Nature News

Bill Kortum Leaves Legacy in Conservation

January 5, 2015

Bill Kortum, a legendary conservationist in Sonoma County, fought — and won — many battles on the North Coast. Among his most critical was wrangling the rugged shoreline away from the control of local government officials, who at the time favored development, by helping to establish the state Coastal Commission.

True to his spirit, Kortum, 87, enlisted his friends in one final entreaty on his deathbed. He must have been thinking of unfinished business, as he proclaimed, “Skip the soup. Get Lafferty open.”

Opening the 250-acre Lafferty Ranch atop Sonoma Mountain to the public has been a process more than two decades in the making. But the legal limbo wouldn’t have dissuaded Kortum, who was as tenacious an activist as they come, apparently even to the very end. He died of prostate cancer on Dec. 21.

Kortum grew up rambling around the outskirts of Petaluma, but was warned by his father, who fought off a plan to push Highway 1 through the family ranch in the early 1940s, that such freedom to roam would disappear some day. Sure enough, as a young veterinarian, he watched firsthand the local dairy ranches fall to development in the postwar pressure to expand.  Sonoma County once projected a population of 1.5 million people with development scattered across the landscape. It now has 490,000 residents, thanks, in part, to Kortum’s efforts.

Kortum and his wife, Lucy, began dreaming of a different outcome for Sonoma County. Among their victories:

  • * Helping stop PG&E from building a nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay in the mid-1960s.
  • * Establishing Sonoma County Conservation Action in 1991, a canvassing organization that led campaigns to establish urban growth boundaries around all cities in Sonoma County.
  • * Statewide voter approval of Proposition 20 in 1972, which created the California Coastal Commission to regulate coastal development.

Kortum is survived by his wife, Lucy, their three children, Frank, Sam and Julie Groves, and five grandchildren.

About the Author

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.