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The 1960s Women Whose Environmental Activism Saved the Bay

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The Oakland Tribune story set off alarm bells across the region. Published April 23, 1961, “Our Shrinking Bay” dared to gaze 40 years into the future at what the Bay Area would look like if urban development continued unchecked.

“By 2020,” Ed Salzman wrote, “the Bay could be little more than a wide river. Berkeley would extend so far west that part of the city would be in San Francisco County. And much more of the southern Eastbay shoreline would belong to San Mateo County.”

It wasn’t a work of Salzman’s imagination. The journalist had recently seen a paper the Army Corps of Engineers had written for the Department of Commerce. It explained in some detail that 70% of the Bay was less than 18 feet deep—meaning it could be filled and paved over relatively easily. Not only were plans afoot to start that process, but at the time there were zero rules against such development. The private companies who owned the shoreline could do whatever they pleased with it.

Shortly after the Tribune published the article, a woman named Esther Gulick was visiting her friend Catherine “Kay” Kerr to drop off some home-baked almond cookies. The two had become friends through their husbands, who were both members of the U.C. Board of Regents. (Gulick herself was a U.C. Berkeley graduate who had majored in economics. Kerr had graduated from Stanford with a major in political science.) After the pair got to chatting about Salzman’s story, Kerr asked Gulick if she might have a little spare time to try and prevent the decimation of the Bay. Gulick said that she did, and the pair quickly started organizing with Sylvia McLaughlin—a Vassar graduate, mom of two and another Board of Regents wife.

None of the women had any idea they were about to embark on a lifelong journey.

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In 1961, the San Francisco Bay was not in good shape. It had been a century since the Gold Rush, and at least 80% of the Bay’s wetlands had been lost to development. The water was filthy, tainted by oil slicks, shipping pollution, trash from multiple garbage dumps at the edge of the water and, worst of all, untreated sewage. At low tide, the stench emanating from the water wafted from Mill Valley to Oakland. At night, Gulick, who had a view of the Bay from her Berkeley home, watched in horror as trash was dumped in the shallows and set on fire.

At first, Kerr, McLaughlin and Gulick assumed they could join forces with an already established group who could guide and inform their campaign. In 1961, the women invited every local environmentalist they could think of to Gulick’s home for a meeting. Those in attendance included reps from the Sierra Club, the Save the Redwoods League, Audubon and several local grassroots groups. They even invited author Harold Gilliam because of his work profiling the waterfront in his 1957 book San Francisco Bay.

After the trio had carefully laid out the Bay’s urgent need for intervention, each of their attendees warmly agreed—then explained they were too busy with their own campaigns, and encouraged the women to start their own organization. To help, the Sierra Club’s David Brower handed over his organization’s mailing list and made himself available for advice.

That night, the Save the San Francisco Bay Association—now popularly known as Save the Bay—was born.

Almost half a century after he attended that first meeting, Harold Gilliam wrote for SFGate: “My own feeling was that any attempt to stop the filling of the bay would be hopeless … I was certain that the three Berkeley women were too naive and inexperienced to realize the bay was as doomed as the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley … The notion that the big-buck developers, the shoreline cities and some of the country’s biggest corporations could be turned back by a few starry-eyed bay savers seemed preposterous.”

Within two years, the association had proved Gilliam wrong, winning its first major victory. And it was a major one. Save the Bay almost single-handedly stopped the City of Berkeley from expanding into 2,000 acres of Bay waters.

A ‘Save the San Francisco Bay Association’ newsletter, sent out to subscribers in Dec. 1968. (Courtesy of the California Historical Society)

Kerr, McLaughlin and Gulick, it turned out, were a force to be reckoned with. They understood that the only way to win was to combine grassroots people power with irrefutable data. They used targeted flyer campaigns, phone chains and gatherings to attract more members to their cause. They charged $1 per year to receive their newsletter—a simple but effective way to fundraise. And they consulted with biologists, engineers, economists, architects, legal scholars and city planners to prepare official arguments for all eventualities.

It’s easy to forget now, but environmental campaigns were a fringe issue at the time that Save the Bay first started. Kerr, McLaughlin and Gulick instinctively knew how to take them mainstream. In 1968, for example, they distributed handmade “Save the Bay” flags to a gala parade of boats who were celebrating the start of yachting season. This simple but savvy move garnered them press coverage without even having to organize a protest.

With attention, of course, came personal scrutiny. The women—and their supporters—were often subjected to mockery and name-calling. Gulick noted in one 1988 speech that they were called: “enemies of progress, impractical idealists, do-gooders, posy pickers, eco-freaks, enviromaniacs, little old ladies in tennis shoes and almond cookie revolutionaries.”

At one point, even an Oakland Tribune columnist piled on. In 1963, Al Martinez wrote facetiously of the work Save the Bay was doing: “O, lo, the Bay is shrinking, the Bay is shrinking! Really? That’s what they tell me,” he scoffed. “We can always spray the waterfront with an air-sweetener or deodorizer.”

Through it all, Kerr, McLaughlin and Gulick harbored no hesitations about testifying at hearings, hassling government officials, petitioning state agencies and leading protests to Sacramento. All three steadfastly refused to be intimidated by the corporations, politicians, bureaucrats, landowners and occasional journalists who attempted to block their path.

A ‘Save the San Francisco Bay Association’ newsletter, sent to subscribers in July 1970. (Courtesy of the California Historical Society)

The tenacious organizing undertaken by these three women has influenced the ecology of the Bay Area in too many ways to comprehensively list. But it is thanks to them that we have a state commission whose sole job it is to protect the San Francisco Bay. (The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission has been in place since 1965. And that, in turn, inspired the creation of the California Coastal Commission in 1972.)

Without Save the Bay’s campaigning and influence, Berkeley and San Mateo may have succeeded in expanding their city limits into the waterfront in 1980. David Rockefeller and his associates may have succeeded in sucking up 27 miles of coastline for a major new development in the early 1970s. Without Save the Bay, we probably wouldn’t have the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, nor the 85,000 acres of wetlands still protected by 1977’s Suisun Marsh Preservation Act. We wouldn’t have the permanently protected McLaughlin Eastshore State Park that runs between Emeryville and Richmond. (It was named after Sylvia in 2011.) In fact, between the time Save the Bay formed and 2007, the bay expanded by 40,000 acres. The environmental impact of the organization cannot be overstated.

Gulick died in 1995. Both McLaughlin and Kerr died just months before their 100th birthdays, in 2016 and 2010 respectively. McLaughlin continued to attend protests well into her 90s—even ones that involved climbing trees. In a 1988 speech she noted: “Esther, Kay and I were inspired by the vision of what we felt San Francisco Bay could be and the reality of what was happening to it. We regarded the Bay as one of this country’s national treasures and to us, and to many others, it was unthinkable that most of this beautiful natural resource could be filled.”

Last year, the Oakland Tribune journalist who wrote “Our Shrinking Bay” talked to the San Francisco Examiner about the 1961 story that started it all.

“I covered presidents and governors and all kinds of big shots,” Ed Salzman said at the age of 89. “But when you look back, I don’t remember those stories at all. This story I remember in detail, because—let’s face it—the saving of San Francisco Bay is still going on.”

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To learn about other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.

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