October 20, 2014

Op-Ed: Where have all of Tilden’s newts gone?


Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, www.flickr.com/mtbjohn

Have you seen a California newt along Wildcat Creek or around Jewel Lake in the Tilden Nature Area (TNA) recently?  If so, I would like to know about it. I haven’t seen one for years (in spite of Park signs that say they still are there). When I first started studying certain species of birds in the TNA in the early 1980s, California newts were fairly common, and some (unfortunately) were invariably squashed in the parking lot every migratory season. However, the number of newts I saw steadily declined through the 1980s and, by the early 1990s, I saw none. At that time I also noted that I neither saw nor heard Pacific chorus frogs along Wildcat Creek or Jewel Lake, even though they generally are ubiquitous in California wetlands.

In subsequent years I mentioned these observations to East Bay Regional Park District personnel, naively assuming that my concerns would be passed up the chain of command, and that the situation would be investigated. After years without a response, I reached out to still more Park District staff and Board members, still to no avail.

I am told that both newts and chorus frogs still exist and breed in some small ponds to the east of Wildcat Creek in the TNA. However, from along the middle stretches of Wildcat Creek itself, and Jewell Lake, amphibians appear to have vanished. Additionally, I fear that what may be affecting the amphibians in the middle reaches of Wildcat Creek may be affecting the entire ecosystem. For example, some heron species which typically would feed on chorus frogs and small fish along and in Wildcat Creek and Jewel Lake seem uncharacteristically scarce. Over the decades I recall seeing just one each of green and black-crowned night herons, and one snowy egret (although great blue herons, which feed on gophers in picnic areas, are often seen). I also have concerns for aquatic insects, which seem scarce in that portion of the creek.

The Wildcat Creek watershed has been touted as an ecological success story. Its lower urban reaches, traversing Richmond and San Pablo, have been the focus of “remarkable community-based restoration efforts” which received a Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award in 2003. In April of 2013 the Tilden Park Golf Course, through which the upper reaches of Wildcat Creek flow, was designated a “Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary,” and was commended for, among other things, “Chemical Use Reduction Safety (and) Water Quality Management.” With such accolades and awards, one might conclude that all is well in the Wildcat Creek watershed. This may not be the case. Where are the newts, chorus frogs, and herons? I can only think that the thousands of schoolchildren that visit the TNA and Environmental Education Center every year are being shortchanged in not seeing some of the animals that are supposed to be there.

A recent article in The Yodeler by Peter Rausch and a co-author (“Putting the environment first in East Bay parks”) suggested that the Park District does a good job in acquiring and preserving holdings in the East Bay, but is less proficient in caring for the biological resources in those acquisitions. While the article makes a good general point, an inability of the Park District to assign monetary and human resources to relatively undeveloped and little-visited new acquisitions is to some degree understandable, given their limited resources. Much less understandable, in my estimation, is the Park District’s ignoring a possible ecological problem in one of its oldest and most-visited regional parks—a problem that seemingly exists in the crown jewel of its environmental educational facilities.

William M. Gilbert, Ph.D.
Chair, Sierra Couples

History Speaks: John Muir and his legacy for wilderness

JOMUoverviewLGThursday, November 13, 6 pm
California Historical Society
678 Mission St., San Franicsco

Even a century after his death, John Muir’s life continues to be an inspiration for wilderness and environmental protection. To learn about Muir is to understand how one person who cares about the environment can make a difference for public values and policy. Join the California Historical Society (CHS) and the Sierra Club at a special event exploring John Muir’s life and legacy. Doug McConnell of Bay Area Backroads will open the event and set the stage for a lecture by renowned John Muir scholar Harold Wood.

The event is part of the Sierra Club’s year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and also marks the centennial year of John Muir’s passing.

Harold Wood is a long-time John Muir scholar and wilderness activist, chair of the Sierra Club John Muir Education Team, and webmaster of the Sierra Club John Muir Exhibit website.

Admission is $5 for the general public and free for Sierra Club and CHS members. Purchase tickets online here.

San Francisco Dinner: “Tanzania: Its wildlife, people, and the land they inhabit”

Thursday, November 20
Social hour 6 pm, dinner 7 pm, program 8 pm
City Forest Lodge, 254 Laguna Honda Blvd. San Francisco

Al and Marie Greening traveled toTanzania in 2008, and were captivated by the people, topography and the wide variety of birds and animals. They visited Arusha National Park, Ndarakwei camp near Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, Lake Victoria, Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam. Join us for Al and Marie’s presentation of their stunning photos that will give us the inside story of their safari in Tanzania.

Al and Marie have traveled to over 50 countries and all seven continents. Al is a regular presenter at Sierra Club groups, and has an exhibit of panoramic photos at Claire Tappaan Lodge. He is a docent at Point Bonita Lighthouse and leads photo walks in the Marin Headlands and Muir Woods.

Send a check for $18.00 (note new price) made out to “Sierra Club, S.F. Bay Chapter” to:

Gerry Souzis
1801 California St., Apt. 405
San Francisco, CA 94109

Checks must be received by Friday, November 14, 2014. Please send a separate check for each program, and indicate the program date, number of guests and your phone number. Non-members are welcome. Bring your own wine or soft drinks. Glasses and ice are available. Let us know if you are a vegetarian.

Questions? Contact Gerry between 4 and 9 pm at (415) 474-4440 or gsouzis@hotmail.com. No morning calls please.

Come early for street parking (no sidewalk parking please). Parking is available next door at the Forest Hill Christian Church lot, 250 Laguna Honda Blvd. for $1.50 per car, payable at the Lodge check-in. Also accessible via Muni K, L, M, or 43.

San Francisco Dinner—”Panama adventures”

-1Thursday, October 16
Social hour 6 pm, dinner 7 pm, program 8 pm
City Forest Lodge, 254 Laguna Honda Blvd., San Franicsco

Allan and Helen Ridley were lured to Panama by an article that told of exceptional birdwatching opportunities, with mild temperatures and good roads. They followed an itinerary suggested by Caligo Ventures Birding and Nature Tours. Their route provided excellent birding, natural history viewing, and a window into the Panama Canal development, current operation and expansion, as well as the lavish development of Panama City as an international financial hub and shopping destination. Join us as the Ridleys share their stories and photos for a view into modern Panama.

Allan Ridley, MS, taught biology and ornithology at Urban High; Helen McKenna Ridley, MS, taught biology and was principal of Raoul Wallenberg High School. They have traveled widely, and have led international birding and natural history tours. They lead a bird walk in the S.F. Botanical Gardens in G.G. Park on the first Sunday of every month.

For October only, send a check for $18.00 (note new price) made out to “Sierra Club, S.F. Bay Chapter” to:

Jean-Marie Campbell
2000 California St., #12
San Francisco, CA 94109

Checks must be received by Friday, October 10, 2014. Please send a separate check for each program, and indicate the program date, number of guests and your phone number. Non-members are welcome. Bring your own wine or soft drinks. Glasses and ice are available. Let us know if you are a vegetarian.

Questions? Contact Jean-Marie between 4 and 9 pm at (415) 290-7771 or jeanmarierentals@gmail.com.

Come early for street parking (no sidewalk parking please). Parking is available next door at the Forest Hill Christian Church lot, 250 Laguna Honda Blvd. for $1.50 per car, payable at the Lodge check-in. Also accessible via Muni K, L, M, or 43.

Green Friday—”A resilient response: the Transition movement”

8864942_origFri., Oct. 10, Chapter office, 2530 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley
Doors open at 7 pm, program from 7:30 to 9:30 pm

Marissa Mommaerts will discuss the international grassroots response to the ecological and economic instability caused by climate change. Learn how communities in California, across the U.S., and around the world are taking action to transition away from fossil fuels while building resilience and responding to the great challenges of our time.

Marissa Mommaerts is Communications and Operations Manager for Transition U.S., the U.S. hub of the international Transition movement. Transition U.S. is a nonprofit organization that provides inspiration, encouragement, support, networking, and training for Transition initiatives across the nation. Mommaerts is also a community organizer with Transition Sebastopol and the Sebastopol Village Building Convergence.

East Bay Dinner—”California’s first organic farmers”

Archaeological excavation

Archaeological excavation

Thu., Oct. 23, social hour at 6 pm, dinner at 7 pm, program at 8 pm, Berkeley Yacht Club

Join Kent Lightfoot for a program on indigenous landscape-management practices in California. This lecture and slideshow will discuss the results of some recent archaeological work examining how native Californians employed prescribed burning to enhance the diversity, productivity, and sustainability of plants and animals they used for food, raw materials, and medicines, The program will highlight work that Kent is doing in Año Nuevo State Park with the California Parks and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

Kent Lightfoot is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and is author of several books on native Californians.

The cost of dinner and the program is $27 per person, including tax and tip. Please send your check, payable to “Sierra Club,” with guest names and a telephone number, to:

Jane Barrett170 Vincente Road
Berkeley, CA 94705

Attendance is limited to 115 attendees, so reserve early! Reservation deadline is October 13. There is no admittance for the program only.

Mount Diablo Group—“Trek Through Tanzania”

Red Colobus Monkey, Photo by Al Greening.

Red Colobus Monkey, Photo by Al Greening.

Wed., Nov. 12, 7 pm
Ygnacio Valley Library
2661 Oak Grove Road, Walnut Creek

Join us at our next general meeting for an African adventure. Al and Marie Greening will be our guides on a photographic safari through Tanzania. Our armchair sojourn takes us to Arusha National Park, Ndarakwei camp near Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, Lake Victoria, Zanzibar, and Dar Es Salaam. The people, scenery, and wide variety of animals and birds in Tanzania are spectacularly colorful and eminently photogenic. Don’t miss this fascinating presentation!

Al and Marie Greening have traveled to over 50 countries and all seven continents.  Al has made many photo presentations to Sierra Club groups and has an exhibit of panoramic photographs at Clair Tappaan Lodge. He is also a docent at the Point Bonita Lighthouse in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and leads photo walks at the Marin Headlands and Muir Woods.

This program is open to all with no reservations necessary. If you have questions, contact Ken Lavin at ken_lavin at hotmail.com or (925)852-8778.

Sierra Club files suit to protect California coast


Marin coastline; Photo by Louis Nuyens.

In 1976, the California Legislature enacted the Coastal Act, which created a mandate for coastal counties to manage the conservation and development of coastal resources through a comprehensive planning and regulatory program called the Local Coastal Program. New action in Marin County threatens to weaken these coastal protections, but the Sierra Club is fighting back.

Last month the Club filed legal action to challenge a dangerous amendment to Marin’s Local Coastal Plan. The amendment was submitted by Marin County and approved by the Coastal Commission in May. If allowed to stand, Marin’s amended Coastal Plan would substantially weaken environmental protections and set a precedent for poor process and lack of environmental review along the entire California coast. The result would be to open up our coastline to increased development and allowed uses without public process.

The Coastal Commission’s approval of the Local Coastal Plan Amendment ignored five years of repeated warnings from the Sierra Club, other environmental groups, and even its own staff, that the document was in violation of the California Coastal Act. The Coastal Commission’s action could result in less environmental review and protection for coastal areas than in similar areas outside of coastal zones. This would create a confusing and unequal application of land use planning laws.

Marin’s Local Coastal Plan update needs to be more protective of the environment than the original 1981 Plan—not less. The Sierra Club believes that if allowed to stand, the Marin County amendment will set a statewide precedent and result in more inappropriate development and less environmental protection for California’s sensitive coastal areas.

The Bay Chapter’s Marin Group has set up a Marin Coastal Defense Fund to help protect and preserve our spectacular California coastline. For more information or to make a donation, visit the Group website.

—Elena Belsky, Sierra Club Marin Group

East Bay, along with California, moves forward with Community Choice energy

10440739_10152020396947723_3945628812076948721_nMomentum for Community Choice energy has only been building during the months-long fight against Assembly Bill 2145—nicknamed the “Utility Monopoly Protection Act”—that which would have put up major roadblocks to the implementation of Community Choice programs in California (see “AB 2145, renewable energy wrecking ball: down but not out”). AB 2145 failed to make it to the Senate floor for a vote before the state legislature adjourned on August 31st, and is now dead. With that hurdle cleared, clean-energy advocates throughout the state are energized and re-focusing on local initiatives to create or improve Community Choice energy programs from Sonoma to San Diego and everywhere in between.

In the Bay Area in particular, there has been a groundswell of movement on Community Choice. The cities of Benicia, El Cerrito, and San Pablo, as well as Napa County, have all expressed interest in joining Marin Clean Energy. Officials from Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, along with the cities within those counties, are exploring options for creating their own Community Choice programs. Alameda County has taken a leadership role in creating an East Bay clean power program—and officials in Contra Costa County are warming up to the idea. The Bay Chapter has been actively engaged in the East Bay efforts to develop a Community Choice program, convening monthly organizing meetings with likeminded organizations and activists who want to democratize and transition our energy system to 100% renewable electricity.

On June 3rd, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to allocate $1.3 million for the study and formation of a Community Choice energy program. The county’s Community Development Agency put forward a timeline of 18 months for a feasibility study for the program, followed by another 18-month period for prepping for program launch and implementation.

One of the largest components of the feasibility study is an analysis of the energy-load data from 1.55 million county residents and establishing a plan for serving the county’s energy needs. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors has jurisdiction over the unincorporated portions of the county, which represents only 10 percent of the county’s energy load. In order for the feasibility study to be as robust and accurate as possible, individual cities within the county will also have to proactively opt-in for their load data to be included in the study; the Sierra Club and its partners are advocating for these cities to do so.

Other important components of the first 18-month period include setting up a community advisory board for the program and engaging in community outreach so that residents throughout Alameda County are informed and involved in the transformation and localization of our energy system. The extent of Contra Costa County’s participation in this program or in a separate Community Choice effort remains to be seen.


If you live in Alameda County, contact your city manager to ensure your city is included in the Community Choice feasibility study.

If you live in Contra Costa County, call your supervisors and let them know you are supportive of Community Choice! Find your supervisor’s contact information here.

Assessing the fallout: partial victories, opportunities lost with Chevron refinery project

checronThe Chevron refinery expansion project approved by the City Council this summer is a partial victory for Richmond residents concerned with clean air, climate disruption, safety, and jobs. At the same time, however, the deal represented critical missed opportunities including a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and additional safety upgrades.

It was a long and difficult fight. Chevron spent millions on mailers, billboards, and “citizen” rallies to promote what it claimed was simply a “modernization” project. They continually repeated the mantra “Modern equals cleaner.” How many times did we hear the comparison of a new car to an old car? Chevron spread money freely to sway public opinion and win endorsements.

Contrary to the rhetoric, Chevron’s real goal was to retool the refinery to enable it to process higher-sulfur crude oil—a process that results in more greenhouse gases and more toxic contaminants. The approval guaranteed Chevron that ability.

What We Won

Environmental and community-based groups fought hard to use the  approval process as an opportunity to reduce locally-produced greenhouse gasses, reduce toxic contaminants in the air, and make progress toward sustainable energy production. The Sierra Club worked with our allies—the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, Richmond Progressive Alliance, California Nurses Association, 350 Bay Area, and the Sunflower Alliance—to mobilize Richmond residents to countless trainings, community meetings, and hearings to weigh in on the project throughout the environmental review process.

With environmental groups forcing attention to the project and the August 2012 Chevron refinery fire still fresh in the community’s collective memory, the city council’s approval included important concessions. Ultimately, Chevron was required to accept greater limitations on the sulfur content of its crude, and agreed that the expanded facility would produce no increase in greenhouse gases. Since toxic emissions are generally co-pollutants with greenhouse gasses, toxic emissions will likely also be reduced. Chevron will also have to replace more piping than originally proposed and reduce diesel particulate matter. Even at the last minute, Chevron was forced to make further concessions, including $90 million in community investments over the next decade (with $8 million for green-energy programs), up from a previous pledge of $60 million.

These significant victories were the result of a mobilized community that was aware of the issues from years of organizing and education; a coalition of organizations that came together to counter the massive Chevron misinformation campaign with its own materials and outreach; and a Planning Commission (appointed by the progressive mayor and councilmembers) that was willing and able to stand up to Chevron’s intense pressure.

Opportunities Lost

Unfortunately, the city council was unwilling to stand up to Chevron and endorse all of the Planning Commission’s forward-thinking recommendations, which, if adopted, would have resulted in an even safer, more environmentally friendly project. Recommendations that were left on the table would have required: the retrofitting of tug boats; ships docked at the refinery to turn off their engines; and the facility to develop a plan to continue to reduce toxic emissions. Furthermore, the $90 million Community Benefit Agreement did not include funds to save Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, which treated most of the patients who sought medical help after the 2012 refinery fire.

The Battle Continues

Local environmental groups are considering a legal challenge to the city council’s decision, based on the fact that some final details of the agreement were introduced without an appropriate and legal review period. The Sierra Club will report on any developments with regard to the potential lawsuit.

For its part, Chevron is continuing to campaign. It has already given $1.6 million to a Political Action Committee to elect Nat Bates as mayor and Charles Ramsey, Donna Powers, and Al Martinez to the city council. If elected, these individuals would carry out Chevron’s political agenda and squelch the progressives on the council who demanded a cleaner and safer refinery. The Sierra Club has endorsed the Team Richmond candidates: Gayle McLaughlin, Jovanka Beckles, Eduardo Martinez, and Jael Myrick for Richmond city council and Tom Butt for Mayor.

The eight-year fight surrounding the Chevron expansion project demonstrates two important points. First, when a community organizes, it can force concessions—even from powerful multinational corporations. And second, in these situations there are rarely complete victories.

—Mike Parker, Eduardo Martinez, and Jess Dervin-Ackerman