Why I’m joining the Women’s March

I’m not a woman, but I will march with them, for them, and for our environment when I take part in the Women’s March on Saturday.

I am not the marching type, but I’ll be there for the SF Women’s March.  

You could say I’m torn. In general, I’m uneasy with the edge-of-chaos vibe of street protests. I’m unnerved by how often peaceful protests get hijacked by vandals and thugs, especially near my home in Oakland. And chanting mobs—even those that echo my personal opinions—tend to creep me out.

But I also believe that mass protest is one of the most powerful tools for giving voice to marginalized people and ideas. Protests can fuel a movement with spiritual strength and emotional resonance, and inspire the emergence of new leaders: Passionate change-makers who will keep fighting for what’s right, long after the crowds have dispersed and the headlines have faded. The promise of that real, sustained impact inspires me to march.

I am not a woman, but I will take part in the Women’s March.

Like millions of men across the country, I am deeply offended by the disgusting behavior toward women that we have seen from our new president. I am angry about the blatant sexism that played a far bigger role—on the left and the right—in Hillary Clinton’s loss than many of us want to acknowledge. And I genuinely believe that more women’s voices, on the streets and in the halls of power, are essential to restoring sanity to our country’s politics.

I am proud that my environmental work carries on the legacy of three strong, passionate women who faced the powers-that-be of their day, and created the country’s first real grassroots environmental movement. The legacy of Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick inspires me to march.

I’ll march for women, for the environment, and so much more when I take part in the Women’s March.

Over the months and years ahead, a real challenge for those of us who oppose the new administration’s awful policies will be to avoid infighting over what issues get attention and which fights get prioritized. If the Women’s Marches all across the country have any lesson for us going forward, it is that we must stand together across many issues—from reproductive rights to racial justice, press freedom to environmental protection and beyond. That’s how we show our collective power. The notion of joining together in a coalition of shared values, to protect people and planet, inspires me to march.

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.


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.

Guest Post | Remembering the Honorable Don Edwards

Former San Jose Congressman Don Edwards passed away last week at the age of 100. I first met him in the mid-1980s when I was working on nuclear arms reduction issues in Washington, DC. For years, he inspired me with his intellect, integrity, decency and effectiveness in Congress.

We’re privileged to share this guest blog – a personal remembrance of Don Edwards by another personal hero of mine: Florence LaRiviere.

For decades Florence has led the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, and she shares how the Committee worked with Rep. Edwards to create the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country, right here in San Francisco Bay. It’s an inspiring example of how elected officials can be responsive to requests from the public, and why Don Edwards embodied hope. The Edwards’ family has suggested memorial donations to the Committee at www.bayrefuge.org.

– David Lewis

Florence LaRiviere
Florence LaRiviere stands before the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: U.S. FWS


I think it was one morning in the late 1960’s that I read a small notice in the Mercury News inviting anyone worried at the great rate the bay’s marshes were being destroyed, to come to an office in San Jose the following day.

That was my fist meeting with Art Ogilvie, a Santa Clara County planner who had the show-stopping idea that we could have a national wildlife refuge here, to save our remaining wetlands!

We went to every conceivable public meeting, showing pictures of our remarkable wildlife, and decrying the rapid destruction of most of the lands along the shoreline.

Then we arrived at the crucial moment — we had to have a member of congress to carry our bill to establish what proved to be a landmark, the first urban wildlife refuge in the nation.

As I remember, Art Ogilvie and Tom Harvey, biology professor at San Jose State, made the fateful visit to Congressman Don Edwards. They went, aware of his civil rights and peace activism, but knowing nothing about his environmental concerns. First, he took that most important beginning step — he listened to them. He recognized saving these lands was the right thing to do, and he had the vision and the political skill to bring along the entire bay area congressional delegation, with no regard to political party. Still, four years passed before his bill was enacted, and President Nixon signed it into law.

That was 1972 — we dusted off our hands, and had a party with Mr. Edwards to celebrate.

We felt pretty smug, in fact, it took us until 1986 to take another look and realize we were sadly lacking in a variety of habitat types. The only solution was to return to our congressman. And we did. His response was an immediate yes! This time, with the wonderful San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge already established, and soon to be named in his honor, the public responded with enthusiasm, and four hundred people came to Ohlone College to support Mr. Edwards at a public meeting on the issue. For once the opposition was wonderfully outnumbered by a large, enthusiastic and vocal group. This time, his bill was enacted the first year he proposed it, another red letter day — in October 1988!

Mr. Edwards’ living legacy is the marshes of San Francisco Bay, the wildlife that inhabits them, clean air and water and places of serenity for the human population.

His was a life well-lived.

– Florence LaRiviere, Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge

Guest Post | BCDC and the next 50 years on San Francisco Bay

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission celebrates its 50th anniversary by reflecting on the challenges that inspired the founding of Save The Bay and BCDC, while looking ahead to the future issues facing our region. Zack Wasserman is chairman of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission and a real estate/land use attorney. Barry Nelson is a BCDC commissioner and the former executive director of Save The Bay. This commentary was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission is the world’s first coastal protection agency. It was created thanks to the efforts of three remarkable women who started a movement that swept across the nation and the world. This year marks the BCDC’s 50th year protecting the bay. The state commission is now taking on one of the biggest challenges the bay has ever faced — rising sea levels as a result of a changing climate.

In the early 1960s, Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick looked west from their East Bay homes and saw a shoreline and wetlands being defiled by garbage dumps and development. Together they founded Save the Bay and the successful public campaign to stop bay fill by creating the commission.

On this anniversary, it is appropriate to reflect on the remarkable legacy of those founders and to consider the new challenges that lie ahead.

Today, around the bay, we can see the commission’s accomplishments. Before BCDC was created, families didn’t stroll on bayside trails because none existed. The bay was shrinking by an astonishing 2,000 acres annually. The bay’s wetlands and wildlife were vanishing.

After 50 years of groundbreaking stewardship, the size of the bay has increased significantly. We have the nation’s largest urban wildlife refuge and thousands of acres of permanently protected diked former baylands. The bay shoreline is now fringed by hundreds of miles of trails, parks, beaches, promenades and restoration projects.

In addition, BCDC has approved billions of dollars of urban shoreline development. Restaurants, hotels and housing have been approved where appropriate. Fishing piers, kayak-launching facilities, marinas, a baseball park, museums and interpretive centers allow the public to enjoy the bay to an extent that was unthinkable 50 years ago. The bay has been woven into our families’ lives and our region’s economy in a manner that is envied globally.

Today we face a new challenge because of the rising sea levels that are resulting from our warming climate. State agencies such as BCDC expect no less than 3 feet and perhaps as much as 10 feet of sea-level rise by 2100. Absent regional planning, collaboration and action, those rising waters will inundate low-lying communities, businesses and natural habitats.

While we still need to minimize bay fill of wetlands and maximize public access to the bay shore and waters, our charge now includes protecting our natural and built environments from rising tides. Rising sea levels threaten our roads and highways, airports, transit systems, water treatment plants and power plants. Rising sea levels also threaten the wetlands and wildlife BCDC has worked so hard to protect and expand.

Meeting this challenge may seem as daunting a task as stopping bay fill in 1965. Inspired by the Save the Bay founders, we must begin with a shared vision for a healthy and accessible bay that is treasured by the communities that surround it. We must tap into the creative spirit for which our region is world-renowned. And, finally, we must work together — public agencies and communities of all types and located all around the bay — to ensure that all of us are protected from rising tides.

We can also work as individuals to protect ourselves and our neighbors from rising waters due to a likely El Niño, which could cause significant Bay Area flooding. Close to home, we can organize or volunteer for creek cleanups so our waterways can better direct water away from our homes.

On a larger scale, we can encourage our cities and counties to participate in BCDC’s groundbreaking community-based Adapting to Rising Tides program and to authorize new Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts to fund local climate change adaptation efforts. The districts, new community mechanisms that replace old redevelopment agencies, can fund local climate change adaptation efforts.

The three women who founded Save the Bay launched a movement that resonated across the nation and the globe. We have a new opportunity today. If we meet today’s challenge with a shared vision, the creativity that befits our region, and a spirit of public, private, and nonprofit sector collaboration, our children and grandchildren will be able to look out and see a vibrant bay transformed once again, thriving communities surrounding it, and a Bay Area that remains a global leader in meeting the challenges that face us all.

Zack Wasserman is chairman of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission and a real estate/land use attorney. Barry Nelson is a BCDC commissioner and the former executive director of Save The Bay.