Listen to podcast episode 2, “Tides of Conservation,” or read a written version of this podcast episode below.
Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism is a gallery exhibition in The Bancroft Library that charts the evolution of environmentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area through the voices of activists who advanced their causes throughout the twentieth century—from wilderness preservation, to economic regulation, to environmental justice. The exhibition is free and open to the public Monday through Friday between 10am to 4pm from Oct. 6, 2023 to Nov. 15, 2024, in The Bancroft Library Gallery, located just inside the east entrance of The Bancroft Library. Curated by UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, this interactive exhibit is the first in-depth effort to showcase oral history along with other archival collections of The Bancroft Library.
This exhibition includes three podcast episodes that offer deeper narratives to supplement the archival posters, pamphlets, postcards, photographs, oral history recordings, and film footage that are also presented in the gallery. Please use headphones when listening to podcasts in The Bancroft Library Gallery.
A written version of podcast episode 2 is included below.
Listen to episode 2: “Tides of Conservation” on SoundCloud.
PODCAST EPISODE SHOW NOTES:
Episode 2: “Tides of Conservation.” This podcast episode accompanies a section of the Voices for the Environment exhibition that explores how three women in Berkeley formed the Save San Francisco Bay Association in the early 1960s to resist numerous land-fill projects that would have turned the waters of the San Francisco Bay into land. By 1965, advocacy from this association, later called Save The Bay, led to the creation of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, or BCDC, a new California state agency tasked with balancing the conflicting interests between economic development and environmental conservation. BCDC’s work helped bolster a rising tide of conservation that led eventually to similar state regulatory agencies, including the equally historic California Coastal Commission.
This podcast episode features historic interviews from the Oral History Center archives in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, including segments from oral history interviews with Esther Gulick, Catherine “Kay” Kerr, and Sylvia McLaughlin recorded in 1985; with Joseph Bodovitz and with Melvin B. Lane, both recorded in 1984. This episode was narrated by Sasha Khokha, with thanks to KQED Public Radio and The California Report Magazine.
This podcast was produced by Todd Holmes and Roger Eardley-Pryor of the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, with help from Sasha Khokha of KQED. The album and episode images were designed by Gordon Chun.
WRITTEN VERSION OF PODCAST EPISODE 2: “Tides of Conservation”
Sylvia McLaughlin: And I was totally appalled, reading the [Berkeley] Gazette, of the city manager’s dream to fill over 2,000 acres in front of Berkeley. And this was one of the things that galvanized us into action.
Sasha Khokha: The San Francisco Bay Area is no stranger to development booms. From the Gold Rush to the rise of Silicon Valley, the region ‘s history has been marked by a steady stream of growth and development. In the decades after World War II, new industries and a roaring postwar economy brought millions of people to the Golden State. By 1962, California ranked as the most populated state in the union. State agencies built dams, universities, and a network of freeways matched only in its intricacy by a statewide aqueduct system stretching over 700 miles, north to south. In the Bay Area, this combined boom in both population and development meant space was at a premium, pushing developers to target building on the 1,600 square miles of the bay itself. By the late 1950s, city councils throughout the region considered a host of fill projects that would turn bay waters into habitable land. And that sparked environmentalists to push back.
Melvin B. Lane: Environmentalists should be extremists. They represent an extreme, and the people who are going to make a buck represent the other one. And the decision-maker should sweat it out in the middle.
Sasha Khokha: Welcome to Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism. This podcast accompanies an exhibition in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley that’s the first major effort to bring together both the oral history and archival collections of The Bancroft Library. The voices you’re going to hear were recorded by UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, founded in 1953 to record and preserve the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.
Voices for the Environment traces the evolution of environmentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area across the twentieth century. It highlights how Bay Area activists have long been on the front lines of environmental change—from efforts to preserve natural spaces in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, to the midcentury fight for state environmental protections, to demands to address the disproportionate burden of pollution that sickened communities of color around the bay.
You’re listening to the second episode of Voices for the Environment. We’re calling it “Tides of Conservation.” I’m your host, Sasha Khokha, from KQED.
[mid-century jazz music]
In 1961, Oakland Tribune reporter Ed Salzman published an article detailing the number of proposed projects to fill in parts of the San Francisco Bay. What sparked Salzman’s interest was not any one project in particular. But it was a 1959 Army Corp of Engineers map he had stumbled upon while working on another story in Sausalito. On the surface, the government map was a projection of the San Francisco Bay in the year 2000. To Salzman, it was a horrifying glimpse of the reality that awaited Bay Area residents if developers were allowed to keep filling in the Bay. What he saw took his breath away. On the map, the open bay had been reduced to a river. The article, published along with a graphic of the government map, sent shockwaves around the Bay Area, alarming three Berkeley residents: Catherine “Kay” Kerr, Esther Gulick, Sylvia McLaughlin, who talked about seeing that map in an oral history that all three women recorded together in 1985.
Catherine Kerr: There was no denying the fact that the visible destruction of the Bay had been, maybe, of unconscious concern, so that when the Army Corps map appeared in the Oakland Tribune showing that the Bay would end up being a river by 2020 because of all the fill, it was clear to me that this was certainly a possible train of events, and it needed to be stopped.
Sylvia McLaughlin: And I was totally appalled, reading in the [Berkeley] Gazette, of the city manager’s dream to fill over 2,000 acres in front of Berkeley. And this was one of the things that galvanized us into action.
Catherine Kerr: What happened was that the map that came out in the Tribune was brought to my attention. I went to a tea at the Town and Gown Club, and I said to Sylvia, “Did you see that terrible future of the Bay? And Sylvia said, “I certainly did. I think we should do something about it.” About two weeks later, Esther came over. We were sitting in the living room, and it was a beautiful day, and the Bay was very blue. I said to Esther, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the bay. Did you see the map in the Tribune?” She said, “Yes. Wasn’t it awful?” I said, “Well, do you think you would have time to do something about it?” Esther said, “Well, yes, I think I would.” So I said, “All right, good. There’s three.” I called Sylvia, and we got together, set a date for coffee, and decided how we would start. We decided to start with Berkeley.
Sasha Khokha: The three Berkeley women who started meeting in the spring of 1961 fit squarely within a well-established Bay Area tradition of women environmental activists. They were white, highly educated, and well-connected in local and state political circles. Kay Kerr, the initial organizer of the group, was a Stanford graduate who was regularly active on the Berkeley campus and in city affairs. Her husband, Clark Kerr, was a Berkeley professor and president of the UC system, a position that put Kay in regular contact with the UC Board of Regents, which included the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the Assembly. Esther Gulick was a Berkeley graduate and wife of Berkeley economics professor, Charles Gulick. She, too, was active in campus and city affairs. Sylvia McLaughlin had graduated from Vassar College and later married Donald McLaughlin, president of a California gold mining company.
These three Berkeley residents bonded over a desire to save the Bay. They read city council plans, consulted with a host of academics on the Berkeley campus, and then called a meeting of the leading environmental organizations in the Bay Area. They were hoping that after they presented their information, the professional conservationists would take charge and spearhead the effort to save the Bay.
Esther Gulick: We had most of the leaders who were very influential in their own organizations.
Catherine Kerr: All of the conservationists that we could think of. The three of us had decided that we were not conservationists and this was a really terrible problem. We were going to tell them about the problem, and then we expected they would carry the ball.
Esther Gulick: We weren’t going to form an organization at all.
Catherine Kerr: We didn’t have any of the expertise. We explained about the Army Corps map. And everything that we could find out was that there were maybe eighty square miles of fill already proposed by various cities around the Bay. And so we said, “This is the problem.” And so, I remember Dave Brower saying. “Well, it’s just exceedingly important, but the Sierra Club is interested in wilderness and in trails.” Then the next guy, Newton Drury, said, “Well, this is very important, but we’re saving the redwoods, and we can’t save the Bay.” And then it went around the room to the point where there was dead silence. So we said, “Well, the Bay is going to go down the drain.” Dave Brower said, “Now there’s only one thing to do: start a new organization, and we’ll give you all our mailing lists.” And they all wished us a great deal of luck when they went out the door. Yes.
Sylvia McLaughlin: They said, “Someone should really do something about this.”
Esther Gulick: It turned out that we were the somebodies.
Sasha Khokha: When the meeting ended, the mission of saving San Francisco Bay stayed in the hands of these three Berkeley women. The new organization they formed that evening in the Berkeley Hills would be known as the Save San Francisco Bay Association. And the environmental groups who felt they couldn’t take on the Bay campaign? They did follow through on the promise to share their mailing lists with Kerr, Gulick, and McLaughlin. Out of the first 700 mailers the three women sent out, they received some 600 pledges of support. Within a month, Save San Francisco Bay had secured a solid membership base. And those members were starting to get vocal in their opposition to Berkeley’s plan to to fill in more than 2,000 acres of Bay shoreline. The expansion would have doubled the size of the university town.
Sylvia McLaughlin: Berkeley had gotten—their plan was at the stage of the planning commission. They were holding hearings, almost the last stage before it got to the city council itself.
Esther Gulick: I think that’s what made the people of Berkeley, when we once got organized and sent letters to about a thousand people in Berkeley to ask them if they were interested in joining Save The Bay and told them some of the things that were going to happen if this went through—like Berkeley being almost twice the size as it now is, with the other half out in the Bay, and there were things like maybe an airport going to be out there, there were going to be storage buildings and that kind of thing—they just couldn’t believe it. You know? They, like us, thought the Bay belonged to us, the Bay belonged to everybody.
Sasha Khokha: Thanks to the new Save San Francisco Bay Association, Berkeley city council meetings were soon inundated with objections to the plan. So were the mailboxes of elected officials.
Sylvia McLaughlin: We felt that numbers were very important. As an example, at the city council meetings we noticed that the people who stood up to represent themselves had no audience. The city council in those days was very polite. But if someone stood up and said they represented an organization of thus-and-so-many members, the city council was more inclined to lean forward and sit on the edge of their chairs and be a bit more responsive. So from those observations, we felt that it was important to get as many members as possible.
Catherine Kerr: I would say that was one of our very first lessons, that if you were going to save the Bay, you had to have the support, and you had to educate the politicians. And the second thing was that you couldn’t educate them or get their support without facts. So we spent a great deal of time on collecting facts and then educating everybody that would listen.
Esther Gulick: Also, the fact that we were getting members was very important. Because they listened to how many members we had and how many letters they got.
Sylvia McLaughlin: Our members were very responsive. We would suggest that they attend critical city council meetings and they would. Sometimes the following city council meeting would be wall to wall with chamber of commerce people. It went back and forth like that.
Sasha Khokha: Ultimately, the will of Bay Area residents trumped the aspirations of developers. In 1963, the Berkeley city council rescinded the plan to fill in the Bay from the city’s waterfront master plan. It was a big victory for city residents. And it would change Berkeley and the larger Bay forever. But with dozens of fill plans still pending on the dockets of other cities, the three Berkeley activists knew something had to be done in Sacramento to really save the Bay across the region. That opportunity came the following year when Kay Kerr was able to secure a meeting with state Senator Eugene McAteer.
A San Francisco native, McAteer was a powerhouse in Bay Area politics. He had served on the San Francisco board of supervisors throughout most of the 1950s before heading to the state senate in 1958. He quickly established himself in the legislature. He was close friends with fellow San Franciscan, Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, and fostered good working relationships with the leadership of both houses. Like most California politicians of that era, McAteer was a builder and supported a range of development and state infrastructure projects, from freeways and universities to dams and other water projects. He also had a calculating eye when it came to climbing the political ladder. And he could tell that the Bay issue was a significant one for the state. He’d seen the legislature stall over the issue before. So, following his meeting with Kay Kerr, he proposed a different tact: a study commission on regulating bay development.
Joseph Bodovitz became one of the planners to lead that study. After an early career as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, Bodovitz worked for many years with the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, also called SPUR. In his oral history, he explained how Eugene McAteer’s involvement in the issue of bay regulation was both novel and key to why the plan succeeded
Joseph Bodovitz: I think what people tend to forget now is how unusual it was to have anybody of McAteer’s stature interested in an environmental issue in the sixties. It would be common now, but part of what was intriguing about it at the time was, here was a person who had not been identified with environmental causes at all, part of the establishment in the state senate, suddenly taking up a brand-new and obviously glamorous, important kind of issue. But, here was a big issue brought by conservationists for a couple of years, and here was the legislature not wanting to legislate. There was no consensus that would have let a bill pass. Yet, here was somebody with the power of McAteer able to say, “Well let’s have a study commission.” And McAteer obviously had enough clout with the governor and with both houses to get a relatively simple thing like that through. But as I say, the kind of political novelty of a McAteer being involved in a “do-gooder”, “posy-plucker” issue just made it a different kind of issue. I don’t know what would be a good example, like Ronald Reagan really being serious about protecting redwoods or something.
Sasha Khokha: The study bill that the legislature passed in 1964 gave McAteer’s team four years to develop a plan and show it could work. Their plan focused on three areas. First, a permit process for all proposed development and land use changes on the Bay. Second, a set of standards and criteria to judge the permit applications. Third, the development of an appointment commission that would hold monthly public hearings and decide on the applications. In the end, McAteer’s study group created what became known as the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, or BCDC.
These were uncharted waters. There was no precedent for this kind of environmental regulation back in 1965. In fact, BCDC was the first regulatory agency of its kind in the nation. For Joe Bodovitz, the chief architect of the Bay commission plan, this meant that the pressure was on and the clock was ticking.
Joseph Bodovitz: And here was the hand we were dealt in 1965: a temporary commission. Which means if you don’t score a touchdown, then the ballgame is over. Right? You don’t go on forever, so you don’t have the luxury of permanence. The goal was, “Let’s do something that will be the basis for successful legislation in 1969, that will both protect the Bay and encourage the kind of shoreline development you want to have. If you’ve shown, over the four years, that people were fairly treated; and that rational, necessary development was encouraged, not discouraged; and that the valuable bay-fill-in parts of the Bay were protected or whatever, you make a case for continuing. And finally, because the people that oppose you are going to be very strong, very well-financed and all, you have to maintain the public support that got the whole thing started. If you lose that, you’ve got nothing. You’ve got a plan and nobody who cares.
Sasha Khokha: While Bodovitz crafted the Bay plan and served as executive director of the commission’s staff, the operation of BCDC rested in the hands of founding chairman, Melvin B. Lane. Lane was the publisher of Sunset magazine. He fit the balanced approach McAteer and others envisioned for the new regulatory agency. He was a Republican and a successful businessman who could speak with authority to developers and real estate interests. At the same time, he was an environmentalist whose magazine had long celebrated the beauty of California and the West, and the importance of preserving natural lands. As Lane recalls in his oral history, he approached regulating bay development with a handful of basic policy concepts.
Melvin B. Lane: One of them was that, you don’t put something in the Bay that can just as well go on land. The next one was, you don’t put something next to the Bay that can just as well go inland. And that covered an awful lot of things. A house doesn’t have to be in the Bay, a yacht harbor does. [laughs] You know? So, if there’s a choice, okay, the things that are water-related get a priority over these others. Things that the general public can enjoy will get preference over things that just a limited group can enjoy. The things that a limited group of people can enjoy will get a preference over the something that only is for a single person, or a single owner. There are a lot of industries that need to be in the Bay, but if you fill it up with houses and warehouses, you don’t leave room for those things that really have to be there.
Sasha Khokha: Lane talked about how BCDC took a perspective very different from the view of a city council or a developer.
Melvin B. Lane: I think looking at the resource, and what we thought it should be one hundred years from now, took priority over what somebody could do to make a short-term profit. One of the big theories I came out of it with is called “salami logic.” It’s very true, in my opinion, that if you look at a slice, you see something very different than if you look at the whole loaf. If somebody owns a piece of shoreline and some mud flats, and they go to the city council and they say, “Now I just want to fill in a little bit out here to help my building, but I’m going to put a little path around here, and there’s a picnic table. And I’ve got this architect that’s going to put ivy on my building, and I’m going to create fifty jobs, and I’m going to pay you twenty thousand a year in taxes, and on and on. And, I’ve only taken .0007 per cent of the bay.” A city council can’t turn that down. But if you looked at all of the privately-owned shallow parts of San Francisco Bay and said, “Now if this happens to even a large part of it, was that a good idea?” We’d say, “No.” If you looked at that one slice, you’d say, “Yes.” So as planners, we should be looking at the total, but a developer looks at only his thing.
Sasha Khokha: Operating a commission that actually rejected permits for multi-million-dollar developments wasn’t easy. Almost immediately, BCDC found itself squaring off against all kinds of Bay Area business interests.
Melvin B. Lane: At the time BCDC was created there were some firms who were fighting it extremely hard, and they’d fought McAteer all the way through on the legislation. One of those certainly was Leslie Salt.
Sasha Khokha: Leslie Salt Company was the largest landowner on the San Francisco Bay, operating 26,000 acres of salt ponds at the southern tip of the Bay. By the time BCDC was created, however, this company was looking to develop large portions of their property as commercial and residential real estate. BCDC rejected the proposal. And that was a decision that impacted Mel Lane both personally and professionally, since he knew the family that owned Leslie Salt.
Melvin B. Lane: Aug Schilling, the president, was a friend of my family and my wife’s family. And they were a customer of my company. No, how do I say that? They bought things from us [laughs]. Or at least we were trying to sell them both advertising in our magazine, and one of the companies they owned was Spice Islands, and we published a book for Spice Islands. They were our biggest single customer in book publishing for a period of years right in the middle of all this fighting. So anyway, I knew them. They had decided a couple of years before BCDC came into being, that they were going to start making money on their real estate, because they were never going to do it in the salt business. So, they were off on these grandiose plans for filling in all the salt ponds, and therefore were scared to death of BCDC, as they should have been. And so, we did fight and scratch with them, and anything we ever had in Sacramento they were right there.
Sasha Khokha: We don’t know if Aug Schilling thought his company’s permit would get preferential treatment because he knew Mel Lane. But he didn’t hide his disdain for the new agency regulating development in the Bay. After the decision, he referred to BCDC as “a bunch of Fabian socialists.”
BCDC also battled corporate giants, including US Steel and Castle & Cooke, better known by its two subsidiaries, C&H Sugar and Dole. The two companies proposed large fill projects on either side of the historic Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco. US Steel wanted to build an office complex in the harbor that would have included a 550-foot skyscraper, a structure more than twice the size of the Ferry Building’s clock tower. Castle & Cooke’s project was even more ambitious. They had an idea for something called Ferry Port Plaza, a 42-acre fill that would house a hotel and an assortment of restaurants and shops. The footprint of the proposed plaza would have been 30% larger than Alcatraz Island. BCDC rejected both projects. And that sparked a bitter fight not just with the companies, but also their allies in City Hall, including Mayor Joseph Alioto.
Melvin B. Lane: Well, they wanted to put some big office buildings out in the Bay. And we did fight them on that, and everybody else took credit for it. But that U.S. Steel and Castle & Cook big building, we were the ones that stopped those. And they would have had those, because they had the city politics of San Francisco under control, and Alioto was right in the middle of it. We had awful fights with Joe Alioto over them.
Sasha Khokha: One of the more audacious proposals BCDC faced in its early years, was called the West Bay Project. It was backed by a real estate consortium that included David Rockefeller, Crocker Land company, and Ideal Cement. They wanted to fill in part of the Eastside of the Peninsula running from San Bruno to the San Mateo Bridge. Mel Lane recalls how the plan sought to remove 250 million cubic yards of dirt from San Bruno Mountain to fill in 27 square miles of the Bay.
Melvin B. Lane: They would cut down the mountain, push it in the Bay, and go right over Bayshore [Freeway] onto barges and take it down and fill in down there. And then, Rockefeller would put up the money and all the professional skills of planning the land and marketing it. Well, it’s like Candlestick Park, pushing land into the Bay. Developers just love that, God, they think that is so wonderful. Anyway, we finally wore them down, but they were tough and very able.
Sasha Khokha: In 1969, the California Legislature made BCDC, or San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, permanent. Sadly, Senator Eugene McAteer did not live to see the final vote. He suffered a fatal heart attack two years earlier. His vision, however—and the bold activism of people like Kay Kerr, Esther Gulick, and Sylvia McLaughlin—became enshrined in a regulatory agency that was the first of its kind in the country.
BCDC becoming an official state agency marked two milestones in the evolution of Bay Area environmentalism. First, it gave environmental considerations a permanent place in state government. Second, the agency aimed to strike a balance between economic development and environmental conservation. Here’s Joe Bodovitz:
Joseph Bodovitz: But see, it worked both ways, because the more development-minded people had to take a look at marshlands, but similarly, the dyed—absolute, if that’s the right term, conservationists, had to understand there was an economy in the Bay Area, and that shipping, after all, did depend on ports, and ports did depend on dredging and deep water access. People sort of had to confront the legitimate interests of both conservation and development. The idea, again, that Mel felt very strongly about is that reasonable, fair-minded people, confronted with facts in a reasonably unemotional way, are going to come out largely agreeing to the same kinds of things. They may disagree on a particular permit or a particular issue, but no fair-minded person can say marshlands aren’t important. Similarly, no fair-minded person can say ports aren’t important to the Bay Area economy.
Sasha Khokha: In fact, in his oral history, Mel Lane talked about exactly this: how what made BCDC historic was its role as government mediator. It created and enforced rules across the Bay; and it occupied a middle ground between activists and developers. Mel Lane said that was core to its mission.
Melvin B. Lane: I have a theory I inherited from Dave Brower actually. And that is, that environmentalists should be extremists. They represent an extreme, and the people who are going to make a buck represent the other one, and the decision-maker should sweat it out in the middle. These battles are ones that you don’t solve them ever, with the coast or bay or air or water or whatever it is, because tomorrow there is another group of citizens and voters and government leaders, so those battles just go on forever.
Sasha Khokha: What began with the activism of three women in Berkeley, and a brave proposal from a state senator, flourished into an environmental agency whose impact would be felt for decades to come. The work of BCDC certainly saved San Francisco Bay. It also helped bolster a rising tide of conservation that, in time, led to the creation of similar state regulatory agencies, like the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the Delta Stewardship Council, and the equally historic California Coastal Commission, which both Joe Bodovitz and Mel Lane would also help steer in its formative years.
Yet, as the 20th century continued, the Bay Area once again found itself at a crossroads. Yes, environmental concerns now had a permanent place in government, but not everyone received equal treatment. Our next episode of Voices for the Environment explores how the disproportionate impact of pollution on communities of color led to calls for environmental justice.
You’ve been listening to “Tides of Conservation,” the second episode in the podcast for Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism. It’s an exhibition in The Bancroft Gallery at UC Berkeley that runs from October 2023 through November 2024. This segment featured historic interviews from the Oral History Center archives in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Interviews include Esther Gulick, Catherine “Kay’ Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, Joseph Bodovitz and Melvin B. Lane. To learn more about these interviews and the Oral History Center, visit the website listed in the show notes. This podcast was produced by Todd Holmes and Roger Eardley-Pryor, with help from me, Sasha Khokha. Thanks to KQED Public Radio and The California Report Magazine. I’m your host, Sasha Khokha. Thanks for listening!
End of Podcast Episode 2: “Tides of Conservation.”
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