The story of the birth and evolution of Sonoma County Conservation Action has been described briefly in a couple of books about the environmental movements of the San Francisco Bay Area: The Country in the City by Richard Walker, and Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast by Martin Griffin, M.D.
Unfortunately, both of these works went to print without fact-checking their texts with those who were actually present at the events they describe, and as a result, they got substantial parts of the story wrong.
With the celebration of the 21st anniversary of the launch of the Conservation Action canvass, I’m thinking about those days again. As the initial proponent and overseer of the organization’s development for its first ten years, I may be the only person who remembers the organization’s early history in detail.
It’s a pretty good tale, if I do say so myself, and worth preserving. So here it is. We’re talking about a span of twenty-one years, all told, so this will come out in chunks. Enjoy.
A Sense of Place
After graduating from high school, I moved from Davis, a college town in California’s Central Valley, to Santa Rosa, located some 50 miles north of San Francisco. I was on my own when it came to paying for my higher education, and Santa Rosa Junior College was said to be the third-best such institution in the country: affordable, reputable, and with a high transfer rate to university. Off I went. It was 1979; I was 17.
Settling on Sonoma County for my first two years of college brought unexpected rewards. As those who come from across the world to visit will attest, the place is amazing…particularly if you have spent your childhood staring across table-flat sugar beet fields to the unattainable hills of the horizon.
Suddenly, I lived among epic landscapes of soft coastal mountains, gold in the summer and green in the winter, with oak, bay, madrone and manzanita in the ravines between them. Redwood forests that felt so ancient I expected dinosaurs to come crashing into their silence. A wild coastline of high bluffs and secluded coves that looks for all the world like Scotland. A (usually) mild, lazy river meandering to the sea, lined with green riparian forests. Temperate climate, neither too cold nor too warm. Great air and water quality (sadly, less so now than they were then). Some of the best wine, beer and food on Earth, period, full stop. And a population largely made up of tolerant, liberal-minded refugees from other places that have been ruined by urban sprawl.
When I arrived, the county’s electoral demographics had only recently shifted from a majority of rural and small-town conservatives. That transition was not in any way reflected in the county’s politics, which were dominated by developers, realtors and builders cashing in on the county’s sudden attractiveness to home buyers, and agricultural land owners selling lands on the urban fringe for conversion to sprawl subdivisions. While a substantial group of back-to-the-land counterculturalists had settled in the western part of the county in the early 1970s, it had failed to gain much traction over the county’s land use, transportation, and water policies. So while voices expressing environmental concern were heard, they were generally dismissed as fringe, minority positions, and ignored by policy makers, who continued to dance with them what brung ’em.
In 1979, Sonoma County was represented in Congress by a 9-term conservative Republican, and substantial majorities of both its Board of Supervisors and the city councils of its municipalities were owned lock, stock and barrel by the interests busily grinding Heaven on Earth into money. Polls showed that impacts of rapid growth were at the top of voter concerns, but their only sources of information about local candidates for office were the candidates’ own campaign literature and the local daily, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat…a substantial portion of the revenues of which derived from real estate advertising and other direct support from the interests running the show.
I became aware of all this, but didn’t engage with it much. I had always been interested in politics, but I was in college, waiting tables to survive and putting whatever extra time I had into speech and debate competition. I didn’t have time for activism.
I did have one bizarre engagement with the county’s politics during this time. My roommate and I were dragged by his father—a realtor with the infamous Soderling Brothers, who were subsequently convicted of a series of felonies—to an Election Night party celebrating voter approval of the Warm Springs Dam. This was before the wheels came off the bus in the federal savings and loan scandal, of course, in which Sonoma County developers, political figures and financial institutions were to play a prominent role (read this book, if you haven’t. It’s both fascinating and damning).
I’m quite sure I’m the only person ever to become a part of Sonoma County’s environmental movement who happened to find himself at that party. I remember then-Sheriff Roger McDermott bending my ear about something while, trying to pretend to pay attention, I looked around at the room full of drunken, exulting cow-town Good Ol’ Boys, thinking, these cannot possibly be the people directing the course of this county’s future.
I graduated from SRJC (::cough valedictory speaker cough::) and then commuted by bus to San Francisco State to complete my Bachelors Degree. When I opted for graduate school in 1986, I finally pulled up stakes and moved to the City.
I needed a job while attending graduate school, so I looked in the nonprofit, public benefit sector. A friend pointed me at a building on Market Street filled with the offices of public-interest organizations; I started at the top floor and worked my way down, asking at each office if any of them had any jobs. On the fifth floor, I found the California League of Conservation Voters.
They had jobs. Canvassing jobs.
Over the next three years, I became first a trainee, and then a canvasser, a trainer, and a field manager for the League. Unlike many canvassing operations—yes, I’m looking at you, Greenpeace and PIRGs—the League’s field staff were viewed as organizers, not just fundraisers, and the organization invested the time, content and rigor in their training program to give staff what they needed to be effective. The League viewed recruiting membership and contributions as a means to the end of keeping the staff in the field, where we mobilized thousands of hand-written letters from voters to elected officials in targeted campaigns, distributed endorsements and campaigned for candidates and ballot measures the League supported, recruited volunteers, and disseminated an annual legislative report card on the California Assembly and State Senate. League canvassers understood that we were the face of the organization and would be back at the same doors again year after year; we needed to maintain a cordial, respectful and professional demeanor when interacting with the public. Pushy, foot-in-the-door types were not welcome.
I knocked on tens of thousands of doors for the League and worked on at least a couple of dozen campaigns, raising more than $100,000 in contributions averaging less than $30 per. I learned how to craft effective messages: how to talk with people about the League’s issues from many different standpoints, whether birds-and-bunnies environmentalism, fiscal conservatism, grassroots democracy, government accountability or resource efficiency. I traveled on cross-training trips to work on campaigns and help build canvass offices for other organizations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and the League’s own office in Southern California.
While at the League, I met Bill Kortum, a former Sonoma County Supervisor who had been one of the founding members of the CLCV board. He and I hit it off because of our shared affinity for Sonoma County, and during breaks in board meetings, we had a couple of conversations about how Sonoma County could really use a local-scale grassroots organizing program before what was great about the county went the way that what was great about the San Fernando Valley had gone.
in 1989, my life happened to reach a juncture where there was a chance to make a big change: a relationship had ended, I was being forced to move from my apartment, and it was going to cost every dime of my savings to move into another place. So I jumped sideways instead: I put my possessions into storage in my brother’s garage, bought a one-way ticket to Amsterdam, shouldered a backpack and took off. I traveled throughout Europe and into North Africa for more than a year, settling in Barcelona during the school year to teach English.
As I began to consider returning to the U.S. in spring of 1990, I thought about those conversations with Bill. I knew Sonoma County was where I wanted to live, and wanted it to retain the qualities I so loved about it. Those qualities had already been threatened just in the time since I’d first moved there, and something needed to be done, or there was certainly the possibility that Sonoma County would go the way of many other formerly wonderful places: The “Valley of Heart’s Desire”, for example, which we now call Silicon Valley, or that well-known land of bucolic orchards, Orange County.
It occurred to me that there couldn’t be many people out there who had both a passion for Sonoma County and the skill set I had developed while working with the League. If a program like the one Bill and I had discussed was going to happen, I was probably going to have to build it.
Next: Early Days