Remembering State Assemblyman Jack Knox

From left to right: Senator Marks of San Francisco, Senator Petris of Oakland, State Assemblyman Knox.

Another giant in the movement to save San Francisco Bay from destruction has passed away. Former State Assemblyman John T. (“Jack”) Knox died at the age of 92 on April 4, after a long illness.  Knox represented Richmond and West Contra Costa County in the Assembly for 20 years, starting in 1960, and served as Assembly Speaker Pro Tem.

He was a key leader in passing the McAteer-Petris Act to establish the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) as a permanent agency to regulate development in the Bay and on its shoreline. He also led the creation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 1970, requiring all projects in the state to undergo a rigorous evaluation of environmental impacts and alternatives before approval.

Save The Bay recognized Knox’s substantial contributions to the health of the San Francisco Bay with our Founding Member Award in 2008. Knox was a long-time member of Save The Bay’s Advisory Council and regularly attended our annual Founding Members Tea.

Knox was a smart attorney and became an accomplished legislator, which colleagues attributed to his personality as much as his knowledge: “Amid the understandable demonization caused by our new, toxic White House, let us pause and acknowledge a great public official,” said former Assemblyman William Bagley about Knox last week. “During my own 14 years in the Assembly and thereafter, I never heard him disparage anyone, not even outrageous colleagues.”

The East Bay Times noted in its obituary for Knox:

“Knox’s win with the McAteer-Petris Act was groundbreaking at a local and international level, and continues to have a profound impact on the Bay today.  As the first coastal zone management agency, the BCDC became the model for most others in the world, and since its inception has fostered a net gain in the size of the Bay through tidal marsh restoration.  The new public shoreline access mandated by BCDC agency permits have increased the six miles of access in 1969 to over 300 miles today, providing Bay residents throughout the Bay area with opportunities to connect with the Bay, and become its stewards.”

At a speech in 1988, Save The Bay co-founder Esther Gulick recalled an example of Knox’s leadership in the crucial year of 1969. The original BCDC commission had delivered its report to the legislature with recommendations for managing the Bay. If the legislature didn’t act to make the Commission permanent, it was scheduled to go out of business. After the original BCDC leader, Senator McAteer died of a heart attack in 1967, and the successor leader, powerful Senator George Miller, Sr., also suffered a fatal heart attack in early 1969, Knox introduced and shepherded the same McAteer-Petris bill in the Assembly.

“One committee meeting that will never be forgotten was the hearing on John Knox’s Bill #AB 2057. KQED telecast this hearing to the Bay Area. The meeting room was packed and the large room next to it where one could hear, but not see what was going on, was also filled. People stood out in the hall. The lawyer for [developer] Westbay spoke passionately against the bill. Finally, John Knox asked him if he had read it. He said no.”

On its final vote in the legislature, the bill passed by one vote and BCDC became permanent upon the signature of Governor Ronald Reagan on August 7, 1969.

Among Knox’s many legacies is the beautiful Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline Park in Point Richmond. Knox was also a World War II veteran, whose Army service included a posting in Nome, Alaska. He is survived by his wife, Jean, children John, Charlotte and Mary, and seven grandchildren.

Read more about Jack Knox’s life and legacy 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. 

The Story of Cullinan Ranch

Update 1/6/15:

In a dramatic moment, on Jan. 6 work crews breached the levee that has kept Cullinan Ranch, 1,200 acres of diked wetlands in the Napa River Delta, unnaturally dry for more than a century. Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis, Habitat Restoration Director Donna Ball, and I joined representatives from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, and other partners to celebrate the culmination of a decades-long effort to restore the site. What’s next? Project designers expect near-immediate resurgence of waterfowl and shorebirds, and with tidal waters already beginning to carry natural sediment to the site, native plants will eventually take root and re-establish habitat for our Bay’s wild creatures. Read the full story of Cullinan Ranch below. -Cyril Manning

The former Cullinan Ranch, soon to be back part of San Francisco Bay (via
The former Cullinan Ranch, soon to be back part of San Francisco Bay (via

Cullinan Ranch is a 1500-acre parcel of former tidal marsh at the top of San Pablo Bay, part of the Napa River Delta. As you can see from the map at right, it is an important puzzle piece in the sprawling restoration of the whole northern part of San Francisco Bay, work that has been described as an “aquatic renaissance… turning back the clock 150 years and transforming the area between Vallejo and Sonoma Raceway.”

Like nearly all the tidal marsh around San Francisco Bay, Cullinan was diked off in the 1880s to be farmland (see this nice timeline covering the history of the site). A proposed residential marina community nearly destroyed the area 25 years ago, but the proposal was defeated in 1987.

After the site was proposed for development, Save The Bay joined with local residents in Vallejo and hired Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger to sue over the “Egret Bay” development, which proposed thousands of homes on this restorable site, below sea level. Getting involved in the battle was a first for Save The Bay – actually advocating for restoration of a diked former wetland, not just against new fill and inappropriate shoreline development.

That successful lawsuit, along with the denial of construction permits by BCDC and the US Army Corps of Engineers, put a stop to Egret Bay, making possible Cullinan’s purchase by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1989, and protection as a wildlife refuge.  Now, this site — one and a half times the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park — is being returned to marsh as part of the West Coast’s largest wetland restoration effort.

After the site was first diked off for grazing and oat hay, the marshland dried out and compacted like a sponge, and now lies six to nine feet below sea level.  When the levees are opened later this year, the site will initially be open water and mud flats, then sediment from the Napa River and Bay will eventually build up, so that tidal marsh vegetation can begin to grow back.

Another key challenge is restoring the property while protecting the critical infrastructure that runs through and around it. A levee to protect Highway 37 from the new tidal action is the single most expensive element in the $16 million wetland restoration project. The SF Bay Don Edwards and San Pablo Bay Wildlife Refuges are crisscrossed by much of the region’s critical transportation, electrical and water supply infrastructure, which add expensive urban complexities that are not usually a part of refuge restoration projects.

As local scientists, communities, and conservationists work together to bring us closer to the 100,000 acres of tidal marsh needed for a healthy Bay, sites like Cullinan Ranch serve as a valuable model and inspiration.  They show we can succeed in preventing projects like Cargill’s proposal to build homes in a Redwood City salt pond, and instead ensure that site is restored along with other ponds, together restoring the Bay for people and wildlife.

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.

Bay or River?

This story was written in our co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin’s words, from a series of interviews with her. The accompanying image is an ad that you can see now in BART stations and on trains. We share this story now to show that ordinary citizens have the power to make a difference.

Kay, Esther, and I sat in Kay’s living room in the Berkeley Hills, nervous, yet hopeful. We heard a car pulling into the driveway and I said to my friends, “Here we go.” Surely these men who cared so much about redwoods and birds would also want to save our Bay.Bart Ad 1_FINAL

Esther served coffee as we took our seats. On one side of the shiny coffee table sat the three of us “tea ladies” in our colorful suits. On the other side, facing the big window with views of the Golden Gate Bridge towering above the glistening blue water, sat three men in dark suits – the executive directors of Save The Redwoods League, the Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club.

Kay, Esther and I described the problem: The Bay was steadily becoming smaller. Its primary use, other than shipping, was as a place to dump sewage and garbage. When Kay described the awful stench wafting from the shoreline and how at night she could see the Bay on fire where garbage had been dumped in the shallows and set ablaze, they nodded knowingly. I was sure that we had won their support, so I confidently asked, “What can you do to save the Bay?”

The Sierra Club director responded first: “I’m sympathetic to your cause. But we are pouring all of our resources into opposing the Grand Canyon dams. We can’t launch anything new.”

The other leaders responded similarly. The Redwoods League was busy saving the forests. Audubon was occupied with preserving bird habitats. The Sierra Club exec concluded: “It looks like there will have to be a new organization. We’ll give you our mailing lists and help you all we can.”

Then they filed out and wished us luck. We were deflated.

It was 1960 in Berkeley, California. While the free speech movement was gearing up at the University of Berkeley just down the hill, there was also a “progressive” movement to fill in the Bay. Starting with the Gold Rush, San Francisco Bay had been developed at a rapid rate. By 1960, 90 percent of the Bay’s wetlands were gone and the Bay was a third smaller than it had been. From our house I could see a continuous stream of trucks dumping garbage and fill into the water. One day I opened up the newspaper and saw something that sent shivers down my spine. It was an image entitled “Bay or River?” showing that the Bay would become a narrow channel by 2020 if all the various development plans being proposed came to fruition.

At that time, nature conservation in an urban setting was an alien concept. The first Earth Day was still 10 years away. The EPA didn’t exist. While chatting over almond cookies and tea, Kay, Esther, and I came to the conclusion that the Bay needed saving. That’s how we came to be meeting with those men from the largest conservation organizations. But once we heard the car pull away I said, “Well, that didn’t turn out as planned. But it is clear that if anything is going to be done, we are ‘it.’ Let’s get to work.”

Shortly thereafter we sent a letter to everyone we knew inviting them to join Save San Francisco Bay Association for one dollar. We didn’t know if anyone would respond, but a few days later we got our first batch of one dollar checks and even more came the following day. We ended up with a wonderful response – more than 90 percent!

Our first move was to lobby for a new state agency that could regulate development. Senator Eugene McAteer was business friendly, but he also had a restaurant on the Bay. Kay convinced him that it would be good for business to protect this natural resource. In 1965 Senator McAteer and Assemblyman Nicholas Petris co-sponsored a successful bill – the McAteer-Petris Act – which established The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). BCDC had two major responsibilities: to prepare a master plan for the Bay and grant or deny permits for Bay filling. We had to keep fighting to assure that BCDC became a permanent agency. We rallied our fellow citizens who wrote letters and telegrams, made calls and even descended on the capital in busloads. After eight years of hard work, the bill passed by just one vote. Governor Reagan signed it and created the agency that is still the main regulatory agency over the Bay today comprised of citizens and public representatives from around the Bay.

Today, I’m proud that Save The Bay remains the largest regional organization working to protect and restore this great natural treasure.

Recently, one of my grandson’s friends asked me a question I’m asked often: “Sylvia, isn’t the Bay saved already?”

I quoted my friend Kay: “The Bay is always in the process of being saved. That is why we have been working so hard for all these years and why it’s important that you and your friends continue to protect it far into the future. Let’s keep it going!”