Remembering Sylvia McLaughlin

Sylvia McLaughlin
Sylvia McLaughlin 1916-2016

Save The Bay is deeply saddened at the news that the organization’s last living founder, Sylvia McLaughlin, passed away at her home in Berkeley on Tuesday January 19, 2016 at the age of 99. Sylvia McLaughlin’s commitment to saving the San Francisco Bay created a lasting legacy for the region and the environmental movement.

“Sylvia and her friends just wanted to stop the Bay from being destroyed. They were so successful they launched the modern grassroots environmental movement in the Bay Area,” said Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis. “We have a cleaner, healthier and more vibrant Bay because of Sylvia’s efforts. Her drive, determination and spark will remain an inspiration to us all.”

“Words are hardly adequate to convey Sylvia’s profound influence on protecting the environment, restraining runaway development around the Bay and providing a powerful role model for those who whose power is based not on wealth or inside political connections but on determination and a just cause,” said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates.

A long, full life

Sylvia McLaughlin was born December 24, 1916 in Denver, Colorado, the third of four children and the only daughter of George E. Cranmer and Jean Chappell Cranmer. Her father was the city official responsible for creating Red Rocks Theater and Winter Park, her mother a trained violinist and patron of classical music. Their house was surrounded by open prairie and commanded a view of the Rockies. She enjoyed horseback riding, skiing, and mountain climbing wtih her brothers. After her graduation from Vassar College in 1939, she returned to Denver and the family home.

Sylvia married Donald H. McLaughlin, President of Homestake Mining Company, in 1948 and moved in with him and his mother in Berkeley, California. Don had two grown sons from his first marriage, and Sylvia’s first step-grandchild arrived before her own two children. In the early years of her marriage she was active in civic and charitable activities alongside her supportive role as the wife of a mining executive and UC Regent.

Sylvia forms Save The Bay, shapes Bay Area environmental movement

Save The Bay FoundersIn 1961, Sylvia and her two friends, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick, formed Save San Francisco Bay Association (now Save The Bay), spurred into action by the City of Berkeley’s plan to fill in 2,000 acres of San Francisco Bay and the fear that the Bay could become a river-like shipping channel if all the region’s bay fill plans moved ahead. Appalled that the filling of their beautiful natural treasure was considered “progress” and that there was very little public access to the Bay, the three women quickly mobilized their communities.

Establishing BCDCWith Save The Bay, Sylvia helped build and lead a massive citizens’ movement that won a moratorium on landfill in the Bay and then a permanent state agency to regulate filling and shoreline development, the Bay Conservation & Development Commission (BCDC).  BCDC was the first agency of its kind, and is the model for coastal zone management world-wide. Sylvia helped ring the Bay with a necklace of shoreline parks, including McLaughlin Eastshore State Park on the very shoreline that she stopped Berkeley from filling, which was renamed in her honor in 2012. Public access to the Bay – one of the many causes she championed – has grown from only six miles in 1960 to hundreds of miles today.

A lifetime of conservation

Over the course of her career, Sylvia occupied several appointed positions – including seats on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors Advisory Planning Commission and on the Berkeley City Council Waterfront Advisory Committee.  She sat on Save The Bay’s board of directors for almost 40 years, and on the board of directors for the National Audubon Society, East Bay Conservation Corps, Save the Redwoods League, Citizens for East Shore Parks, Trust for Public Land, Greenbelt Alliance, and many others.

In addition to Save The Bay, she co-founded Urban Care, a Berkeley group, and Citizens for East Shore Parks.

Even in her nineties, Sylvia refused to retire, remaining an active and articulate advocate for the Bay and open recreational spaces – with a busy schedule of speaking engagements, board of director duties, and community meetings. At 93, she captivated an audience of Bay scientists, stewards and supporters at a premier screening of Saving the Bay – a documentary film chronicling the history of San Francisco Bay and the unprecedented work Sylvia did to save it. In 2012, the East Bay Regional Parks officially named McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in honor of Sylvia’s work to preserve the Berkeley shoreline.

Sylvia is survived by her children, Jeanie Shaterian and George C. McLaughlin; her stepson, Donald H. McLaughlin, Jr.; four grandchildren and six step-grandchildren.

“Her work and achievements are unparalleled and serve as inspiration to every individual or group working to protect and conserve the natural beauty and resources in the region and beyond,” Lewis said.

San Francisco Bay would not be what it is today without the work of Sylvia McLaughlin and we are humbled to carry on the legacy of her commitment to San Francisco Bay. May her drive, determination and spark remain an inspiration to us all to improve our region for future generations.

A public memorial service will be held Tuesday, February 2, 4:00 pm, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley. We also will host a special event in honor of Sylvia’s life in the coming months, and will share more information as the details come together.

The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, gifts in honor of Sylvia McLaughlin be made to Save The Bay or to Citizens for Eastshore Parks.

To honor Sylvia, we invite you to please share your memories or appreciation of Sylvia in the comments below. We’ll share this outpouring of love and gratitude with Sylvia’s family and assemble it into a fitting public tribute.

Ending 2015 on a bright note

Sylvia McLaughlin
Thank you for your contributions to our beloved San Francisco Bay in 2015. Co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin expresses her thanks to you.

Thank you to the 1,075 generous Year End donors who helped us reach our goal of $150,000 which will be doubled in value to put $300,000 toward protecting and restoring our beautiful bay. Our donors keep us moving forward to reach goals that our courageous co-founders started in 1961.

Save The Bay’s co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin continues to be an inspiration to staff, board, volunteers and members. And on December 24, over 500 of you sent warm birthday wishes to Sylvia thanking her for leadership and vision to protect and restore San Francisco Bay.  Here are just a few of the inspirational and heartfelt birthday messages she received from other passionate Bay savers:

  • Happy Birthday Sylvia!! What a wonderful thing you did to start an organization to save the Bay. Hope your birthday is extra special!!
  • Happy Birthday and a world full of thanks! It’s because of you that my birding friends, my husband and I can spend many happy hours watching migrating birds that visit our bay and those who call it home year-round. Happy, happy birthday!
  • You and Save The Bay have changed my Life. I never take our San Francisco Bay fauna and flora for granted, and I can never walk by plastic debris without the urge to pick it up and dispose of it properly. Thank you for a legacy of respect for our environment that has rippled in my family.
  • Happy Birthday. You have done well through tireless advocacy and environmental activism. Please know that the world will be better because of you.
  • Happy Birthday, Sylvia! And thank you for your love of our open space, coasts, wetlands, waterways, birds, and wildlife – and your lifelong support to protect and cherish these.

“The biggest part of our whole effort was to create awareness about the Bay and its connection to everyone around it. I just hope people continue to appreciate the treasure of the San Francisco Bay.  We want this to be here for those who came after us and beyond.” – Sylvia McLaughlin

Brunch by the Bay

Brunch by the Bay
Save The Bay Board Member Lynda Sullivan enjoys brunch with Founding Members Dan Tuerk and Jan Tuerk. Click the photo to view the full album. Photo credit: Mike Oria

On Sunday, friends of Save The Bay gathered at the East Bay Regional Parks Shoreline Center to celebrate the San Francisco Bay. We were joined by over 75 guests, including our Board of Directors, Founding Members, Legacy Society, and Save The Bay’s founder Sylvia McLaughlin and family.

At the event, Redwood City Councilmember Ian Bain was presented Save The Bay’s 2015 Leadership Award. In April, Bain was the first elected official from Redwood City to explicitly oppose housing on Cargill’s restorable salt ponds. Bain spoke with guests about his opposition to Cargill’s plans and commitment to a healthier Bay.

Sylvia McLaughlin was thanked by the many members who have stood by her side since the 1960s. Many shared their stories about what it was like growing up in a time when the Bay was being filled with trash from neighboring cities. Their memories of founders Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick making phone calls, writing letters and collecting $1 membership contributions to create the “Save San Francisco Bay Association” around Sylvia’s kitchen table were surreal. Save The Bay and the entire Bay Area have these women to thank for creating the movement to save the Bay from destruction.

It was wonderful and inspiring having such close friends of the organization celebrate San Francisco Bay together.  Thank you to our long-time supporters and new friends for making the event a huge success!

Thank you to our volunteer photographer, Mike Oria for capturing these special moments. You can view the gallery of photos from the Brunch by the Bay here.

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. 

Saving the Bay: a movement started by women


Our founders’ legacy — one of courage, persistence, diligence, and success — has inspired today’s generation of Bay savers to carry on their mission to protect our greatest natural treasure for generations.

Before we celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970 and the first full-length issue of Ms. Magazine hit newsstands in 1972, major progress in the Bay Area was already underway thanks to a trio of East Bay women who dared to question environmental and social norms.

In the early 1960s going green wasn’t hip, nor was the idea of preserving the natural environment. During that time the Bay, often dredged for development, looked like a devastated wasteland flowing with raw, smelly sewage that also doubled as a dumping ground for toxic trash.

Four years after Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick founded Save San Francisco Bay Association (later renamed Save The Bay) in 1961, the McAteer-Petris Act placed a moratorium on additional filling of our Bay and established the first coastal protection agency in the United States called the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC).

The passing of this landmark legislation set the stage for the coming decades of environmental protections. Prior to 1965, few environmental organizations existed and even fewer environmental laws had been passed. But, these women led a grassroots environmental movement — during an age where a woman’s word was undervalued, especially in government.

This was the first of many milestones Save The Bay achieved. A few years after its establishment, the BCDC became a permanent regulatory agency empowered to permit Bayfill and require public access to the shoreline.

Senator Petris among others with Governor Reagan at the signing ceremony for the creation of BCDC.
Our founders and Senator Petris among others with Governor Reagan at the signing ceremony for the creation of BCDC.

Thanks to the courageous efforts led by Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick, this 1960s projection illustration published in the Oakland Tribune, won’t become a reality. However, we must remain vigilant to ensure that our natural environment does not give way to urbanization, industrialization, and big business at home and around the globe.

Bay or River Image
In 1961 the Bay was projected by the Army Corps of Engineers to become a river by the year 2020, as illustrated by this graphic published in the Oakland Tribune in 1960.

Over a half century later, Save The Bay has continued to fight the good fight, educate and inspire the next generation of environmentalists, and remains dedicated to keeping the Bay healthy for all to enjoy for generations.

As they’ve inspired today’s generation of bay savers, the women working to protect our environment today inspire the young environmentalists of the future. Donna Ball, Save The Bay’s Restoration and Habitat Director, is one of those women encouraging tomorrow’s environmental solution developers (both girls and boys) to follow their dreams.

Despite advancements in the American environmental and women’s movements, we have yet to achieve gender equality in the sciences both internationally and here at home. We know of a remedy that may help close that gap: it takes is at least one ordinary individual with extraordinary ideas, courage, belief, and vision.

Will it be you?