Tribute: Founding Member Ralph Nobles of Redwood City

Ralph Nobles. Photo by: Christopher-Gardner
Ralph Nobles’ legacy will forever live on in our storied Bay Area environmental lore. Photo by: Christopher-Gardner

Another giant in the battle to prevent overdevelopment of San Francisco Bay has died.  Ralph Nobles, who led the Friends of Redwood City and won the fight to protect Bair Island, passed away February 20, at the age of 94.

The 2006 winner of Save The Bay’s Founding Member award, Ralph was a long-time activist who inspired me with his tenacity and wisdom.  When I first met him in 1998, he showed me around Redwood City’s Bair Island, and shared the story of the citizens’ movement he led that saved it from becoming another Foster City development.

In 1982, Redwood City’s city council had approved plans by Mobil Oil to build 20,700 homes and corporate offices on those diked islands that had been Bay tidal marsh.  Ralph and his wife Carolyn led a referendum to overturn that decision, founding the Friends of Redwood City and mounting a grassroots campaign from their living room against a massive corporation.  Mobil Oil rented a camel from Marine World and staked it out in the Baylands, with a big billboard calling the area a desert where nothing grew. Ralph hired a plane to fly a “Yes on O” banner over a football game at Stanford Stadium.

On election night, Ralph was in Florida on a business trip for Lockheed and learned by phone that Friends of Redwood City had lost the referendum by a narrow margin, but when absentee ballots were counted, the Mobil plan was defeated by 42 votes, out of more than 18,000 votes cast.

Several years later, after Mobil had sold the property to a Japanese company, Ralph and his allies in the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge placed an advertisement in the Tokyo edition of the New York Times that shamed the owner into selling the property to the Peninsula Open Space Trust, and it eventually became part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  Save The Bay volunteers have helped restore native vegetation on Inner Bair Island, where a breach will restore tidal action later this year.

Ralph played another part in American history years before, serving as one of the youngest physicists on the Manhattan Project in 1943.  He witnessed the Trinity test of the first bomb at Alamogordo, NM, in the summer of 1945, just before bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

In 2004, Ralph and a new generation of Friends of Redwood City helped defeat a plan to build 17 high-rise condominiums near the Port of Redwood City.  And he was a vocal opponent of Cargill’s proposal to build 12,000 homes on retired salt ponds just south of Bair Island.  That battle continues today, and Ralph’s legacy is an inspiration to those waging it.

“People want to live here because there is a healthy San Francisco Bay,” Nobles told the San Jose Mercury News in 2009.  “And if you destroy that you destroy our most precious commodity.”

See what Ralph saved for us.  Visit the Inner Bair Island trail – click here for directions.

Continue Ralph’s legacy by helping Save The Bay improve habitat for endangered species on Bair Island.  Sign up to volunteer there on April 11.

Read more about Raph’s remarkable journey here.