Save the Bay Co-Founder Sylvia McLaughlin Dies

Sylvia McLaughlin in 2010, two years before San Francisco's plastic bag ban went into effect, an effort that Save the Bay heavily supported. (Save the Bay)

Save the Bay’s last living founder, Sylvia McLaughlin, died at her home in Berkeley on Tuesday. She was 99. The organization helped kick off the modern, grassroots environmental movement in the Bay Area.

In the 1950s, San Francisco Bay was in dire shape. There were plans to fill in most of it for development, leaving just a narrow channel of water. The Bay was regularly filled to provide space for ports, industry, airports, homes, and even garbage dumps.

Families didn’t stroll along the shoreline because it was rife with trash and industrial development. The wetlands and wildlife were quickly disappearing.

McLaughlin could not sit by.

Save the Bay’s founders: Esther Gulick, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Kay Kerr.
Save the Bay’s founders: Esther Gulick, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Kay Kerr. (Save the Bay)

She and friends Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick started a movement to stop Berkeley’s plan to fill in 2,000 acres of the Bay.

It was a bold undertaking for a woman married to the head of a major mining company. McLaughlin’s husband was Donald McLaughlin, president of Homestake Mining Co.

It was also 1961. The term “environmentalism” had not yet entered the popular lexicon and many didn’t support the women’s campaign.

As KQED’s Amy Standen reported in 2011:

McLaughlin says it was not always a popular position to take. “I got called all kinds of names, not very complementary,” she recalls.

But while developers complained, Save the Bay was growing as an organization, in ways that other groups hadn’t thought to do in the past.

“They very wisely turned themselves into a mass organization by charging $1 for membership,” says UC Berkeley professor of geology Richard Walker. “And they very quickly had thousands, even tens of thousands of members within two years.”

In addition to its vast membership, Save the Bay rallied the media. Pete Seeger even wrote a song about the Bay, calling it a “sludge puddle, sad and gray.”

Until this point, says Walker, environmentalism had been a small, elite movement. But Save the Bay changed that.

Over the years, McLaughlin won victories to open parks and restore public access to the shoreline.

“We have a cleaner, healthier and more vibrant Bay because of Sylvia’s efforts,” Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis said in a statement. “Her drive, determination and spark will remain an inspiration to us all.”

A memorial service will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 4 p.m., at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley.

KQED interview with McLaughlin about why she started Save the Bay:

Save the Bay Co-Founder Sylvia McLaughlin Dies 20 January,2016Lindsey Hoshaw

  • Barbara Brower

    Sylvia McLaughlin’s name–along with Esther Gulick’s and Kay Kerr’s–should be household words for anyone who lives in, looks at, or cares about The Bay. Imagine for a moment what we’d have today if it weren’t for these women, who stepped in when the other conservation organizations of the day were too busy elsewhere. Thank you, ladies; goodbye, Sylvia!

  • justsayin’

    Thank you Sylvia, for your foresight and constant attention to our beautiful bay- which in 2016 is beautiful because of your lifelong effort. I wish I had known you, I will never forget you.

  • cf

    Sylvia McLaughlin was a force of nature.Mmillions of Bay Area residents owe her a huge debt for the work she and her colleagues did to protect San Francisco Bay. Continue her legacy: pick up your trash so it doesn’t get into storm drains, take a walk along the Bay every month, and join Save The Bay in Oakland.

  • Bebe McRae

    Sylvia McLaughlin was the originator of the conservation movement, but she was also a beloved neighbor with true grace and beauty. She was a role model in so many ways for Berkeley women. She was strong, persevering and very intelligent, but she was never anything other than respectful and open minded. Our neighborhood will miss her as the lovely lady who was always cheerful and enthusiastic. I will miss the red dresses and her dancing.

  • wandagb

    We owe an enormous debt to these women. They were truly environmental giants.

    Unfortunately, relentless, growing population undermines all their work. These women were not silent in the face of what all others saw as inevitable. Our duty should be to honor their courage by working for population stabilization – the ultimate Save the Environment effort.

    As for the current Save the Bay leadership, it is a shame they will not speak out on this. There timidity guarantees that open space around the Bay disappears and cities like Emeryville wall off the Bay with high density high rise.

    To understand why California (increasing by one million every three years) and the U.S. (we are the third most populous country in the world) continue to grow, google the source of U.S. population growth.


Lindsey Hoshaw

Lindsey Hoshaw is an interactive producer for KQED Science. Before joining KQED, Lindsey was a science correspondent for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Forbes and Scientific American. On Twitter @lindseyhoshaw

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