Planetary action

Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 21, 1999

Planetary action

Local groups gear up for Earth Day

by Don Kazak

It was a gray, windy and drizzly morning at the Palo Alto Baylands in April 1990.

Despite the brisk weather, there was a celebratory mood among the environmentalists who had come together to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.

Much had happened since the first Earth Day. The federal Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act had been passed. The Environmental Protection Agency had been established. People recycled. Green consciousness was growing.

That's why it was a little surprising to some, although probably not to those who knew him best, to hear what Wallace Stegner had to say as the keynote speaker on that blustery Baylands morning in 1990.

Stegner, renowned and beloved as an author and writing teacher, was a backbone of the local environmental movement, having co-founded the Committee for Green Foothills in 1962.

When Stegner rose to speak, it wasn't to congratulate anyone.

He told the people in the crowd they shouldn't be "Sunday Christians" when it came to environmental awareness, but should get and stay involved because so much is at stake.

"I think we have to change not only our habits but our heroes," Stegner said.

Tomorrow at 6 a.m., local environmentalists will mark Earth Day 1999 in a sunrise ceremony at Byxbee Park in the Palo Alto Baylands, the same place where Stegner exhorted the crowd nine years ago. As was the case then, Earth Day 1999 for environmentalists will be more than a symbolic event, even in an area as environmentally conscious as the Midpeninsula. While much has been won, environmentalists say, much work still remains. Progress locally has been partly masked by the booming success of Silicon Valley, which is creating massive traffic headaches and their accompanying pollution.

Earth Day 1999 will also mark the beginning of a new effort by the environmental movement to stay in the forefront of the public's consciousness throughout the year. A new organization up in Seattle, Earth Day Network, has an ambitious plan for Earth Day 2000 and is tied into green groups throughout the country, including the Bay Area.

"We're using this (Earth Day) as an opportunity to launch a year of action," said Peter Drekmeier, executive director of Earth Day Network, which next year is planning to hold Earth Day 2000 events in 195 countries.

Drekmeier worked on the Earth Day 1990 national campaign out of an Emerson Street storefront in downtown Palo Alto with Denis Hayes, the coordinator of the seminal 1970 event.

When Earth Day 1990 packed up its bags, Drekmeier and others who had staffed the campaign wanted to keep working together on environmental issues. So they founded Bay Area Action, a Palo Alto-based group that Drekmeier headed until last year. That was when he and Michael Closson, a longtime Palo Altan and former executive director of the Center for Economic Conversion in Mountain View, were lured to Seattle by Hayes, who had previously moved there to work for a local foundation.

For Earth Day 1990, national environmental groups were on board only with the agreement that Earth Day wouldn't become a continuing rival green organization. The 30 largest environmental groups belong to a coalition called the Green Group, which supported Earth Day 1990 as long as it didn't become a continuing organization.

"This time around, it's going to be an ongoing organization (after 2000)," Drekmeier said. "And that's with the support of the environmental community, because they saw the incredible enthusiasm that came out of 1990," with some of those organizations doubling their memberships.

Earth Day Network will remain in business after Earth Day 2000 as a coordinator for local efforts around the country and world and to help give a theme for each successive Earth Day to help unite environmental efforts.

Local environmental groups, meanwhile, have geared up for tomorrow's Earth Day, viewing it as an opportunity to prepare for next year's millennium Earth Day and remind local residents of the environmental issues the groups address.

"Every day is Earth Day for us," said Denice Dade, legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills, a group that is closely watching Stanford development plans and would like the university to dedicate its pristine foothills as open space.

"It does give us a day to stop and reflect what it means to take care of the planet," said Susan Stansbury, executive director of Bay Area Action in Palo Alto. Her group, among other things, is coordinating a restoration effort in Palo Alto's Arastradero Preserve.

Local groups are also shifting their focus slightly to talk about issues like sustainability. "Is sustainable growth an oxymoron?" asked Lurie Mueller, executive director of the Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation. "Have we reached a point where we can't grow anymore?"

The new leadership of Earth Day Network and its strong ties to local groups comes out of a long history of environmental activism here.

In fact, there is a story environmentalists still like to tell about environmental activism on the Midpeninsula. When Greenpeace conducted its first big international fund-raising mail campaign years ago, the story goes, half of the money raised came from the United States. Of that, half came from California. Of that, half came from the Bay Area. Of that, half came from Palo Alto.

With strong ties to Palo Alto green groups, Drekmeier and other Earth Day Network staff are counting on local groups to help provide leadership to other Bay Area groups.

"We're looking for groups we want to collaborate with and programs that really work," Drekmeier said. "And it's amazing how many of those organizations are headquartered in the Bay Area. Bay Area Action and the Peninsula Conservation Center are the lead agencies. They're working with a coalition; last year it was 70 different groups organizing activities all around the Bay Area."

Earth Day 1999, thanks to the formation of Earth Day Network in Seattle, will be the beginning of the effort for Earth Day 2000, or "the launch," as Drekmeier put it.

Groups around the country are being asked to identify projects they can bring to fruition by Earth Day 2000. "Therefore Earth Day becomes a benchmark," Drekmeier said. "We're striving to complete certain things and then move forward."

And keep on moving forward.

Energy conservation and climate change will be the unifying theme for Earth Day 2000, with themes already selected for the seven Earth Days to follow.

Locally, environmental groups each have their own activities and focus.

The Committee for Green Foothills, as it has since it was formed 37 years ago, continues to watch protectively over Stanford's vast foothills, which the group would like dedicated as open space.

The committee also keeps an eye on other open space issues in the South Bay. "Little things are always occurring," Dade said. "We're putting out little fires all the time."

Dade said the Stanford foothills "are important because they are so close. You get a sense of beauty, serenity and calmness" from them.

Bay Area Action has multiple projects going and has "sustainability" as its Earth Day 1999 theme. It has prepared a 16-page booklet on sustainability, including steps individuals can take.

The Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation, which was founded in 1970 after the first Earth Day, has an environmental library, sponsors a regular series of public brown-bag lunch lectures and hosts conferences on environmental issues. The foundation's center itself is home to several groups, including the 5-year-old group CRMP (Coordinated Resource Management and Planning Process), which focuses on preserving the San Francisquito Creek ecosystem.

The PCC works closely with Bay Area Action, to the point that the two groups last year held serious merger talks. Those talks are now on hold, largely because the PCC's building near the Baylands isn't big enough to accommodate BAA as well.

The Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation also has changed its mission statement to add the concept of sustainability, which is fast becoming the new byword of local green groups.

The issue today isn't how much local residents and businesses recycle but whether the runaway economic success of Silicon Valley may be leading to environmental headaches--traffic congestion and long commutes for many workers--that are difficult to remedy.

"How do we retain what we love about the Bay Area?" said the PCC's Mueller. Or, as she said earlier, is more growth possible now, or are limits being reached?

"There is amazing growth and innovation here, but growth is continuing," Stansbury said. "Can this region sustain that level of growth, from a bioregional perspective?"

The new focus on sustainability comes at a time when support for environmental efforts is stronger than ever. Polls show that, nationally, 75 to 80 percent of people back such activities.

"There's a shift in our organization's direction by putting that word (sustainability) in there," Mueller said. "Conservation was the theme of the 1970s. Groups like Save the Bay and Committee for Green Foothills were all saving something. ... The idea of diminishing resources is more mainstream-acceptable now."

Even the efforts to get corporations to think green have largely paid off, at least locally. Big corporations used to be the sworn enemies of environmentalists, and some still are.

But the Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation has been handing out environmental awards to green-thinking local businesses for about a decade.

"Silicon Valley has become such a focal point of the economy," Drekmeier said. "I think people are trying to do things the right way, so there are some good examples of businesses that have carpooling programs and are really making attempts.

"But the economy (here) is so strong that it is pulling people in from other areas and creating this whole traffic mess that, along with economic success, brings real environmental challenges."

The larger, global picture, despite environmental successes, is not reassuring in the long run.

"We are currently using resources twice as fast as the Earth can replenish them," Stansbury said. "We have to get out of the mind-set that resources are unlimited and start using them wisely."

Environmentalists are now talking about resources being depleted as the "carrying capacity" of the Earth, in terms of people and consumption of resources, she added.

"We need better strategies for alternative energies, less packaging and more durable products," Stansbury said.

Carpooling, bicycling, using transit and recycling are activities that everyone can do to cut down on energy use, conserve resources and reduce pollution.

While local residents may score relatively high in terms of environmental consciousness, some of the tougher regional problems--like traffic congestion--are beyond the capacity of any one city to solve alone. As a result, there is new talk of regional cooperation and planning, as Palo Alto, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and Stanford grapple with development issues that affect each other.

After a Leadership Midpeninsula luncheon in February that drew hundreds of elected officials and civic leaders, Palo Alto Mayor Gary Fazzino took the initiative in March to announce the formation of a tri-city "council of mayors" with Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.

Local green groups applaud the effort.

"The council of mayors is a great first step," Dade said, "but it should be broader and include planners."

"We need a regional approach," agreed Mueller. "Many groups are trying to address regional planning. Subregional efforts have been started by Fazzino. You can end up with all the communities benefiting."

One nascent subregional triumph is protecting San Francisquito Creek, the waterway that forms a living link between Stanford, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.

The creek can be a source of vexation and ruin, as when it slipped its banks during the disastrous Feb. 2-3 flooding last year. It can also be a point of contention and a barrier to cooperation.

CRMP began working quietly five years ago to put together a management plan for the creek.

After the flood of '98, Menlo Park City Manager Jan Dolan realized that no one city had the ability to solve the flooding problems by itself and helped convene what will soon be a five-entity Joint Powers Authority to take over management of the creek and look for long-term solutions to flood dangers.

Palo Alto, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, San Mateo County and the Santa Clara County Water District will be the members of the JPA, Dolan said. Stanford University, which is a corporation and not a government, will be an associate member. (The Palo Alto and Menlo Park city councils were scheduled to officially join the JPA at their meetings earlier this week.)

Later, when talks about flood control projects begin, Woodside and Portola Valley may also become involved.

Considering that the creek has sometimes been a point of contention between Palo Alto and Menlo Park or Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, everything is going smoothly. "It's one of the more positive experiences I've been involved in," Dolan said. "There's a great deal of cooperation between all the jurisdictions. We are very close to this becoming a reality."

Pat Showalter, the CRMP coordinator, has been working with the cities to help set up the JPA and supports its creation. She said her group will function as a citizens advisory group to the new San Francisquito Creek JPA. "We will collect information and concerns and carry them to the joint powers authority," Showalter said. "It should be a useful and powerful synergy."

The beginning efforts at regional cooperation could lead to a better sense of a shared community, which could go some distance to a greater awareness of the limits to growth locally. And the idea of sustainability, the new theme of Bay Area Action and the Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation, may come into play in the regional talks.

Devising a solution to the maintenance of San Francisquito Creek while also reducing flood dangers will be difficult and expensive, and it may require eventual environmental tradeoffs. But for environmentalists, the fact that people are talking is encouraging and an additional reason to celebrate Earth Day.

"A lot of people think of Earth Day as this day where we have this big party, but Earth Day is more than that," Drekmeier said. "Earth Day is a time to think about where we've come and look back, and what we need to change."

It's a process for the patient but dedicated, as Wallace Stegner eloquently pointed out in his Earth Day speech at the Baylands nine years ago.

"We have to remember how we got into this, one smokestack at a time," Stegner said. The way out, he added, "is one step at a time over a long period of time."

Back up to the Table of Contents Page