A great egeret stands in a restored wetland in the Napa-Sonoma Marshes (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group).
Below is guest blogger Ryan Esfahani on an example of non-profit coalition-building in an effort to achieve greater environmental outcomes:
Last spring I had the opportunity to work with the Oakland-based nonprofit Save the Bay. Naturally, I was excited at the chance: the organization is the oldest and leading advocate for the protection and restoration of the San Francisco Bay. During my time there I was impressed time and again by the effectiveness of this media and politically-saavy nonprofit.
I interned with the Campaign Manager, researching a potential development threat on the bay, and assisting with the current campaign to build support for the work of the Bay Restoration Authority. The San Francisco Bay was once a enormous and thriving ecosystem, home to hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands, but urbanization drastically altered the landscape: The bay was rapidly filled in to create more land for cities, and wetlands were diked for pasture or salt ponds, leaving the bay 1/3 smaller and retaining only 5% of its original wetlands.
Thankfully, the era of unrestrained paving and diking of the bay is over, due to the large scale public opposition that arose in the early 1960s, carried forward by Save the Bay. All the same, continual vigilance has been required to prevent exemptions to the new regulations. A significant opportunity also exists to restore huge swaths of diked land to tidal action, creating a vibrant and healthy bay and valuable recreational opportunities. The BRA was created to be the vehicle for this work, but the agency is as of yet penniless. Towards this end, Save the Bay has been building a coalition of environmentalists, labor, businesses and elected officials to support the work of the BRA.
As part of the campaign, I contacted local environmental groups to join our coalition, speaking with citizen creek cleanup groups, outdoor recreation clubs and other advocacy groups. All of them signed on, and the campaign got bigger and gained momentum day by day. It was an exciting time. The details of restoration project costs and manpower were beginning to be discussed with construction firms and labor groups. It seemed only a matter of time before a regional measure was placed on the November ballot to fund the Authority. But just as my internship was ending, the campaign died. While the details of the breakdown of the coalition are sensitive, I can at least say it was a depressing note to end my time on. Setbacks are unavoidable however, and looking at Save the Bay’s blog* one year later, its coalition building and advocacy is continuing to bear fruit.
Just last month, the ongoing campaign to save the massive Redwood City salt ponds from development scored an important victory. For six years now, the grain importer Cargill and its developer partner DMB have been attempting to have the salt ponds, owned by Cargill, rezoned so they may build a housing project. These salt ponds are some of the largest former wetlands that can be restored, and the Bay Area scientific community is united in its insistence these flats should be restored to wetlands. In concert with local activists, Save the Bay has taken a leading role in building a broad and strong coalition of residents, government officials, businesses and labor to oppose this ill-advised plan.
In 2014 and to the present, the fight has taken a turn for the bizarre, as Cargill appealed to the US Army Corps of Engineers to exempt the flats from the Clean Water Act, arguing they are not actually US waters. Such a reinterpretation of the Clean Water Act would pave the way for the project’s approval. Through aggressive behind-the-scenes lobbying, the Army Corps agreed to Cargill’s request without any consultation of the Environmental Protection Agency or the public. However, just last March that exemption was thankfully overturned by the EPA before it went into effect, in part due to the 3,000 Save the Bay supporters who raised their voices in protest. This ruling by the EPA, which has been clear about it’s its desire for a rigorous assessment of the merits of Cargill’s request, increases the delay in approval and the odds for an ultimate denial.
The road to victory, and with luck to restoration of these ponds, is long and uncertain, but the increasing size of the opposition, and the coalition’s effective counters against the misinformation and tricks of Cargill/DMB are keeping it a winnable fight.
It has been inspiring to see the potential of such strategic partnerships in pushing for smart public policy. As I start the next chapter of my life in southern California, I look forward to rejoining these efforts.
Photo Credit: Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group