Remarks at Bill Kortum Memorial
by Una J M Glass
January 24, 2015
I first met Bill Kortum in 1974 when he ran for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors . I was a Political Science student at Sonoma State crunching data for his campaign.
I was 20, an adult in training, and Bill was a larger than life figure, a leader in the blossoming Sonoma County environmental movement. His presence and words asserted authority and intellect. I was completely intimidated.
Over the years I ran into him at various events but did not come to know him well for another two decades when I joined the Board of Sonoma County Conservation Action.
Then I came to know Bill as friend, and as man of big ideas. A big picture kind of guy. A person of global perspective, a renaissance man, an intellectual, a gentleman and a man of principle. He was a mentor and colleague. I enjoyed nothing more than brainstorming with Bill. He was unsurpassed as a strategist.
Many of us here in Sonoma County tend to think of Bill as the man who, more than any other, saved the landscape of Sonoma County. But Bill’s reach and influence extended far beyond the Sonoma County line. He was very prominent in the statewide coastal protection movement, working with John Dunlap, Alan Sieroty , Peter Douglas and others, first as they unsuccessfully tried to pass a coastal protection bill in the California Legislature, and then with a statewide alliance of 110 groups that launched Proposition 20, the Coastal Initiative that passed in 1972, the first year voted.
Bill’s intense activism began around 1962 with PG&E’s attempt to build a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head here in Sonoma County. Inspired by this brother Karl, Bill’s opposition to the nuclear plant was routed in his training as a scientist. Bill, a veterinarian, had read about radiation in milk and knew something about geology too. He knew a nuclear plant at ground zero of the San Andreas Fault would pose a real threat to health, not only for Sonoma County residents, but the entire bay area and beyond.
Following on the heels of the Bodega fight came Sea Ranch, a proposed development that threatened to close ten miles of coastline to the public. These two events motivated Bill to advocate for statewide remedies.
The 1960s was a time of sweeping reform, a time when Bill and others believed that government can solve problems rather than the idea fashionable in Washington today, that government is the problem. Bill recognized that sometimes centralized regulation on a large scale is the only effective way to ensure good public policy. The power of centralized state and federal authority can outweigh the provincial interests sometimes manifested by local decision makers. This was proven in Civil Rights legislation, the Clean Air and Water Acts and the establishment of the EPA. Bill’s work to pass Prop 20 and the Coastal Act did solve problems, saving our statewide coastline for generations to come and ensuring public access to our coastal commons.
Bill and Lucy with Tom and Vivian MaFarling, founded Coastwalk, an organization with a statewide focus, in response to threats against coastal public access. They, along with Richard and Brenda Nichols, Linda Hanes and so many others, used Coastwalk, the organization I currently lead, to mobilize grassroots support for coastal protection and a statewide California Coastal Trail that would run from Oregon to Mexico.. The Trail. a clever publicly popular idea that guarantees coastal public access, was dear to Bill and his old friend Peter Douglas.
Lucy recently told me that Bill rarely took “the easy way … the line of least resistance”. He strove for a better way, a way that made sense, a way that complied with facts and principles.
You can see this in the home they built. While others were happy to purchase a set of standard blueprints, Bill set about creating a work of art, a home routed in the landscape, the ideas that he developed, and the books he read.
Bill had a ravenous mind. He attended lectures, read voraciously, brainstormed insatiably and networked endlessly.
Bill’s work on local issues was always framed by global concepts and democratic principles. He was not one to just go with the flow . Through all his work Lucy was at his side, a partner in strategy. A committed activist in her own right.
Building on his experience of statewide successes, Bill joined the statewide Board of the California League of Conservation Voters and then founded Sonoma County Conservation Action in its image, bringing CLCV staffer Mark Green up to Sonoma County to get it launched.
He brought Peter Calthorpe to Sonoma County, injecting international ideas about transit and the built environment, into the local vernacular.
He pushed for Urban Growth Boundaries, a publicly funded Open Space District, and a rail system for the North Bay.
He believed that everyday people should define the direction of our society, not the elite. He believed in grassroots organizing and good government.
He believed in science and the rational mind and excellent education. He lobbied hard for a State College to be located near Cotati, and he got his way.
He believed in a public “commons”, those things we own in common, and the right of the public, from every economic background and walk of life, to access that commons – the air we breathe, the water that sustains our life, our parks, and our coastline.
He was a gentleman to all, old-fashioned in his manner, always gracious, even when in disagreement. His enthusiasm was catching and he often said “Wow” in response to interesting news.
He had a wonderful sense of humor, complimenting PG&E on the nice pond they built for the birds out at Bodega Head.
I visited Bill a few days before he left us. He was not communicating much, lying in his hospital bed at home with his eyes closed. I held his hand, whispered some thoughts and finally said, “Don’t worry Bill, you have taught us well. We will follow your example. We will keep up the fight for our commons and our planet and we will finish the Coastal Trail.” He opened his eyes, looked at me, smiled and said “Yes!”