You Can Thank Sylvia McLaughlin for a Healthier SF Bay

Sylvia McLaughlin | Photo courtesy Save The Bay

The old Chinese saying has it that "women hold up half the sky," but when it comes to protecting the environment in California, it sometimes seems women are doing considerably more than half of the work. From wilderness to our densest urban landscapes, Californian women have long done a lot of the environmental movement's heavy lifting.

We work to recognize the accomplishments of California's women year-round at KCET, but it's especially important to do so to mark International Women's Day.

So this week we'll be bringing you five thumbnail sketches of women environmental activists who've made a difference protecting California's landscape, and the people who live in it, from environmental destruction — and who've helped to heal the worst effects of that damage. And we're starting with a woman who changed the face of Northern California.

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San Francisco Bay would look very different if it wasn't for Sylvia McLaughlin, co-founder of the pioneering wetlands protection group Save San Francisco Bay Association. In 1961, when the City of Berkeley hatched a plan to fill more than 2,000 acres of San Francisco Bay for urban development — which would have expanded the city by about 20 percent — McLaughlin and her colleagues Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick were frustrated by existing environmental groups' reluctance to take on the Bay's looming destruction.

By 1961, more than a third of the Bay's original expanse had been filled in for residences, industry, freeways and garbage dumps. Only 10 percent of the estuary's wetland habitat remained. And what was left of the Bay would be shocking to modern-day Bay Area residents: the West Coast's most important wetland complex was fetid with sewage, rotting garbage, and petroleum products.

So when they didn't get any help from the relatively patrician environmental organizations of the day, McLaughlin, Gulick, and Kerr started their own. Save The Bay (as the Association would come to be known) set itself apart from those often-elitist existing groups by setting its membership fee at just $1.00, accessible even by 1961's standards. Tens of thousands of people joined in the next few years; Save The Bay pretty much started the concept of grassroots environmental groups in the process. The group now has more than 50,000 volunteers.

McLaughlin chats with Representative George Miller in 2011. | Photo: George Miller 

McLaughlin was an indefatigable lobbyist, organizing busloads of concerned Bay Areans to stalk the halls of the Legislature and demand protection for the Bay. It worked: in 1965, the state enacted a moratorium on filling in the Bay and established the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to manage future potential threats to the estuary, and to oversee what would eventually become one of the largest series of restoration projects in the world.

Some activists might have declared victory and rested on their laurels. Not McLaughlin, who remained a force of nature in Bay Area environmental activism for the next half century. When controversy swelled over plans to raze a grove of ancient live oaks in Berkeley in 2007, for instance, the then-90ish McLaughlin joined a crowd of activists, some of them less than one-third her age, who climbed into the trees as an act of civil disobedience.

McLaughlin could have been excused if she had declared her work in the early 1960s a job well done. Thanks in large part to her work, San Francisco Bay is still a thriving estuary. It's beleaguered, to be sure, beset with ills ranging from pollution to invasive species to sea level rise. But it's still there, and still alive, and it's actually a really nice place to visit — that last constituting a vast difference from the sewage-smelling Bay McLaughlin knew in 1961. Restoration projects have brought back thousands of acres of wetlands, the harvest mouse and Ridgway's rail are still hanging on in the salt marshes, and the Bay shore is ringed with parks and trails.

Both Gulick and Kerr are equally worthy of celebration and gratitude for the Bay's survival; Save The Bay was emphatically a team effort and both remained active in environmental causes until their deaths. We're focusing on McLaughlin here, though, because she just left us in January, aged 99, with more than a half century of environmental work behind her. She saw a Bay with almost no public access, and little demand for access due to the 30 garbage dumps and rampant sewage disposal into the Bay.

Now, a miles-long stretch of the Bay shore bears her name: the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park running from Oakland to Richmond. A fitting tribute.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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