Melvin B. Lane, 85; conservationist helped protect California’s coast

Times Staff Writer

Melvin B. Lane, former co-owner and publisher of Sunset Magazine and Books and a leading conservationist who helped safeguard the state’s natural heritage as the first chairman of the California Coastal Commission, has died. He was 85.

Lane died Saturday at his home in Atherton, Calif., of complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to a spokeswoman for Stanford University, where Lane was a trustee for 10 years.

The native Iowan, who moved to California as a child, was appointed to the Coastal Commission in 1972 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. Over the next five years he guided the development of a visionary coastal protection plan and led the commission’s deliberations on many controversial issues, including the proposal to build a nuclear power plant at San Onofre.

“The most important thing he did with the California Coastal Commission was he presided over the creation of the California Coastal Plan,” longtime commission Executive Director Peter Douglas said Tuesday of the policy that has been in force since the Legislature approved it in 1976. “This became the constitution for the coast of California and was the model coastal protection-conservation plan in the world.”


Lane’s authority in coastal preservation was established during the 1960s, when he led the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. As that body’s founding chairman, he oversaw the creation of a blueprint for conserving the bay that was believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

As a result of the plan, San Francisco Bay, the largest estuary on the Pacific coast, has more water now than it did in 1965, according to a history published on the commission’s website.

In 1998 Lane was named conservationist of the year by the California League of Conservation Voters, which declared, “If you look around California, you would be hard-pressed to find a place of beauty that Mel hasn’t played a part in preserving.”

His devotion to the state’s natural environment stemmed in part from the family business founded by his father in 1928. Laurence W. Lane was an advertising executive from Iowa who plunked down $60,000 for Sunset, a tourist-oriented publication created by Southern Pacific Railroad, and recreated it as a magazine devoted to the home and outdoor life of the West.


Melvin Lane joined Lane Publishing Co. after serving a stint in the Navy during World War II and earning a bachelor’s degree at Stanford. With his brother, Bill, who headed the magazine in the 1960s, he helped make Sunset a national leader in advertising despite a ban on ads for tobacco, liquor and feminine hygiene products.

Lane also developed the book division into an enterprise with hundreds of successful titles, beginning with the Sunset Western Garden Book, the now-classic bible of western horticulture. The book division “was Mel’s baby,” said Lorinda Reichert, vice president of Sunset Publishing Corp.

Lane was not drawn into environmental politics until 1965 when the Legislature established the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Then-Gov. Pat Brown, a Democrat, appointed Lane, a Republican, to the post of chairman. The 27 commissioners, who represented industry, government and the environmental movement, were charged with the job of preparing a plan for the future of the bay within three years.

The potential for conflict on the commission was so great, said Joseph Bodovitz, the commission’s first executive director, “that there were good odds they would never be able to find agreement.... It was Mel’s leadership that kept that from happening.”


The plan, completed on schedule and approved by the Legislature in 1969, was hailed for its clarity and thoroughness in outlining policies to govern the use of the bay, which supports one of the nation’s busiest ports as well as a wide variety of fish and wildlife.

The Bay plan served as a warmup for the battle between developers and preservationists over the best use of California’s entire 1,072-mile coast.

One of the Coastal Commission’s most contentious early battles involved the proposal to build the San Onofre nuclear power plant. The commission initially rejected the project because of the potential destruction of marine life and the need to bulldoze the San Onofre bluffs. Lane, however, pushed for changes that allowed the plant to be built with requirements to study and mitigate the damage.

“If the commission had not resolved this controversy I think it could have led to a real backlash that could have crippled the commission,” Douglas said. “Mel Lane was the one who steered the compromise through the commission -- and thereby saved it.”


During his tenure on the Coastal Commission, Lane was assailed by environmentalists for being too lenient with developers and by business interests for giving away too much to the activists.

Lane described his approach in a 1974 Los Angeles Times interview: “I think the business world is committing suicide by thinking it can continue to use up natural resources without a day of reckoning. Look at what’s happening right now. As soon as business tightens up, not only do we drop environmental controls but, as a shot to the economy, we drill for more oil and cut down more trees. These are a rip-off of the environment that can’t be done indefinitely. So it’s poor business.”

He retired from the commission in 1977 but continued to make major contributions to environmental causes. He chaired the Sierra Club’s National Advisory Committee, the California Fund for the Environment and the Conservation Foundation. He and his wife also endowed an environmental institute at Stanford.

An unpretentious man with a subtle sense of humor, he drove a 1971 Impala convertible for almost 20 years until the exterior became worn and the upholstery crumbled.


He waited 13 years after his family sold the publishing company to Time Warner Inc. in 1990 for $225 million to trade up to a used Volvo convertible.

Lane is survived by his wife of 54 years, Joan Fletcher Lane; daughters Whitney Miller and Julie Lane Gay; four grandchildren; and his brother.