The distinct smell of the mountains of Topanga

What does Topanga smell like? To a four-year-old.

Walking back from dropping his brother at school this morning, my middle son suddenly shouted out, “I don’t see Topanga, but I smell it!”  Asked what does it smell like, he responds, “It smells like mountains full of bears.”

We were in the Bay Area, far from Topanga Canyon and many miles (I think) from the nearest bear. So what was he smelling?  The sun was out and shining on the trees, so perhaps it was the smell of morning sun warming up the trees.

We hadn’t been together in Topanga since late summer. It was a good reminder of how smell can trigger strong memories. And as we never saw a bear in Topanga, it also shows how young minds blend fact and fiction seamlessly. Now I am wondering how to include protecting natural smells in our conservation plans!

The distinct smell of the mountains of Topanga
Enjoying the mountain trails, Topanga Canyon




Governor Brown: Turn that Umbrella Upside Down

Governor Brown is so far ahead in his race for re-election that he’s throwing his weight, and war-chest, behind the campaign to pass Proposition 1 and 2. That’s the water bond and the state’s “rainy day” fund. I’ll be voting yes on the water bond. It’s a smart investment in the state’s water future. It will enable us to clean up groundwater, invest in conservation and recycling, and develop stormwater capture projects.

I have yet to make a decision on Prop 2, But the imagery being used for the “rainy day fund” is just wrong in the context of a joint campaign. The picture of an umbrella shedding the rain is as classic as it is wrong. In the context of the water bond, the last thing we want to do is to shed the rain — we need to capture it and save it for later! The same is true of course for excess revenue during flush years. One of the problems we face across the state is we have paved over the earth and now when it rains water is shed from our cities, picks up pollutants and rushes into our rivers, bays and ocean. We need to turn the umbrella upside down — to use it to capture the rain where we can direct it back into our groundwater to be used during the inevitable dry times ahead. Doing this will help our regions secure their own water futures.

So nice job marrying these measures up, Governor Brown. You just need to overhaul your imagery!


Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the Bay)

When sustainability is not enough.

Sustainable. Barely a day goes by without hearing something about “sustainability.” The City of Los Angeles has a Chief Sustainability Officer. Most large corporations have a sustainability plan. And goods from furniture to wine tout their sustainability credits.

But is it enough? I don’t think so. At it’s simplest, sustainability means meeting today’s needs without compromising those of the future. Sounds like a good thing to strive for. Trouble is, we have been borrowing from the future for generations and at some point we need to pay it back and leave the world better than we found it. I believe we’re past that point.

A quick example. If you were given a lump- sum of cash to invest and live of the interest for the rest of your life how would you feel? Pretty fortunate if you were given $10 million. You could live a rich life on $500,000 a year. If you were given $100,000 you’d be scraping by on about $5,000 a year.  You’d struggle to keep healthy and fit at that level and life would likely be short and brutal.

Well, the same is happening with the natural capital of our planet. Every year we are borrowing from the future to sustain our standard and way of living. It’s time to start paying back. To move from the goal of having a a sustainable society to one that is regenerative.

This is starting to happen in pockets around the world. In the redwoods, groups like the Mendocino Redwoods Company are rebuilding the productive capacity of the forests even while they manage them for timber today.  In places, these forests used to have in excess of 200,000 board feet an acre. Today, many have less than 5,000. Sustained yield on a forest with 5,000 board feet an acre is insignificant compared to the potential of these forests.

In the ocean, Marine Protected Areas are being established to restore the productive capacity of the ocean.  In these set-aside zones, there are more fish, they are larger, and more fecund. They also stray and rebuild the fish stocks of the rest of the ocean.

We need to multiply these efforts around the world. With more than half of the world living in cities, these efforts are going to have to come to cities as well. Rather than striving for a sustainable city, we need a regenerative city.  One that is striving to leave the world a better place.

Do you have any examples of cities adopting bold goals that go beyond sustainability? I’d love to hear from you!

Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the Bay)
Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the Bay)
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks

What would you give up for an endangered Crane?

Sometimes conservation can get a little abstract. The primary drivers of loss are often things we don’t personally do — I have never personally cut down the rainforest, or poached a rhinoceros horn. But once in a while I come across a story that makes the abstract very real and personal.

This great PodCast from RadioLab did just that.

Simple question. Would you be willing to give up your bird feeder to save a critically endangered Whooping Crane? Pretty easy, “yes.” What if watching birds around the feeder was the only way your husband of 50+ years was brought back from the dark recesses of Alzheimer’s disease? Not so easy.

Some form of this question gets asked and answered about 7 billion times each day. The net result, human population continues to soar while one by one species around us go extinct.

Out on the Bay

Goodbye Santa Monica Bay: Hello San Francisco Bay

Last week, I was driving along PCH listening to Katy Perry sing about plastic bags floating in the wind and wondering whether that song was about to become history with the stroke of Gov. Brown’s pen.  I looked right at the ocean just before Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades, and there a few yards out two dolphins enjoyed the waves in the light of the early morning. It’s a sight I will cherish, even as I step away from my role as CEO of Heal the Bay and move back to Northern California to be closer to my young kids.

My decision this week to leave Heal the Bay by the end of the calendar year was ultimately an easy one.  We’ve had some big wins in the past year and laid the groundwork for the next phase of work for Heal the Bay.  Alix Hobbs, a 16-year veteran of Heal the Bay who most recently served as chief operating officer, has been promoted immediately to president and CEO.

Alix’s journey from volunteer to Programs and Educations Director to Associate Director to now CEO has given her the ideal perspective to manage across the entire organization. Dorothy Green, our founder and personal friend of Alix, would be proud to know she has assumed the reins.

I am immensely proud of what I’ve accomplished with the staff over the past year.  We’ve had some ground-breaking wins that will forever protect the bay and all of California’s coastal waters.

We led the charge on adoption of a statewide plastic bag ban, the first in the nation.  We have established an ambitious Local Coastal Plan in the Santa Monica Mountains.  And working with our partners in the beach cities, we created a Pier Ambassadors program in the South Bay to educate the general public about sharks in the Bay.

Under my leadership, Heal the Bay has become a more forceful advocate about water supply issues and other drought-related policies. Our science and policy team will continue to integrate these issues throughout all our programs and public initiatives. Heal the Bay will be a major player regionally in educating the public about drought and driving policy in the years to come.

While I will miss the Bay, I know that it’s in safe hands. I will continue to serve as an advisor to the organization through the end of the year.  I am looking forward to Thursday evening soccer practice up in the San Francisco Bay Area, safe in the knowledge that I played a part in making the Santa Monica Bay a safer place for those dolphins.

Out on the Bay

In conversation with Michael Brune about the legacy of John Muir.

Is anything for ever?

In the world of conservation, we’re used to the mantra that our victories are temporary while our losses are for ever.  I was surprised therefore to hear Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club,  talk about some permanent conservation wins.

He and I were guests at the Santa Monica Green Book Awards earlier this week. We’d been invited to have a conversation about the legacy of John Muir while others listened in.  In his opening remarks, Michael discussed the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. It’s a great campaign — seeking to move the United States away from coal to renewable energy sources by the end of the next decade – skipping natural gas where possible. Visionary stuff. And they are making progress – largely because economics are on their side.

As he said, every coal plant that is closed is a permanent win. I agree, but I am less optimistic that it means the coal will just sit in the ground undisturbed forever. After all, forever is a long time.  I believe history has shown us that we need groups like the Sierra Club and Heal the Bay to be vigilant against the next threat that the ingenuity of mankind concocts.

Take a small example here in Southern California. Heal the Bay secured a huge win when the state directed power plants in Southern California to move away from “once-through cooling” to a closed cycle system. That means less sea-water sucked in and less disruption of marine life. Roll the clock forward a few years and those very same locations are now the subject of a vigorous debate about desalination of seawater — not only would it suck in water, but it would leave brine, and use massive amounts of energy.  We’re advocating that the state adopt strong policies to protect against this.

For me, the same goes for coal. Yes, it’s a win to close down a coal-fired power plant and open up a new wind farm. But I also know some ingenuous person will be thinking up new ways to make money off that coal, while the environment be damned. I’m confident that the Sierra Club and others will be ready to take that battle on should the time come. Right Michael?

In conversation with Michael Brune about the legacy of John Muir.
In conversation with Michael Brune about the legacy of John Muir.

Abstract Art in the Central Valley

I find the great Central Valley of California endlessly fascinating. From the air the irrigated farmland becomes an abstract painting worthy of any gallery of modern art.

At one time it was a vast grassland punctuated by reed beds and marshlands. No doubt home to countless animals. Over the past century it’s been tamed. It’s water captured and diverted. It’s grassland replaced by millions of acres of farmland that feeds California and the world.

This year it’s parched as the dry Californian winter rumbles into a scorching summer. Down below farmers are struggling as water dwindles. But from above it retains it’s abstract beauty.


vote 1

146 votes

Do you know 146 people? That was the margin by which Measure AA passed in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This open space initiative will raise  $300 million to build trails, protect open space and protect the scenic beauty of the San Mateo coast.  It needed 66.7% and got 66.9% Talk about close!

It’s also a great reminder that your vote does count. That is, if you vote.   I just don’t understand why turn-out is so low. In Los Angeles County it was 20% in this weeks election. Ok, the ballot was long and complex and in most cases it was a primary election. But you can vote at home over a glass of wine. What’s not to like about that.

vote 2

Siberian Outpost 104

Drought bites at 11,050 feet

The Siberian Outpost, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

High up in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and the Golden Trout Wilderness the drought is taking hold. I spent most of Memorial Day weekend above 10,000 feet.  The snow has largely gone, the wild flowers are almost non existent and the barren bones of the Sierra Nevada are laid bare.

The Big Whitney Meadow and the aptly named Siberian Outpost are starkly beautiful, even if they lack the flush of spring that normally visits the Sierra at this time of year.  It really brought home to me that we’re in the midst of a vicious drought. Not only have we lost the snow pack, but the water that is normally stored in these high alpine meadows is also dwindling. I was a visitor. But it’s going to be a long hot summer for the golden eye trout and marmots that call these meadows home.

Snow Marker 251 - Cottonwood Pass
Snow Marker 251 – Cottonwood Pass


Big Whitney Meadow, Golden Trout Wilderness
Big Whitney Meadow, Golden Trout Wilderness

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