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Featured Member...The Executive Director of Save the Bay: David Lewis, '83

David Lewis, ‘83 Executive Director, Save the Bay (Oakland, CA)

by Larry Chang ‘85
Bay area native, David Lewis '83 headed east to Princeton where he earned his B.A. in Politics and American Studies and completed his senior thesis on the nuclear freeze movement.  He continued his efforts in nuclear arms control and worked as a senior defense aide from 1991-96 to U.S. Senator Carl Levin. After a brief stint with the League of Conservation Voters, he returned to the Bay area, where he has served since 1998 as executive director of Save the Bay, a nonprofit founded in 1961 by three East Bay women to protect SF Bay from bay fill development. Under his leadership, Save The Bay defeated SF International Airport’s attempt to fill the Bay for future runways and has continued to fight vigorously against bay fill proposals and other pollutants such as plastic bags. Now in its 50th year, Save the Bay continues its mission of restoring Bay wetlands with community engagement and environmental education for children, too. As a result of his tireless dedication, David has twice received the Princeton Club of Northern California’s Public Service Award (in 2000 and 2010), and is the only local alumnus to be so honored.

For those interested in learning more about Save The Bay, see http://www.saveSFbay.org/
We hope you will join fellow alumni at our PCNC Save the Bay event 9/17/11, for details see the events page.
Were there any events from childhood or your Princeton years that inspired you to become an environmentalist?

There were a number of impressions. As I recall from the newsletters they received, my parents were members of Save the Bay. Later for a 4th grade school project, some friends and I worked on a home Super 8 movie that was filled with scenes of parks, dumptrucks, and freeways near Palo Alto, where I grew up; the film was decidedly a study in stark contrasts that were easily (and still are) visible around us. Finally, a Princeton Outdoor Action backpacking trip in the Catskills was tough to forget. Because of a hurricane, the trip was cut short, all the students were drenched and finally had to be retrieved by the fire department. Now that was some kind of start to freshman year!

Where are some of your favorite spots or walks along the edge of the Bay?

Since I grew up in Palo Alto, I have to say that the Baylands Preserve is still one of my favorites. Thanks to the city's early ban on bay fill development, the Baylands remains the largest undisturbed wetland in the Bay area; from there, it's possible to see Mt. Tamalpais,Diablo, and Hamilton all within a 360 degree view. Two others that I love are Crissy Field in SF, one of the best public spaces in the U.S., and nearby Ft. Point at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. To me, the combination of windsurfers, tidal movements, and structures is such a unique experience.

In an interview from a few years ago, you mentioned that "...each of us can prevent bay pollution with simple changes in our daily behavior." Could you elaborate on which changes are most significant? Are there any habits that are particularly difficult to break?

With the exception of San Francisco, Bay area stormwater is largely untreated, and thus, any runoff containing pollutants is potentially harmful. Here are three key points:
  • We need to keep trash (including cigarette butts and plastic bags) out of our streets; lids need to be fastened securely on garbage cans so trash doesn't blow away and end up at beaches, parks, and natural habitats.
  • We need to use fewer disposable items, e.g. bring our own reusable bags for purchases.
  • We need to drive less since oil residue, particulate matter, and copper in brake pad linings all find their way to the Bay. Driving is a particularly tough habit to break and requires a lot of education and deliberate effort to modify, especially when cities are designed specifically around the automobile.
Save the Bay is doing its share by having its offices accessible via public transit, assisting cities to ban plastic bags, and communicating the effect that we all have upon the Bay. Because the price of gas is posted everywhere, we are conditioned to think that is important. However, where can we find the price of our behavior as we consume gallon upon gallon of gasoline?

To combat the proliferation of garbage in the Pacific OceanMarin County voted recently to ban further use of plastic bags at grocery stores. However, a Save the Plastic Bag Coalition plans to file a lawsuit in response. What other municipalities are likely to pass similar bans, and will Save the Bay or other organizations assist in defense against such lawsuits?

For approximately two years, Save the Bay worked with City of San Jose to create its ordinance, and in Dec. 2010, the City Council voted to ban all plastic bags for retail use with some exceptions including restaurants and nonprofits.  Starting next January, for customers who don't bring their own bags, there is a nominal charge for paper bags with 40% minimum recycled content  (5 to 10 cents) . This is a model ordinance which is being  considered by other governments in CA (Sunnyvale, Alameda County) and elsewhere. I doubt that Save the Bay will need to be involved in defense against any lawsuits. There is plenty of good evidence supporting such legislation as long as municipalities follow a thorough public review process.

How is climate change affecting the Bay? What are the short- and long-term predictions re: carbon dioxide absorption and ocean acidification? 

One of the most critical questions is, "How fast will sea levels rise?" This in turn will impact low-lying areas already subject to flooding and high tidal variation, for example as much as 9 ft. daily in the South Bay. The effects of CO2 absorption and acidification have been studied more closely in our oceans, but such issues are less clear for the Bay. More intense storms will affect streams feeding the Bay, so there needs to be more research here on flooding.

How is ecosystem restoration of wetlands improving the health of the Bay?

To mitigate against future flooding, protection and re-establishment of tidal marshes are still some of our best strategies. As ecosystems, they act like sponges to hold more water while thriving marsh plants function as carbon sinks. This is why conversion of salt ponds into marsh habitats needs to be a priority.

What forms of environmental education (hands-on, internships) do you find most effective, for either children or adults? How can we improve such education in our schools?

Direct, tangible experiences are really the most effective environmental education. With repeat exposures to their surroundings, students retain more and begin to make connections between different bodies of knowledge. From what I've seen, there are more opportunities and external providers of ecological education at primary grades, but less so at the middle and high school levels, so there’s room for improvement. In the end, it's important to get to kids as early as possible and teach them that open space and the natural world are not scary. By cultivating a sense of stewardship, generations now and in the future see that they can have a positive role in managing the welfare of the planet. This is how we begin to transform ourselves from mere “residents” into true citizens.

With the economic recession, have you seen an increase in the number of your volunteers or interns? What skills can they acquire through your activities to help facilitate a career in the non-profit world or as an environmentalist?

We've seen a slight increase in volunteers, perhaps due to the recession. On the other hand, there always exists competition among all non-profits for volunteers! In terms of skills acquired, I'd say that every internship is unique. For Save the Bay, we provide exposure for those looking to determine whether our mission matches their own interests and passions. The insights gained from this exposure are probably of more relevance than developing any specific skills.

What are some of Save the Bay's future goals?

We're presently hoping to accelerate large-scale wetlands restoration,  where the biggest hurdle is adequate federal, state, and local funding. For instance, we've examined the possible use of a parcel tax, and some surveys have shown good support for this approach  because the local public really loves the Bay .

However, we're always looking to increase the public's involvement over time with saving the bay. One of our founders, Catherine “Kay” Kerr, noted "…the Bay is never saved. It is, instead, always in the process of being saved. That is why we have been so heavily involved for all of these years, and why our successors will be involved far into the future." Although we've made great strides, her mantra is so true, now more than ever. 

About the contributor

Larry Chang '85 graduated with a BSE in Architecture & Engineering and is an Oakland-based architect with his own practice. When he's not at the drawing boards or checking out new green building materials, he enjoys writing as a hobby and hiking with the Princeton Club. 

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