2011-10-31 "Sylvia McLaughlin, Save the Bay founder, fights on" by Peter Fimrite from "San Francisco Chronicle"
Sylvia McLaughlin sat in the study of her Berkeley hills home - books, maps and documents scattered, as always, on her desk - and gestured out of a large corner window toward the gleaming blue San Francisco Bay.
"It's beautiful," she said, admiring the sailboats, the brilliant sun shining on the water and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. "We should save these beautiful places."
The 94-year-old co-founder of the nonprofit group Save the Bay knows a little something about the subject. She has spent a half century fighting to save the bay from the ravages of development, garbage dumping, toxic pollution, sewage and environmental degradation.
Her accomplishments are now on display outside her study window, where people can jog, gaze at birds or exercise their dogs along a giant estuary that was once in danger of becoming a filthy channel amid industrial sites and tract home developments.
McLaughlin will be honored Thursday on the 50th anniversary of the day she and two other East Bay women founded Save the Bay under the then-crazy notion that they might be able to protect San Francisco Bay. McLaughlin will be given a lifetime achievement award and accept the honor on behalf of her now-deceased cohorts, Catherine "Kay" Kerr and Esther Gulick.
"The only reason they did succeed was because they didn't realize that they couldn't be successful," said David Lewis, the executive director of Save the Bay. Lewis was born in 1961, the year McLaughlin, Kerr and Gulick founded the organization. "These women were forces of nature. They just couldn't be denied, and they built a movement involving tens of thousands of people."
McLaughlin grew up in Denver, where she developed a passion for wild landscapes and the outdoors. She eventually made her way to the East Coast, where she received a bachelor's degree in French from Vassar College in 1939.
She married Donald McLaughlin in 1948, and the couple settled in Berkeley. They had two children.
Ugly sights, smells -
McLaughlin, who moved into her hillside home in 1955, did not like the view out of the window back then. She saw garbage being dumped on the shoreline, marshlands being filled and raw sewage being piped into the bay. By 1961, a third of the bay had already been filled or diked off, and only 10 percent of the original wetlands remained.
"Cities had their dumps along the shoreline, and you could see dump trucks going down there continuously," McLaughlin said. "I remember seeing garbage burning out there. And people who lived here then remember the smell of sewage. It was not very nice."
At that time, less than 6 miles of shoreline was accessible to the public, and developers were planning to fill in 60 percent of what remained of the bay, including much of the Berkeley shore. The Army Corps of Engineers said the bay would be nothing more than a shipping canal by 2020 if development continued at the same rate.
McLaughlin, Kerr and Gulick, whose husbands were all UC Berkeley administrators or faculty, decided something had to be done. They gathered representatives of every environmental organization they knew about and presented them with the problem. The group concluded that a new organization should be formed to deal with the problem and, with that, McLaughlin said, "they all filed out and wished us luck."
With no one else to carry the banner, the three women formed Save San Francisco Bay Association while sitting around their kitchen tables munching almond cookies and sipping tea. It was the first organization devoted exclusively to protecting San Francisco Bay and one of the first modern grassroots environmental movements in the country.
Raising awareness -
McLaughlin, a friendly, engaging woman, handled most of the public speaking.
"I made a point of becoming acquainted with as many people as I could no matter what their beliefs were," McLaughlin said. "I went around to a lot of places and spoke. We brought it to people's attention."
The women were up against powerful development interests and local politicians with tax dollar signs in their eyes, but they didn't back down. McLaughlin, Kerr and Gulick mobilized thousands of local residents to stop a plan to double the size of Berkeley by filling in 2,000 acres of the bay. The women then galvanized support around the Bay Area in an effort to stop similar projects.
McLaughlin said she hauled her children to meetings and organized busloads of activists to lobby politicians in Sacramento. Before long, the women attracted the attention of radio personality Don Sherwood, who rallied people to their cause. Save the Bay soon had members all over California and from other states, McLaughlin said.
In 1965, the state acknowledged that San Francisco Bay belonged to the public. The McAteer-Petris Act, which created the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, placed a moratorium on placing landfill in the bay.
In 1968, Save the Bay and the BCDC challenged a wild scheme led by real estate mogul David Rockefeller to fill more than 10,000 acres along the San Mateo County coast with dirt shaved off of San Bruno Mountain, a 27-mile-long development dubbed "new Manhattan." The fight lasted for a decade, but the proposal finally was defeated.
"I was introduced to David Rockefeller" after the final decision, McLaughlin said, "and he held out his hand and said, 'You win.' "
Save the Bay helped establish the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest urban refuges in the United States. Garbage dumping, sewage discharge, chemical and toxic spillage, and pollution are now all regulated.
Save the Bay is the largest organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the bay. Some 35,000 people work on cleanup and restoration projects, monitoring development, keeping tabs on politicians and filing lawsuits against projects that they believe might harm the bay's ecosystem.
Success stories -
San Francisco Bay is now roughly 40,000 acres larger than it was in 1961. More than half of the bay is ringed with public trails connecting a series of shoreline parks. Save the Bay volunteers are involved in numerous tidal wetland restoration projects, including the reclamation of salt ponds and former hay fields.
McLaughlin, who has served on the boards of virtually every environmental organization in the Bay Area, is still actively involved in efforts to create parks along the east shore. She also opposed the removal of a grove of oak trees in preparation for the construction of a new student athletic training center at UC Berkeley.
"She has consistently defied expectations," Lewis said. "I got a call a few years ago and somebody asked, 'Did you know that Sylvia just climbed up one of the trees in front of Memorial Stadium?' Sure enough, there she was on television with her legs dangling from a branch in the tree."
McLaughlin's 2007 stint as a tree-sitter was unsuccessful. The trees were eventually cut down.
"You win some, you lose some," she said.