Time to Save the Coast--Again

Becky O'Malley
Friday January 29, 2016 - 03:50:00 PM

The recent death of Berkeley’s beloved Sylvia McLaughlin, one of the three women who are honored for saving our equally beloved San Francisco Bay from being filled in by Berkeley speculators and their cronies, prompted me to think about what it might mean to aspire to a life well-spent. Sylvia lived more than two decades past my current age, well after she saved the Bay, and she made good use of her extra time in a variety of ways.

Of course, in a real sense the Bay will never be saved. Or rather, Saving the Bay is a continuous struggle, and will never be a fait accompli, because “the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”—that is to say, speculators will always be after our public treasures.

There are several good organizations currently engaged in watching over the Bay itself, so I won’t spend much time on that here. Instead, let’s take a look at trouble now threatening an organization often credited with having been inspired by Save the Bay, the California Coastal Commission. 

That’s one I know pretty well, because I was assigned to cover its early meetings, around 1976 or so, by (I think) the San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper. I reported on the ultimately futile attempt to prevent a nuclear power plant sited at lovely San Onofre in Southern California from being expanded. Recently, I’ve had the bittersweet experience of being able to say “I told you so” when that plant started to fall apart. 

I also watched horrified from the sidelines in 1996 as development interests who had been greedily attempting to get Commission approval for building projects on sensitive coastal lands tried to get the fierce 25-year executive director, Peter Douglas, fired. An upswell of public protest from environmental groups stopped that one, but now they’re at it again. 

Douglas died in 2012, but before his death he groomed a successor, Charles Lester, who by all accounts has been just about as tough, if not as feisty, in protecting the California coast from those who hope to devour it for profit. 

And as a reward for his effort, some of the commissioners, who are appointed by diverse political officeholders, are after his job. The most aggressive of them are the four appointed by Governor Jerry Brown—yes, that Jerry Brown, the same one who supports fracking, digging evil water tunnels through the Delta, and Jerrymandering the route of a proposed high-speed train to pay off political friends. Why am I not surprised? 

Lester has refused to go gracefully. He’s insisted on confronting his foes in public at the next Coastal Commission meeting, on February 10 in Morro Bay. After a hearing in public session, the commission can go into closed session and fire him with 7 out of 12 votes, or 6 out of 11 if someone’s absent. 

A long list of environmental organizations have now signed an open letter supporting Lester to the powers that be who appoint the commissioners, including Jerry Brown and Resources Secretary John Laird, a former Santa Cruz Assemblymember. You can read it here

What can you do about it? Why should you do anything? 

Well, those of us who are the heirs of this beautiful state left to us by Sylvia McLaughlin’s generation now must assume the responsibility of protecting our inheritance. She and her colleagues were part of a generation of intelligent well-educated public spirited women who had the time and the personal security to look after the public good, but that time’s passed. 

(A similar woman was my St. Louis cousin Ann Carter Stith, who was just a few years behind Sylvia at Vassar. Her 2005 obituary noted that “She was a fearless advocate for education, for prison reform, for clean government. She was appointed to local task forces, to community agency boards, even to federal commissions.” And also, in her copious free time, she raised five children distinguished in their own right, among them a daughter who became Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and two law professors.) 

But these days when we’re in our prime adult years we often feel too busy with mundane paying jobs to take up crusades like these, though a few brave souls manage to do it anyway. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to work for the public good after retirement. 

In this situation, if we can spare just a few minutes a day, we can try our darndest to call public attention to the attempted “Coup at the Coastal Commission.” Writing’s always useful: letters to the public officials who appoint the commissioners, to the commission itself, to “the editor”, op-eds…. lots of choices. 

We can support the long list of environmental organizations that have come out in this letter for Charles Lester, and let them know that we appreciate it. And it might even be possible to send a delegation to the California Coastal Commission meeting on February 10. Thanks to at least 40 years of effort on the part of advocates for conservation, Morro Bay is still quite a nice place to visit—enoy it while you still can. 


There’s been some coverage of this impending debacle, though not enough, in a variety of publications throughout the state. Here are links to some informative pieces which can fill you in on the background: