California Environmental Champion Began by Protecting San Francisco Bay

Byron Sher
Byron Sher wrote and passed most of California’s environmental laws.

Last week, I had the honor of presenting Save The Bay’s Founders Award to one of the greatest environmental leaders in California history. Byron Sher represented Palo Alto in the state legislature for almost a quarter-century, and he wrote and passed most of the laws that protect our state’s environment today.

But he got his start in politics as a Stanford Law Professor, when he won a seat on the Palo Alto city council in the 1960s, campaigning against the destruction of that city’s Bay marshes. The city had already allowed San Francisquito Creek to be rerouted, and some marshes to be filled to create a golf course and municipal airport. An airport expansion, conference center, and lagoon community were planned – more filling of the Bay using mud dredged from the city’s tiny yacht harbor that silted in every few years.

Byron and his colleagues fought and won a revolution that preserved Palo Alto’s Baylands, now one of the gems of the shoreline, and a top spot for shorebirds. The Save The Bay movement joined many similar local efforts into a regional movement that created the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and essentially halted large-scale filling of the Bay. Byron served on BCDC for several years while a city councilman. Then Byron continued to champion the Bay from the State Legislature, including creating the San Francisco Bay Area Conservancy, which has preserved spectacular landscapes from the ridges to the shoreline throughout the nine counties.

Byron’s contribution to California’s environment extended far beyond the Bay. He wrote the state’s Groundwater Protection Act, Clean Air Act, Integrated Waste Management Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act. As the chair of key committees on natural resources and environmental protection, he led establishment of state requirements for renewable energy generation, and helped broker the deal to save old growth redwoods in the Headwaters forest. He still serves on the Board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

The Founders Award represents the spirit of Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin and Esther Gulick, the three ladies who started Save The Bay in 1961 – they mobilized thousands of individuals who battled to protect San Francisco Bay. Some, like Byron, went on to serve in elected or appointed positions; others worked for decades as activists and organizers in their own communities.

I am so grateful for all that this generation – including my own parents – did to save the Bay for me and my children. And I am proud that Save The Bay continues to pursue ambitious initiatives to make the Bay cleaner and healthier for people and wildlife, with our growing community of supporters.