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Sylvia McLaughlin talks about her experiences as a co-founder of the Save the Bay organization at home in Berkeley, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. McLaughin, 94, and two friends formed the group to stop radical development plans for the Bay. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

Fifty years ago, Sylvia McLaughlin was a mother of two with a Berkeley hills house that featured a grand view of San Francisco Bay.

Never mind that, at the time, the shore was lined with garbage or that about 250 million gallons of raw and minimally treated sewage poured into it each day, San Francisco Bay water quality regulators estimate.

The bay was treated like a dump and a sewer.

But it was 1961, and McLaughlin was more concerned with scenery than pollution.

She and two other women, all wives of high-powered men at UC, launched the Save San Francisco Bay Association, now known as Save the Bay.

It was the first successful launch of a regional campaign to protect an urban natural resource, experts say.

The women stopped development's steady march into the shallows of San Francisco Bay, opened the opportunity to restore wetlands and helped generate public support for cutting pollution, according to the group's backers.

Not that any of the founders saw that coming at the time.

"It turned out all three of us had a nice view of the bay," McLaughlin, now 94, recalled recently. "Our chief concern was the beauty of the bay."

McLaughlin, the last survivor among the three co-founders, was honored last week with her two late friends at Save the Bay's 50th anniversary gala.

During an interview in her study overlooking the bay, McLaughlin told of reading a newspaper story about Berkeley's plan to fill a shoreline zone for development.


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McLaughlin, the wife of UC Regent Donald McLaughlin, complained to her friend, Kay Kerr, wife of UC President Clark Kerr. Kay Kerr told McLaughlin to call Esther Gulick, who had the same complaint. Gulick was married to an economics professor.

The three started an unlikely campaign just a decade ahead of the modern environmental and gender equality movements.

"This was a man's world," said David Lewis, the organization's executive director. "Men were running the conservation organizations. Men were the vast majority of elected officials. That's why most people gave them little chance of succeeding."

However, the women had connections.

Their first move was to call together leaders of conservation groups. Among the groups then active were the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the Save the Redwoods League.

The men at the meeting sympathized but said a new group was needed.

"They said the bay is being filled, but we're saving the redwoods and saving the Sierra," McLaughlin said with chuckle. "They filed out and wished us luck."

Conservationists at the time had larger issues than their own backyards.

"A lot of those national environmental organizations were not all that interested in San Francisco Bay," said Rick Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at UC Davis.

"It is the first successful effort to transfer the environmental ethic from rural areas and wilderness to an urban area," he added.

Had Save the Bay not organized, construction would have pre-empted any possibility of restoring marshes now seen as vital to bay health, including what is now the West Coast's largest wetlands restoration at the South Bay salt ponds.

"This was 1961. We didn't know the bay was a nursing ground," said Will Travis, executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, created at the urging of Save the Bay. "We didn't know the value of wetlands. We didn't know it moderated the climate in the Bay Area."

Save the Bay also pushed for more public access to the bay shore, which generated more support for pollution reduction, Lewis said.

"People could now see these birds and fish and other wildlife down there," he said. "They could see the water full of sewage and that it needed to be cleaned up."

Save the Bay's $1 membership built an organization that tapped into a public willing to oppose a future in which the shrinking bay might look like a river.

After beating back Berkeley's plans, the three women realized a more comprehensive solution was needed.

Among the numerous plans to fill in the bay, one of the most notorious would have leveled San Bruno Mountain, pushing its dirt into the bay to fill 27 miles of San Mateo County shoreline.

"It's hard to imagine now that there ever was such a thought," McLaughlin said. "People's attitudes have totally changed, and perhaps our organization made people aware of the importance of having a beautiful bay."

Pressing their contacts in the Legislature led to creating the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to regulate fill and shoreline development.

The commission became a model for other regional planning agencies such as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the state Coastal Commission and the new Delta Stewardship Council, Frank said.

"It was revolutionary at the time that you had a more centralized and environmentally conscious system of regulations was seen as necessary to prevent us from choking on our own waste," he said.