In Episode 1, we explore Save Mount Diablo’s past. From its origins in the environmental movement to its successful political activism to its incorporation as a nonprofit, Save Mount Diablo built a solid foundation for fifty years of land conservation. This episode asks: why save Mount Diablo? What did it take to save Mount Diablo? What sustained Save Mount Diablo?
In season 7 of The Berkeley Remix, a podcast of the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, we head to Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County. In the three-part series, “Fifty Years of Save Mount Diablo,” we look at land conservation in the East Bay through the lens of Save Mount Diablo, a local grassroots organization. It’s been doing this work since December 1971—that’s fifty years. This season focuses on the organization’s past, present, and future. Join us as we celebrate this anniversary and the impact that Save Mount Diablo has had on land conservation in the Bay Area and beyond.
PODCAST SHOW NOTES:
This episode features interviews from our Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project and includes clips from: Seth Adams, Ted Clement, Bob Doyle, Scott Hein, Egon Pedersen, and Malcolm Sproul. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.
Original music by Paul Burnett.
Album image North Peak from Clayton Ranch. Episode 1 image Mary Bowerman Trail. All photographs courtesy of Scott Hein. For more information about these images, visit Hein Natural History Photography.
Amanda Tewes: EPISODE 1: Save Mount Diablo’s Past
Shanna Farrell: Welcome to The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley. You’re listening to our seventh season, “Fifty Years of Save Mount Diablo.”
Farrell: I’m Shanna Farrell.
Tewes: And I’m Amanda Tewes. We’re interviewers at the Center and the leads for the Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project.
Tewes: This season we’re headed east of San Francisco to Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County. In this three-part mini-series, we look at land conservation through the lens of Save Mount Diablo, a local grassroots organization.
Farrell: It’s been doing this work since December 1971—that’s fifty years. This season focuses on the organization’s past, present, and future. Join us as we celebrate this anniversary and the impact that Save Mount Diablo has had on land conservation in the Bay Area and beyond.
Farrell: In this episode, we explore Save Mount Diablo’s past.
Farrell: ACT 1: Why Save Mount Diablo?
[Soundbed- bird noises]
Tewes: Mount Diablo looms large in the landscape of the East Bay. It’s vast, with an elevation of 3,849 feet. It’s home to coyotes, bobcats, black-tailed deer, gray foxes, and peregrine falcons who live among bright, colorful flora like manzanita trees and fairy-lantern flowers. Snow blankets the mountaintop in the winter. Mount Diablo covers 20,000 acres, which make up a California State Park. It is surrounded by 90,000 acres of protected land, where Alameda whipsnakes and red-legged frogs and California poppies scatter. It’s located in Contra Costa County in The East Bay, which is about forty miles east of San Francisco.
[Soundbed- traffic noises]
Farrell: Mount Diablo almost didn’t look this way. In fact, here’s Malcolm Sproul describing the surrounding area in the mid century:
Malcolm Sproul: It was exploding. I mean, this was a period of very rapid residential development, freeways being built. I mean, I remember as a kid going out to Walnut Creek, and a two-lane road to go out through Lafayette and Orinda, for example.
Farrell: Population in the East Bay boomed during WWII, attracting people with wartime jobs. While not everyone stayed when the war ended, those who did were joined by family members. In fact, from 1950 to 1970, the population of the Bay Area grew from 2.6 million to 4.6 million. That’s a 173 percent increase. This meant that housing and infrastructure had to keep up.
[Soundbed- traffic noises]
Farrell: In the 1950s, the region built highways and freeways, and began construction on BART, the Bay Area’s metro commuter system, to take East Bay residents to their jobs in San Francisco.
Sproul: The sixties and the seventies, in particular, saw a tremendous amount of this growth. Just conversions of thousands and thousands of acres of land.
Tewes: This could have meant that the East Bay sacrificed open space to development. But this didn’t happen, and we can thank conservation activists for that.
Farrell: As a response to these pressures, a group of six people got together to take action. Save Mount Diablo held its first meeting on December 7, 1971 at Heather Farms Garden Center in Walnut Creek, California. Their goals were simple: save the land, support the state park, and prevent further development in the East Bay.
Egon Pedersen: There was just one day my wife said, “Hey, I see here in the paper there’s a, there’s a group called Save Mount Diablo. They want to save the mountain.” And I said, “No, how could that be?” Whenever we drove into Diablo, down on the stone poles at the road it said, “Mount Diablo State Park.”
Tewes: That was Egon Pedersen. A Danish immigrant who fell in love with the natural beauty of his adoptive home in the East Bay, Egon served as Save Mount Diablo’s first vice president, and then as president from 1974 to 1977. And Egon is right. The existence of the state park was definitely a challenge in conserving Mount Diablo lands. At that first meeting on December seventh, the group addressed this. Here’s how Bob Doyle, one of those first six activists, remembers this:
Bob Doyle: And I really thought that was a hurdle because most people look at it and go, “Look, there’s no threat there, it’s all state park.” From the very beginning, the discussions at the formal meetings was really focused on these discussions of, you know, what do we do, what’s this, what’s this property, there’s no money, how do we get some money? So it was very, very clear that it was to be 100 percent focused on expanding the state park. It was really focused on the fact that Mount Diablo State Park had not been receiving its fair share, as we looked at it, of statewide money.
Farrell: But Mary Bowerman and Arthur Bonwell, the two co-founders of Save Mount Diablo, were ready to take on this challenge. Mary was a botanist and wrote her dissertation on the flora of the mountain. Art was active in both the Contra Costa Park Council and the Sierra Club, where his involvement with Mount Diablo started. Here’s Bob again, talking about his first impressions of Mary.
Doyle: I remember being very nervous of meeting this prestigious PhD and pioneer botanist from Mount Diablo. Well, she had a British accent. She was very quiet, and she had these eyes that would penetrate you, and just very curious and very, I would say, cautious in her conversations.
Tewes: Bob also worked closely with Art Bonwell. They met at the first meeting of Save Mount Diablo.
Doyle: Art was, you know, an active bicyclist, Diablo Wheelman, and was an engineer by trade, by vocation, and just very interesting, probing, strong, asking questions.
[Soundbed- noises of protest]
Farrell: The early 1970s was a moment of activism in politics, social justice, and inspired a burgeoning environmental movement. Young people played important roles in all of this.
Doyle: We’re talking about Vietnam War, we’re talking about Nixon, we’re talking about assassinations of presidents. It was very tumultuous.
Tewes: There were a lot of grassroots environmental organizations popping up all over the country, many of which of were in the Bay Area. Think Save the Bay, Save the Redwoods League, Sierra Club, and more. This moment also saw the publishing of foundational books, like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, A Sand County Almanc by Aldo Leopold, and Population Bomb by Paul Erhlich.
Farrell: This, on top of major environmental disasters like the Cuyahoga River repeatedly catching on fire and the Santa Barbara oil spill—both in 1969—all set the stage for a strong environmental movement in California and beyond.
[Soundbed- noises of protest]
Doyle: It was just a very heady time in the late sixties and early seventies. The first Earth Day happened, it was the environmental movement, so I think a lot of young people were looking for something positive to do, and you couldn’t be more positive than to try to save the earth. And because of the guidance of these other people, we really focused on the local things.
Tewes: Mostly, though, it was people from the area who cared about the fate of the mountain.
Doyle: It was really focused on our immediate area. Well, if you look at the early membership, the majority was from Concord, of the members. Peg Kovar, that was Walnut Creek, and Egon Pedersen was Danville. But most of them were from the area, so we cared about our area and Mount Diablo being the center point of that.
Farrell: The group had their work cut out for them. In 1971, the state park was confined to only the top of the mountain, just 6,788 acres of the summit. None of the low-elevation trails that exist today were around then. Also, none of the city or regional open spaces had been created yet, but the threat of real estate development was closing in on the mountain.
Tewes: ACT 2: What did it take to save Mount Diablo?
Tewes: It took a mixture of youthful energy and experienced activists, a reliance on political goodwill, and money.
[Soundbed- cash register ]
Tewes: These things always require money.
Pedersen: We were just trying to be a little, peaceful group getting money from contributions, buy a piece of land.
Farrell: People had a strong desire to take action. In this vein, Egon wrote to Gov. Ronald Reagan—yes, that one—to try to secure funding for the fledgling organization.
Pedersen: Well, I just wrote to him that Mount Diablo was a very important recreational area, and I said if he could consider buying some land that I really, really, really would appreciate it. And lo and behold, a couple of months after, he actually allocated money for buying land around Mount Diablo. Yeah, he wrote me a nice letter and said he really appreciated I was telling him about how important it was to expand the land in such an area with such a big population, it was important to have a place for recreation that people could go and enjoy their life; also for the wildlife on the mountain, it needed more space so it could survive.
Tewes: Bob Doyle remembers the contributions of East Bay representatives in Sacramento like John Nejedly and Daniel Boatwright.
Doyle: You know, it was all about Sacramento money, very little was raised by Save Mount Diablo in the early years, but it was really about getting bond measures on the ballot and getting them passed and getting the appropriations through the state budget. And we had champions in Sacramento to do that; Boatwright and Nejedly being the foremost at that time.
Farrell: Save Mount Diablo needed this money to buy land and to expand the state park beyond those initial 7,000 acres. But state funds weren’t the only way to support the organization. In order to raise the money, Save Mount Diablo had to raise awareness of the organization’s mission to get people to donate to its cause.
Doyle: So we really started trying to get articles in the paper about what’s threatened and how beautiful Mount Diablo is, and really started picking off environmental writers in the newspaper.
Tewes: Not to mention, Save Mount Diablo had bumper stickers. Group members could drive around Contra Costa County with their cars as moving billboards for the organization. Even teenage Malcolm Sproul had one! Here’s Bob and Egon Pedersen again, talking about another mechanism for raising both money and awareness.
Doyle: One of the early things we did was there were a lot of walkathons and hike-a-thons. I guess that’d be comparable to GoFundMe now. That was the mechanism for people to raise money.
Pedersen: We made between 2 and $3,000 every time we had a walkathon, so at that time, that was pretty good.
[Soundbed – cash register]
Doyle: That really got more people and kids involved because they were doing the hike.
Farrell: Indeed, one of the strengths of Save Mount Diablo was that it attracted people of all ages. This fostered intergenerational communication, with a younger crowd learning from their elders, and the older activists drawing inspiration from youth. People like Mary Bowerman had lessons to impart to the younger members. As to what Malcolm Sproul learned from Mary?
Sproul: I think it’s focus. Mary had properties she knew to be important. She had a picture, a big picture. She had the vision of wanting to see it protected. She wasn’t a big political advocacy person, but she was big on wanting other people to buy the property. And if we could, if we had the money, to also protect property. So she was very, very much focused on people like the State acquiring land, on getting bonds passed and the money could be used for acquisition. She knew the land and she knew the things she felt needed to be protected.
Tewes: Here’s Bob Doyle again.
Doyle: When you’re young and you have these kind of older wizards, it’s interesting because if you’d say anything, they’d say, “Are you sure, how do you know that?” I mean, it’s kind of the testing of facts to be careful.
Tewes: Another generational difference in their approach to saving Mount Diablo had to do with their comfort in participating in the democratic process.
Doyle: Who wants to go to a meeting for three hours, four hours? And I think that generation of people was really used to sitting at a board meeting for four hours. Another very wonderful environmental activist was Jean Siri, who was an urban activist in west Contra Costa. But she would be famous for sitting at a board of supervisors meeting knitting the whole time, you know, hours and hours sitting there and then finally got up, and basically she probably yelled at the board of supervisors. She was very, very strong and wonderful. And people were willing to put in that time, and a lot of that time, you’re fidgeting.
[Soundbed – applause, gavel noise]
Farrell: This may have been a new strategy for Bob and his generation, but there was space for young people, too.
Doyle: The emphasis there, although most people in Save Mount Diablo were, you know, in their fifties and sixties at the time, they really wanted a voice for youth at the time and so they really encouraged me to speak.
Tewes: By fostering the connection between different generations of activists, everyone felt like they had buy-in, everyone felt like they had a role in saving Mount Diablo. This made the group special and helped build a membership base. Members used this approach to reach the larger community—they went out and talked to people, meeting them where they were. As president, Egon Pedersen did just that.
Pedersen: And I figured the only way I can do it [is] to offer something for them. I can’t just go and knock on doors and everything. I called all the libraries, for one thing, and asked if they’d like a talk on Mount Diablo. And of course, all the libraries wanted that.
Farrell: Egon took a people-centered approach in understanding the cultural history of the mountain, so the community understood the significance of saving it.
Pedersen: Then after that, it got to be a lot of word of mouth. There was always somebody that said, “Hey, can you come and talk in my school? Can you come and talk to my class? Can you come and talk to the garden society? Can you talk to the women’s club in Berkeley?” I loved to do that. So I thought it was a good way to spread the word.
Tewes: Another approach that supporters used to convince people of the value of the mountain was photographs. One such photographer was Bob Walker. Bob was well-known for taking beautiful pictures of the sweeping landscape of Mount Diablo and its surroundings. He would often show up to someone’s house unannounced and ask if he could walk on their property to take the photos.
[Soundbed- camera shutter clicks]
Tewes: He got to know a lot of people—and potential supporters—this way. Bob Doyle remembers the value of this to Save Mount Diablo.
[Soundbed- camera shutter clicks]
Doyle: Bob had a knack of educating people with incredible enthusiasm without being confrontational. It was more of always promoting and educating the beauty of something through his pictures rather than being in a fight. That was Bob’s skill, he could really convince people. And he went around doing slideshows at libraries and schools and in chambers of commerce and all over to show the beauty of the parks we had and why these areas need to be preserved.
Farrell: ACT 3: What sustained Save Mount Diablo?
Scott Hein: When the organization was first founded, Art and Mary thought that their work would be done in five years. They had no intention of the organization being around in perpetuity. They figured they’d protect the lands around the mountain and be done with it, and they’d be able to go on to other pursuits. Now of course, that didn’t happen. [laughs] And it obviously wasn’t realistic.
Farrell: That was Scott Hein. He and his wife, Claudia, are longtime supporters of Save Mount Diablo. Scott served as board president from 2013 to 2019, and as a conservation photographer for the organization. Scott remembered that despite what the founders thought, the organization was not able to accomplish all its goals in the first five years. In fact, it took much longer than that.
Tewes: In order to create longevity and continue to work towards its mission to conserve lands, Save Mount Diablo members realized they needed to formalize their grassroots organization. They established a non-profit in 1980.
Doyle: To get more broader donations from people, we needed the legal status of donations and nonprofit status. There were some concerns about that, but we hired this incredible lawyer, Robert Jasperson, who was a longtime lawyer for Save the Redwoods League and was the Sierra Club lawyer. I knew him from Save the Redwoods League and so I asked him when he was in more private practice if he’d help, so he did the incorporation stuff for us and just said, “It’s just much better for your IRS designation and stuff to get the donations, and it’s a formality that we needed to do.”
Farrell: This set Save Mount Diablo up for the long term.
Farrell: In 1988, Save Mount Diablo was 16 years old. And it was a big year for the group. It protected several parcels of land on the mountain, including Castle Rock and the Boy Scout Camp Force in Lower Rock City. It helped pass a couple of critical measures, like the State Park Bond and Measure AA, which provided $225 million to the East Bay Regional Park District, one of Save Mount Diablo’s allies, which was also dedicated to preserving open space. It also grew its network from 400 supporters to 1,500. But yet, there was still more work to do.
Tewes: Up until that year, the organization was entirely run by volunteers. Though there was a core group of volunteers who had been faithfully active for more than a decade, others would come and go. Save Mount Diablo knew it needed to hire someone to keep working towards its goal of expanding the state park and protecting the surrounding lands. Here’s Bob Doyle talking about the events that led up to hiring the organization’s first staff member.
Doyle: I had gotten a grant and we hired a college student out of St. Mary’s College to do a nonprofit organizational study for what Save Mount Diablo should do and what the options were. John Steere did the study, saying, you know, “If we really want to do x, y, and z, you need to hire somebody, and here are your opportunities to do that.” So that was the step to say, “Okay, we could hire somebody part time.”
Farrell: The first person that Save Mount Diablo hired was Seth Adams, a young environmentalist who had moved to the Bay Area a few years earlier from the East Coast. This was also in 1988.
Doyle: We interviewed a bunch of people, and we weren’t paying much. And Seth came out as the most committed and articulate. He got the job and has continued to do that. He had the courage and the knowledge to get through stuff that was really difficult. There was just so much development being proposed, and he got very good. We did some initiatives and referendums because that’s what we had to do at the time.
Tewes: Hiring Seth gave Save Mount Diablo the ability to keep going.
Seth Adams: When I was hired at Save Mount Diablo, I didn’t try to just focus on getting two things done. I threw fifty things up in the air and wanted to work on all fifty. [laughs] That’s sort of the structure of an entire organization, which is what I helped create, in terms of going from all volunteer to professional. It turns out that starting things, for me, I think is the most important thing, and scaling up just happened through a lot of work through a lot of people, but if you get things rolling, they take on a life of their own.
Tewes: After Seth was hired, the volunteer base only grew larger. Save Mount Diablo was even able to add more staff in following years. Together, they were able to accomplish a lot. In 1989, the organization acquired the 631-acre Morgan Ranch, protected 330 acres of open space on Crystyl Ranch and a portion of Round Valley, and fought three Contra Costa landfill proposals that would have encroached on the area that they were trying to save. From 1991 to 1993, they stopped development at Chaparral Spring and Clayton Ranch. And from 1993 to 2004, they expanded Lime Ridge Open Space, Round Valley, Riggs Canyon, a part of Black Diamond Mines, and Cowell Ranch.
Farrell: By 2007, Save Mount Diablo had expanded the state park to 20,000 acres. Now, the park encompassed the entirety of Mount Diablo. The founders’ original mission had finally come to fruition. What’s more, around the mountain, the group protected 90,000 acres of land, and counting. Here’s Scott Hein again talking about these accomplishments.
Hein: When we were founded in 1971, there were just under 6,000 acres of protected parkland in our area of interest, and well over 110,000 acres today. That’s success, by any way you measure it.
[Soundbed- animal noises]
Tewes: Saving Mount Diablo has truly been a team effort.
Hein: Save Mount Diablo, even now, but even more so back then, has been an organization that really punches above its weight, so to speak. We accomplished far more than an organization our size should, and that’s because of the hard-working staff, but also the board members and other volunteers that made it happen.
Farrell: This effort to save the mountain is emblematic of a time and a place. It’s part of the Bay Area’s DNA. Save Mount Diablo could only have grown out of this burgeoning environmental movement when there were a lot of eager activists in the Bay Area. And in the early seventies, there was still time to save Mount Diablo. Here’s Ted Clement, the organization’s current executive director.
Ted Clement: The San Francisco Bay Area is known for advocacy. And Save Mount Diablo is a leader in using advocacy so effectively to help with land conservation, and that’s a proud part of our history.
Tewes: Join us next time as we learn about Save Mount Diablo’s current work.
Farrell: Thanks for listening to “Fifty Years of Save Mount Diablo” and The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1953, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This episode was produced by Shanna Farrell and Amanda Tewes.
Tewes: This episode features interviews from our Save Mount Diablo Oral History Project and includes clips from: Seth Adams, Ted Clement, Bob Doyle, Scott Hein, Egon Pedersen, and Malcolm Sproul. A special thanks to Save Mount Diablo for supporting this project. Thanks to Andrew Deakin and Anjali George for production assistance. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. Thanks for listening, and join us next time!