On Deadline: A big transition coming in the long urgency of local environmental activism | April 12, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 12, 2013

On Deadline: A big transition coming in the long urgency of local environmental activism

by Jay Thorwaldson

The impending retirement of Michael Closson after a decade leading the Palo Alto-based environmental organization Acterra marks the beginning of a search for a replacement.

As executive director of Acterra — created from a merger of the once-staid Peninsula Conservation Center with the youthful Bay Area Action group (once known for street-theater protests in front of the federal building in San Francisco) — Closson has been a steady hand for the sometimes fractious environmental movement.

His low-profile emphasis has been on creating positive new programs in outreach and education coupled with a nuts-and-bolts approach to working with staff, other "green" groups and financial supporters (as the Weekly's cover story last Friday detailed).

Closson plans to stay active on behalf of the environment but to spend fewer hours doing so and to "play more." Now in his early 70s, he is part of the rich legacy of those — many from Palo Alto — who care enough about their communities, their region, their state, their nation, their world to invest personal time trying to improve environmental well-being.

It's not an easy job, as scores of individuals before Closson have discovered over the past half century, in the environmental hotbed of Palo Alto and beyond.

Closson has personified the almost shopworn mantra, "Think globally, act locally." Yet rather than confrontation, he has focused on reaching out to raise awareness, especially to educate and energize the next generation, those young students who will someday inherit our world and communities around the world.

Some of those veterans have achieved remarkable success in their efforts. Others have suffered bitter defeats, burnout and bitterness. Many have experienced both.

Much has been written about the accomplishments of national activists such as landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the mid-1880s, John Muir at the turn of the last century, David Brower and other Sierra Club leaders over decades.

But far fewer people today know of the efforts of Catherine Kerr (wife of University of California President Clark Kerr) and friends, many based in Berkeley, to save San Francisco Bay from death-by-landfill in the early 1960s. Their Save San Francisco Bay Association stimulated creation of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and later the Coastal Commission. The group ultimately battled a massive giveaway of salt-pond ownership under the 1967-75 administration of then-Governor Ronald Reagan, but lost a costly court battle — leaving behind deeply discouraged (and some completely burned-out) environmentalists.

Palo Alto was not far behind, and often ahead, on the environmental front. Shocked by a proposal to run a giant power line through Palo Alto's foothills up to Skyline Ridge, the late Lois Hogle and Ruth Spangenberg — then self-described "PTA moms" — in 1962 formed the Committee for Green Foothills. Hogle's three children and Spangenberg's six cut their teeth on door-to-door canvassing for support against the PG&E powerline, with the support of later Congressman Pete McCloskey and others. Their battle later spread to preventing extensive development of the hills.

It was in the 1960s that the growth-versus-slow-growth (or no-growth) issues came to a head. The 1963 battle over the narrowly approved Oregon Expressway (replacing a jammed two-lane Oregon Avenue) split Palo Alto. It was soon followed by Enid Pearson's proposed Parks Dedication Ordinance 1965, which received strong voter support and catapulted Pearson onto the 13-member City Council, along with later state Assemblyman and Senator Byron Sher.

A bitter 1967 all-council election decimated the six-member "residentialist" or slow-growth side. But in the early 1970s, that philosophy — and Sher himself — made a political comeback on the council that began Sher's rise to state office. By the mid-1970s, the local "two-party system" faded in Palo Alto and a peace agreement was negotiated by current Councilman Larry Klein, representing residentialists, and Mike Cobb, representing "the establishment" side. The slower-growth advocates had made their point, although the community continued to grow — then as now.

Attention shifted to regional and national/international issues in 1970, when two matters of importance occurred: The first "Earth Day" was declared at Stanford University, with card tables set up in White Plaza and Time Magazine made it a cover story; and the generally conservative Palo Alto Times in February ran an editorial strongly urging environmentalists to shift from attempting to control growth by zoning and shift to the model of the East Bay Regional Park District.

The East Bay district was created circa 1933, in the depth of the Great Depression, to collect a modest tax and buy land for open space. The Palo Alto Times' editorial support prompted housewife Nonette Hanko to convene a meeting at her home to which Councilman Klein, the late Councilman and Mayor Stan Norton and others were invited.

Voters in Santa Clara County approved the district in 1972, and followed several years later with a petition-drive annexation of southern San Mateo County, bypassing the bitterly opposed Board of Supervisors. The district now has more than 62,000 permanently dedicated acres of open space.

There are many more early environmentalists who made real differences. The late Lucy Evans, a diminutive former history teacher, and her friend Harriet Mundy, tall and broad-shouldered, were an impressive duo in defense of threats to their beloved baylands in the Midpeninsula, a role later assumed by former councilmembers Enid Pearson and Emily Renzel. Long-ago Planning Commission member Mary Gordon proposed creation of a Bay Trail ringing the bay a half century ago — a vision now nearly complete.

Many are still involved, concerned about climate change's potentially catastrophic impacts and, locally, what can be done.

Closson's successor will have many shoes — or footprints — to fill.

Here's an invitation: Those who have been left out of the above or who know someone whom they feel deserves recognition may add anecdotes under the story on the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes blogs posted on the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Drekmeier
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2013 at 5:41 am

Many thanks to Jay Thorwaldson for sharing his historical knowledge of the local environmental movement. It should be noted that Jay played a key role in saving Bair Island in the Redwood City baylands.

I'd like to add that the recent opening of the Devil's Slide Tunnels was a huge environmental victory, putting an end to the 50-year debate over how to address the recurring closures of Highway 1 on the San Mateo Coast. Environmentalists, such as Ollie Mayer from Woodside and Lennie Roberts from Portola Valley, fought for decades to stop a freeway bypass over Montara Mountain that would have opened the coast to massive development. At one time, a four-lane freeway was planned along the coast from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo.

People can view a video about the Devil's Slide Tunnel victory at Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

While I laud this names mentioned above, this concept of environmentalism is antiquated and narrow.

This narrow view is a form of environmental illiteracy. Inadvertently one might celebrate preserving a local habitat, while at the same time one's consumption decimates an unseen habitat perhaps larger than the local habitat one fought to protect. The goal posts for environmentalism have changed, and become more complex to cross.

I would augment the editorial's history to track those who have worked to manage the urban impact - eliminating toxics, reducing energy use, water use, and waste. I laud those who found that environmentalism is not measured by what does not go down the drain or in the trash can, but what is avoided by considerate purchases. I can't celebrate protecting a marsh when we fill a canyon 60 miles away with the same trash.

Let's add to our local environmental history individuals like Gil Masters and Jim Leckie (Stanford Profs) that showed the way for early models of solar energy and conservation. Add other representative pioneers like Connie Smyser (then) and Phil Bobel (now) that take on the impact our city's environmental impact. Let's remember John Jevons through Common Ground teaching urban agriculture. And of course lets add those like Walt Hayes who have had the skill of tying this altogether. This environmentalism began symbolically at Earth Day, and carries forward as a compliment to the "preservationist" style of environmentalism.

I know that Michael saw both sides of these "environments" and sought to build the synergies between the two. I would have hoped the editorial to alude to this other facet of environmentalism.