Bay Nature honored Harold Gilliam, along with two other local heroes, at our 10th anniversary celebration on January 22, 2011.
Before Harold Gilliam began his weekly newspaper column in 1960, the category of environmental journalism simply did not exist. For the next 35 years, Gilliam pioneered and perfected the craft of environmental reporting. No one else has conveyed the depth and breadth of Bay Area environmental issues as ably and effectively over such a long period.
Gilliam was born in 1918 and grew up in Los Angeles. After earning a B.A. in political science from UCLA and an M.A. in economics from UC Berkeley, he served in the Army in World War II. In 1948 Gilliam studied under Wallace Stegner in the Stanford writing program, which led to a job at the San Francisco Chronicle, first as a copy boy, then as a news reporter. In 1960, he was hired by the San Francisco Examiner to write a weekly column about the environment. A year later he was back at the Chronicle launching his weekly “This Land” column, through which he covered the important environmental issues of the day, such as sprawl, nuclear energy, open space preservation, and water supply. In his columns, he also shared his fascination with natural history, writing about fog, the hydrology of San Francisco Bay, redwood forest ecology, and more.
Gilliam has authored 13 books on nature and the environment, including Island in Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula (1962), Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Bay: The Struggle to Save San Francisco Bay (1969), and Weather of the San Francisco Bay Region (second edition, 2002). His articles have appeared in The Nation, Sierra, Audubon, Saturday Review, and Daedalus. Gilliam’s recent prose will appear in a forthcoming anthology, In the Manner of the Country: Living and Writing the American West (University of Texas Press, 2011).
Though he retired from the Chronicle in 1995, Gilliam continues to write and stays up-to-date on current issues. He also remains physically active, swimming several times a week and going for daily walks in his beloved Golden Gate Park.
DK: What was it like for you growing up in Los Angeles?
HG: We lived near the foot of the Hollywood Hills and I used to hike in those hills and I had a paper route in Laurel Canyon. Even at that time, in the 1920s, the hills were being attacked by developers who were interested in building there, but they were primarily interested in excavating the decomposed granite to use in the making of cement and concrete. That made me very mad because I loved nature and wild areas. While it was not the kind of wild area you would find in the Sierra, it was still native California terrain, mostly open hills with some small live oaks. Down in the canyons there were huge sycamores and a lot of vegetation and running streams in some places. I had all kinds of ideas of planting dynamite under the trucks and bulldozers. I was going to be a criminal at the age of 10! I had read a number of Indian books as a boy and had read of their destruction by the U.S. cavalry and other forces. I was on their side and wanted to be an Indian when I grew up.
I didn’t succeed at that, but this was an additional motive for resenting what was happening in those hills and then later anticipating what was going to happen in the Bay Area.
DK: What was your first impression when you came to the Bay Area?
HG: One of my first impressions was at the 1939-40 World’s Fair on Treasure Island. I remember coming out of one of the buildings, and it was close to sunset, and the sun was going down behind the Golden Gate, and the windows of the East Bay were all ablaze with that light of the sun going down, and the salt breeze was coming in from the Bay, that wonderful salt aroma. I looked up at the Bay Bridge–which had just opened–and saw traffic in the sky, including rail transportation, which was on the bridge at that time. I thought, wow, this is a place I would like to live someday! There was the Bay all around, and the ocean, and the hills–not all of which had been built over yet–and that sense of space contributed to the whole idea of wanting to live here.
When I moved to the Bay Area after the Second World War, I just knew that these open hills in Marin, for example, were going to be cleared and built on, as I had seen in Southern California. There were people trying to prevent that but I thought they were bucking an impossible trend. There had been very little development during the war and there was a great boom in the late ’40s and ’50s, which brought out the bulldozers, but it also eventually brought out the conservationists who were working to preserve what remained of the natural parts of the Bay Area.
DK: Why do you suppose the Bay Area didn’t suffer the fate of the L.A. region?
HG: I think there is something in the history and the geography of the area–the hills, valleys, the Bay and oceanfront–that inspired the conservationists in the early part of the 20th century. It may trace back to the Gold Rush when people were pouring in here from all over the world. Previous cultures, the Native American and Spanish cultures, were very dispersed and not very rigorous in promoting their own interests, so the new people who came here created new institutions. They had to create a government of their own and develop new ways of doing things such as mining, logging, and agriculture. For example they’d see the gold on the bottom of a stream and you couldn’t dig down there, so they built the sluices that moved the rivers and waterways so they could get the gold. So the Gold Rush selected a certain kind of person, adventurous types willing to leave old customs behind and try new ways of doing things.
And, of course, the miners needed food and clothing and equipment. The people who provided these supplies were really the ones who became wealthy. The manufacturing of equipment and supplies brought in more “gold” than all the gold found in the Mother Lode. Agriculture was the same way. Orchards were planted around the Bay, and the income from agriculture eventually exceeded the value of the gold mined. This habit of innovation, risk taking, and developing new ideas has become part of the culture of the Bay Area.
Not all the innovations were positive: Hydraulic mining was quite destructive. But then there was another innovation, the banning of hydraulic mining, which took some decades, but eventually there was enough public support. The “green” part began with another innovator, John Muir. He was an inventor before he was a conservationist, before he was a mountaineer. On his farm in Martinez he did a lot of experimentation, crossbreeding different plants, breeding crops and trees much like another innovator, Luther Burbank, was doing up in Santa Rosa.
When it came to trying to preserve the mountains, Muir’s innovation was the creation of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in 1890. And the effort to preserve these gains led to the founding of the Sierra Club in 1892, which continues to lead the way over a century later. There are linkages from this to the efforts, eventually successful, of the three women from Berkeley who originated the Save the Bay movement. Their innovation was to translate the campaigns for conservation of wilderness to campaigns for the environment in urban areas.
So there was this state of mind here, unlike in Southern California, which led to conservation and environmentalism in spite of my pessimism about the future.
DK: You were pessimistic about the future but you helped raise the consciousness of people in the Bay Area. What is your assessment of your own impact here?
HG: I can’t assess that very well. I was not an activist. I was simply a reporter trying to record what was happening. I started writing my Chronicle column in 1961 simply as an effort to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the natural environment here. There were a lot of aspects of the natural environment that most people were not aware of, and I was able to write about them, and that eventually resulted in my first book–San Francisco Bay–which was not a conservationist or environmental book so much as an attempt to get the feeling of the landscape here and to help people enjoy, as I have, the natural beauty of this area.
Then, when I saw the developers moving in on some of these areas, I was motivated to write about the resulting controversies. One example was the campaign to save San Francisco Bay in the 1960s. I did a series about that and all the plans for various cities and counties to fill the Bay. For example, Berkeley’s plans would have doubled the geographic area of the city by extending it several miles out into the Bay.
Each community around the Bay, from San Rafael to San Mateo, had similar plans to fill it in. They thought that by filling large parts of the Bay they could expand their borders and increase their property taxes, so it was a way of improving their financial situation and expanding their territory, sort of an empire-building motive. I wrote a piece about every one, and that did draw attention to what was happening and to the fact that the Bay would be seriously diminished if these plans went through.
DK: What was your inspiration to become an environmental writer? Did someone at the Chronicle say, “Harold, I want you to cover the environment”?
HG: No, environmentalism was not even a word in those days. My column just evolved over time from my appreciation of the Bay Area landscape to conservation and environmentalism. I do remember seeing an article in the New Yorker about New York Harbor and I recall thinking, why not write an article on San Francisco Bay? So I persuaded the Chronicle to let me do an article on the Bay that was featured as a big cover story in “This World,” the Sunday magazine section, in 1953. The Doubleday book publishers saw the article and asked me to do a book on the subject and I said sure, not knowing what I had gotten into. It took me two years and I had to take a leave of absence from the Chronicle. But that book was successful: It was on the New York Times best seller list for 19 weeks. That is what really started my career.
DK: How long did your weekly column run in the S.F. Chronicle?
HG: I started in 1961 and went through until the mid-1990s.
DK: Did your role as an environmental reporter ever get you into trouble with your bosses at the Chronicle?
HG: The publishers didn’t always agree with what I was writing, but I have to give them credit for giving me free rein in spite of their doubts.
DK: Do you feel like you became a conduit for the environmental community to educate the public about important issues of the day?
HG: I suppose, but when people congratulate me on what I have done, I say I didn’t do it; I was just writing about the people who did do it. I think the credit should go to them. I was a journalist who happened to have the luck to be the first environmental columnist, or the first that I knew about. With the column I had a pulpit where I could state my opinion as well as others’ opinions and go into more depth than a daily reporter could do, try to get the whole historical background with all the aspects of it that someone writing on a daily deadline couldn’t handle.
DK: What are some of the major stories you covered over the years?
HG: There were many subjects that I think my column was the first to cover in detail. One was a series I wrote in the 1960s about the planned freeway expansions in San Francisco: One was proposed to go through Golden Gate Park and another around the northern waterfront. This series appeared in the regular news section starting on the front page and went on for the greater part of a week. The proposal was eventually defeated at the Board of Supervisors by a single vote.
At about this same time, the whole nuclear issue came up, and I covered the proposal to build a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head and others to build plants near the Bay and near Santa Cruz. It was at a time when nuclear was thought to be the energy source of the future, and even the Sierra Club was initially on record in support of nuclear energy to avoid the building of more dams. I also wrote a number of articles about the proposal for a national park at Point Reyes; that resulted in my book An Island in Time that the Sierra Club published and sent to every member of Congress before they voted on the bill to create the national seashore.
Related to the climate, when I was working in the Interior Department in the 1960s, one of my colleagues was Roger Revelle, a professor at Harvard and a science adviser to Secretary Stewart Udall. He invited me to a seminar at Woods Hole on Cape Cod where he talked about the alarming impact of increasing carbon dioxide on the global climate. One of his students was Al Gore, who based a lot of his ideas on what he learned from Revelle. I wrote about the impacts of global warming on the California climate, which I believe had not been covered before.
DK: Do you think today’s journalists can have a similar impact?
HG: I think the difference today is that there are innumerable blogs and services that take up environmental matters and there is so much more information available. When I was writing my environmental column–the only one–there was more of a focus. People knew where to look, in the Bay Area at least, to get the environmental background.
DK: What do you see as the main challenges for the environmental community today?
HG: The biggest, most important, is climate change. Think about rising sea level and how that will affect the Bay. This is true for low-lying areas all around the world: Millions of people are going to have to move and get out of the way. But I think there should also continue to be an emphasis on local situations. Fortunately, there are committees for almost everything now–a committee to save Mount Diablo and the campaign to save San Bruno Mountain, the Committee for Green Foothills down on the Peninsula, and so on.
But we still have the problem of expanding population. I calculated that there are more than 10 times as many people in California now as when I was growing up; it went from three million to more than 30 million. What is to prevent another tenfold increase–to 300 million? Either way, there is going to be tremendous pressure for development on all the open areas. I just marvel every time I go up into Napa and Sonoma and West Marin that there is still all this open space left in a booming urban area. But that pressure is going to grow on that region just as it grew on the Santa Clara Valley. I have fond memories of springtime in the Santa Clara Valley, with miles of blossoms on the trees–fruit trees of all kinds; there was an effort to preserve some agriculture there, but the pressures were too great. In Marin, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust was formed to preserve agricultural land by voluntary means, getting farmers to sign up for a conservation easement and keep their taxes down. Great incentive.
So there is going to be plenty of work for activists to do in preserving the quality of life in this area. I hope that concern with climate change, as important as it is, does not drown out the local issues, does not draw activists away from some of these battles that need to be fought on behalf of the local environment.
DK: So has the notion of progress changed over the course of your life?
HG: When I was younger, progress was what the bulldozers were doing. People have long since begun to question that idea of progress. Progress from the conservation and environmental standpoint is preserving more open space and preserving the Bay and not polluting the ocean. That hasn’t entirely overtaken the developmental definition of progress, but at least it is in there fighting. I think that is extremely encouraging. The global concern with climate change–the very encouraging “green” movement–is beginning to cause people to realize that the human impact on the planet needs to change from destruction to restoration–of the ocean, the bays, the rivers, the forests, the soil, the air we breathe. This will require some revolutionary changes in the way we live and do business. I hope the innovative culture of the Bay Area will lead the way, locally and globally.
DK: So are you feeling optimistic or pessimistic about our capacity to meet these challenges?
HG: Well, in recent decades I have seen these green shoots coming up all over the place. One of them is Bay Nature, which is carrying on the idea that the more people get to know and enjoy their natural environment, the more they will work to preserve it. I would like to see the magazine in every home and school in our region. And there are the local organizations around the Bay Area that respond to particular threats. So I am cautiously optimistic that the same energy that has been devoted to preserving what we have will continue on into the future in innovative ways, with the development of sustainable technologies like solar and wind and bio-energy. I’m pessimistic when I see the pressures of urbanization threatening the open spaces that we have been able to preserve so far. How can we handle population pressures that will urbanize everything? So if you want to call that pessimism, well then, okay, but I think I’m basically more optimistic.
DK: What advice do you have for young people starting out on the path to be environmental advocates?
HG: Don’t surrender. Never give up! [laughs]. I think of never-say-die Ed Wayburn. In the 1940s he was a full-time physician but he had evenings and weekends to work on conservation. And acre by acre he began to expand Mount Tamalpais State Park and developed his vision for a park at the Golden Gate and beyond. He kept at it over the decades, after others gave up. Younger people are more vulnerable to getting tired and worn out, and they decide to throw in the towel. Whereas Wayburn just kept at it for years and decades and generations, and that resulted in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore and many of the other wonderful open spaces we have now.
The same can be said of Dave Brower, who for half a century was at the forefront of many environmental struggles, first at the Sierra Club, then Friends of the Earth, and then with Earth Island Institute.
And then there were the three Berkeley women–Kay Kerr, Esther Gulick, and Sylvia McLaughlin–who started Save the Bay. I thought they were bucking an irresistible trend. So much of the Bay floor was owned by private interests that had received it back in the days when the government was giving it away. The railroads–Southern Pacific, Santa Fe– owned vast areas along the shore in the East Bay they were planning to fill. And the Rockefeller interests were keen to fill in off San Mateo, and the Crocker Land Company was planning to level the top of San Bruno Mountain to put it in the Bay and develop it. These were all very powerful interests with strong political lobbies in Sacramento and Washington and were able, with a lot of money, to get their way with campaign contributions. So it seemed to me the three women were going to see their efforts defeated. I am glad I was wrong; they succeeded against all odds and they need to be remembered for that. Never give up!
DK: Why do you suppose conservation activists like Sylvia McLaughlin, Edgar Wayburn, Marty Griffin, and you live so long?
HG: I guess because we get out in the open air and get a lot of exercise!
DK: Where in the Bay Area do you like to go to do that?
HG: Golden Gate Park of course; I live within walking distance of the park. I am also very fond of the city’s beaches. I like to walk down the south shore of the Golden Gate at low tide. And the Marin Headlands and exploring the Golden Gate’s north shore and Point Bonita. And I never tire of visiting the trails of Mount Tamalpais and other areas of West Marin and Point Reyes.
Eds: Harold Gilliam passed away on Wednesday, December 14, 2016 after a long illness. Read his obituary here.
Remembering Harold Gilliam (Bay Nature publisher David Loeb)
Join us in celebrating the people who inspire us to protect and steward the natural world of the San Francisco Bay Area at Bay Nature’s Local Hero Awards Dinner, March 26, 2017.
Like this article?
There’s lots more where this came from…
Subscribe to Bay Nature magazine
Most recent in Human History
The African American National Parks Event encourages people to visit their local national parks on the first weekend in June