Is it time to make the initiative process more transparent?

I was just reading an article about the Plastic Bag initiative that recently qualified for the 2016 election. My interest is more than passing, as securing a state-wide ban was a major success while I was at Heal the Bay. It had taken years of work, resulting in a political compromise that was signed into law by Governor Brown last year.

Now it’s on hold after the plastic bag manufacturers put up $3 million – 98% from out-of-state money – to collect the signatures to put it to a vote of the electorate.  The crazy part is that by simply qualifying the initiative the ban is now on hold. By some estimate, every additional year they can sell single-use plastic bags in California generates another $15 million in profit to the manufactures. In other words, for a payment of $3 million they will earn a five-fold return each year. I wish I could get that type of return on my savings account! In fact, the industry will have won handsomely even if they lose in 2016.

I’m not going to rehash the merits of banning plastic bags — that story has been told. And in fact, about half of all Californians live in municipalities that have already banned bags.  But it does again raise the whole question of the initiative process. To me what is most egregious is the misleading way that signatures were gathered. I know because I was asked for mine outside a local Trader Joe. Inside the store the vast majority of people were bringing their re-usable bags, while outside they were being asked whether they could “spare a minute to save jobs.”  I bet most people didn’t know what they were signing or that the person collecting signatures was likely being paid a dollar or more per signature gathered. Or that the jobs issue had been dealt with in the bill that was signed in to law and that it would create new green jobs in California.

There’s a lot of debate at the moment about money in politics as almost limitless amounts slosh around. Much as there’s a desperate need for transparency at the top, I feel it’s past time for transparency in the initiative process. By all means go and collect your signatures. Just make it clear at the point of signing who is behind the initiative and how much the signature gatherer is being paid for you to sign.

A more radical idea is to accept the concept that you can put almost anything on the ballot if you have enough money to spend (or invest as this case shows). As an alternative to the signature gathering process, let’s just have a limited number of slots on each ballot and sell them to the highest bidder. The funds collected could then go to fund voter education programs. Perhaps over time an educated electorate who turned out to vote would slow this craziness.

With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch
With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch at the conference announcing the Bag Ban.

National Park Concessionaires seek to Shake Things Up (with apologies to Taylor Swift)

I think there may have been a recent bout of collective insanity washing across the States. What else could explain Taylor Swift, Delaware North and Xanterra filing trademark for common terms?

Delaware North has operated the concessions in Yosemite for the last 20 years or so. They are seeking trademark protections for the iconic Ahwahnee lodge and Camp Curry Village.  When the concession goes out to bid, they want the next concessionaire to pay them handsomely for the names that predate their operation by decades. Perhaps Delaware North should pay any remaining descendants of the tribes who lived in the area for their use of the name for the past 20 years — it is derived from their name for the valley, “Owwoni” or “large mouth — after all.

Not to be outdone, Xanterra who operates El Tovar at the Grand Canyon is now in one the act too. They are seeking trademark protection for El Tovar, Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch. There claim is at least based upon their operating the lodges for most of the past century.  Presumably, their claims are being filed largely because today’s lawyers see gaps in contracts written decades ago.

And to top it off, Taylor Swift is seeking to trademark such common terms as “1989” and “I Am an American Citizen.”  Will I have to put a penny in a jar every time I tell someone, no despite my British accent, “I Am an American Citizen?”

While the Taylor Swift push is a side-show, the push by the concessionaires to claim these trademarks disturbs me.  They are being allowed to operate with public parks as they offer a valuable service to the visiting public. It would be a loss to the public if these storied names went away because of a legal spat designed to increase their chances of retaining a lucrative concession.  Rather than take a short-term view, driven by clever attorneys, why not take a long-term view more in-keeping with the park ethic. Even if they lose the concession for a period, they will be better off in the long-term if these names and brands are maintained and strengthened. To me it’s clear that  regardless of what the lawyers may say, these names belong to the public as much as the parks they are allowed to operate in do.

Time to move Parks Forward

After months of work, dozens of hearings, and reams of data crunched, the Parks Forward Commission released their final report on Friday.  The report makes six basic recommendations to move California State Parks beyond permanent crisis, to a brighter future.

  • Create a dedicated transformation team.
  • Open pathways to leadership.
  • Create a statewide nonprofit strategic partner with resources not currently available from existing park partners to undertake projects in coordination with the Department .
  • Prioritize necessary support to protect the system’s natural and cultural resources for future generations .
  • Expand park access for California’s underserved communities and urban populations and engage California’s younger generations .
  • Establish a stable funding structure for California parks that includes a robust revenue generation strategy and a dedicated, reliable source of public funding .

It’s not the first report to make many of these recommendations, but hopefully the last as the time has come to focus on implementation.

It was no accident that the Commission put the issue of opening up multiple pathways to leadership up front. To me it’s the central issue that State Parks is facing and without change in this area, the park system will continue to fall short.  Over the past 30 years, leadership in parks has narrowed and been focused on law enforcement and peace officer training. Don’t get me wrong, public safety in parks is critical. But securing and maintaining a peace officer certification is costly and takes hours each year. It also narrows the pool of people drawn to park leadership. Opening up leadership to those with backgrounds in natural resources, recreation and the like, will strengthen parks and be the key to unlocking the other changes.

Too often when I have camped at a State Park, the only time I see the Ranger is when they drive around in their police vehicle a the end of the day. I will know the Commission Report has been successful when the Ranger walks around and invites me to the campfire talk they’re giving later that evening.

Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks

Has spring arrived already?

It gets me every year. January is barely started and California is already flirting with Spring.

Last weekend, out in the redwoods in west Marin, the California Bay trees were blooming. When the weak sun filtered through the canopy and hit their branches, the diminutive cream colored flowers shone like little jewels. As the day wore on and the leaves heated up, that classic smell of the woods permeated the air — the peppery smell of this beautiful tree.

Have you seen the signs of Spring yet? Let me know!

One of the early signs of spring by the Bay.
One of the early signs of spring by the Bay.

Keystone XL as symbol of much that is wrong in the Country

Although its rarely been out of the news for the past few years, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is front-page news again today with the new Republican controlled Senate taking it up as its first order of business. For me, the pipeline has become a potent symbol of much that is wrong in the Country.

For the proponents it’s the solution to our economic woes and will single-handedly free us from the specter of “foreign oil.” Although last I checked Canada was not the 51st State, and many of the jobs would be temporary construction jobs. To the opponents it will be responsible for completing our slide into a warmer planet bathed in carbon dioxide.  They argue that stopping the pipeline will mean the oil stays in the ground. I am no expert on the economics of oil, but I think it is safe to assume the oil will get to market if the price is right, pipeline or no pipeline. As an aside, I am curious if the recent crash in oil price makes the project uneconomic.

And now the Senate is going to weigh in on a project that is both the subject of law suits and extensive review by the Administration. When the Republicans get a bill out of the Congress’s and to the Presidents desk, I hope he vetoes it to send a strong message.  Congress meanwhile needs to stop wasting everyone’s time and tackle the harder policy question of how American can lead the world in producing clean, plentiful and affordable energy that does not pollute the planet.  It’s a much harder ask but solving that will actually lead to sustained economic growth and a cleaner environment.  Of course,  while we make that transition it would be smart to keep our climate options open and leave the dirtiest forms of energy where they are — buried safe in the ground.

Three ways to beat the crowds at Muir Woods

One of the Bay Areas top visitor spots is Muir Woods. It was beautiful when I was there yesterday. I’ll never tire of the walk to Cathedral Grove along the banks of Redwood Creek. But it can get a little crowded. In fact this year, visitation is up 10 per cent  — or about 1 million people a year. I was surprised to learn that the days after Christmas can be as busy as any summer weekend!  Unfortunately the shuttle bus service is suspended due to the slide on Highway 1 and that the County is blocking parking along the county road. It had me thinking, if you want to visit the redwoods but want to avoid the Muir Woods crush, where should you go?

I have three suggestions for other spots to try.  They are all close by and have the added advantage of being kid friendly!

Live in the South Bay? Head down the coast and turn inland at Pescadero to find Butano Redwoods State Park. Much like Muir Woods, the highlight is a beautiful trail that follows Little Butano Creek with redwoods cloaking both sides.  Head up to the campground to see some of the largest trees in the park. And on your way out, stop at Bean Hollow State Beach and watch the breakers roll in.  It’s a grand day out!

Headed North across the Golden Gate Bridge? Instead of getting off at Muir Woods, head out on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard as it winds out to West Marin and stop at Samuel P. Taylor State Park. You could start our at the picnic area and admire the classic CCC hearths — you could even throw on a log and heat up your tea. Kids, young and old alike, will enjoy playing on the old stumps.  Then take a walk over the bridge to the Cross Marin Trail. It’s a great place to ride your bike, or just enjoy a walk along the creek.  Then hike up Wildcat Canyon to see some of the tallest trees in the Bay Area. If you’re feeling ambitious, follow the Pioneer trail up the the hill to an unusual grove at the top.

Want to stay in the East Bay?   It may lack the grandeur of the ancient forest, but my kids love to go to Roberts Regional Recreation Area.  It’s got a great playground and a beautiful redwood grove where they can play to their hearts content.  You can follow the short trail and see the site of the “landmark trees” — redwood beacons used by the early sailors on the bay.

Do you have other places to recommend? Let me know!

Places I love: Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Ferns grow where water flows.

In a remote part of northern California, a small creek flows to the Pacific Ocean in the heart of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. But this isn’t any creek. This is Home Creek and for its last mile of so it flows through Fern Canyon. I think it is one of the most beautiful spots on the coast.

I took the eight mile dirt road to Gold Bluffs beach earlier this week.  It was raining gently and I had the canyon to myself.  It may lack the grandeur of the better known canyons of the south west, but it more than makes up for this with a series of intimate views as you head upstream, repeatedly crossing the creek as you go.  The sheer walls of the canyon, draped with five-finger ferns, gently reflect and soften the sound of the creek. It’s just magical.

It’s a small flood!

I recently asked my oldest son what his favorite part of the Thanksgiving break was. Not the turkey, or pie, or playing in the park. It was playing in the rain during the, “small flood” that came along with the recent pineapple express storm.

There are a number of small creeks in the neighborhood that were flowing as high as I have seen them. Another few hours of rain and they would have burst their banks.  We didn’t just watch — we got out there and cleared some culverts of leaves and debris and then stood and watched as the huge puddles drained to the bay.  It was the perfect way to learn about how the things we do in our neighborhoods impact the health of the rivers and creeks and ultimately the bay.

It was great to see the new Rain Garden in the city of El Cerrito working to collect the water and give it time to infiltrate back into the ground.  With forecasts of more intense storms in our future, we’re going to need to build many more rain gardens to keep our neighborhoods safe from flood, to prevent pollution into the bay, and to give our kids new places to play — come rain or shine.

Gory science education remembered across the years

What do you remember about your early years at school? If you’re like me, chances are not too many of the specifics.  But I am pretty sure that my oldest son, now in the second grade, had one of those lessons last week. Why do I say that? Because I have a very similar memory from my time at school, as does my mother. More than 60 years separate these lessons, but they are essential the same.

And the lesson? Dissecting an eyeball and extracting the lens.

My mother worked on a sheep’s eye. I dissected a cow’s eye. And my son got to do the same with an anchovy.

It was amazing watching a class full of normally twitchy seven and eight year olds settle down and learn what makes a fish a fish.  The climax was removing the lens and feeling the tiny hard sphere that you could then take back to class. It made science-education real — if a little smelly!

The staff and many volunteers at the Shorebird Nature Center at the Berkeley Marina did a great job turning these students into scientists for the morning. I have a hunch that one of his early school memories will be of this day and that little anchovy.

Do you have a favorite lesson that has stuck with you through the years?

Dissecting an anchovy.
Dissecting an anchovy.

Remembering Martin Litton’s passionate and indomitable spirit

I was saddened to learn earlier today that Marin Litton, a passionate conservationist, passed away yesterday. I met Martin during my time at Save the Redwoods League. We connected on the redwoods (of course) and over his time in England during World War II fly gliders from airbases likely built by my grandfather.

I will never forget the first time we met.  It perfectly exemplifies his fierce independence and passion.  We were hosting a memorial tree planting for Martin’s former boss at Sunset Magazine, Ambassador Bill Lane. Given that many of the guests were getting on in years, we’d arranged for a bus to bring people up to the redwoods from the Bay Area.  The bus was running late. Very late. And Martin was the reason.

Martin stepped out of the bus with a bloodied and bruised face. In the early morning light, Martin had slipped in his driveway and landed heavily on his head. He’d laid there until his wife found him.  Undaunted they dusted hims off and he and his wife drove to meet the bus.  Our staff encouraged (implored!) him to go to the local hospital to be checked out.  But that would mean missing the event to honor his long-time fellow champion of the Sierra. Martin was getting on that bus if it was the last thing he was going to do.  Finally a compromise was reached and he agreed to visit the Garberville emergency room to be checked out when he arrived.  Anyone who has done that drive in a car knows its a long and slow drive. Imagine doing that with a bloodied, bruised head? I can’t!

It didn’t end there.  Between checking in to the hotel and getting Martin in the car to the hospital, his wife slipped. So we took them both to be checked out.  Fortunately both were fine, if bruised. Martin joined everyone the next day for breakfast, complete with a massive bandage and incipient black eye.   I can tell from reading his obituary, that this was the real Martin. He was an unstoppable force and the mountains and the forests of the West are better today for it.

Rest in Peace, Martin.

Bruised, but unstoppable, Martin Litton talks about his friend Bill Lane.
Bruised, but unstoppable, Martin Litton talks about his friend Bill Lane.
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