Seth Adams Acceptance Speech

for the John Muir Conservation Award

April 18, 2000

Seth M. Adams is Director of Land Programs for Save Mount Diablo , a Contra Costa conservation organization founded in 1971. Hired in 1988, he was SMD's first professional staff. His work includes responsibilities related to land acquisition, land use planning, land stewardship, grassroots activism, and legislation and public policy. Among his proudest accomplishments are the preservation of numerous parcels of land through acquisition and grassroots advocacy in the land use arena, and the reintroduction of endangered peregrine falcons to Mt. Diablo.

Adams was founder and vice-president of the California Water Policy Group and a founding member of the Buckhorn Canyon Preservation Council. He is a former member of the East Bay Regional Park District Park Advisory Committee; a former Political Committee member of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club; an Advisory Board member of the Muir Heritage Land Trust, the Green Media Alliance, and BayAreaSprawl.Com; a member of the Northern California Land Trust Council and the Bay Area Open Space Council and is a governing member of the Bob Walker Archives subcommittee of the Independent Documentary Film Group. He has conducted or been involved in a variety of political campaigns, referendums, etc. throughout Contra Costa County and the East Bay. He is a recipient of Greenbelt Alliance's Stars of the Greenbelt award.

Adams lives in Martinez and is an avid hiker, runner, cyclist and weight lifter.

Seth Adams' Acceptance Speech

What a spectacular day! John Muir would be pleased. Thank you all for coming, and thank you to the John Muir Memorial Association. I'm honored by this award and by comparison with one of my heroes. I'm also pleased to be introduced by Supervisor Donna Gerber, the brightest new light among this County's elected representatives since George Miller. Congressman Miller continues to lead the national environmental movement in Washington D.C. and I appreciate that Kathy Hoffman is here representing him.

I'm also deeply honored that former state Senator John Nejedly is with us, a man who for many years authored all of California's Park Bond Acts, and who knows well that being both a Republican AND a conservationist makes perfect sense. Ted Radke, one of the County's leading open space visionaries, has been a member of the East Bay Regional Park District's Board of Directors longer than anyone in history. Pat O'Brien, General Manager of the EBRPD is also here, and we're lucky to have as an ally the best regional Park District in the world.

I didn't meet John Muir until I was in my teens, but I've been a naturalist for as long as I can remember. I'm the son of the son of a poor white Mississippi sharecropper. I was startled to learn that my father and Muir are both from Clan Gordon. My mother was a Campbell. Maybe there's something in Scottish blood that makes you willing to fight against great odds.

It's easy to remember Muir's words in celebration of the earth, but just as important to remember his accusations: "These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar."

He was of course writing about the proposed Hetch-Hetchy reservoir at Yosemite. What Muir gave voice to was an idea whose time had come, a movement which quickly spread, a war in defense of the Earth. We are engaged in the continuing battles of that movement.

The threats to our environment are more significant today than in Muir's time, when Martinez included just a thousand residents. His legacy is that the conservation movement has become robust, diverse and healthy because there are so many activists working on issues in big arenas, and also in our own backyards. His successes and even failures like Hetch-Hetchy have inspired us all.

There are three easy ways to become a conservationist--you can gain an aesthetic appreciation for the natural world, you can be exposed to it recreationally, or you can become fascinated by biological diversity. My parents escaped Mississippi by way of the military and I grew up in North Carolina, like California a very rich natural world.

North Carolina is almost tropical in the summer, with sandhills and oak-pine woodland, creeks and bogs, alligators and red wolves. It wasn't unusual for me to be out late at night collecting luna moths as a kid, star gazing or netting insects under street lights. I caught snakes in the Smokies and in the summers we took long trips around the country visiting national parks or stayed at the beach where I spent all my time knee deep in tide pools.

As I got older and started making money at odd jobs, I'd spend it buying natural history books and joining environmental groups. With my teen age membership in the Sierra Club I came into contact with Muir and Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey.

The common thread of my childhood is that I spent a lot of time alone outdoors because that's where the things that interested me lived. It's where I developed many of my core values. I was hiking before I knew what the word meant, and camping before I owned a tent or sleeping bag. I got strong and athletic and I learned to rely on myself.

Aldo Leopold said, "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." Understanding the threats to the places I loved and where I'd gained self assurance made me an environmentalist, and convinced me that educating kids will be one of the major keys to winning this great war.

There's a saying: "scratch an environmentalist and you'll find loss." Houses back up to the creek where I caught salamanders, and the woods where I grew up are gone.

When I moved to California in December 1981, I found home. I'd flown west over a sleeping country just settled in for winter. Here, the land was awakening and I spent my first afternoon running in the hills above Stanford, already greening that early wet winter.

Within a week I was living in Berkeley and hiking in Tilden. Days later I began volunteering in the campaign to stop the peripheral canal, mostly out here in Contra Costa County. At Cal I studied biology but eventually gave up school for conservation. I didn't set out to become a college dropout, but it didn't escape me that my heroes John Muir and David Brower had made the same decision.

It wasn't long before I started developing roots and ten years ago I moved to Martinez, to be closer to County offices and these hills and to overcome the Berkeley carpet bagger label developers kept trying to pin on me. Environmental work isn't easy and it's not the best financial career decision you can make, but in my case I can tell you that you don't choose to be a professional conservationist, you simply have no choice.

One advantage of being an open space activist in the East Bay is that, if you work long enough, sooner or later you might get compared to John Muir, a stretch no matter what you've accomplished. When I look at the list of past winners of this award, I'm further honored by the comparison.

Mt. Diablo is the centerpiece of this county, spectacular and incredibly diverse, close at hand, and easily taken for granted. In 1988 I was lucky enough to be hired as Save Mount Diablo's first staff person, after years of work in water policy, and most of my work has centered on the mountain. I appreciate that this award recognizes that we really have made a difference in our own backyard.

When I began working in Contra Costa, my activist friends on the bayside thought I was crazy. "That place is a lost cause, what's the use." The first years at Save Mount Diablo I could almost agree. This County was the Wild Wild West of planning, where the County General Plan was written in pencil and the cost of a project approval was a campaign contribution or a couple of lunch dates. We routinely lost at the Board of Supervisors.

But it seemed clear that there was a largely untapped wave of public sentiment on our side, and if we could hold on, the politicians would have no choice but to join us. It's been a lot of work, but it didn't take long before things started going our way, both with development and with funding measures to buy land. I've been lucky enough to be around at the right time, this chaotic period, when single individuals could really make a difference.

Since it was founded in 1971, Save Mount Diablo has helped increase the public open space around Mt. Diablo from 6800 to almost 63,000 acres, expanding parks and attempting to connect them. I'm the Director of Land Programs in an organization with just three employees and fifteen hard working volunteer board members. From the beginning I've pushed the organization to increase the area within which it worked, and to play a bigger role in this county. I help guide our land acquisition efforts and respond to development threats.

If you ask what it is I really do, it's this: I talk to people and try to convince them to do what's right, or try to make sure people are put into contact with the tools which can help them. My telephone is my left arm, my computer my right, and all day I build houses of cards out of words then frantically try to shove foundations under them before they collapse. My biggest strength is that I've always had a great optimism that we could win, and that we would gain something out of every battle in which we engaged. Our tools are the same as Muir's--we try to get the word out, and we take people to see what's at stake.

It's always a triage situation with another ten projects breathing down our necks. There has never been a development compromise on which I've worked, that I haven't felt the loss as strongly as the victory. But when you acquire a piece of land, the gratification is instantaneous. Both you and the Earth can breath a sigh of relief.

Our work is much smaller in scope than John Muir's was, but like his it depends on many others. Beyond my parents, this award is owed to my teachers, all the people who have helped me, guided me, and put up with me.

Chief among them are the members of the Board of Save Mount Diablo, my employers. I'm very pleased to be able to introduce some of those board members to you, including Malcolm Sproul, SMD's president; Susan Watson, the former president, Art Bonwell and Dr. Mary Bowerman, our two founders, Allan Prager, the head of our fundraising committee, and Amara Koss, our Secretary and legal counsel.

Dr. Bowerman began her work studying the botany of Mt. Diablo in 1926. In 1971 Mary and Art Bonwell recognized the dangers Mt. Diablo was facing and felt they had to do something to protect the mountain.

Mary provided the vision, "My dream is that the whole of Mount Diablo, including its foothills, will remain open space... that the visual and natural integrity will be sustained." Art did the legwork to get the organization started, and to this day continues to do so. Almost thirty years later they're both still members of SMD's Board of Directors.

Malcolm Sproul is a Board member very much in Mary's tradition, a tremendous naturalist who brings great integrity to his role. Mary and Malcolm regard getting your facts straight above all else. I worked with Sue Watson for twelve years, and appreciate both her grace and her well reasoned sense of the history of the local environmental movement. Sue's character is to take care and to never burn bridges.

There are many other East Bay environmentalists I could mention, and I hope I've learned a little from each of them. Two of them are here tonight, and are past recipients of this award. Tina Batt, my friend and neighbor, saw a need in Martinez and created the Martinez Regional Land Trust, recently renamed the Muir Heritage Land Trust. Gary Bogue, the Contra Costa Times' nature columnist has been plugging environmental education for decades.

For many years I was lucky to be the junior member of a triangle which included photographer Bob Walker and the Park District's Bob Doyle. I owe my focus on the East Bay's Big Picture to these two friends, neither of whom could be here tonight.

Bob Walker's relationship with the Bay Area's hills was like mine, love at first sight. At once he was an amazing artist, and a master strategist who could read the East bay landscape like a text. In 1990, he said, "The moment that someone is driving down the road and suddenly sees a bulldozer or some grading or a house under construction high in the hills where they never imagined development would take place is the moment they individually cross the line and say to themselves "this has to be stopped." He never lost sight of the human angle of this work, even while he persuaded politicians and the public to share his vision. Bob died in 1992 but he remains my conscience, the voice urging me to consider other viewpoints and to speak from my heart as well as my head.

Bob Doyle is the head of acquisition for the Park District, following in Hulet Hornbeck's footsteps. As a teenager he was a founding board member of Save Mount Diablo, and he was president when I was hired. He grew up in these hills and on Mt. Diablo and his political savvy and unmatched negotiating skills have done more for the East Bay than anyone in the past twenty years. Bob Walker and Bob Doyle have been my most important teachers.

Save Mount Diablo has preserved many magical places, but there's one project which stirs my soul above all the others. Working with Gary Beeman and Michael Sewell here, in 1989 we put together a program and introduced twelve falcon chicks to Mt. Diablo over four years. They've come back to breed every year. We have so few chances to turn back the clock that when you're offered one, you have no choice but to take it.

My biggest personal defeat took place before I was hired by SMD, the construction of Los Vaqueros reservoir. It wasn't a total loss since we managed to hold down the reservoir's size and an 18,500 acre watershed was acquired. Los Vaqueros is a constant reminder for me of what's at stake, because I knew Kellogg creek well, the valley's hundreds of huge oaks, and the 1600 acres that were flooded.

Ten years ago Diablo Magazine asked me to put together a list for their Earth Day issue, of the County's ten best environmental achievements and the ten worst threats. I hope you'll find it interesting to reflect on our progress this past ten years.

The ten achievements were:

1) Major Parkland Additions - and they continue. With the State Prop. 70 park bond and the Park District's AA funding, and the aforementioned Los Vaqueros project, almost 50,000 acres have been acquired in the East Bay. On March 7th the largest Park Bond in the State's History was approved, insuring that we'll be able to continue acquiring threatened land.

2) Creek Restoration was beginning locally, and continues to gain strength.

3) Mount Diablo Restoration - projects were starting, and some of them continue, but the falcon project and oak restoration here in Walnut Creek have been the most successful.

4) The Briones Agricultural Preserve - celebrated its 5th anniversary by surviving Pinole's attempt to annex thousands of acres. A voluntary pact between the County and the cities to limit development, the Preserve became the model for the County's Urban Limit Line and was incorporated into the General Plan.

5) Mass Transit began spreading in the East Bay-Three more BART stations have been added, and commuter trains are becoming more common in the Capitol corridor and the Tri-Valley.

6) The little El Sobrante Valley Legal Defense Fund - defeated yet another project in Richmond, and increasingly Richmond has worked to lose its bad city reputation.

7) The New Lindsay Museum - had just broken ground and was helping to organize area conservation groups. Their great animal rehabilitation work has continued but the Museum's activism has faltered. With a new Executive Director at the helm, we can hope that the Museum will once again become an organizing force. Meanwhile, the March 7th election added $4 million to the fund to construct a Delta Science Center in Oakley, a project championed by the late Al McNabney, another past John Muir Award winner.

8) Pro-Environment Elections - were making a difference in Walnut Creek and San Ramon, but today we're seeing environmental leaders in all our cities, and even politicians who've previously ignored the environment are catching on. Nonetheless, development interests and industry continue to shovel money into campaigns. Supervisor Gerber here, our leading local environmentalist, was targeted by developers for her support of tightening the Urban Limit Line and is in a November runoff. She needs our support.

9) Contra Costa Earth Day - started small in 1990, and has grown to be the Bay Area's biggest environmental event and educational opportunity.

10) State Qualification of the Green Party - gave hope during a decade of anti-environmental legislatures that conservation would become a priority. The Greens haven't been very active lately, but both the legislature and the Governor's office have become much more pro-environment.

As for the worst threats:

1) County Zoning Policies-were weak ten years ago, but have gained tremendous strength since then. The Urban Limit Line has held firm, and 1990's Dougherty Valley was the last big development approved. Huge developments in Tassajara, Pittsburg and at Cowell Ranch have all fallen apart or been defeated. The Board of Supervisors will consider tightening the Urban Limit Line this summer. Donna Gerber is the champion of both that effort and a new one to develop County funding to compensate landowners for preserving their land.

2) The Franklin Canyon Golf Course Development - inside the Urban limit Line, was proposed for 900 houses on a square mile, and then approved in 1992 by the Hercules City Council. Conservationists, neighbors and labor unions got together to overturn that project but a new version will be back before us this year.

3) The Mid-State Toll Road - was a huge threat, but hasn't been heard from in recent years.

4) Threats to Regional Parks and Mount Diablo - continue, but have lost size and strength. Unfortunately, land prices have continued to rise, fueled by Silicon Valley fortunes.

5) Rhone Poulenc & Refinery Expansion - on the one hand, the largest toxic waste incinerator on the west coast was defeated, but refineries expanded to produce "clean fuels" such as gas with MTBE. They face increasing pressure to clean up their acts.

6) Freeway Soundwalls - were rapidly proliferating, taking out some of our best open space views. The issue has subsided and not too many new ones have been built.

7) Marsh Canyon Dump - was still proposed even as Keller Canyon was constructed. Since then it's been stopped, and of the five original dump site proposals three have been added to regional parks, leaving just Marsh Canyon unprotected.

8 & 9) Maritime Business Park was being proposed in Martinez & Point Pinole Business Park in Richmond adjacent to Pt. Pinole Regional Park. Maritime was stopped, and the Muir Heritage Land Trust is attempting to acquire the site. Maritime eventually agreed to sell the most sensitive area to the Park District.

10) Gateway Valley - the so-called Montanera project was threatening 1100 acres in Orinda next to Robert Sibley Park and the Caldecott tunnel. Save Open Space Gateway Valley has gotten the project shrunk repeatedly, and the red-legged frog and Alameda whipsnake have been listed in the meantime. Ten years later the project still hasn't gotten US Fish & Wildlife permits.

They're a mixed bag, but largely positive, and things are getting better all the time.

What's it all about? In 1955 writer Wallace Stegner wrote, "How much wilderness do the wilderness lovers want?...The answer is easy: Enough so that there will be in the years ahead a little relief, a little quiet, a little relaxation, for any of our increasing millions who need and want it." John Muir wrote, "In God's wildness lies the hope of the world." An hour in an oak woodland, or climbing a steep trail, sitting on a bench overlooking the water or simply lifting our eyes to Mt. Diablo - any of them helps make our lives better.

I'm from a religious family but to this day, the only religious fervor I've ever felt has been while outdoors. It's difficult to spend time alone in a redwood forest, breathing the breath of thousand year old trees, without feeling God. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."

We're in a period of great change. Sprawl and the development of open space are going to become increasingly difficult, whether elected officials heed our concerns or citizens rise up with lawsuits and ballot measures. As new residents get to know the area and their sense of place deepens, our leaders will become more diverse and more reflective of OUR concerns than those of the "Growth Machine." Development will shift to our cities, and they'll become more dynamic places.

Diablo's open space and trails, and those of our other parks, will continue to expand, public land that will help preserve views, wildlife and recreational opportunities; reservoirs of clean water and air, places that will always offer us great joy. The mountain will be a nearby escape from urban life, a place for our children to understand nature, visible reminders of why this area is a great place to live. For many, the mountain will be a visual respite, as they raise their eyes from traffic. We've reintroduced falcons to the mountain and I expect to see the elk and pronghorn brought back too.

My goal is to leave things better than I found them. What this award means to me is that there is an understanding of the importance of our work and recognition which should help increase our influence. The award will urge me on when things are tough.

In the end, a hundred years from now, no one will care who saved our open spaces locally, but our successes will be appreciated, just as we appreciate the victories of those who preceded us. When all the special places have supporters, when all the issues have their champions, the environmental movement will have won. Here in our backyard, Mt. Diablo and the East Bay's open spaces will continue to delight local residents as they did for Muir in 1895, when he wrote: "Clear and cool. Beautiful silvery haze on Mount Diablo this morning, on it and over it--outlines melting, wonderfully luminous."

I have two requests:

Thank you to the Association, and thank you for being here.

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