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.


Op-Ed: Prop 67 bag ban stakes are global

The global effort to stop plastic from choking our oceans is under attack Nov. 8.

Proposition 67 on California’s ballot would ban giveaways of single-use plastic shopping bags throughout our state, not just in individual coastal and Bay Area cities.

Passing Proposition 67 would reduce plastic pollution and boost the movement for bag bans throughout the United States. But failing to pass it could crush progress here and around the world.

Plastic bag manufacturers are going for the kill right now, desperate to protect their profits from making throwaway items. When Gov. Jerry Brown signed a 2014 law banning these bags statewide, bag makers paid signature gatherers hundreds of thousands of dollars for a referendum that blocks the law unless Proposition 67 passes. Now they’re preparing to spend millions more to confuse voters. (Take Action: Let’s hold them accountable.)

Novolex and three other out-of-state plastic bag makers know that populous California is not only a huge market, but a trendsetter. If they defeat Proposition 67, they deter other states and countries from banning bags, and global plastic pollution continues to grow. If we pass Proposition 67, we keep billions of plastic bags from trashing our neighborhoods, creeks, bays and beaches, and we encourage other states and countries to do the same.

Single-use plastic shopping bags create some of the most visible litter in our communities and they harm and kill wildlife every day. In our oceans, sea turtles, otters, seals, fish and birds are tangled in plastic bags. Many animals mistake bags for food, fill their stomachs with plastic bits and die of starvation. Bag pollution also costs our state and local communities $107 million dollars annually for litter cleanup. Less than 5 percent of plastic bags in California are recycled.

In the 150 California cities and counties that have banned single-use plastic bags, these laws have already proven successful. Shoppers quickly adjust to bringing reusable bags to stores, and communities see deep reductions in plastic bags clogging creeks and storm drains. San Jose banned plastic bags in 2012 and currently reports 69 percent fewer plastic bags in its trash screens and 71 percent fewer plastic bags in its creeks.

But in most of California, bags are still distributed free by stores, and those bags don’t respect boundaries. Millions of plastic bags from other cities still blow and flow into our shared waterways or are carried to beach destinations like San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Monterey to become marine debris.

More than 1.3 million plastic bags were picked up from California beaches on just one recent Coastal Cleanup Day. So it’s no surprise that 90 percent of floating ocean debris is plastic, which never biodegrades.

For all of us who treasure California’s creeks, bays and beaches, and the fish and wildlife who live in them, Proposition 67 is a crucial opportunity to prevent billions more plastic bags from becoming toxic, deadly litter throughout the state.

Voting Yes on 67 is also our chance to show the nation and the world how to stand up to the plastic bag industry, so other states and countries follow our example and rescue the world’s oceans from the plastic trash that is choking them.

This Op-Ed was originally published in the San Jose Mercury News on 8/9/2016. 

We’ve won big — Here’s what’s next

Bay Area voters’ approval of Measure AA is the biggest win for our Bay in decades, and it would never have happened without Save The Bay’s supporters. Our victory will mean cleaner water, more abundant wildlife, and greater climate change resilience for our Bay. Because of Measure AA, we’re on track to pass on a healthier and more vibrant Bay to our children and grandchildren.

It feels great to celebrate this amazing moment, but the truth is Save The Bay is just getting started with the next phase of our critical work. There is so much more to do.

Our Measure AA victory gives us enormous momentum to tackle the biggest threats to our region in the coming decades—pollution and climate change.

We have an ambitious strategy to tackle these head-on.

Measure AA will raise about 1/3 of the funds needed to restore 30,000 acres of wetlands. With your continued help, Save The Bay will lead the fight for federal funding to secure the rest of what’s necessary. The President and Congress should match Measure AA funds with major investments, just as they have in Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, especially because so much restoration here will occur within federal wildlife refuges.

We’ll also continue directly restoring Bay habitat by putting more volunteers to work improving the Bay. And as always, we’ll bring the best science to decisions on how the Bay adapts to climate change.

We’ll also boost our work to help cities reduce trash flowing into the Bay to zero by 2020. And while we have secured plastic bag bans in most Bay Area communities, bag manufacturers have blocked a statewide bag ban and forced a referendum vote on California’s November ballot.  We’ll play a leading role to win that statewide bag ban.

Our next step is to make Bay Area communities “Bay Smart.” That means we will be promoting nature-based solutions to stormwater pollution prevention, fresh water conservation, filtration, and storage – which low-impact development advocates call “green infrastructure.” It also means we will be supporting a broader set of sustainable and equitable development practices. These “Bay Smart” standards will reduce energy use and emissions of greenhouse gases that fuel climate change, address the disproportionate impacts of sea-level rise upon disadvantaged communities, and expand public access to the shoreline.

I’m excited about this work ahead of us, and encouraged that we have strengthened our movement by leading Measure AA to victory.  The partnerships we built and people we mobilized can do so much more together to protect and restore San Francisco Bay for wildlife and people.

OP-ED: Act now to protect San Francisco Bay

Bay Area wetlands
A “Clean and Healthy Bay” ballot measure will allow Bay Area voters to invest $500 million over 20 years to enhance the Bay and protect the shoreline for future generations. Sign on to show your support today.

The Bay Area and the San Francisco Bay itself are on the cusp of a rapid transformation that will take place over the coming decades. As our region prepares to deal with the real impacts of climate change, Save The Bay is dedicated to convening environmental, business, and labor leaders to protect our region. Today, Suffolk Construction executive Andy Ball and I published the following editorial in the San Jose Mercury News, calling for a regional parcel tax to protect the Bay, our communities and our economy.

As the Bay Area’s boom continues, it’s essential that we protect what makes this such a desirable place to live and work — San Francisco Bay itself.

The bay is central to our region’s identity, quality of life and strong economy, but its waters and shoreline are challenged by pollution, population pressures and the effects of climate change. Low-lying communities and critical infrastructure face increasing risk from intense storms and flash floods. Animals that live only in our bay marshes face extinction.

Fortunately, we have an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate improvements around the bay that will benefit people and wildlife and make our economy more resilient to climate change.

Public agencies already own more than 30,000 acres of salt ponds and diked shoreline areas that are slated for restoration to tidal marsh. Many of these marsh projects also would improve flood protection for adjacent homes, businesses, roads, railways and sewage treatment plants. This protection is crucial for companies that want to stay and grow and for others that want to move here.

Marsh projects in Redwood City, Alviso, Hayward and Novato are stalled by inadequate federal and state funding, but we can close the gap. Polling shows voters throughout the nine Bay Area counties overwhelmingly support paying a small parcel tax to restore the bay and protect our communities and jobs from flooding today and in the future.

Now business, labor, and environmental leaders are joining with cities and counties in a broad coalition to offer voters that opportunity next year. For as little as $12 annually per parcel, we can achieve enormous improvements that make the bay healthier for fish, add trails for recreation and protect our communities and our economy from intense storms and high tides. Because we all love the bay, most voters agree these benefits are a great deal for a small price shared by all of us.

Take Action Now:
“Yes, I will support a ballot measure to
generate $500 million for the Bay.”


The price of inaction is much higher. The Bay Area Council Economic Institute’s report, “Surviving the Storm,” details the devastating risk floods now pose to our regional economy, and how climate change will increase the frequency of floods. Pressures on bay wildlife also will increase with the region’s population and business growth.

Uniting as a region to improve the bay also will provide momentum to tackle other problems. We lack housing that working families can afford; BART and other transit systems can’t meet demand. Yet agreement on solutions has eluded us.

Better regional transit around, under or even on the bay can get cars off the roads, reducing air pollution and traffic. Building affordable housing near jobs, open space and recreation can sustain economic growth in healthy, livable communities. Working together for bay restoration will encourage broader regional collaboration on these important issues.

Generations of visionaries protected natural resources and open spaces that make the Bay Area livable and attractive, from Big Basin to Point Reyes. Leaders with foresight built us world-class universities, regional transit systems, ports and airports for mobility, commerce and tourism. These make our vibrant economy in a spectacular natural setting the envy of the world.

Now it’s our turn. In the coming months, we’ll expand this regional conversation about investing in the bay for everyone’s benefit. Let’s seize this moment to make the bay we love healthier and make the Bay Area a better place to live and work for all of its residents.

David Lewis is Executive Director of Save The Bay. Andy Ball is West Region President of Suffolk Construction and a longtime board member of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Bay Area Council. They wrote this for the San Jose Mercury News.

Take Action Now:
“Yes, I will support a ballot measure to generate $500 million for the Bay.”


Lessons from the Latest Spill

Pres. Nixon visits Santa Barbara beach
President Richard Nixon’s visit to the oiled beaches of Santa Barbara in 1969 prompted stronger federal environmental protections. Photo credit: National Archives

The images from 1969 and 1971 are still fresh in my mind.  When the massive oil spill from offshore rigs coated Santa Barbara beaches and wildlife in 1969, I was just seven years old, but I remember the TV and newspaper photos of the oiled birds and seals.  People flocked to the beaches, desperately trying to soak up the oil by tossing hay into the water and raking it ashore. 

Just two years later, two Standard Oil tankers collided near the entrance to San Francisco Bay, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil, and those scenes were repeated again at Ocean Beach, Crissy Field and the Marin Headlands. For me and a whole generation, these were local events that helped shape our awareness of the environment, its fragility, and how quickly it could be destroyed.

They clearly shaped the Californian in the White House, too.  Richard Nixon’s visit to the oiled beaches of Santa Barbara prompted the first serious talk of bans on offshore drilling, and his Administration soon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed national air and water protection laws.

We came to realize that with oil spills in the bay or ocean, cleanup is nearly impossible, so prevention is essential.  Last week, when more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, they came not from a tanker collision or an offshore drilling rig, but from a pipeline on land that flowed to the coast.

We have those pipelines here in the Bay Area, and they pose the same threat to our Bay. The same company that owns the ruptured pipeline in Santa Barbara—Plains All American Pipeline—owns facilities in the Bay Area. And they’ve been cited for 175 federal safety and maintenance violations since 2006. 

In 2004, a Kinder-Morgan pipeline spilled 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Suisun Marsh, a sensitive wildlife area just upstream from the Carquinez Strait near Fairfield.  The buried pipeline burst just 3 feet below the surface, and pipeline operators waited nearly a day before notifying state authorities.

In 1988, more than 400,000 gallons of oil leaked from a tank at Shell’s Martinez refinery when a drain valve was mistakenly left open, killing hundreds of birds and mammals.

Over the years, Save The Bay has advocated for better prevention to protect San Francisco Bay and its wildlife from the ravages of oil spills. 

When the Cosco Busan sideswiped one of the Bay Bridge towers in heavy fog, and spilled more than 50,000 of bunker oil into the Bay in 2007, we supported a package of legislation to improve oil spill prevention and response, and investigations to tighten safety procedures for ship navigation and regulation of bar pilots who guide ships in and out of the Bay.  But just last year, reports revealed a crucial ship navigation beacon on the Bay Bridge – designed to prevent a repeat of the Cosco Busan – was not operational.  It took CalTrans months to complete a permanent fix.

And we’ve warned about the increase in trains carrying Bakken crude oil on the Bay Area’s rail lines, posing threats to both populous communities and the Bay’s shoreline.  Save The Bay has supported legislation to increase oversight, notification, safety requirements, and funding for emergency response for the many ways oil threatens San Francisco Bay fish and wildlife.

In response to last January’s spill of “Mystery Goo” near Alameda that killed and damaged hundreds of birds, Save The Bay endorsed State Senate Bill 718 by Senators Mark Leno and Loni Hancock to fund state response to non-petroleum spills in the Bay. The bill establishes that “the state’s top priority during a spill of any kind is to immediately protect waterways and wildlife, regardless of what type of substance caused the problem.”

Last week’s Santa Barbara oil spill provides another wake-up call to reduce our dependence on oil and improve safety protections from oil accidents for our natural resources and the communities where we live.