Marin County's Green Pioneers

In the mid 1930s four Marin women in lives of comfortable circumstance, who did not have to take on the task of saving Marin’s natural resources, did so. Sepha Evers, Caroline Livermore, Portia Forbes and Helen Van Pelt, environmentalists before the term was coined, shook the powers that be to start a movement that eventually saved many of Marin’s open space treasures – and founded an organization that still carries on their activist tradition.

The four women, members of the Marin Garden Club, became alarmed that completion of the Golden Gate Bridge would make Marin an easy car commute from San Francisco and bring an influx that would jeopardize the county’s open hills and valleys.

Calling themselves The Citizens Survey Committee, they raised $2,500 to pay for a planning study that produced Marin County’s first set of planning maps and a report to guide the county’s future growth. Many of the report’s recommendations had to do with the preservation of open space “before it was too late.”

The Marin Independent Journal wrote in editorial alarm in January 1934: “Our picnic spots are nearly gone. ‘No Trespassing’ signs are posted all over. We must act if we believe in building for the future. Papermill Creek, inviting bay beaches, from Tiburon to Santa Venetia, must be saved. No community on earth is more favored than Marin with the wealth and beauty of potential playgrounds. If we don’t acquire some of these lands, the opportunity will surely slip away from us.”

MCL’s first conservation battle was Mount Tamalpais State Park. Together with groups such as the Tamalpais Conservation Club, MCL worked to expand the park from its beginning nucleus of 200 acres in Steep Ravine. From Mount Tam MCL turned westward, envisioning a major park effort that would preserve the County’s western shore. MCL efforts created Tomales Bay State Park and assisted in the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore. MCL also fought to save the Marin headlands and Richardson Bay and helped to purchase a number of other park and natural resource areas in both east and west Marin.

One of the most dramatic chapters in MCL history was the battle to stop 879 acres of Richardson Bay from being filled - by bulldozing the Tiburon hills and depositing the fill into the bay - and turned into a town for 10,000 people. The regulatory agencies that would have halted such a tideland development did not exist in 1949 when this proposal came forth. MCL leaders worked their political and fundraising magic to bring together a coalition of local forces to defeat the development and effect purchase of the property. It took a decade but in 1958 clear title on lands from Belvedere to Strawberry Point established the sanctuary that is now known as the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary.

m7_lyford_dparkerRichardson Bay Audubon Center

Another of MCL’s most publicized achievements was thwarting plans for commercialization of Angel Island when it was declared surplus by the federal government and negotiating to have it added to the state park system instead. The island is the site of military installations and immigration encampments dating back to 1775 and home to abundant and diverse animal and bird life. When the government decided to abandon it after World War 2, MCL jumped in to underwrite interim fire and police services rather than let it go on the auction block for private development, and then led the charge to fold it into the state park system. When Angel Island became a park in 1954 MCL worked for another 14 years to ensure that its master plan precluded commercial enterprises and protected its wildlife and habitat areas.

“We really saved that from becoming a cheap Coney Island, which a Nevada firm hoped to develop,” MCL leader Caroline Livermore said later about the campaign to preserve Angel Island.

In the early 1960s MCL worked with the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Canyon Ranch to defeat plans the Bolinas Harbor District had to build a resort hotel and yacht harbor complex in Bolinas Lagoon. It was a scheme that seems bizarre today: dredging mud from the upper section of the lagoon and placing it on Kent Island to increase the size and height of the island to make it possible to build a hotel, parking lots, an office, a helicopter pad, docks and other facilities. MCL worked for a year and a half to assemble funds to buy the island and arrange to have it given to the County. The island passed into the public domain by a vote of the Board of Supervisors which took place only hours before the Harbor District was going to file a condemnation suit to block the County’s action.

MCL worked in 1972 for the passage of a measure to create the Marin County Regional Open Space District. In the late 1970s MCL campaigned vigorously to protect sensitive areas of California’s coast from offshore oil drilling.

The early 1970s were also the time of Marin’s battles with logging. Events leading to Marin’s ordinance regulating logging began in November 1968 when MCL learned that an Oregon logging firm had purchased timber rights to a ranch on Bolinas Ridge. MCL leaders went to battle, the logging firm wound up in court and eventually was restrained from lumbering due to environmental and public health issues. In 1971 Marin enacted a ordinance regulating logging, which, however, became moot in 1982 when regulation of timber harvesting was turned over to the California Department of Forestry.

The League’s Water Committee’s efforts contributed directly to defeat of a peripheral canal in 1982 – a massive political effort to divert Northern California water to the Southland and a threat that continues to periodically raise its head. MCL President Ted Wellman served as Chair of the Marin County Unit of the California Coalition against the Peripheral Canal and was a major force in halting the water diversion plan at the ballot box.

Increasingly, MCL found that it was important to help develop public policy relative to environmental issues and work toward implementing that policy. This involves constant research, careful evaluation and preparation of position statements.

Today MCL takes stands on government proposals, development projects and ballot propositions. Its citizen watchdog committees are monitoring dozens of projects at any one time and their members constantly appear before governmental bodies to encourage decisions that protected the environment.

Each year, MCL honors local environmental activists at the Annual Dinner with the Marin Conservation League Environmental Awards. Past winners have included Peter Behr and Elizabeth Terwilliger.


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MCL's Legacy: An Interactive View of Our Successes