Legislating for nature

February 3, 2012

California State Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) has deep roots in the Bay Area’s conservation community, with an abiding interest in environmental policy. Before arriving in Sacramento, Skinner, a graduate of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, taught courses in California native plants, founded two nonprofits focusing on climate change issues, served on the Berkeley City Council for eight years, and on the East Bay Regional Park Board for two years.

BN: Are you originally from the Bay Area? If not, what brought you here?

NS: My father is a native San Franciscan and I was born here also, but, alas, he moved our family to Southern California when I was five. There was much about Southern California that I loved: I was introduced early on to native plants because we lived near the South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes. I also spent a lot of time exploring tidepools, and thought I was going to grow up to be a marine biologist. I returned to the Bay Area in 1972 to attend UC Berkeley, and never left.

BN: Before your political career, you interned at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). What did you do there, and how did these early experiences inform your perspectives on local environmental issues?

NS: It was in the early days of the GGNRA and I had some great experiences working there. For my internship I had the opportunity to visit and explore each of the park’s sites: Fort Baker, Fort Funston, Rodeo Beach, Tennessee Valley, and others. My task was to document the physical amenities and natural features of each one. At each site I was checking for trails, wheelchair access, whether there were restrooms or parking, natural features like creeks, wetlands, birds, wildlife and native plants, as well as human historic features such as the various military installations. This was before the Internet or personal computers, so I catalogued the information in binders so park personnel could use it for visitor brochures and guides.

The next two years after my internship I got to spend the summer living at Fort Cronkhite (Rodeo Lagoon) in the Marin Headlands, working throughout the GGNRA as a leader for the federal Youth Conservation Corps program. We drove our high school charges in military jeeps to do trail work at sites like Steep Ravine. My experiences at GGNRA really cemented my already budding appreciation for urban nature. I’ve been a huge advocate of nature at home ever since.

BN: What is one of the most surprising, or satisfying, developments in the environmental field that you’ve been involved with in your political career?

NS: The leadership role that cities and local governments have taken in addressing critical environmental issues like climate change and plastics pollution. Local governments throughout California, the US, and the world are way ahead of national governments, having adopted greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, implementing climate action plans, limiting plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers, and much more.

BN: What is one of the most pressing issues you’re working on these days regarding the environment in California, and particularly the Bay Area?

NS: There are so many, it’s hard to pick one! I do have the goal to make reflective pavements and roofs as normal and popular as recycling. Here we are in a warming world, and one of the easiest and most cost-effective adaptation and mitigation strategies is to lessen the urban heat-island effect. Just by making slight adjustments in how we pave streets and parking lots and cover buildings, we can immediately lower temperatures on the hottest days, cut energy use – which of course cuts greenhouse gas emissions – and reduce smog. And since we re-roof and repave on a regular basis, it’s easy to make the change to higher reflective materials rather than using outmoded heat-absorbing ones.

BN: Have you found some unexpected allies in the course of your work on these issues?

NS: There are lots of folks in the building industry who are huge advocates for energy-efficient and green buildings; it’s been great to get to know them. And almost all of the world’s experts on the urban heat island effect are right here in our backyard at the Lawrence Berkeley and Livermore National Laboratories.

BN: What are some of your favorite natural places to go when you’re back home from Sacramento?

NS: I love riding my bike on the Bay Trail. I live near the pedestrian overpass that lets us walkers and bikers get over I-80, so I just ride from my house, cross over that bridge and then ride for miles! I also love to walk the shoreline; my favorite places are Point Pinole Regional Park, and Berkeley’s waterfront, especially when the burrowing owls are in town!

Learn more about Assemblymember Skinner and the issues she’s working on:

About the Author

Beth Slatkin is Bay Nature's marketing and outreach director.