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.

Guest Post | Bay Area: What Could Have Been

We are excited to share this guest blog post by Victoria Bogdan about her new project Bay Area: What Could Have Been, which will tell the visual story of what the Bay Area would look like without the environmental heroes who fought to preserve some of our most precious, iconic open spaces. 

Anyone who hikes the hills of the San Francisco Bay Area can see a panorama of environmental history. From atop most tall vantage points, one can look in every direction and see land and waters that were fought for and saved.BogdanV photo

In other words, the large stretches of green space and sparkling Bay waters that make this such an incredible place to live weren’t always guaranteed as open and protected. The stories of many of our favorite places are hidden or forgotten. They’re the stories of what isn’t there.

Huey Johnson, of Resource Renewal Institute is a living conservation legend and the person who first introduced me to Save the Bay’s co-founder, Sylvia McLaughlin. He’s the person who first shared the idea of these missing stories with me. He gave me Dr. Marty Griffin’s Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast, which tells the stories behind many of these battles. After reading this book, my perspective on the Bay Area was never the same.

There are countless stories of large development projects that nearly changed the Bay Area landscape for good: the lagoon at Bolinas that didn’t get turned into high rises and hotels. The nuclear power plant that doesn’t sit at Bodega Head. The 30,000 person town that isn’t our view across from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay that didn’t get reduced to a canal, and many, many others.

There are also films, including Rebels with a Cause, and books like New Guardians of the Golden Gate, in which advocates tell the story of our region. There are history projects like Forces of Nature, as well as individual renderings of the doomed developments, many of which were done by the architects or proposing agencies at the time.

Even with all this history, one piece was missing for me. I wanted to see what the view from the top of a Bay Area hill would look like had all of the projects from the 1950s-70s actually happened. I wanted to see, put together in one place, what isn’t there.

In all of my searches at the Anne T. Kent California Room, and in books, no such view existed. I had no choice: if I wanted to see this complete picture, I would have to do it myself.

I found a talented illustrator and spent a year researching and gathering stories. Now I’m ready to launch The Bay Area: What Could Have Been into the world– or the fundraising piece, anyway. My illustrator and I need to raise money to pay him, to print copies of what we create so that we can donate them to the local environmental groups that continue to steward our lands and waters, and to create a project website to make What Could Have Been accessible to the public.

With any luck and some goodwill, we’ll present our gift to Bay Area environmental history before the end of the year. I can’t wait to see the result, and I hope others use it as a teaching tool and reminder of the important advocacy and activism stories that sometimes lead to what we don’t see.

Victoria Bogdan is a fundraising consultant working with environmental nonprofits around the Bay Area, including Yosemite Conservancy, Pepperwood Preserve, Fair Trade USA, Resource Renewal Institute, and Earth Day Quebec. She worked with the California chapter of The Nature Conservancy, where hiking with botanists, biologists, and other -ists strengthened her love of the environment and dedication to working on its behalf. She lives in Oakland, is a co-founder of Nerds for Nature, and can’t wait to hike again in the rainforest.
Twitter: @victoria_bogdan