or set back. To never lose hope when fighting for what you believe in. That is how a true leader reaches such accomplishments.”
– Jon B.

“I am deeply honored every day to carry on the legacy of this great woman, of the vision she and her friends had to see San Francisco Bay as a natural treasure. Every time I catch a glimpse of our great bay, I am grateful for the work she did for all of us and inspired to keep working for a better bay. Rest in peace, Sylvia. I know that you are still enjoying the view.”
– Monica C.

“I had the great privilege of meeting and working with Sylvia throughout my tenure at Save The Bay. It was always such a pleasure to spend time with her because her stories were so inspirational, her wit was enviable, and her kindness and warmth were so welcoming. I never tired of telling others Save The Bay’s foundation story, nor did I ever tire of hearing it from Sylvia herself. She, along with Kay and Esther, did something truly remarkable and revolutionary — even for today’s standards — and I continue to draw inspiration from their courage and commitment everyday. She was such a gem, and she will be truly missed.” Amy R.

“In my work as a local activist, I remain inspired by the hard grassroots work Sylvia took up, believing that hope must be enacted if we are to save local places we love and spare the planet more devastation wrought by thoughtlessness and greed.” – Marilyn B.

I remember Sylvia as a force of nature — tireless in her advocacy for doing the right thing, and no less when that meant acting as the conscience of powerful people.  Not only SF Bay, but the entire community and the University are the beneficiaries of Sylvia’s dedicated energy and gentle but firm voice.”
– Rob G.

“Sylvia inspired whole generations of Bay area citizens to embrace and tirelessly advocate for our beautiful Bay. She was the embodiment of grit, grace, generosity and perseverance. May we honor Sylvia by carrying on her fierce love for the Bay for generations to come.” – Mary S.

“Sylvia, Thank you for changing so many lives so that we can enjoy your efforts in saving our Bay.  It seemed very apropos that you chose to depart on a day when many women were meeting in Oakland to try to carry on your legacy.  Thank you.” – Janet L. 

Greatness in passion, women at the helm, thank you Sylvia in making our jewel of the bay a lasting environmental masterpiece.”
– Catherine B.

“With great appreciation for a life well lived and for setting the bar so high for environmental activism and stewardship. I appreciate Sylvia’s work every time I walk or cycle the Eastshore waterfront — which is often — and think of how lucky we all are to have such a beautiful spot in an otherwise intensely urban environment. I am grateful for her efforts, Sylvia McLaughlin was one of a kind.” – Susan A.

“For over twenty years I had the pleasure and honor of working beside Sylvia on the board of Citizens for East Shore Parks, and she always had our mission clear, and she kept us steering the right course with graciousness, kindness and respect. Such a lovely, dear woman.” – Teddi B.

“She was a tireless worker and an inspiration to all Bay Area residents. We will miss her and always remember what she did for us and for California.”
– Velma K.

“Sylvia used her life on our tiny blue planet in a way that will long be remembered, and which beneficially served the multi millions of residents and visitors to the Bay Area.  One of the most important aesthetic and economic features is our Bay and this small, determined woman saved it for all of us.  Well done, Sylvia.  I salute your  well lived life and thank you for this beautiful legacy.” – Jan B.

“Thanks, Sylvia, for all that you did to keep our bay healthy. I am so thankful to have met you and remain truly inspired by your tremendous contributions.” – Mike O.

Oh what a legacy she leaves. Honing her advocacy in an age when women were to keep silent, she did not! She, Dorthy Erskine, and a host of other women saved our landscape, our bay, our region. Our hearts are sad tonight, but undoubtly she is now hard at work helping protect a higher realm.”
– Steve V.

“Kay, Esther, and Silvia…the grand goddesses of the movement… are all gone now which leaves us old acolytes to pick up and share their institutional memories. And the burden of the fight goes to you and the other younger warriors who have the knowledge, fire, and determination to continue to win the battle to protect the best of the past to create a better future. My deep sense of sadness is palpable.  Let us help where we can.  Continued good luck.” – Rod D.

“Sylvia was one of my husband, John Dewitt’s supporters and friend when he first started working under Newton Drury at the Save the Redwoods League in 1964.  I got to know her better at the League Council meetings and then as a guest in her home.  Her energy and determination was astounding.  I will never forget her generosity, commitment to conservation, and dedication to making this place a more beautiful, more healthy, and one that could be enjoyed by all who live here.  Her efforts changed the bay from a toxic place, devoid of any plant growth, invertebrate graveyard, unable to support bird or animal life, to a vibrant jewel that it is today.” – Karma D.

“One of the most important qualities in life is tenacity (or, I daresay, stubbornness), which Sylvia and her co-founders had in spades. They will always be heroes to California and to the world.” – Amber K.

“Sylvia spoke to the kids at Berkeley Montessori School about 10 years ago. She was passionate as she told the kids about how difficult it was to start Save the Bay (thousands of index cards with supporters’ names and addresses were written and filed, lots of old fashioned phone calls were made and letters sent). The kids were daunted by the thought of no computers, Facebook or email. Sylvia just smiled!” – Colleen N.

“Women like Sylvia McLaughlin are so important as role models to both men and women. I didn’t know her personally, but her example gives me courage to generate positive change in my own fields. I know she will be sorely missed by those who knew and loved her.” – Melitta V.

“Save the Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin has long been one of my role models. Pushing on when people told her it wasn’t possible, advocating for what her community needed, leading with grace. The highlight of my time as Board Chair was escorting Sylvia to Save the Bay events, hearing her stories, learning from her wisdom. When I’m feeling stuck, I ask myself what Sylvia would do. Our world is a much better place because of her. I’m honored to have known Sylvia.” – Jody R.

The restored rose of Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island. Photo by Andrea McLaughlin

On many fogless evenings, Alcatraz Island can be seen sitting resolutely in the middle of the Bay. The lighthouse atop it flicking its light across the water much like the retreating sun. At the same time tourists and staff on the island disembark from the last ferry docking at Pier 33.

This wasn’t always the case however, for a long time Alcatraz Island was the end of the line. Today it is still a place of infamous celebrity, and if you keep your ear to the ground you might just find a hidden gem there. This is the true story of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, a rare French rose, some hard-nosed restoration efforts, and the rose’s journey back home.

History of the Rock

Even before modern colonization of the Bay took place, the native Ohlone tribe used the island as a place of internment. It was afterall a desolate rock in the middle of the Bay, far from the mainland. From then on, it was a place where survival was key and boredom was rampant.

In 1847 Alcatraz Island or “Island of the Birds” was surveyed by the 10th Military Department as a possible stronghold for San Francisco Bay’s defensive plan. This fort never saw combat but was garrisoned all throughout the civil war. It was inevitably made into a military prison. Everyone from Confederate sympathizers to American Indians were confined to the place but inmates were mainly army deserters.

The fort’s guns, batteries, barracks and citadel were improved upon steadily as the years went by, each upgrade being built on top of the last. Soil and root systems were packed in to act as a soft barrier between brick defensive positions and incoming cannonfire. The imported dirt also acted to combat the dullness of life on Alcatraz, since creating or working in a garden provided an escape for whoever was eager. The military prison continued on through the turn of the century and in October of 1933 was turned over to the Bureau of Prisons.

From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary held the most unruly prisoners of the great depression and the prohibition era. Men such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen, and Robert Stroud “The Birdman of Alcatraz” were incarcerated there. During this era of life on Alcatraz many gardeners were photographed around the island. Prison staff, wives, and prisoners alike posed (some covering their faces), in small gardens all around the island. Color shots were sometimes taken of gardeners displaying their vibrantly colored flowers.

The island returned to the birds when the prison closed in 1963, but only for a short time. Native American civil rights protesters began occupying the island calling for a return of the federal land to the native people who felt it belonged to them again. The island was occupied a few times in 1964 for short periods of time, but in 1969 a movement co-led by Richard Oakes called the Indians of all Tribes staged another occupation. This time the occupiers set up to stay. They attempted to reconcile with the U.S. Government and had plans to make Alcatraz into an American Indian cultural hub which would include American Indian studies, an American Indian spiritual center, an American Indian museum, and a ecology center. The occupation lasted 19 months and ended after several buildings on Alcatraz mysteriously caught fire and  government officials came to removed the activists.  

In 1972 Alcatraz island was designated as national park land, citing it as an important bird sanctuary. In 1986 the island achieved the status of National Historic Landmark.

Alcatraz Rose mystery

After the prisoners, prison staff and staff families left, all the gardens became overgrown and quickly disappeared. However, a small group of historians knew there used to be gardens planted out there. This is why in 1989, a team of historic rose cultivators came out to the Rock to see what they could find. They were not disappointed — in the back of the warden’s house was an unidentifiable rose surviving within a thicket of blackberries. Historic rose cultivators took a clipping of the rose back to their nursery and nurtured the plant back to life. At first the mysterious “Alcatraz Rose” perplexed many Bay Area garden aficionados. However, upon close  examination the rose was identified as Rosa Bardou Job, one of the rarest of the 100,000 known rose varieties that was historically found in Wales.

This particular rose was bred by Gilbert Nabonnand in 1882. The rose was named after the french rolling paper entrepreneur Jean Bardou (JOB papers). The Bardou Job is a rare tea hybrid that is hard to classify. It is by nature a floriferous climbing rose with some green foliage that complements the bold petals. The rose features almost no thorns and a maximum height of almost 5’. The rose blooms in autumn, spring and summer. The petals are crimson with darker hints and it boasts a fervent scent.

In the year 2000, Welsh museum curator Andrew Dixey was interested in growing the Bardou Job around his Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagan’s Castle, which historically grew the rose. However, the rose no longer grew in Wales. Dixey wanted to reintroduce the rose to St. Fagans for the Wales Tourist Board’s Homecoming 2000 Campaign. He scoured the internet in search of living specimens of the rose and came across the historic rose cultivator’s nursery website. Today the rose once again grows in St. Fagan’s Castle gardens in Wales. What makes the whole affair unique is that Alcatraz National Park officials claim no record of the rose ever being on the island. The Bardou Job like many other plants has become a restored piece of island beauty in a place where beauty was once scarce.

Restoring the Alcatraz gardens

To make life easier for plants like the Bardou Job, the Gardens of Alcatraz Restoration Project was launched in 2003. Volunteers began a lengthy process of cataloging plants, defoliating overgrowth, and eventually replanting plants on Alcatraz Island.

This type of archeological gardening is about taking time to piece together an historical puzzle. The gardeners must log all artifacts they uncover, artifacts such as a 60 year old terrace, a recreation yard handball or Al Capone’s secret treasure.

The project has now become the thriving gardens you can see, touch, smell, and walk in today. It is a really treat to stand in the vividly colored terraces and watch the hummingbirds whiz by. Nowadays the volunteers lead guided tours around the various island gardens. Volunteer led tours happen twice a week, Friday and Sunday morning and leave after the second dock talk (9:30am).

The gardens of Alcatraz were not just used as a mental escape for those who kept them, they also acted as a web protecting the many things that lived on the island. The Bay Area has many shorelines that need protecting, many animal sanctuaries that can be restored and improved upon. The volunteer work done in these environments is truly a selfless act that can bear results.

We can each carry on the tradition of community based restoration to learn more about the natural world around us and help restore our local ecosystems. Click here to sign up for a restoration event with Save The Bay.