Column: ‘We just lost a giant.’ Sara Wan, fierce environmentalist and coastal defender, dies at 83

Sara Wan on Broadbeach confronted immediately by a security guard on an ATV
2003 photo of then coastal commissioner Sara Wan on Broad Beach confronted by a security guard on an ATV asking her to leave saying she was on private property.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

The glorious 1,100-mile California coast has lost an impassioned defender and tireless champion.

Sara Wan, a Malibu resident who served longer on the California Coastal Commission than anyone and was an environmental crusader for four decades, died Sunday after complications from recent surgery. She was 83.

“We just lost a giant,” said Jack Ainsworth, executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

“Sara was the driving force behind coastal activism as it currently exists in California today,” said Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network. “Those of us who were mentored by her, and the public, owe her a huge debt of gratitude for her many years of extraordinary leadership, perseverance and vision.”


When I needed to know the history of an ongoing coastal dustup over the years, Wan was able to break it down with historical perspective and encyclopedic precision.

A massive controversial development in the hills above Malibu. The government plan to poison mice on the Farallon Islands. The flouting of rules on communications between developers and commissioners. Whatever the topic, Wan was eager to speak up.

In 2016, during the controversial ouster of the head of the coastal commission, she told me it was all about dark forces “taking over control of the commission and undermining its independence, and eventually turning the coast over to the development and energy industries.”

Wan is now being remembered up and down the state by those who knew that when a battle brewed, she was on the scene, armed with an intimate knowledge of the state constitution, the Coastal Act and the fragile nature of the state’s magnificent coastal habitats.

“She did not suffer fools, refused to take no for an answer, and was loudly critical of those who she felt fell short, or worse, corrupted the application of the law,” said Jordan.

“The most driven, difficult, committed, take-no-prisoners coastal advocate I’ve ever known,” said Mark Massara, one of California’s earliest coastal conservation activists. “No advocate, lawyer, scientist or elected official was immune from her midnight calls, from her Malibu ‘war room’ and there was no rest in her effort to protect California’s coastal resources.”


Wan was on the Coastal Commission in 1998, when it turned back a proposed mega-development near the Hearst Ranch. In that case and countless others, it wasn’t just the fish and fauna Wan was looking out for. She believed in the principle that, in California, the coast is not owned by any one of us, but by all of us, and that it needs constant defending. Not just against over-development, but against attempts to make beach access private and exclusive.

“I’ll never forget the time she went down to Broad Beach in 2003 and sat down there, when they had these beach guards on ATVs try to get rid of her,” Ainsworth said.

That was in Malibu, where homeowners were determined to keep nonresidents off the beach. But there wasn’t a patch of sand anywhere in the state that Wan didn’t know intimately. She knew all the rules on easements and access routes, and she knew all the tricks property owners used to mislead the public and scare them away.

Wan’s husband, Larry, is a renowned conservationist in his own right, and he recalled that day in Malibu when his wife plopped down on the sand and refused to move.

“That was an amazing sight,” Larry told me Tuesday, saying his wife informed the security guards and later a deputy sheriff that she was in the right, they were in the wrong, and she wasn’t moving.

“She had all the ordinances to show them, and they didn’t know what to say. They tried to arrest her, and she showed them all the legal stuff, and they all left,” Larry said.

Larry said his wife had brought a picnic basket to their protest, and when the cops left, they enjoyed a nice snack on the beach.

The Wans met while attending Yale University and moved to California in the 1960s, settling in Malibu in the mid-80s. Wan had advanced degrees in zoology and engineering and held various jobs before moving on to what Eric Wan, her son, called “her second career” — full-time, all-in conservation advocacy.

It began with her paying close attention to coastal access and development issues in Malibu, Eric said, and grew into her advising others on how to present their positions to governing agencies such as the Coastal Commission. She was appointed to the commission in 1996 and served for 15 years, not always without controversy, or without drawing the wrath of property owners or developers.

In a fierce fight over the chairmanship of the commission, Wan prevailed. But in political circles and among some in the environmental community, feathers got ruffled, and Wan eventually lost her seat in 2011.

But not her passion for conservation.

Wan served on the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and was a member of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. She and her husband co-founded the Western Alliance for Nature, a land conservancy, and, during the holidays, they sent Larry’s wildlife photos to friends and activists far and wide.

Wan established Vote the Coast to promote candidates who were defenders of coastal protection, and the Organization of Regional Coastal Activists (ORCA) to train a citizens’ brigade of environmental stewards and watchdogs.

Mark Gold, director of ocean and coastal policy for the state, called Wan an “eco-warrior” and said her conservation work extended beyond the boundaries of the state, covering everything from woodpeckers to whales.

Her efforts to preserve one of the last undeveloped canyons in Malibu led to the naming of the space the Corral Canyon Park Sara Wan Trailhead. In Marin County, a 34-acre plot eyed for development was instead donated last year to the Wans’ Western Alliance for Nature, and the land will remain a habitat for wildlife, including the northern spotted owl.

Larry and Eric told me they’re grateful that Wan’s work will be continued by those she tutored and inspired. Pam Heatherington, of San Diego, is a good example of what they’re talking about. Heatherington has worked for years on a coastal access project there, and she learned the ins and outs from Wan.

“If it had not been for my being educated through ORCA, we might have missed the opportunity,” said Heatherington. “Sara wasn’t telling us what to do, she was teaching us what to do… She’s left a legacy that will live on in a lot of people.”