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Who Greened Your County

January 28, 2008
Marie Narlock

“Green is one of the primary colors in the flag of the Left Coast, where politics and culture have long been out of step with the rest of America.” Richard Walker

Picture it: four-lanes of freeway streaking past Stinson Beach condos, illuminated billboards sprouting like pampas grass. Thirty thousand residents flanking the Marin Headlands in the suburban town of Marincello. Gated estates dangling off the haunches of Mt. Tam. Lagunitas and Nicasio creeks damned to make water available to thirsty tract homes. Instead of GGNRA standing for Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it stands for Goodness Gracious, No Room Anywhere!
But those of us lucky enough to call Marin County home can breathe a sigh of relief: thanks to the tenacity and intelligence of a few key leaders and many passionate followers, these scenarios have been sacked. Instead, we are privileged to live in a county which is practically synonymous with environmental activism and which boasts more than half of its land off limits to developers.
The greening of Marin—and the entire Bay Area—was no accident. Every acre of protected land tells a story as rich and fertile as the soil it belies. These stories, and the unfolding green carpet that Bay Area residents proudly trod, are captured in UC Berkeley professor Richard Walker’s newest book, Country In The City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. More than just a chronicle of events, this book tells of the Bay Area’s multi-generational intertwining of politics, personalities, activism, and environmentalism.
The story starts at the end of the mining era, during which a half-century of environmental disgrace left hideous scars on California. According to Walker, “entire forests were leveled, whole mountains picked up and dumped in the valleys, rivers moved from their courses, and wildlife annihilated.” (Makes today’s infractions seem pretty tame!) Walker takes the reader on a ride that starts with the formation of the Sierra Club and ends with today’s environmental justice movement, which is rooted in activism over toxic hazards that potentially endanger the health of working-class communities.
A Legacy of Ladies
Truth be told, the list of Marin’s conservationists reads more like Who’s Who than Who’s Green. Kent, Muir, Burton, to name a few. But there’s a twist. Although plenty of moneyed men used their green wallets to help green their burgeoning communities, it was often the women who organized movements and took action. While some of the early conservationist men waxed poetic about “spiritual reunification between a transcendental nature and the interior self,” it was the women who brought discussions, quite literally, down to earth. “Is my family safe?” “Where can my children play?” “Is the pollution created by nearby factories hurting my family?”
Take Caroline Livermore, a mother of five who founded the Marin Conservation League in 1934 and established the Marin Art and Garden League in the1940s. Caroline and her female eco-comrades—Sepha Evers, Helen van Pelt, and Portia Forbes, among others—were a powerful force. Although they were often best known by their husbands’ familiar names, they were effective political operators themselves.
Getting down to Green Business
At the league’s urging, the Marin Board of Supervisors adopted the first county zoning ordinance in the state in 1937 and also produced a recreation plan. This served as an example for planning all around the Bay Area after WWII. The league ladies secured the first parks in Marin: Drake’s Beach in 1938, Stinson Beach in 1939, and Shell Beach in 1943. They convinced the state to purchase Samuel P. Taylor State Park in 1940 and Tomales Bay State Park in 1948. Member Verna Dunshee worked doggedly to expand Tamalpais State Park.
Livermore, who was League president from 1941 to 1961, joined forces with other environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and Nature Conservancy. In 1958 she helped save Angel Island from being flattened to accommodate a bridge from Telegraph Hill to Tiburon. Just four years prior she was instrumental in halting the filling of Richardson Bay for a New Town development which was to be called Reeds Port. She succeeded in squelching these endeavors by forming foundations and clubs that provided political and financial support. She formed the Angel Island Foundation to buy the island for a state park and the Richardson Bay Foundation to buy tidelands away from the Utah Construction Company. Is it any wonder that Angel Island’s highest peak is named Mount Caroline Livermore?
Other battles ensued. In 1961 the Point Reyes National Seashore Foundation was formed (with Caroline Livermore as honorary chair), ultimately ending victoriously in 1970. Bolinas Lagoon and Tomales Bay followed as the Marin Audubon Society targeted these unique ecosystems for protection and bought up Audubon Canyon Ranch and other ranches along the coast and donated this acreage for parklands. Once again, the list of financial backers were made up of powerful women, including Alice Kent, Gwin Follis, Grace Wellman, and the grand dame of conservation herself, Caroline Livermore. By 1970 the group had once again used its clout to buy up strategic coastal properties and ultimately defeat encroaching developers.
The Legacy Continues
Marin’s environmental pinnacle was the1973 general plan which is still in effect today and which cut the growth rate from 113 percent in the 1940s to around 4 percent four decades later. According to Walker, “it is a brilliantly simple plan that won widespread favor.” It divides the county into three sections: urban development in the east, recreational open space in the west, and agriculture in the center and north.
The GGNRA followed in what Walker refers to as “the most outrageous move in the history of the Bay Area greenbelt.” Led by Edgar Wayburn and Amy Meyer, these visionaries formed People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1971. With the help of tireless Democratic powerhouse Phillip Burton, the GGNRA became one of the greatest conservation achievements in American history. Although it took over a decade to work out all of the details, the GGNRA and its associated Conservancy is now used as a model for other US parks.
As residents—and gardeners—of Marin, we are called to continue this legacy of activism. But that doesn’t always mean buying up tracts of land or picketing polluters. It can also mean helping to eradicate invasive plants that crowd out our native species, paying attention to our watershed, and learning how to make our gardens sustainable.
The next time you’re hiking the headlands or bird watching in Bolinas, give a nod of thanks to Phillip Burton and the enviro-mavens who championed the green cause. And while you’re at it, don’t forget the writer who captured it all in a thorough, well-crafted book.

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