Forty years ago this month, a group of college students, impressed by public uprisings against the Vietnam War, horrified by environmental disasters such as the oil spill off Santa Barbara in l969, and inspired by a suggestion from Sen. Gaylord Nelson, organized a day of social activism to honor the planet on which we live — Earth Day.
That day, April 22, 1970, is generally recognized as the day on which the environmental movement was born.
“It was the largest political gathering of its kind in American history,” said Sean Miller, an organizer with Earth Day Network, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C. “Twenty million people came out across the country for the first Earth Day. It kicked off the modern environmental movement, but what happened then was that the movement became federalized. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act — these were solutions to real problems, but they were federal solutions that didn’t involve the community.”
Miller adds that the organizers themselves didn’t fully realize what they had created.
“It happened so fast that there wasn’t a lot of follow-up at the time,” he said. “The movement was pretty organic, without a lot of formal organization, and as time passed, as Reagan was elected and the solar panels came off the White House, the movement became more reactive than proactive.”
For the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day, in l990, a group of environmental leaders asked the original lead organizer, Dennis Hayes, to organize another big celebration, this time not just in the U.S., but around the world. Miller believes that brought the idea back to life, and he thinks the Earth Day celebration will be more vibrant than ever this year, on its 40th anniversary.
Miller said that the environmental movement has become almost apolitical.
“Everyone needs a healthy environment,” he said. “If you look at the history, it’s amazing how successful the movement has been. We’ve substantially cleaned the air we breathe and the water we drink, we’ve reduced acid rain, and we’ve protected dozens of endangered species. ‘Going green’ is in vogue, and almost becoming the norm. But a lot more needs to be done for sustainability. That’s what we’re trying to do now, create action on a local level for a sustainable life in the future.”
By that standard — creating action on a local level for sustainable life in the future — how well is Ventura County doing?
To find out, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the Reporter talked to a number of environmental leaders in our county, asking a simple question: What do you see as the good, the bad and the ugly in the Ventura County environment over the past year?
Not everyone wanted to answer the given question, but nearly all the groups responded.
County Supervisor Steve Bennett
Speaking as a county supervisor, Bennett — famed for spearheading the SOAR initiatives, to protect open space and agricultural land in the county in the late l990s, and one of the county’s best-known environmental leaders — sees a much higher level of environmental concern than in the past in Ventura County.
“In general, there’s been a greater awareness of the two state laws that tell us we’re going to have to design our communities around the concept of environmental responsibility, to build around mass transit hubs, to reduce vehicle miles, to preserve our open space and agricultural resources, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Five years ago, you couldn’t get people to sit around a table and talk about it. Now the question is how we are going to go do that, as opposed to, is it the right thing.”
Bennett didn’t want to distinguish between “the bad” and “the ugly” when it came to Ventura County’s environment, but speaking of “the negatives,” he said: “We are facing devastation to the local environment as a result of the budget cutbacks. We are closing state parks, and decreasing the number of people working in environmental protection, and we are going to pay a price for that.”
Ron Bottorff of the Friends of the Santa Clara River
The Good: “Although the cost of the new MS4 permitting process is causing a lot of grief, the idea behind it is good — to regulate not just stormwater pollution from water treatment plants, but from non-point sources, to reduce runoff. We’ve also had a great deal of support for the Hedrick Ranch Nature Area, which is an area along the Santa Clara River east of Santa Paula that we are working to restore.”
The Bad: “We have a continuing blockage of steelhead passage at Freeman Diversion.”
The Ugly: “In Los Angeles County, just across the county line, a number of large projects are being built, and on the table is Newhall Ranch, a new city of 70,000 people. This will usurp about 150 acres of flood plain on the Santa Clara River. We’ve been working hard to preserve the river’s floodplain, because this is a major wildlife corridor. The permitting for this development will go through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; we are hoping to preserve the floodplain by putting restrictions into the permit.”
Paul Jenkin of the Ventura chapter of Surfrider
Jenkin, who works for more than one environmental group, spoke on behalf of the Ventura chapter of Surfrider.
The Good: “The good news is that we are on the verge of breaking ground on a Surfer’s Point restoration project,” he said. “It’s taken almost 20 years to get to this point. That’s a huge positive, and something to look forward to this year. The plan is to restore the beach at the mouth of the Ventura River in response to the damage that occurred almost 20 years ago with the bike path and parking lot, and to restore the beach. It’s at the mouth of the river, so the beach comes and goes depending on how wet a year we have, but this is a progressive solution. We are restoring the natural buffer zone.”
The Bad: “In terms of missed opportunities, the system of stormwater permits approved by the county, the MS4 permitting system, is a mistake. The municipalities were able to forge a deal with other environmental organizations that encourages in-fill development, which, on the surface, is a good thing, but which in reality does nothing to solve the existing problem we have with urban runoff. Basically, the idea of municipal action levels was pulled out of the proposal in favor of low-impact development measures for new or redeveloped parcels. Low-impact development is a good thing in terms of the individual site for the future, but does nothing to solve the problem of existing stormwater runoff.”
The Ugly: “A recent river clean up by the Main Street Bridge near the Ventura River estuary netted over five and a half tons of debris. A similar clean-up last fall netted even more. This is the result of large populations of people living in the river bottom. I think this is a real sign of how our society and its neglectful inability to address social problems has environmental ramifications.”
Alasdair Coyne of Keep the Sespe Wild
The co-founder and leader of the Ojai-based environmental group Keep the Sespe Wild, which moved a bill through Congress to grant wilderness protection to the Sespe backcountry, saw much to celebrate in 2009, and some developments to bemoan.
The Good: “I think there’s been some movement in the business community to position Ventura County as a leader in alternative energy and green solutions,” Coyne said. “At Cal State Channel Islands, they established a new school, the California Institute of Social Business, which is built on a ‘microlending’ business model that was pioneered by Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Prize for his work and visited the campus to launch the program. They’ve taken the idea he created and gone a step further, creating a school of sustainable business to train people in how to better themselves and their communities.”
The Bad: “The process to remove Matilija Dam has run into major stumbling blocks, where many of the stakeholders have been left out of the decision-making process,” he said. “The current proposal to build a gigantic wall to retain the sediment in perpetuity behind the dam is contrary to the vision of many who have looked forward to the restoration of that watershed.”
The Ugly: “The United Water [conservation district], which has worked on a collaborative approach to finding a solution to fish passage at the Freeman Diversion in Saticoy, and agreed to a court-mandated timetable there, has, on the other hand, slipped backwards and reverted to their technique of filing court papers to try to overturn years of work by the nation’s top fishery scientists to prevent any improvements for the endangered steelhead at Santa Felicia Dam and Lake Piru.”
Michael Stubblefield of the Los Padres chapter of the Sierra Club
Stubblefield spoke on behalf of the Los Padres chapter of the Sierra Club.
The Good: “The last undeveloped coastal property of any real size in Southern California is Ormond Beach. This is 1,400 acres of prime c oastal real estate. It’s mostly wetlands now, some of which is managed by the Nature Conservancy, but it has the potential to be a world-class visitors site for birders and tourists. We think Ormond Beach could be a turning point for the city of Oxnard, to make this into more than an area for big-box stores and strip malls, and to make this into a destination worthy of comparison to Ventura or Carpinteria. This could be a higher consciousness place, a place of beauty.”
The Bad: “We are [at] a critical juncture in the history of Southern California. This is an area of incredible biodiversity, but because of population pressures, urban sprawl into the wilderness, and air and water pollution, we lead the world in species extinctions. With nature, you only get one chance; a victory is temporary, but a loss is forever.”
The Ugly: “Our highest priority is Ormond Beach. We’ve worked on this issue for many years, but because of the misbehavior of [some of] our former [members], we not only antagonized those people we need to work with in Oxnard, such as the City Council, but our chapter was suspended by the national Sierra Club. We’ve been in a rebuilding phase, airing a lot of dirty laundry, and we’ve had to dissolve the group, according to Sierra Club bylaws, and start over.”
David Landecker of the Environmental Defense Center
Landecker spoke for the Environmental Defense Center, a law firm that works on environmental issues in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
The Good: “Our No. 1 priority is Ormond Beach. The good news is, California State Coastal Conservancy has taken an active role in its restoration, and the Nature Conservancy has begun to buy up land in the area, with the intention of remediating the damage that has been done to this historic wetlands, and to make it into the beautiful and environmentally significant area it can be. Significant efforts are under way to save this property.”
The Bad: “There is a plan afoot to develop industrial and residential plans in Ormond Beach, which will significantly reduce the possibility of success with the restoration plan. What we have been trying to do is, one, stop the specific plans for development, and two, make sure that the Oxnard general plan includes the importance of restoring the area.”
The Ugly: “For the last generation or two, Ormond Beach has been treated as an industrial zone, with the power plant and Halaco, which was dumping on the site before it was shut down. This is one of the few areas off Oxnard and the Ventura coast that still has a great deal of environmental significance, and where birds congregate in incredible numbers.”
Karen Schmidt of the Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources group
Schmidt spoke for SOAR, the Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources group that successfully passed a number of initiatives, locally and countywide, to limit sprawl and preserve Ventura County’s open space and farmland, in the late l990s.
The Good: “The interest and attention that people are giving to local foods and sustainable agriculture is good. People are more interested in where their food comes from, and that is leading people to be supportive of protecting farmland and being good agricultural stewards.”
The Bad: “As a result of the budget crunch at the state level, and also partly as a result of partisan politics, the Williamson Act [which allows farmers and ranchers to sign long-term contracts to tax their land for its agricultural value, and not for its value to developers] was defunded. Happily, Ventura County has maintained funding, so our local farmers and ranchers haven’t been affected to date.”
The Ugly: “I think Ventura County is doing a relatively good job of engaging the public on these issues in a civil discourse. When we lose that civility, things can get ugly. We’ve seen badly behaved people in public meetings, and a lot of irrational comments on websites.”