As they hit milestones, four organizations reflect on the past and look to the future.

A southward view of the Santa Cruz Mountains at the Monte Bello Preserve. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Imagine the Bay Area without the San Francisco Bay. The Santa Cruz Mountains are crisscrossed by freeways bringing hundreds of thousands of commuters who are living cheek by jowl along the coasts of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties to the flatlands to work each day.

This hypothetical scenario nearly became a reality. In the 1950s and 1960s, post-World War II planners, developers and land speculators had designs at one point to create a sprawling Los Angeles-type metropolis: at one point even planning to decapitate San Bruno Mountain to use for landfill to build near the San Francisco Bay.

But residents with the foresight to understand the devastation of unbridled growth and exploitation fought back. Sixty years ago, 27 residents, including from Palo Alto, formed the Committee for Green Foothills (now Green Foothills) to advocate for the protection of the mountains and bay that all residents enjoy today.

Three other environmental organizations that expanded those early efforts to protect local habitats, both wild and urban, also have milestone anniversaries in 2022: the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and Environmental Volunteers both celebrated 50 years and Canopy celebrated 26 years.

Now each is taking on a new threat: climate change, working to evolve along with the threats that could damage the environments they worked so hard to save.

Each has filled a different niche in protecting the Peninsula’s natural environment, from advocacy to land held in trust, the regreening of the urban forest and environmental education. On Dec. 4, representatives of all four organizations spoke during a Palo Alto Historical Association Vignettes program titled “A Climate of Unrest Gave Rise to the Environmental Movement.” The event was moderated by Karen Holman, a former Palo Alto mayor and current Midpen board member.

The period in history when three of these organizations were formed was marked by a new awareness of environmental issues. In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans were engaged in fervent activism sparked by the lingering Vietnam War, civil rights issues for Black Americans and women and other upheaval. A new “back to nature” ethic took hold as a generation sought to connect with its natural roots.

Marine biologist Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking book, “Silent Spring” in 1962, about pollution’s ecological damage, which arguably sparked the modern environmental movement. The first march for the environment took place nationwide on Earth Day in April 1969, and former President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Act and signed the Clean Air Act, both in 1970, and signed the Clean Water Act in 1972 in response to growing environmental concerns. All were part of the awakening that also roused Bay Area residents to take action to save their own piece of paradise for future generations.

Here’s how each of those organizations plans is adapting to address climate change.

Green Foothills: Generations of advocacy

The sun starts to set over the foothills near Matadero Creek Trail at Stanford. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Since its inception, Green Foothills has helped preserve a greenbelt of more than 185,000 acres of open space in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

A group of concerned Palo Alto and Los Altos activists organized after the city of Palo Alto and Stanford University partnered to develop a research and development park in the early 1950s. The residents lost the battle and the city approved building Stanford Industrial Park (now Stanford Research Park) in 1951. The residents pushed on, however, to keep the foothills from being marred by commercial development.

Twenty-seven members of the original open space group organized in May 1962 to preserve the foothills, calling themselves the Committee for Green Foothills, later renamed Green Foothills in 2020, according to a history of the organization.

Among its founders were Palo Altans Gary and Betty Gerard, George Hogle and Lois Crozier-Hogle, former Palo Alto Mayor Kirke Comstock and his wife, Dorothy, Karl and Ruth Spangenberg and novelist Wallace Stegner.

In recent years, Green Foothills joined other environmental organizations and filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration and Cargill to protect the salt marshes in Redwood City from development under the Clean Water Act. They won their lawsuit in a lower court and Cargill backed down on its appeal.

Green Foothills and other environmental groups have also fought multiple development proposals in Coyote Valley, an open space area south of San Jose. In 2021, after several years of advocacy by the Protect Coyote Valley coalition led by Green Foothills, the San Jose City Council voted to change the land-use designation of north Coyote Valley to open space and agriculture and removed the urban reserve designation from mid-Coyote Valley, which signaled its intent not to annex and develop those parts of the valley.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors also approved a Climate Resilience District for both mid- and south Coyote Valley, which restricts the size and type of development on the land and supports climate-resilient agriculture. The changes protect the valley from major industrial development, according to Green Foothills.

Alice Kaufman, Green Foothills’ policy and advocacy director, said the organization’s greatest achievements included its work on the statewide Proposition 20, which voters passed to form the California Coastal Commission.

“It really paved the way in 1976 for the San Mateo County coastal protection initiative Measure A to protect the rural nature of coastal farmland from coastal development. It prohibited offshore oil drilling,” she said. The initiative kept the San Mateo County coast from turning into another Malibu, covered over with development and with beach access limited to the ultra-wealthy, she said.

Green Foothills also fought to keep Caltrans from building a massive freeway bypass through sensitive wildlands and historic ranches as a go-around to the dangerous Devil’s Slide on state Route 1. The campaign took 25 years. In 1996, a countywide initiative, Measure T, mandated Caltrans to build a tunnel rather than the freeway bypass, she said.

How climate change will impact the organization’s work

One of the impacts of climate change that affects Green Foothills’ work in particular is related to linking wildlife corridors. The organization has been working for decades to protect wildlife habitat and especially the corridors and linkage areas that allow animals to migrate to new habitat areas in order to find food and mates, Kaufman said in a follow-up email.

“The increased fragmentation of our open space by development and freeways is a huge challenge for many species’ survival. What climate change will do is create even more of a need for animals (and plants) to be able to migrate, because food and water may no longer be available in the places where it used to be and the habitat that animals rely on may no longer provide the resources it once did,” she said.

That’s an oversimplification, she added, but at the least, a major impact of climate change is that many animals will need to have larger ranges simply in order to survive, Kaufman said.

Two of Green Foothills’ major advocacy campaigns focus on this issue of wildlife connectivity, she said.

The Santa Cruz Mountains are an island of wildlife habitat surrounded by a sea of development, and there are only two functioning linkages for animals to move in and out of the mountain range: Coyote Valley just south of San Jose and Juristac just south of Gilroy. Both of those areas are under threat of development that could severely impair their functionality as wildlife movement corridors.

In Coyote Valley, Kaufman said Green Foothills achieved “a huge victory” a year ago when the San Jose City Council unanimously voted to change the land use from industrial to open space and agriculture. Yet, some landowners there are still trying to roll back that protection so they can develop on their property. Juristac, which is a sacred Indigenous landscape as well as being a critical wildlife corridor, is being threatened with an open-pit sand and gravel mine that would block that movement corridor, Kaufman said.

“We need to protect both Coyote Valley and Juristac for the survival of our local population of mountain lions (recently identified as a candidate for listing under the California Endangered Species Act), as well as the health of many other species that need those linkages,” she said.

Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District: Preserving land in perpetuity

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District headquarters in Los Altos. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Inspired by a February 1970 editorial by then-Palo Alto Times reporter Jay Thorwaldson (who later became the Palo Alto Weekly’s editor), Palo Alto resident Nonette Hanko and other residents of the Palo Alto Civic League created the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which would obtain funding for land acquisitions through a property tax.

“I told her environmentalists needed to do what they did in the East Bay in 1933 — the depth of the Great Depression — and form a park district and buy the land at fair market value, in order to safely preserve it in perpetuity,” Thorwaldson said in a February 2019 Palo Alto Weekly interview.

One of the group’s first fights was to save Coyote Hill, a wildlife area on the southwest corner of Foothill Expressway and Page Mill Road, from development in the early 1970s.

At the time, a 530-acre proposal for high-density housing in the lower foothills was working through the city approval process and San Mateo County officials were ignoring or unable to control development and logging interests.

District supporters put Measure R, the “Room to Breathe” initiative, on the November 1972 ballot in Santa Clara County for a property tax of 10 cents per $100 of assessed value. It passed with 67.7% of the vote. The first land acquisition: a tiny 90-acre parcel in 1974 that became Foothills Open Space Preserve.

Today, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District is a hugely influential district that also encompasses San Mateo County, with more than 20 open space preserves. In 2004, the coast to ridgeline from Montara to the San Mateo-Santa Cruz county line officially became the district’s Coastside Protection Area.

The district has acquired more than 65,000 acres of land ranging from marshlands to mountains and forests to grasslands, protecting multiple flora and fauna habitats that anyone can visit for hiking, biking and other outdoor activities.

“They are there for people’s mental, physical and social welfare and for the slew of ecological benefits” such as protection of endangered and protected species, said Ana Ruiz, Midpen’s general manager.

The vital connection between people and their environment became even more apparent during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Midpen’s open spaces saw a 200% increase in visitors.

“This was one of the few places in a moment of desperate need; this was one of the few places where people could go to leave their home and decompress,” she said.

People often confuse Midpen with the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), a nonprofit land trust that receives funding from private individuals and foundations. POST was formed in 1977 by Midpen after the district found it difficult to solicit donations and get land from property owners. Many people felt there was no need to provide the district with additional funding or land donations since the district already received monies through the tax, said Mike Williams, the district’s real property manager.

POST acquired the land and held it until it could be transferred to an appropriate agency for management, such as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area or San Mateo County Parks. Midpen also acquired many of these properties and manages 19,000 acres of land through its partnership with POST.

On Dec. 10, Midpen’s board of directors approved the purchase of 6,300 acres of the coastside Cloverdale Ranch property from POST, the largest single land purchase in the agency’s 50-year history.

How climate change will impact the organization’s work

Over the years, Midpen has also increased its land management practices. Public affairs specialist Ryan McCauley said the district’s lands store tens of millions of tons of carbon in plants and soils (through the process of carbon sequestration), which keeps carbon out of the atmosphere.

“The greenbelt that Midpen has preserved along the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountain range also provides a refuge for health and well-being, a cooler and greener place to escape above the smog belt,” he said.

Midpen has adopted multiple programs to help make its lands more resilient to the effects of climate change, including adopting a Climate Action Plan in 2018, with goals to reduce administrative greenhouse gas emissions 20% below the 2016 baseline by 2022, 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

The district also developed a Wildland Fire Resiliency Program in 2021 to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires that could threaten large trees that store the most carbon, he said.

On the bay side, the Ravenswood Bay Trail project raised the boardwalk and bridge across sensitive salt marsh wetland habitat. The project also improved climate change resiliency by constructing “refugia islands,” which are built higher to provide wildlife with a safe space during high-tide events, and transition zones that provide dense native vegetation for marshland species during high-tides.

“Midpen is committed to several wildlife connection projects. As the changing climate affects natural ecosystems and habitat for native species, ranges are compacted for wildlife connectivity. Midpen is engaged in the Highway 17 Wildlife and Trail Crossings and the Badger and Burrowing Owl Habitat Study,” he said.

The district also plans to transition its vehicles and maintenance equipment away from fossil fuels over time. “Some progress has already been made on that front, with new electric vehicles and patrol trucks that can use renewable diesel,” he said.

Canopy: Growing the urban forest

East Palo Alto Mayor Lisa Gauthier joins Canopy volunteers as they plant a valley oak tree at King Park in East Palo Alto. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

In the early 1980s and 1990s, Palo Alto’s street trees were deteriorating. Drought, pavement encroachment, pollution and aging along with a dearth of resources for their care were rapidly shrinking the urban forest.

A group of concerned residents, led by Evergreen Park resident David Schrom and ecological activists group Magic Inc., ​​started planting trees on Stanford University land in the Palo Alto foothills as part of their philosophy of “Valuescience,” which sought to apply scientific methods to achieve what values people want and how to reach them.

People valued their trees. In 1993, the city created a Tree Task Force for a two-year study of Palo Alto’s urban forest. The findings noted multiple benefits from the urban trees and recommended a program to plant and maintain trees and to educate the public.

Three years later, members of the task force planted the sapling from those recommendations, Canopy Trees for Palo Alto. Now called Canopy, the nonprofit organization has planted thousands of trees in the urban forest. The verdant canopy has expanded from Palo Alto to include East Palo Alto, Belle Haven, Menlo Park and North Fair Oaks and Mountain View. In recent years, Canopy has emphasized regreening underserved communities as well as continuing its work in Palo Alto.

Canopy helped Palo Alto craft a tree-protection ordinance for two native oak species and California redwoods, and it created an interactive online “tree plotter” that provides the location of each tree, the species and other important information. Canopy offers community tree planting opportunities, maintenance, workshops, tree walks and other educational and volunteer opportunities.

The organization has embarked on a South Palo Alto Tree Initiative, having planted more than 500 trees.

“More than 6,000 trees have been planted in the urban environment. Twenty-five percent of all street trees in East Palo Alto have been planted by Canopy and volunteers. That’s moving the needle,” Executive Director Catherine Martineau said.

How climate change will impact the organization’s work

Urban-tree-canopy cover is crucial in adapting to climate change, especially when it comes to extreme heat events and the urban heat island effect, Martineau said.

“This is one of the reasons Canopy has been consistently advocating for the protection of existing trees and increasing the tree canopy cover rate in neighboring communities, especially frontline communities where it is low, about 10-15% vs. about 40-45%),” Martineau said in an email.

Urban trees are one of the most powerful nature-based climate solutions, Martineau said. The tricky part lies in the Bay Area’s needs to address the housing crisis. While people need housing, housing needs space; people need trees and trees must compete for the same space.

Conversations about how to achieve a balance, taking into consideration the variety of existing conditions across communities in the Bay Area, are rare or siloed, she said. “This is one thing Canopy tried to address by advocating for and participating in the creation of an Urban Forest Master Plan for the city of East Palo Alto, adopted by City Council last April,” she said.

Trees provide myriad benefits. In addition to climate-related benefits such as carbon sequestration and natural air conditioning against a hotter climate, trees provide other environmental benefits such as habitat for native wildlife or stormwater runoff retention.

“And the public health benefits of urban trees are obviously among the most valuable. New research keeps establishing a causal relationship between the lack of urban trees and decreased physical and mental health, and this separately from urban heat mitigation,” Martineau said.

Climate change also threatens local urban trees. Most trees planted in the urban matrix in the region are non-native species such as southern magnolia and Liquidambar, common street trees in Palo Alto that need supplemental irrigation to grow and survive.

Canopy has been advocating for planting drought-tolerant trees. As the urban forest slowly evolves to a climate-adapted mix of species and the city replants and replaces its trees, water conservation measures in the landscape should prioritize tree retention, she said.

Palo Alto’s urban forestry section has been planting a majority of native oaks in the last 10 years. Canopy was instrumental in having the city hire an urban forester who knew how to work with native tree species, she said.

Public trees represent about 10% of the overall urban forest in Palo Alto; the rest are on private property, Martineau said. Education programs are crucial and will continue to remain so to help residents learn the value of their trees and how to maintain — and retain — them. As the footprint of homes and commercial structures expand to fill in lots, trees are sometimes removed despite regulations.

Martineau noted that not all native trees are appropriate. Coast redwoods for instance are not native to the valley floor and need fog and water. Even in the natural environment, their range is shifting north as fog patterns are changing due to climate change, she noted.

“This said, there are not enough drought-tolerant native species in our region to satisfy all urban-tree-site configurations. A diversity of size, shape, deciduous, evergreen and other attributes, such as rooting and branching structure, is needed. This is why Canopy has an interest in various efforts to modify the palette of tree species used around here,” she said.

Environmental Volunteers: Creating future advocates

The EcoCenter at the Palo Alto Baylands. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Land and tree preservation are vulnerable despite current efforts if people don’t see the value. That’s why a group of local women formed Environmental Volunteers in 1972.

Just at the time when groups such as Green Foothills and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District were gaining traction, people who were also concerned about preserving the San Francisco Bay’s estuary for future generations created hands-on programs for local children. Youth attend field trips to the bay to experience, learn and enjoy all that the baylands have to offer and to grow up to take care of it, said Elliott Wright, board member at Environmental Volunteers and executive director of Hidden Villa, an open space and farm in Los Altos Hills.

The nonprofit has brought nature to more than 565,000 children since its inception, instilling sensory experiences of nature that stick for a lifetime, Wright said.

The group revitalized the historic Sea Scout building in the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve to create the EcoCenter, a place for learning.

Environmental Volunteers brings nature education to classrooms; offers small-group hikes and field trips; and takes children out to a variety of natural habitats from chaparral to forests to the ocean to explore and experience pockets of nature where they might not regularly have access.

The “Let’s Go!” Field Fund, a transportation fund launched in 2011 through a grant from the Environmental Education Funders Consortium, takes low-income K-12 students on affordable and safe bus trips to explore tide pools, redwood forests, grasslands and marshlands, places where they might not have access.

How climate change will impact the organization’s work:

Wright said Environmental Volunteers has a new weather and climate program. The programs are scalable so that students can receive a high-quality education. There’s plenty of room for everyone to bring their skills to the volunteer program, he said. Its Sprout Up program brings college students into first- and second-grade classes to lead an eight-week program of song, rhyming and activity-based lessons.

At graduation, they each get to choose a “nature name,” Wright said. A red-haired boy chose the name “Fire;” another child chose “Sunflower.”

“If we want to empower the next generation, we have to give them building blocks,” he said, noting the basics are taught in elementary school and middle school students learn more advanced scientific concepts.

Those lessons are particularly valuable when combined with themes such as the baylands and foothills, which are vulnerable to sea-level rise and wildfires, respectively.

“There are threats to water; there are threats to wildlife; there are threats to people,” he said, so teaching skills where people can take climate-smart actions into their homes, their yards and their communities will help reduce climate change.

“Climate science education has to stay hands on; it won’t be an app. The future of science education and nature education is direct, hands-on education,” he said.

Diversity is the future

A runner on a path around Crystal Springs Reservoir in San Mateo County. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

As the climate continues to change the environment and ecosystems, children and residents living in economically challenged communities, particularly edging San Francisco Bay, will be the most vulnerable to flooding, pollution and other disasters. Environmental Volunteers is reaching out to diversify not only who it serves, but also who volunteers, knowing that people of all ages in these communities must have an active stake in how they can shape and help their environment, Wright said.

Diversification, inclusion and equity are issues that all of these groups said are among the most challenging they will face as climate and communities change.

“Access to open space is a matter of health. Having access to nature is a matter of life and death,” said Martineau, Canopy’s executive director.

Building and gentrification are realities that aren’t going away, said Kaufman of Green Foothills. “It’s not OK to simply gentrify in our cities. People have to have access to nature near their homes. When we started, we tried to prevent all of the hillsides from being swallowed in development. Our work still also has to be about bringing nature into our spaces, and it is going to be a challenge to do that as we continue to build up cities,” she said.

Ruiz of Midpen Open Space recalled a saying she heard from an Amah Mutsun leader, a member of a local Indigenous tribe that often collaborates with the organization: “Whatever you do today is going to affect people seven generations out,” he told her.

That expression resonated with Ruiz.

“Every decision you make today will have ramifications that will affect people further out than you ever imagined. To go for the quick win at that moment or that year, you have to think about the environmental implications going forward. Otherwise, people seven generations out are going to have to bear that burden,” she said.

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