Why California’s northern coast doesn’t look like Atlantic City

Times columnist Steve Lopez, left, with Lucy Kortum, whose late husband Bill Kortum helped lead the seminal battle to protect public access to the California coast, and environmentalist Pete Leveque.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

All week long, the ultimate destination was the Sonoma County coast.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy knocking around Tolowa Dunes, the Smith River and the Lost Coast last week.

Even though I’m a native Californian, I’d done very little exploring up there where the misty shore is rocky, elk run wild and giant redwoods creep down to the sea.


But I was eager to get to the place where the state’s coastal preservation movement took root four decades ago in a David-and-Goliath battle, and I knew I’d be meeting some of the visionaries to whom all Californians owe a debt of gratitude. Their story and the lessons learned are more important than ever, given project proposals big and small that could forever alter the California coast.

I knew I’d be meeting some of the visionaries to whom all Californians owe a debt of gratitude.

Let me set the scene first.

In the early 1960s, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. planned and began building a power plant at Bodega Head, one of the most jaw-dropping stretches of coast on the planet.

Meanwhile, developers were mapping plans for a monster residential project just north of Jenner at Sea Ranch, where sheep grazed between coastal bluffs and stunning pebble beaches.

Those projects had the support of local officials, who saw new streams of revenue.

But a small group of residents saw something else: the destruction of paradise.


They believed there would be irreparable harm to fisheries and the magnificent coastal habitat. In their minds, there’d be another crime, as well: the privatization of a public treasure.

The late Bill Kortum, a veterinarian from Petaluma, refused to let it happen.

When I got to Bodega Bay, I met with Kortum’s wife, Lucy, and his son, Sam, along with others who had lobbied, biked, hiked, knocked on doors and circulated petitions all those years ago to save the coast.

“He was out in the coastal areas and he’d be constantly driving the back roads,” said Sam, describing how his veterinarian father made house calls to the dairy farms and began recruiting his clients to the battle against unchecked development.

In 1968, Kortum and other rabble-rousers formed COAAST, Californians Organized to Acquire Access to State Tidelands.

The Kortum posse set up ironing boards outside grocery stores, spread out their materials and made their case.

“Bill would phone people, and when Bill phoned you, you go,” said Pete Leveque, a Santa Rosa Junior College marine biology teacher recruited to COAAST by Kortum.

Ernie Carpenter, a former Sonoma County supervisor, also answered the call.

“People would just coalesce into spontaneous ad hoc groups,” Carpenter said.

They backed a local measure to limit development, but it got drubbed. The coastal stewards kept at it, though.

As Kortum always told them, never back down or give up.

In Bodega, I met Carpenter and the others at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, which over the years provided the environmental science — along with other marine labs — that gave the muckrakers more clout.

Maggie Briare, a Kortum disciple, said limiting development wasn’t about “pulling up the ladder” after moving onto the heavenly coast. It was about making sure the very things that made the area so special were protected for everyone to enjoy.

Sam Kortum recalled the days when his weekends were never free. He was busy knocking on doors with his family, gathering support for conservation measures. All these years later, his mother was still not apologizing for that.

“It began with Bodega Head,” Lucy said of the site of the proposed power plant. But it was Sea Ranch “that really got Bill stirred up.”

The Kortum posse set up ironing boards outside grocery stores, spread out their materials and made their case.

One hero of the movement was the late Hazel Mitchell. As some tell it, the Tides restaurant waitress — who used to serve Alfred Hitchcock during the filming of “The Birds” — overheard PG&E executives at her table talking about the power plant. Town folk had thought it was going to be a steam plant, but Hazel got a big scoop. It was an atomic power plant, not a steam plant. And it was going to be built smack dab on the San Andreas fault.

Dave Pesonen of the Sierra Club was a persuasive ally against the power plant, Lucy said. She also credits former state Assemblymen Alan Sieroty and John Dunlap for helping form an alliance of coastal stewards. That set the stage for the launch in 1972 of Proposition 20, the California Coastal Initiative, aimed at regulating coastal development.

Developers and industry giants poured money into the campaign against the proposition, far outspending proponents. But as Ocean Foundation senior fellow Richard Charter puts it, the modern environmental movement was ascendant by then.

The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 had politicized many Californians. Rachel Carson’s 1962 “Silent Spring” sounded the alarm on environmental hazards. The specter of atomic radiation leaks getting into the Sonoma Coast milk supply spooked parents, and no one wanted their seafood contaminated.

On Nov. 7, 1972, Californians went to the polls.

They approved Prop. 20 by 55.2% to 44.8%.

The California Coastal Commission was born, and four years later the Coastal Act — one of the nation’s toughest sets of environmental safeguards — became law.

The act regulates development, requires public access to beaches, and declares that “the permanent protection of the state’s natural and scenic resources is a paramount concern to present and future generations of the state and nation.”

The California coast, Charter said, is “a public miracle” that was protected by ordinary people who saw it as “a global treasure.”

Sea Ranch, in the end, was scaled back considerably and public access to beaches was and still is required. The plans for an atomic power plant were scuttled, leaving behind a giant hole in the ground that became a flourishing fresh water habitat.

Along bluffs overlooking Sonoma County’s boulder-strewn shore, there’s a stretch of the California Coastal Trail named after Bill and Lucy Kortum.

Most of the people who fought for the coast 40-plus years ago are still at it, and concerned about what they see as a disturbing trend by current coastal commissioners to be more open to coastal development than past guardians.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Coastal Act into law in 1976 and those fighting for the state’s beaches and coves saw him as an environmental ally, Carpenter said.

But Carpenter is concerned about the governor’s silence on disturbing trends this year at the Coastal Commission.

“My message to him is, ‘Get your religion back,’” said Carpenter, who never lost his own.

He took to heart Bill Kortum’s simple plea:

Never back down or give up.

Twitter: @LATstevelopez

Follow me and Times photographer @alschaben as we head down the coast, and join the conversation at #saveyourcoast


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