Sylvia McLaughlin: Champion for San Francisco Bay (1916-2016)

January 21, 2016

hey say it takes a village to achieve something great. And that’s true. But it really helps if one or more of those villagers steps forward and shoulders a greater share of the load, to get things going, and keep them going in the right direction. Sylvia McLaughlin, who died yesterday at the age of 99, was one of those special villagers. This big village of the Bay Area looks very different, and is infinitely more livable for both humans and wildlife, because of her vision and her work.

As you know, Sylvia was one of the three women who founded the Save the Bay movement in the early 1960s, when unhindered development threatened to turn our magnificent San Francisco Bay into little more than an industry-lined shipping channel. A half century—and many battles—later, the filling of the Bay has been stopped; inappropriate development has been slowed by regulatory oversight; marshes around the Bay are being reopened to the tides and restored as wildlife habitat; and harbor porpoises once again ply the waters inside the Golden Gate.

Of course, Sylvia wasn’t responsible for all of this, not by a long shot. That’s where the rest of the villagers, the rest of us, come in: Thousands of folks inspired by Sylvia’s vision and example have participated in shoreline cleanups, marsh restoration projects, and shorebird studies; written letters to stop the paving over of potential wetlands, or to support acquisition of bayshore open space; and built trails on levees to allow public access to our Bay.

Thanks to Sylvia’s leadership over the past five decades, the residents of the Bay Area have done a lot to keep “saving the Bay.” But our job isn’t done yet. There are still a number of threats facing San Francisco Bay, from inappropriate development to sea level rise to plastics pollution. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to make a big dent in these remaining challenges in the form of a June 2016 parcel tax measure that will raise $500 million for Bay restoration projects. What a fitting tribute it would be to Sylvia McLaughlin and her vision of a vibrant, healthy, accessible Bay if we could pass this measure to fund the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority.

It’s too bad Sylvia is no longer with us to help rally support one more time for her beloved Bay, but we can keep her firm but gentle voice in our heads and our hearts as we take up the load she carried for so long. So long, Sylvia. Thanks for showing us how to get it done. And thanks for helping to make this village a much better place to live.

David Loeb is Bay Nature’s publisher and executive director.

Save the Bay has posted a short biography in memory of Sylvia McLaughlin at savesfbay.org. The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, gifts in honor of Sylvia McLaughlin be made to Save The Bay or to Citizens for Eastshore Parks.

About the Author

From 2001-2017, David Loeb served as editor and then publisher of Bay Nature magazine, and executive director of the nonprofit Bay Nature Institute. A Bay Area resident since 1973, David moved here after graduating from college in Boston. The decision was largely based on a week spent visiting friends in San Francisco the previous January, which had included a memorable day at Point Reyes National Seashore. In the late 1990s, after many years working for the Guatemala News and Information Bureau in Oakland, David had the opportunity to spend more time hiking and exploring the parks and open spaces of the Bay Area. Increasingly curious about what he was seeing, he began reading natural history books, attending naturalist-led hikes and natural history courses and lectures, and volunteering for several local conservation organizations.

This was rewarding, but he began to feel that the rich natural diversity of the Bay Area deserved a special venue and a dedicated voice for the whole region, to supplement the many publications devoted to one particular place or issue. That’s when the germ of Bay Nature magazine began to take shape. In February 1997, David contacted Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books and News from Native California, with the idea of a magazine focused on nature in the Bay Area, and was delighted with Malcolm’s enthusiastic response. Over the course of many discussions with Malcolm, publishing professionals, potential funders, and local conservation and advocacy groups, the magazine gradually took shape and was launched in January 2001. It is still going strong, with a wider base of support than ever.

Now retired, David contributes to his Bay Nature column "Field Reports."