Sylvia McLaughlin dies at 99; longtime San Francisco Bay environmental activist

Sylvia McLaughlin

Sylvia McLaughlin, who co-founded the San Francisco Bay conservation group Save the Bay and helped pioneer the tradition of grass-roots environmental activism in California, died Tuesday at her Berkeley home. She was 99.

(Save The Bay)

Forty years later, Sylvia McLaughlin still spoke unapologetically about beauty.

She was well-versed, by then, in various scientific rationales for conserving and restoring tidal marshes — fluent water quality, ecological diversity, etc. — and a veteran of the “boards of virtually every environmental organization in the Bay Area,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Yet her first motivation for activism remained her chief one: “It’s beautiful,” she told a reporter by way of explanation in 2011, gesturing out to San Francisco Bay. “We should save these beautiful places.”


McLaughlin, who co-founded the San Francisco Bay conservation group Save the Bay and helped pioneer the tradition of grass-roots environmental activism in California, died Tuesday at her Berkeley home. She was 99.

With Catherine “Kay” Kerr, the wife of UC President Clark Kerr, and Esther Gulick, McLaughlin founded the San Francisco Bay Assn., now called Save the Bay, in 1961.

The group’s success in halting the inexorable filling and paving of San Francisco Bay, and lobbying for legislation to regulate future shoreline development, were among the earliest victories in what became decades of effort to protect and restore the Bay Area’s shores and tidal marshes, said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay in Oakland.

McLaughlin, a mother of two, began her work over cookies and tea at her kitchen table at a time when environmental activism was still in its infancy and urban conservation was all but unknown, Lewis said.


“Private companies owned the shoreline. There were no rules against filling the bay, no Clean Water Act, and no regulatory agencies,” he said.

Half a century later, San Francisco Bay has expanded, its water quality has improved, its wildlife is healthier, and the public has access to 343 miles of trails and a necklace of shoreline parks. Restoration efforts continue apace; Bay Area voters in nine counties will decide on a parcel tax for further habitat restoration in June.

The oversight agency that grew from McLaughlin, Kerr and Gulick’s activism — the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which was legislated into existence in 1965 — remains in place and has since served as a model for similar regulatory bodies, including the California Coastal Commission established by voter initiative seven years later.

“They just did it with their fingers, literally dialing calls to their friends,” Lewis said.

Humans had been filling San Francisco Bay since the Gold Rush era, and San Francisco’s waterfront and nearby areas were built on fill. After World War ll, real-estate developers clamored for shallow tidelands to build on. The bay was being paved over.

Save the Bay mobilized thousands of Bay Area residents who sent bags of fill sand to legislators to drive home their point.

McLaughlin continued her activism for decades and remained vocal well into her 90s. McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, which runs from Richmond, is named for her.

Years later, McLaughlin recounted her group’s fight to stop a massive 1968 development plan by a partnership that included David Rockefeller. The battle to save 27 miles of shoreline south of San Francisco Airport lasted a decade.


In the end, Rockefeller shook McLaughlin’s hand. “You win,” she recalled him saying.

McLaughlin was born Dec. 24, 1916, in Denver, the third of four children of city official George E. Cranmer and violinist Jean Chappell Cranmer, and graduated from Vassar College in 1939. She married Donald McLaughlin, president of Homestake Mining Co., in 1948.

They moved to a view home in the Berkeley Hills, where she could see the bay being developed before her eyes. Her husband was a UC regent, prompting her to connect with the UC wives who became her collaborators.

Her husband preceded her in death in 1984. She is survived by daughter Jeanie Shaterian; son George C. McLaughlin; stepson Donald McLaughlin Jr.; four grandchildren; and six step-grandchildren, Save the Bay said.

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