Imagine the Bay Area without the San Francisco Bay. The Santa Cruz Mountains are crisscrossed by freeways bringing hundreds of thousands of commuters who are living cheek by jowl along the coasts of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties to the flatlands to work each day.
This hypothetical scenario nearly became a reality. In the 1950s and 1960s, post-World War II planners, developers and land speculators had designs at one point to create a sprawling Los Angeles-type metropolis: at one point even planning to decapitate San Bruno Mountain to use for landfill to build near the San Francisco Bay.
But residents with the foresight to understand the devastation of unbridled growth and exploitation fought back. Sixty years ago, 27 residents, including from Palo Alto, formed the Committee for Green Foothills (now Green Foothills) to advocate for the protection of the mountains and bay that all residents enjoy today.
Three other environmental organizations that expanded those early efforts to protect local habitats, both wild and urban, also have milestone anniversaries in 2022: the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and Environmental Volunteers both celebrated 50 years and Canopy celebrated 26 years.
Now each is taking on a new threat: climate change, working to evolve along with the threats that could damage the environments they worked so hard to save.
Each has filled a different niche in protecting the Peninsula's natural environment, from advocacy to land held in trust, the regreening of the urban forest and environmental education. On Dec. 4, representatives of all four organizations spoke during a Palo Alto Historical Association Vignettes program titled "A Climate of Unrest Gave Rise to the Environmental Movement." The event was moderated by Karen Holman, a former Palo Alto mayor and current Midpen board member.
The period in history when three of these organizations were formed was marked by a new awareness of environmental issues. In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans were engaged in fervent activism sparked by the lingering Vietnam War, civil rights issues for Black Americans and women and other upheaval. A new "back to nature" ethic took hold as a generation sought to connect with its natural roots.
Marine biologist Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking book, "Silent Spring" in 1962, about pollution's ecological damage, which arguably sparked the modern environmental movement. The first march for the environment took place nationwide on Earth Day in April 1969, and former President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Act and signed the Clean Air Act, both in 1970, and signed the Clean Water Act in 1972 in response to growing environmental concerns. All were part of the awakening that also roused Bay Area residents to take action to save their own piece of paradise for future generations.
Read on for profiles of each organization and how they will adapt to address climate change:
Green Foothills: Generations of advocacy
A group of concerned Palo Alto and Los Altos activists organized after the city of Palo Alto and Stanford University partnered to develop a research and development park in the early 1950s. The residents lost the battle and the city approved building Stanford Industrial Park (now Stanford Research Park) in 1951. The residents pushed on, however, to keep the foothills from being marred by commercial development.
Alice Kaufman, Green Foothills' policy and advocacy director, said the organization's greatest achievements included its work on the statewide Proposition 20, which voters passed to form the California Coastal Commission.
One of the impacts of climate change that affects Green Foothills' work in particular is related to linking wildlife corridors. The organization has been working for decades to protect wildlife habitat and especially the corridors and linkage areas that allow animals to migrate to new habitat areas in order to find food and mates, Kaufman said in a follow-up email.
Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District: Preserving land in perpetuity
The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has acquired more than 65,000 acres of land ranging from marshlands to mountains and forests to grasslands, protecting multiple flora and fauna habitats that anyone can visit for hiking, biking and other outdoor activities.
"They are there for people's mental, physical and social welfare and for the slew of ecological benefits" such as protection of endangered and protected species, said Ana Ruiz, Midpen's general manager.
Midpen has adopted multiple programs to help make its lands more resilient to the effects of climate change, including adopting a Climate Action Plan in 2018, with goals to reduce administrative greenhouse gas emissions 20% below the 2016 baseline by 2022, 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.
Canopy: Growing the urban forest
Canopy has planted thousands of trees in the urban forest. The verdant canopy has expanded from Palo Alto to include East Palo Alto, Belle Haven, Menlo Park and North Fair Oaks and Mountain View. In recent years, Canopy has emphasized regreening underserved communities as well as continuing its work in Palo Alto.
"More than 6,000 trees have been planted in the urban environment. Twenty-five percent of all street trees in East Palo Alto have been planted by Canopy and volunteers. That's moving the needle," Executive Director Catherine Martineau said.
Urban trees are one of the most powerful nature-based climate solutions, Martineau said. The tricky part lies in the Bay Area's needs to address the housing crisis. While people need housing, housing needs space; people need trees and trees must compete for the same space.
Environmental Volunteers: Creating future advocates
Land and tree preservation are vulnerable despite current efforts if people don't see the value. That's why a group of local women formed Environmental Volunteers in 1972. The nonprofit has brought nature to more than 565,000 children since its inception, instilling sensory experiences of nature that stick for a lifetime, board member Elliott Wright said.
Environmental Volunteers brings nature education to classrooms; offers small-group hikes and field trips; and takes children out to a variety of natural habitats from chaparral to forests to the ocean to explore and experience pockets of nature where they might not regularly have access.
Wright said Environmental Volunteers has a new weather and climate program. The programs are scalable so that students can receive a high-quality education. There's plenty of room for everyone to bring their skills to the volunteer program, he said.
Diversity is the future
As the climate continues to change the environment and ecosystems, children and residents living in economically challenged communities, particularly edging San Francisco Bay, will be the most vulnerable to flooding, pollution and other disasters. Environmental Volunteers is reaching out to diversify not only who it serves, but also who volunteers, knowing that people of all ages in these communities must have an active stake in how they can shape and help their environment, Wright said.
Diversification, inclusion and equity are issues that all of these groups said are among the most challenging they will face as climate and communities change.
"Access to open space is a matter of health. Having access to nature is a matter of life and death," said Martineau, Canopy's executive director.
Building and gentrification are realities that aren't going away, said Kaufman of Green Foothills. "It's not OK to simply gentry in our cities. People have to have access to nature near their homes. When we started, we tried to prevent all of the hillsides from being swallowed in development. Our work still also has to be about bringing nature into our spaces, and it is going to be a challenge to do that as we continue to build up cities," she said.
Ruiz of Midpen Open Space recalled a saying she heard from an Amah Mutsun leader, a member of a local Indigenous tribe that often collaborates with the organization: "Whatever you do today is going to affect people seven generations out," he told her.
That expression resonated with Ruiz.
"Every decision you make today will have ramifications that will affect people further out than you ever imagined. To go for the quick win at that moment or that year, you have to think about the environmental implications going forward. Otherwise, people seven generations out are going to have to bear that burden," she said.
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