Bay Nature notes with sadness the passing of pioneering environmental journalist Harold Gilliam this past Wednesday at the age of 98. Harold was not only a giant in the field; he was also the first in the field, at least here in the Bay Area when he began writing about the Bay Area environment for the San Francisco Chronicle in the early 1950s. As Harold told reporter David Kupfer during a 2011 interview for Bay Nature magazine, “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 was a journalist who happened to have the luck to be the first environmental columnist, or the first that I knew about.”
Gilliam started writing his weekly column in the Chronicle in 1961 and continued doing so until he retired in 1995. He also found time to write 13 books about the natural world of the Bay Area and about the important environmental issues of the day. These works included Island in Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula (1962) which was influential in the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore and the classic Weather of the San Francisco Bay Region (2nd edition, 2002). He also chronicled the battle to save San Francisco Bay in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Bay: The Struggle to Save San Francisco Bay (1969).
His weekly column took on many of the pressing environmental issues of the day, giving a voice to the emerging environmental movement in the region. Gilliam was careful to point out that he was a journalist and not an activist: “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.” But he provided an influential platform for those whose voices might not otherwise have been heard: people who fought to save the Bay from further development, to keep PG&E from building a nuclear power plant, to keep San Francisco from building a freeway through Golden Gate Park, and so on. And he had the leeway to go deeper than the “He says; she says” kind of reporting that too often characterizes daily environmental coverage in mainstream news media today.
By the time we launched Bay Nature in 2001, Harold had already retired. But he graciously accepted an invitation to speak at our public launch party, instantly conferring credibility on this upstart nature publication that hoped to walk down the trail he had blazed. He traced the history of Bay Area nature writing and conservation advocacy back to John Muir, situating Bay Nature within that proud tradition and admonishing us to keep faith with it. So we were delighted when he agreed to return for our 10th anniversary celebration in 2011 and accept the first Bay Nature “Local Hero” award for environmental journalism.
We at Bay Nature owe Harold Gilliam an enormous debt of gratitude for his legacy of engaged environmental journalism. And all of us in the Bay Area owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his contributions to the legacy of protected and undeveloped open space that makes this such a great place to live. Thanks, Harold, for showing us the way!