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Mothers’ nature: Meet the women who fought to keep the Bay Area wild

Sylvia McLaughlin, Esther Guilck and Kay Kerr founded Save the Bay. | Courtesy Save the Bay

Imagine the Bay reduced to a trickle of water, Glen Canyon filled with ribbons of concrete highway, Mt. Davidson covered with private homes and closed to the public.  

It can be easy to take the awe-inducing natural beauty of the Bay Area for granted, presuming it will always be there: the sparkly waters of the Golden Gate, the views from jagged rock faces, the dramatic sweep of hilltop vistas. 

Locals hike, bike and run in the Marin Headlands overlooking San Francisco on land that was preserved by the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. | Getty Images | Source: Getty Images

Yet there’s an alternate reality—one akin to a dystopian science-fiction film—that could have easily become our Bay Area environmental reality if not for women conservationists in San Francisco and beyond, who did (and do) so much to ensure we breathe clean air and see clean water. 

From a practical standpoint, women often had more time to devote to preserving the environment and fighting the developers of the last century.

“Volunteerism was a major factor,”  according to Amy Meyer, now called “mother of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area” for her efforts to create the country’s first urban national park in 1972. “Whether it was Save the Bay or SF Tomorrow or our group, the organizations that came into being in the late 1960s and 1970s were all led by women—and just about all of them were volunteers.”

READ MORE: How a San Francisco Housewife Gave Birth to a National Park

To other observers, there appears to be an intrinsic, deep-seated call for women to advocate for the environment.

Ildiko Polony, executive director of Sutro Stewards, an organization that works to protect Mount Sutro, noted the outsized role women tend to play not only in land stewardship and conservation but also in the climate change movement. 

“Women tend to be mothers and are closer to the nurturing qualities that we need to also nurture the land,” Polony said. “There’s an intrinsic sense of what hurts the land, hurts us, hurts our children.” 

The names of these women are too numerous to include in one article—from Alice Eastwood who saved the California Academy of Sciences specimen collection in a heroic rescue during the 1906 Earthquake and Fire to Carrie Stevens Walter of San Jose, co-founder of the Sempervirens Club that protected Big Basin redwoods. There’s Jean Kortum and Sue Bierman who fought the “freeway revolt,” Caroline Sealy Livermore who founded the Marin Conservation League and botanist Mary Bowerman who saved Mount Diablo.  

Here are six leading environmental movements in the Bay Area and their “mothers.”

Save the Bay 

Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick 

Polony grew up in Oakland and spent her childhood swimming in Alameda Bay. But she never knew about the extensive dumping that happened in her backyard until she returned to school to study habitat restoration. In one of her classes, she had the opportunity to meet Sylvia McLaughlin, the last surviving founder of Save the Bay, which she co-founded in 1961 by Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick. 

Sylvia McLaughlin, Esther Guilck and Kay Kerr founded Save the Bay. | Courtesy Save the Bay

“There were many of us in the class that were literally crying, feeling so moved that she had discovered this Army Corps of Engineers report back in the ’60s that said by the year 2000, the width of the Bay would be just a trickle if dumping and filling continued at the rate that it was.”

Since the three founders happened to be the wives of deans and chancellors at the University of California Berkeley, Polony noted, the women had access to power and influence, which they used to organize a grassroots campaign that not only stopped dumping and filling in the Bay but also helped to establish the Coastal Commission that saved California coastlines up and down the state. 

The group also prevented San Bruno Mountain from being leveled—the plan was to use the chopped-off mountaintop to fill in the San Mateo County shoreline—and initiated bans on plastic bags.  

It was an inspiration to Polony to embark on similar work for the benefit of future generations. “It was like, ‘Wow, it’s possible, and I can do this,’” Polony said. “I can make an impact for future generations who may never know me.”

Hunters Point

Marie Harrison 

After Marie Harrison moved to Bayview Hunters Point as a teenager with her family, she ended up working for two years at the Hunters Point shipyard, which was later deemed a toxic dumping site. Harrison eventually developed a lung condition that required her to use oxygen, despite being a nonsmoker, all of which set Harrison upon the path of advocacy.  

Marie Harrison was an environmental, health and social justice advocate in San Francisco. | Courtesy Arieann Harrison

In the early 1990s, Harrison was already alerting others to the dangers of the radioactive site, and she later pointed to the shoddy efforts to clean it up—which at one point resulted in criminal charges for those who falsified cleanup reports. 

Harrison continuously urged for greater oversight and accountability for the radioactive dumping site. She also fought for tenants’ rights, twice ran for District 10 supervisor and served on the board of the nonprofit Greenaction for decades. 

Tireless and undefeatable, Harrison was voicing her concerns about the development of the India Basin and the Hunters Point Shipyard on her very deathbed. As something of a credit to her efforts, SF Recreation and Parks bought India Basin in 2014, completed a cleanup of the site and is building a massive new public park that will open in 2024. 

Marin Agricultural Land Trust 

Phyllis Faber and Ellen Straus 

It was another corner of the bay that brought together two environmentally-minded women together. When biologist Phyllis Faber took her high school students on field trips to Ellen Straus’s family ranch on Tomales Bay, she drove past dozens of “For Sale” signs along the way. 

In the 1970s, real estate developers were targeting West Marin County and owners of century-old ranchland were being pressured to sell their family farms. In a bid to save bay wetlands and control development, Faber had also helped sponsor the 1972 statewide initiative that created the Coastal Commission, which gave her some experience navigating the rough waters of environmental politics in California.

Phyllis Faber and Ellen Straus co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. | Courtesy Marin Agricultural Land Trust

Faber and Straus realized that by creating a land trust, the pressure on farmers could be relieved while the natural environment of the area could be preserved, the agricultural community could survive and sustainable food production would continue in the Bay Area. 

The two pooled their connections in the scientific, political and ranching communities to create the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in 1980. To date, the nonprofit has preserved 55,000 acres of farmland in Marin County and its model has been copied countless times across the nation and the world.  

Though Straus passed away in 2002, she is also remembered as the founder of the first organic dairy farm in the West, a business her son took over and is known today as Straus Family Creamery. Faber continued as an accomplished scientific and environmental advocate until she died in January at the age of 95.  

Faber addressed the legacy of local female conservationists in a 2015 interview with Bay Nature. “The freedom that women have in California, the level of self-confidence, opportunity, and idealism that women have compared to other parts of the country, has really driven the [Bay Area environmental] movement.” 

The Glen Park ‘Gum Tree Girls’ 

Zoanne Theriault Nordstrom, Joan Seiwald and Geri Arkush 

Zoanne Theriault Nordstrom, Joan Seiwald and Geri Arkush became known as the Glen Park “Gum Tree Girls” thanks to their civic activism between 1965 and 1970 when they saved Glen Canyon from being ribboned with highways. 

Walkers enter the Glen Canyon Park in central San Francisco. | Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Theriault and Seiwald met in the 1960s as young moms who often brought their young children to the park to play. Soon they befriended longtime resident Arkush. When reports surfaced that the Department of Public Works was investigating straightening the curve out of Glen Park and widening the road, the three friends banded together. 

“The hell it is!” Nordstrom exclaimed when she came across activity in the park that made it clear the Department of Public Works was progressing with its plan. She immediately formed the Save Glen Park Committee, which had its first meeting on Oct. 19, 1965.   

Seiwald later described the gendered nature of the battle, in what recalls Friedel Klussmann’s “sentimental” fight to save the cable cars—an all-female group battling an all-male group of politicians—in a showdown San Franciscans are grateful that Klussmann won. 

“They thought Glen Park was a ‘bucolic backwater’ and [were] calling us ‘dumb housewives.’ […] They didn’t want the working class in the city,” said Seiwald when she recalled the men in government’s attitude toward the natural area—and them. 

City Engineer Clifford Geertz is responsible for giving the group their nickname of “Gum Tree Girls.” The name was intended as a slur—Geertz hated the eucalyptus gum trees for which Glen Park became known—but the women embraced it as a compliment.  

Mount Davidson 

Madie Brown 

The recent unveiling of a time capsule on top of Mount Davidson might never have happened if it weren’t for Madie Brown, nor would the annual sunrise Easter services, nor would the hikes up to the Armenian cross with all of the native plants carpeting the hills along the way. 

Madie Brown spearheaded a citywide effort to preserve Mount Davidson as a public park. | Courtesy Friends of Mount Davidson Conservancy

San Francisco would not even have the hill—the tallest in all of San Francisco—as a public park if it weren’t for Brown’s valiant efforts to save it. 

Brown spearheaded a citywide effort to preserve Mount Davidson as a public park, which she helped to accomplish by 1929, with the park’s formal dedication. 

As the chair of the Mount Davidson Conservation Committee, Brown did more than just create one park: She laid the foundation for grassroots organizing that many organizations would later follow. She was especially good at generating publicity, creating everything from newsreels to exhibitions, and petitions to freshly picked wildflowers as pleas for support. 

“Due to the effort of a nature-loving woman, […] the tree-clad scope and crest of Mount Davidson, rich in sentiment and historic association for San Francisco was now permanently preserved for the pleasure of the people,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle in 1929.  

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Amy Meyer

Yet another 1960s San Francisco mom is now known for birthing an 82,000-acre national park from her Outer Richmond kitchen. Amy Meyer heard about a movement to preserve the small plot of land being decommissioned from Fort Miley, four blocks from her home. The news hit at the same time as the massive Marincello residential development atop the Marin Headlands was falling apart.

People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area founder Amy Meyer speaks at National Trails Day in 2014. | Courtesy Maria Durana/Golden Gate Parks Conservancy

Meyer connected with Ed Wayburn, the local head of the Sierra Club, who had just pushed for the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 but had not had any luck preserving the Marin Headlands, despite years of lobbying in Washington with his neighbor, Ansel Adams.

Meyer and Wayburn mapped a way to combine public lands from Fort Miley all the way north to Point Reyes in a new national park. Meyer founded the People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1971, and with a year of savvy networking and fortuitous political backing, President Nixon signed the first urban national park into existence in October 1972.

In an interview with The Standard from her kitchen “where it happened,” Meyer remembered one reporter’s surprise when hearing the park was official: “He told me, ‘Amy, I thought you were a nice person, but I also thought you were a little crazy.’”

Amy Meyer, center, joins House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other officials under the Parks Conservancy flag commemorating the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's 50th Anniversary in Fort Mason on Oct. 26, 2022. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

With the later addition of more land on the Peninsula and The Presidio, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area has become a model for urban national parks worldwide, fulfilling the agency’s 1970s ideal to create “parks for the people, where the people are.”

“These views look the same now as they did 50 years ago,” said Meyer from the podium overlooking the bay for the park’s 50th-anniversary kick-off ceremony in October. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also addressed the crowd in Fort Mason, talking about how she— like many other mothers—had brought her children and grandchildren to explore the park’s wilderness, later whispering to Meyer, “You are an inspiration.”