Bay Conservation Group Formed by Three Berkeley, California Women Hits 40

Sylvia McLaughlin didn't need to look far from her living room window in the early 1960s to see that the Bay Area was losing its most scenic asset, the San Francisco Bay. Garbage landfills on filled marshes caught fire and glowed red at night, reinforcing the image of the shoreline as a place to dump rather than recreate.

BERKELEY, Calif. — Sylvia McLaughlin didn't need to look far from her living room window in the early 1960s to see that the Bay Area was losing its most scenic asset, the San Francisco Bay.

Trucks piled rocks and earth in the water to create several square miles of new land each year.

Garbage landfills on filled marshes caught fire and glowed red at night, reinforcing the image of the shoreline as a place to dump rather than recreate.

Berkeley proposed to double its size with a fill project, just one of several large ones in the Bay.

"This Bay is a national treasure, yet we were losing it," said McLaughlin, now 88, the wife of a mining company executive. "Our Bay was in danger of becoming a river. We decided something had to be done."


At a series of gatherings over tea, she and two other homemakers, Katherine Kerr and Esther Gulick, decided to organize.

Against all odds, the tea ladies of Berkeley ignited a pioneering environmental movement that helped change the way California and other states protect their shorelines.

They struck alliances with a business-friendly state senator, a wise-cracking radio DJ and thousands of letter-writing supporters to get state lawmakers to create the first regional commission in the nation to regulate shoreline development.

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, known as BCDC, celebrates its 40th anniversary Saturday.

The agency keeps a low profile these days, but it has left a big imprint.

It stopped the shrinking of the Bay, which by 1965 had lost about a third of its 787 square miles of surface area.

Since then, 13 square miles of diked land has been added back through environmental restoration projects.

The commission also opened the door for public access to the shoreline.

Four decades ago, all but four miles of shoreline was locked away from the public. Now more than 300 miles of shore is accessible through parks, trails and visitor use areas.

"The Bay would not look like it does today if not for these three wonderful ladies from the East Bay," said Joe Bodovitz, the first chief executive of the Bay commission who later served as chief executive for the California Coastal Commission, an agency modeled on the Bay commission.

"It's remarkable they succeeded," Bodovitz said. "It took perseverance, good fortune and a lot of unsung heroes."

McLaughlin and her friends took on powerful developers, investors and local leaders who viewed filling the Bay as a way to create new homes, businesses and tax revenues.

The women were disturbed nobody was tracking the cumulative impact of many fill projects virtually unregulated by the state.

California even aided the initial rush to fill the Bay.

In the 1850s, California sold underwater land by San Francisco to raise money for the new state government.

Much of San Francisco's financial district is built on fill, as is much of northern Contra Costa's industrial lands.

In the 1960s, developers sought to accelerate filling.

"I think the attitude all over the country at that time was that your bays and your marshes were dumping grounds. It was progress to fill them," McLaughlin said in an interview in her Berkeley home.

The Bay, about 14 feet deep on average, was a ripe target.

In 1959, the federal Army Corps of Engineers issued a report suggesting it was feasible to fill about 70 percent of the Bay.

One project, known as the Westbay development, called for lopping off the top of San Bruno Mountain to fill miles of Bay from San Mateo to Palo Alto. The plan also called for a new freeway. Bay supporters were appalled.

McLaughlin, wife of a UC Board of Regents member; Kerr, the wife of UC president Clark Kerr; and Gulick, the wife of an economics professor, called a meeting in Gulick's house on Grizzly Peak Road.

Conservation leaders who attended advised the woman to form a group, and get a state law passed.

"They told us what needed to be done and said, 'Good luck,'" McLaughlin recalled. "They were too busy saving the redwoods and saving the wilderness."

In 1961, the three woman formed the environmental group Save the Bay and signed up members for $1 a piece. They also recruited high-profile community leaders to serve on an advisory committee.

In 1964, Berkeley leaders scuttled their fill plan.

Save the Bay stepped up pressure to save the entire Bay with a state law.

They enlisted state Sen. Eugene McAteer of San Francisco, a war hero friendly to businesses, to lead the charge.

They also cornered scientists whose research suggested filling the Bay threatened to harm fisheries, increase smog and warm up the Bay climate.

The Legislature agreed to create a commission to look into the Bay's problems.

But when McAteer in 1965 proposed a bill to set up a 27-member commission to regulate Bay filling, developers resisted fiercely.

Builders argued that stopping filling would cripple the Bay Area economy.

Save the Bay supporters traveled to Sacramento hearings in buses and sent lawmakers sacks of dirt and sand with notes that read, "You'll wonder where the water went if you fill the Bay with sediment."

McAteer persuaded KSFO radio show host Don Sherwood to join the cause.

Sherwood, known for wacky jokes, rallied his morning listeners to write legislators. He chatted on air with McAteer about progress on the commission bill, named the McAteer-Petris Act, and once awakened Gov. Pat Brown with a call at home to talk on air about the bill.

The Bay commission bill squeaked by on a 6-5 vote.

The Legislature passed the bill, creating the commission and empowering it to regulate filling.

Another heated battle followed in 1969 before Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a bill to make the commission permanent. The bill affirmed commission authority to bar filling unless the public benefits of a project outweighed the environmental damage.

The regulation did not choke the economy, as some had predicted.

John Briscoe, a San Francisco attorney who represents shoreline property owners, said preserving the Bay was crucial to attracting workers and companies to the region.

"Without the Bay, this would be a much drearier place to do business," Briscoe said. "There are gripes (the commission's) permit process is to cumbersome, but overall, they have been good for the region."

These days, the trio that started the movement has handed off the torch.

Gulick has died. Kerr lives quietly in the East Bay hills.

McLaughlin has retired from the Save the Bay board, but she still is busy promoting shoreline parks and other Bay causes.

The Bay still faces threats from pollution, water pumping, invasive species and global warming, she said.

Pressures to fill the bay will pop up again as the state grows, she predicted.

"I think we showed citizens can make a difference in protecting the environment," McLaughlin said. "But we have to remain vigilant because there will always be a need to save the Bay."


--1959: U.S. Army Corps of Engineer report suggests 70 percent of San Francisco Bay could be filled.

--1961: Save the Bay group founded.

--1964: Berkeley scuttles plans to double its size through Bay fill

--1964: California Legislature approves study commission to examine Bay fill problems.

--1965: Legislature passes McAteer-Petris Act to create Bay Conservation and Development Commission and put a moratorium on Bay fill.

--1969: Legislature makes commission permanent and empowers it to regulate development in 100-foot-wide shoreline ban, and to require public access to shoreline.

--1995: Gov. Pete Wilson proposes to strip Bay commission of funding, but drops plan after businesses and environmentalists protest.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News