Sylvia McLaughlin
A Remembrance


Sylvia McLaughlin was godmother of the modern environmental movement in the United States. In that way I introduced her to audiences many times, including the time the Bay Planning Coalition presented her the Frank Boerger Award, to her everlasting delight.

But Sylvia would ever correct me by saying it was Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick who midwifed that movement beginning in 1960, a full 10 years before the first Earth Day, with only a bit of help from her. Sylvia was, in fact, the fiercest of those three tigresses but regardless, the three did usher in the movement when they founded the Save San Francisco Bay Association, which became remarkable for several reasons.

For one, Save the Bay resurrected the notion that a “conservation” organization could be activist, a notion that had been moribund since John Muir lost his fight to prevent the damming of Hetch-Hetchy Valley. For another, it focused not on preserving wilderness, as such groups traditionally had, but on preserving and enhancing an urban environment. Third, it built a vast membership on the ingenious idea to charge but a dollar a year for membership.

Five years after its founding Save the Bay prevailed on State Senators Gene McAteer of San Francisco and Nick Petris of Richmond to push passage of the law that created the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. BCDC was the first regional land-use regulatory agency in the country. It was an experiment in urban government, an experiment in constitutional law. It was an extraordinary achievement for Sylvia, and Kay and Esther.

Recall that this was a time when the Bay was being filled at the rate of hundreds and sometimes thousands of acres per year. The Corps of Engineers had published a plan in 1959 proposing that by 2020, the Bay be almost entirely filled, leaving only narrow navigational locks that would also be used to impound fresh water.

...At a certain surprise 50th birthday celebration, standing between another comely woman and Will Travis.

… At a certain surprise 50th birthday celebration, standing between another comely woman and Will Travis.

From the first, Sylvia and her co-founders of Save the Bay had sought a galvanizing event, one that would startle the complacent Bay Area populace and enable the three women to bring their dream to save the Bay to the Legislature. That moment occurred in 1965 when a consortium composed of The Crocker Land Company, Ideal Basic Industries, David Rockefeller and Lazard Freres unveiled a plan before the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors to fill 10,000 acres of San Francisco Bay, along 27 miles of shoreline, from the San Francisco Airport to the Santa Clara County boundary. The fill material would be dirt scraped from the upper slopes of Mount San Bruno. The State had issued an encroachment permit for a conveyor that would straddle Highway 101 and deliver the dirt to awaiting barges at Sierra Point. The would-be developers were astonished when their plan was unenthusiastically received. Sylvia and her colleagues, on the other hand, had got their moment, and BCDC came into existence.

The fight over whether the 10,000 acres of the Bay would be filled, however, lasted 12 years. Throughout it the spokesperson for the consortium, Westbay Community Associates, was Robert Cranmer of Denver, Colorado, a gentleman of the sort so sadly missing in public life today.

During these many public meetings and numerous court hearings on that contentious project, Mr. Cranmer was ever the face of Westbay, as Sylvia was the face of Save the Bay. In the end, Westbay’s proposal was defeated.

... At the same party, with the great Berkeley law professor Stefan Riesenfeld.

… At the same party, with the great Berkeley law professor Stefan Riesenfeld.

Throughout those 12 years, before every public meeting, before every court hearing, Mr. Cranmer and Sylvia would embrace, chat with each other warmly, and then retire to their respective corners until the conclusion of the matter, when they would embrace again, and talk.

Sylvia had been born Sylvia Cranmer. She and Bob Cranmer were first cousins, and very close.

Sylvia’s husband was a hard-rock miner–William Randolph Hearst’s chief miner in fact. Donald McLaughlin was Chairman and CEO of Homestake Mining Company. (He was also a Regent of the University of California, and a professor of mining and geology there.)

Such is our history. Sophocles would not have wit to write it.

Sylvia was a founder too of Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP). The remarkable five-city shoreline park that now exists on the Alameda and Contra Costa shoreline is named, of course, for her. CESP celebrated its 30th anniversary last November 7, and my firm was privileged to host her and her family at a table at that event.

Sylvia turned 99 last month, on Christmas Eve. She was ever present at events in my life, and I in turn at events in hers. She danced with me on her 90th birthday, but she won’t on her 100th.

Then again, she’s done the impossible before.

–John Briscoe