In Memoriam: Harold Gilliam

Harold Gilliam was a pioneer of environmental journalism, and was one of the original 10 who were present in the Berkeley living room where our organization was conceived in 1961. Photo: Russell Yip, The Chronicle.

Harold Gilliam passed away last week at the age of 98, a giant of environmental journalism who essentially established the field, at least here in the Bay Area.  After Save The Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin passed away at the beginning of this year, Harold was the last living person of the 10 who were present in the Berkeley living room where our organization was conceived in 1961.

Harold was a brilliant writer, and a sweet man who loved nature and inspired others to see and love it through his words.  He chronicled our movement from that initial Berkeley meeting to its many victories in his newspaper columns and books, in speeches and interviews, and in the 2009 “Saving the Bay” documentary that is still a pledge week favorite on KQED-TV.  Harold made numerous appearances at events for us in recent years, always inspiring us with his recollections of past battles and interpretations of what they would mean for the future, and we honored him with our Founding Member Award in 2010.

Harold learned his craft from the best after serving in Europe in WWII, attending the Stanford Writing Program under Wallace Stegner. Initially hired as a copy boy for the “San Francisco Chronicle,” he wrote for that paper and the “San Francisco Examiner” for 30 years. In addition to columns covering industrialization, habitat destruction, Bay fill and global warming, he also authored dozens of books on San Francisco, its environment, and even its weather.

His first book on San Francisco Bay inspired Kay Kerr’s invitation for him to join the organization’s first meeting with her, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick, David Brower and other conservation group leaders in January of 1961. He was dubious the effort would go anywhere, but years later he recounted how the three ladies overcame great odds and deep doubts to mobilize a grassroots movement that saved the Bay from being destroyed.  In 2007, as he chronicled the daunting challenges of climate change, he wrote:

It would be absurd to compare saving the bay to saving the Earth, which will require revolutionary changes in the way all of us on this planet live and work, but it should give us courage and perspective to remember the first environmental activists, who didn’t realize that what they were trying to do was impossible. (How the Bay Was Saved)

Gilliam frequently credited the success of the Save The Bay movement for inspiring other efforts beyond the bay itself, here and around the country:

In a time when many Americans feared that their lives and their environment were at the mercy of forces over which they had no control, the save-the-bay success proved that ordinary citizens were not powerless as they confronted the juggernaut of rampant technology and the political clout of giant corporations. It affirmed that they could win against the most formidable opposition.

Inspired by that example, residents of other regions organized their own grassroots campaigns to turn back the bulldozers. The traditional American conservation movement, which had been focused on saving wilderness, broadened into the burgeoning environmental movement, concerned with urban as well as rural areas — and ultimately with the Earth itself.

He wrote for long enough that he got to describe environmental battles as they happened, like the effort to protect redwood trees in a national park (1966) — and then decades later to inform those enjoying the trees that they were still standing because of a tenacious battle to save them (1982).  He wrote about San Franciscans fighting against more freeways plowing through Golden Gate Park and Fisherman’s Wharf (1965) and the Chronicle reprinted that column in 2012 when few residents could imagine that was ever proposed.

When San Francisco International Airport proposed filling two square miles of the Bay for reconfigured runways, Harold noted Mark Twain’s observation that history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but it rhymes.  He predicted the public’s love for the Bay would again defeat a developer’s plan to fill it, as San Francisco voters faced a ballot measure giving them the power to approve or deny filling:

San Franciscans have the opportunity to exercise the same kind of people power that broke the tyranny of the bulldozers three decades ago. Other shoreline cities and counties may follow suit, placing ultimate decisions about the entire bay in the hands of the people.  And the rhymes of history will be confirmed.

Five years ago, Chronicle urban design writer John King wrote about Gilliam’s lasting impact on San Francisco and the Bay Area:

Without people like Gilliam who fought hard to keep San Francisco and the Bay Area distinct, treasures we take for granted in many cases would be lost. It’s not chance that 1.3 million acres of this region now are protected open space, for instance. It’s because of a shared realization in the 1960s that, to quote a Gilliam column of the time, a concentrated effort of this sort “would preserve for our descendants a share of the superb natural environment enjoyed by our own generation.”

But King also noted Gilliam didn’t dwell on the past – he saw that our region has a psyche that makes us take on challenging causes in part because we have done so before and succeeded.  Gilliam called it the “San Francisco psyche … this frame of mind that says innovate, take risks, improvise. You won’t win every battle, but you’ll win the important ones.”

Thank you, Harold, for inspiring me and so many others with your words.

Read Chronicle columnist Carl Nolte’s obituary for Harold Gilliam here.


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.

Framing a vision for a better Bay

Bay Bridge
The summer fog rolls in from the west and over the City by the Bay.

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 googled 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 website, social media platforms, and future campaigns.

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.

A Salute to Bay Area Mountains on International Mountain Day

Mount Diablo Mountains International Mountain Day Bay Area
A view of Mount Diablo, by John Morgan on Flickr

Covering a whopping 27 percent of the earth’s surface, mountains – those stunning geological wonders that rise out of the bedrock in all shapes and sizes and levels of majesty – are amazingly crucial to our planet’s overall well-being.

One tenth of the world’s population gets its life support directly from mountains. These same mountains are also a lifeline for millions of lowland towns, cities, and villages. Add that up, and pretty much all of us benefit from mountains in one way or another. Why? In case you need a little Biology 101 refresher, mountains are the sources of all the world’s major rivers, and many smaller ones. They help capture moisture from the clouds (causing rain), and gather snow to be stored until spring and summer, when it melts. In arid and semi-arid regions, over 90 percent of river flow comes from mountains. In short, they are the bringers of water, and we all need water to live.

Today, December 11, is International Mountain Day – a day of recognition mandated by the United Nations in 2003. The UN uses International Mountain Day as a way to spotlight the importance of sustainable mountain development (because mountains provide resources like water, energy and food that are becoming increasingly scarce). While many resources are abundant in mountainous regions, these same regions are also vulnerable to climate change, deforestation, and natural disasters.

Here in the Bay Area, we’ve got a few mountains of our own, and we count ourselves lucky that many of them are protected under land preservation laws, so their beauty, mystery, and wildlife can remain unadulterated. It couldn’t hurt to tip your hat to these beauties in honor of the life, inspiration, and opportunity for adventure they give us. We’ve chosen a few of our favorites below.

Mount Diablo

Aside from having some major video game street cred, Mount Diablo is the prime locale (and one of the Bay’s highest peaks, at 3,864 feet!) for hikers and bikers to score sweeping views of the Bay and its surrounding cities from the East Bay.

The two best trails that offer Mount Diablo’s famous views are via the mountain’s summit and the Grand Loop. The general exploration of the Mount Diablo State Park will eventually get you to the summit, because, after all, that is the cherry on top. It’s an easy 4-mile, 1-3 hour trail that, on a clear day, will give you a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Farallon Islands, Mount Loma Prieta, Mount St. Helena, and way more. The 3-4 hour, 6.2-mile hour Grand Loop boasts a bird’s-eye view of the Bay Area, enabling hikers to gaze out over the Bay and beyond, to the Farallon Islands, Santa Cruz Mountains, Mount Lassen, and the Sierra Nevada.

If you’re a hardcore cyclist, be sure to check out the Save Mount Diablo Challenge, a timed 11.2 mile rile to the mountain’s summit for a different way to experience the mountain.

Mount Tamalpais

Hundreds of miles of trails cover Mount Tamalpais, so whether you’re on foot or on two wheels (mountain biking was, after all, literally invented on Mount Tam), grab a map and get thee to the top. If you haven’t been to the 2,572 foot summit, you’ve probably seen countless Instagrams of the view from your friends who’ve made it to the finish line. The mountain has three summits: the West, Middle, and East Peaks. While the East Peak is the most popular thanks to its gorgeous view of the San Francisco skyline, almost every hike to the top offers amazing vantage points looking out over the ocean, Bay, cities, bridges, and all the attributes that make the Bay Area glorious: fog, sunsets, rocky outcroppings, water falls, wild flowers, ocean cliffs, beaches, and way more.

Mount Davidson

Right in the heart of the city lays San Francisco’s highest peak – Mount Davidson. While it’s not quite as formidable as other Bay Area mountains, its manageable 928 foot summit and heart-of-the-city locale make it perfect for a quick jaunt to the top. Foot trails criss-cross the mountain, so depending on whether you want a looped route or a there-and-back route, it’s definitely a choose-your-own-adventure type of experience. In all, the hike through towering eucalyptus and pine trees takes about an hour, and the summit not only hosts a very bizarre, 103-foot cross at the top (read about its history here), but a front row view of Sutro Tower across the way, sweeping views of the city, Oakland, and Berkeley beyond the Bay’s glittering waters.

San Bruno Mountain

Bike or hike along the San Bruno Mountain range to view San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Bay itself looking north. Not only is the mountain covered in gorgeous wildflowers in the spring and extremely popular among cyclists, it was once a hotbed of controversy back in the early 1970’s.

We’ll give you a little history lesson: As the Bay Area’s population continued to grow and expand, David Rockefeller schemed to develop and fill an area of the South Bay the size of Manhattan to make way for residences, restaurants, and industry. Rockefeller funded the West Bay Communities Associates – Crocker Land Co., Ideal Cement Co., and investment banking firm Lazard Freres & Co. – to get the bay fill project underway. Crocker Land Co. owned San Bruno Mountain, and to reap even more real estate development, the company hatched a plan to chop off the entire top of the mountain off. Can you imagine? Read how local residents took West Bay Communities Associates to court and stopped their plans.

Here in the Bay, we are blessed with so many life-giving mountains, and even the Bay itself has the Sierras and their snowpack to thank for its rippling waters. What are your favorite Bay Area mountains?

Guest Blog | Rediscovering the Beauty and Fragility of the SF Bay from Above

Bay Area San Francisco Bay Flight Lighthawk
An aerial view of Arrowhead Marsh during the Lighthawk flight, by Janine Kraus

The diversity of the San Francisco Bay is most visible from an aerial view – from the South Bay salt ponds to the East Bay’s Arrowhead Marsh to the Sonoma Baylands. The Bay is so many things – wildlife preserve, transportation route, tranquil setting for millions of residents. Yet it is also a place threatened by pollution, rising sea levels, and development. Many do not know that one third of the San Francisco Bay had been filled in by the time Save The Bay was founded in 1961. Currently, only five percent of the Bay’s original wetlands remain.

Recently, I took flight in a small four-seater plane with Save The Bay’s CEO David Lewis and Janine Kraus to see first-hand the progress they have made in protecting our region’s most valuable asset. This flight was made possible by LightHawk, an organization that donates plane flights to nonprofits. Circling the bay from above gave me a new perspective on the beauty of our bay and the issues that continue to threaten it.

In the past 15 years, Philanthropic Ventures Foundation’s donors have provided more than $1 million in funding to Save The Bay to create a healthier bay. Their relentless conservation efforts have ensured that more than 44,000 acres of wetlands have been restored or are planning to be restored through a three-pronged approach that includes preventing development, improving water quality, and re-establishing tidal marsh.

It is our right as Bay Area residents to have a clean and healthy bay that can be enjoyed by all, and we are indebted to Save The Bay for its work over the years to fight for that right.

This was originally posted by Ashley Murphy on Philanthropic Ventures Foundation‘s blog. Read it here.  Aerial support provided by Lighthawk.