A bronze plaque held aloft in the tail flippers of a harbor seal was a sight that both pleased and startled me.
Initially, I guess, because that’s such a novel and playful way to present a memorial sign for a nature trail. But my biggest grin came from discovering whom this clever bit of whimsy celebrated: our local land preservation activists Ralph and Carolyn Nobles.
At first glance, just a pair of ordinary Bay Area citizens, the Nobles displayed a dauntless inspiration and an unrelenting drive that saved thousands of acres of wildlife habitat quite close to my hometown on the shore of San Francisco Bay.
JAUNT DOWN MEMORY LANE
As I prepared to hike along the trails that bracketed some of the tidal sloughs that wreathe Bair Island – locus of the couple’s grandest victory – I also strolled back in memory to those times I spent visiting and interviewing the then-aged activists, some twenty years before.
Regular readers of this newsletter may recall that I once defined journalism as a license to ask questions. Well, that craft also awards its practitioners a license to meet people whose path you otherwise might never have crossed. I’ve gotten nose-to-nose with movers and shakers, senators and governors. I’ve conversed for hours with athletic stars such as 11-time World Surf
League champ Kelly Slater and legendary quarterback Joe Montana. Consequential activists like Tom Hayden and David Brower, as well as literary luminaries like Gretel Ehrlich and Gary Snyder, and a crew of visionary leaders who included Doug Tompkins, Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard.
Yet of all the folks whom I’ve been privileged to meet over many decades of scribbling, few impressed me more than the Nobles. The pair not only nurtured a grand and green vision, they also had the sheer grit to stick to their guns through challenges large and small and so bring their dreams to a tangible and enduring fruition.
Ultimately, the beings who benefit most from the Nobles’ work are not just early morning joggers, snuffling up fragrant, fresh air as they beat feet along the bayside trails, not just the birders with their binocs and long-lensed cameras, they’re also jackrabbits who scamper over the pickleweed, an avocet stalking tidal shallows on long pink legs, western sandpipers twirling over the flats like a tight formation of fighter planes, and – yes – harbor seals much like the statue of that one holding the plaque, lounging in languid rows on the mud shores of sloughs to soak up warmth from the sun.
But absent the citizens’ crusade led by the Nobles to save Bair Island, all of these creatures would’ve been stark out of luck. And hundreds of other species as well, both large and microscopically small.
DON QUIXOTE vs THE GIANTS
To understand what’s been saved by their Bair Island victory, it’s useful to draw up an order of battle. Let’s begin by describing the battleground. Set on the bay side of the San Francisco Peninsula, roughly halfway between San Francisco itself and San Jose, Bair is basically three long, low marshes, laced by glittering ribbons of water.
Inner Bair, the lobe nearest the highway, holds 328 acres. Just across Smith Slough lies Middle Bair, at 1,261 acres. And beyond Corkscrew Slough is Outer Bair, at 1,958 acres. Rinsed by turbid brine, the triune Bair lands form a slice of the Bay’s original mud pie.
For thousands of years, San Francisco Bay’s open water was cinched by an emerald belt of primal wetlands sprawling over 1,300 square miles. This odorous, verdurous muck, acre for acre, yielded more than three times the biomass that Iowa can reap from its most fecund cornfields. Brine marshes are jammed with photosynthesizing plant life. The algae and detritus churned out serves as baby food for countless unicellular organisms and invertebrates.
California’s pioneers were awestruck by the wildlife density on Bay marshes and their uplands. Most visible, of course, were “megafauna” – such as tule elk bulls, with improbably large racks of antlers swaying as they walked. Tawny grizzly bears could be seen, with fur rippling all over their muscular bulk. Flocks of waterfowl were so dense that when they took flight the wingbeats sounded like distant thunder and their clouds of wheeling forms could blot out the sun.
Below all these pounding hooves, padding paws and webbed feet lay the awash base of a huge biological pyramid. Among its first row of blocks writhed countless invisible species, beginning with bacteria. This broad mud foundation, a meter thick with squirming vitality, comfortably supported all megafauna above. Thanks to the presence of such nurseries, large aquatic species also prospered, from salmon to halibut to harbor seals.
LIFE IN, NOT ON, THE EARTH
Before Captain Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1775, this region was peopled by five-to-ten thousand Ohlone and Coast Miwok native people, divided up into about two dozen tribelets. They saw the marshes, not as wastelands, but as larders, butcher shops and root cellars. The Yrgin, living near present-day Hayward, dwelt near large marsh “pans” – depressions with natural dikes bolstered by human effort – where they collected salt.
Up near Novato, the Omiomi also dwelt by marsh pans (also called pannes) that provided superior waterfowl habitat. Upslope of the tidal marshes of Petaluma, there were three large shallow lakes, historically called lagunas, that existed because the tribes had built low dams to contain them.
Far from ridding themselves of marshes – a project industrial culture set about later – these native peoples for millenia emphasized wetland features to improve their hunting and gathering. They even stored water upland, for keeping those gooey zones hopping with life amid any period of drought.
On the San Francisco Peninsula, near present-day Bair Island, it’s no great stretch to imagine that the Urebure and Ssalson tribes may have performed similar geophysical manipulations.
ASSAULT, PLUS SALT
Then European culture slammed ashore. A horde of energetic newcomers took charge. The paradigm shift they brought was sudden and sweeping. The Franciscan padres of the Mission Period sought to transform local pagan hunter-gatherers into Christian cowboys. Many tragic consequences were unforeseen.
The monks and priests did accept, adopt and adapt a few of the native practices. After observing tribal people harvesting salt sprinkles from the pans, they organized that procedure into a minor industry.
After the Bear Flag rebellion of 1846 ushered California into the Union, the Gold Rush brought a flood of eager miners into California. Salt collection swelled into a major industry. The mineral was needed, not only as a spice, but also as a preservative. The anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties of salt provided much of the “refrigeration” of the era, particularly for meats.
The South Bay is the most saline part of the estuary. South Bay marshes began to be transfigured into evaporation pans by packing mud into perimeter levees. In ponds at the center, brines of various densities were pumped to and fro. Six gallons of bay water made a pound of salt. It was time-consuming, yet a more reliable business than gold mining.
Survey maps don’t show much change occurring on Bair Island until the 1890s. Then, Thomas McCollum diked and filled ten acres on the island near the junction of Redwood Creek and Corkscrew Slough, just south of Bair, to build a fishing village that could harvest bay shrimp, smelt and oysters.
AFTER A BAIR GOT THERE
The next agent of Bair Island’s transformation was the guy who turned the isle into his namesake, Fred Bair. He diked up more of the salt marsh and mudflats and grew barley on about 25 acres of reclaimed land. Bair’s barn still stood out here as late as the 1920s.
Salt production began in earnest on Bair with the advent of Leslie Salt Company in the 1940s. From then until 1965, most of Bair’s 3,547 acres were devoted to it. Mere scraps of natural marsh habitat were left along the margins. Most of the Bay Area’s cornucopia of wetlands faced a similar depletion. Although less than a fifth remained, there were schemes to then take it all, to completely fill in the South and the North Bay and fully build out this new terrain, leaving just a slim channel for the Sacramento River to exit to the sea down its center.
But a counter-revolution had begun to brew!
Eight miles south of Bair, out at the end of Embarcadero Road, was another shard of Bay marsh near a dilapidated picnic table. Phil and Florence LaRiviere used to take their kids out there in summer evenings to cool off and have dinner in the 1950s.
“When evening air is still and you hear birds calling out, a marsh seems a wonderful place,’ Florence told me. “We wound up with a visceral response to all the beauty. Just got hooked. So, we joined a local chapter of the Audubon Society, to learn names of birds and find out a bit more about what they were doing.”
THE NEW GREEN MACHINE
One step led to another. Soon the LaRivieres found themselves on a long march, guiding a cadre of citizen/conservationists who struggled to get a grip on development-vs-preservation issues all around the Bay. Their colleagues and cohorts soon would include Ralph and Carolyn Nobles. Together they helped lobby for and create a major new preserve. The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1974 and expanded in 1995. Creation of this refuge would ultimately establish a safe harbor for Bair Island in 1997.
But before that could occur, all the forces of rampant development had to be fought to a standstill.
Ralph Nobles, a research physicist who’d worked on the Manhattan Project, and Carolyn, a bookkeeper, moved to Redwood City from Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1962. Their story parallels that of the La Rivieres. The Nobles gradually became gripped by a love of the Bay’s wetland realm and its remnant biological riches. They altered the course of their lives to protect it, and, in so doing so, helped alter the fate of an entire landscape.
A group the Nobles helped found, Friends of Redwood City, assisted by the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Golden Gate chapter of the Audubon Society and the LaRiviere’s group – the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge – waged a multi-phased war.
WHEN IT REIGNS, IT POURS
The opposition had grown formidable because Leslie, the salt company, had discovered the joys of producing real estate. The method of dredging and stacking mud to build levees and salt pans, this firm found, could be ramped up to produce a godlike result. Dredge many more tons of mud into those pans, pump out the water, let it dry in the sun. And… Shazaam! You’ve just created land.
Leslie Properties launched this lucrative process on its holdings north of Bair, producing buildable acreage where none had existed before. A community of suburban homes, apartments, condos and stores – the new Redwood Shores – took shape.
Yet some flaws riddled the ointment. What if this new landscape and its protective levees suddenly liquified? In a major earthquake, might flooding of this terra unfirma turn it back into a mud slurry where buildings would subside like slow-motion scenes of shipwreck?
Such a prospect gave the FHA the willies. This federal booster of discount mortgages decided to yank its temblor insurance from Redwood Shores in 1969. Months later, however, that decision was reversed – doubtless after robust lobbying. Still, an early rush to development had been stymied.
The next impediment to rearing a condo Oz on the muds of Bair came when a local lawyer, Paul (“Pete”) McClosky filled a suit challenging Leslie’s original title to these lands. Seems that the California State Lands Commission retains title to areas like wetlands and tidelands, where there is no firm trail of title and provenance.
This double blow sent Leslie’s development scheme plunging down in flames like the Hindenburg. Unable to pay taxes, Leslie saw its property snatched up by the note holder, Bank of America.
PATTYCAKE BETWIXT THE POWERS
BofA eventually transferred the land to Mobil Oil Estates. Mobil had pockets deep enough to continue the development of Redwood Shores on new acreage to the south. Bair Island was eyed as a site for a fresh subdivision, a potential “South Shores.”
By 1981, plans for a modern coastal metropolis atop Bair had been fleshed out to include a 200,000 square-foot shopping mall, a hotel, offices, 1,754 garden apartments, 1,127 townhouses, 837 homes and a 600-slip marina. Then the Nobles and their allies forced Redwood City to put that sprawling scheme up for a public referendum in 1982.
“I read about that proposal in an article in the Chronicle,” Ralph told me. “I thought, ‘Convert all that open space to urban use? God! They can’t do that!’” At a city council meeting, he and Carolyn watched in dismay, as the council unanimously approved Mobil’s scheme. “Afterwards, about a dozen of us milled around. We got to talking with each other, and that was how the Friends of Redwood City got started, to fight this thing,” Ralph said.
“Our odds didn’t look good. The city council had never seen a development deal they didn’t like. All the local papers were for it, editorially. Unions were on board. It seemed like nobody was on our side. The major enviro groups barely pitched in. Still, we managed to get a public referendum on the project onto the fall ballot in 1982.”
The voices for conservation were outspent on the election by a factor of 10 to 1. After the ballot, it looked as though preservation had lost and development won by 17 votes out of some 20,000 cast. Ralph was away on a business trip to NASA’s Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy) in Florida. Hearing the news, he went to bed that night, stung by a sense of defeat.
“But absentee ballots still were coming in,” Carolyn told me. “I and another woman were at the county offices when we found out, after the complete tally, that we had actually won by 40 votes. It just floored us. I was able to reach Ralph very late that night by phone – it was 1 a.m. where he was. He called me back the next morning to make sure that Bair Island winning wasn’t a dream. It was one of the most exciting moments of our lives.”
COAST TO A COASTAL VICTORY
But while Bair was rescued from immediate peril, it wasn’t quite yet safe and secure in the National Wildlife Refuge. Fate of those marshes still lingered in limbo.
In 1989, Bay Area real estate values took an uncommonly steep plunge. Meanwhile, Japan’s economy soared. Mobil seized this chance to sell 320 acres of raw land inside its Redwood Shores development to Kumagai-Gumi Co. Ltd. of Tokyo for $180 million. As a sweetener, Mobil tossed in Bair – with all its now-problematic development rights – for zilcho.
The new owner, Mr. Kumagai Taichiro, blithely revived the plot to plop a community for around 20,000 humans atop Bair’s marshes. Events might easily have permitted Kumagai to build it. After all, despite the city’s vote in 1982, most of the regional momentum still flowed toward development. Flanked by a dense Redwood Shores development in the north, and more condos, offices and marinas along Redwood Creek to the south, it wasn’t hard to envision Bair’s most likely fate.
Yet in 1984 came one hopeful signal. An Endangered Species Recovery Plan formulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called for acquisition of all private holdings on Bair so that this acreage might be added to the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
The endgame went down in 1996-1997. Local preservation forces expanded their tactics on an international scale. The Audubon Society paid for a full-page ad in the New York Times, reproving Mr. Kumagai Taichiro for his desire to wipe out the last of these still green and living marshes with a fresh flood of concrete.
Meanwhile, Ralph Nobles sent a personal letter to the real estate magnate – artfully translated into formal Japanese – urging him to be a good neighbor.
We may never know what finally turned the tide. But the upshot was that the Peninsula Open Space District was able to purchase Bair from Mr. Kumagai for $15 million, hold it, and then transfer it to control of the refuge managers (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in exchange for $10 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and $5 million in contribution from private donors.
And now, some 30 years later, the dream of the Nobles and LaRivieres – ordinary citizens who happened to care immensely and were eager to invest their lives in what they truly cared about – has come to pass.
TRIBUTE TO A VISION
Standing at the trailhead there, knowing that things might’ve easily gone the other way, my breath catches a bit. Here, a natural tapestry of tan, olive and vivid green, dotted with wading, flying and roosting birds, ripples from Highway 101 eastward for a full three miles. It finally halts at a pale, oyster shell beach where the shoreline of Outer Bair gets laved by waves of the Bay.
I met and conversed with the Nobles and LaRivieres some 20 years ago, when they were in their 70s and 80s. Their hair had turned grey and scant, their bodies were stooped and their faces lined. But they were still quick to laugh and even faster at inviting a visitor to dive into their ongoing work and further it.
I engaged with these folks at the sunset of their heyday. Then and now, I wonder just when and where citizen crusaders of equal drive and savvy might arise. It’s easy for the un-involved to imagine that activism is a grim, relentless business – an uncertain battle whose rewards shall only come in some dim, far-off future. That is, if they ever manage to arrive at all.
But these people had real joy, and they had comradeship, and they radiated a humble yet durable satisfaction in lives well-lived. Meanwhile the marshes they labored to save, like the fabled fountains of youth, have steadily grown greener and more vibrant. The health of the sloughs is being restored to its ancient vigor.
On Bair Island, beak by cheek with rampant modernity, now thrives a slice of ancient times. It’s a natural creche, a sort of green cradle which holds and nurtures the sprawling, crawling, squalling life of an organic past, keeping it forever vibrant and young.
As the urban Bay Area continues to evolve in its own way, Bair shall soar in importance as a place to fall in love with sandpipers in flight, the susurration of breeze combing through banks of cordgrass, and the play of light on a complex life mosaic. Bair, saved, forms a fitting memorial to the ageless spirit of these citizens, a monument to the integrity and selflessness of their purpose.