Hundreds turn out to pay tribute to Sonoma County environmentalist Bill Kortum (w/video)
Bill Kortum, Sonoma County’s premier environmental activist, was remembered Saturday as a family man, home winemaker, veterinarian, croquet enthusiast and a personal inspiration to others who joined him in defending the landscape here and along the entire California coast.
More than 700 people, representing a who’s who of the local environmental community, attended a celebration of Kortum’s life at the Sonoma Mountain Village Event Center in Rohnert Park, 4 miles north of the Kortum family home, known as Ely Hill, on the outskirts of Petaluma.
Kortum, who spent most of his life fighting to rein in urban sprawl and protect public access to the coast, died at home Dec. 20 after a three-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 87.
“The entire North Bay paid homage to Bill Kortum the quiet man and Bill Kortum the activist who made things happen,” said Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, was one of the speakers at the event, with Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and former Rep. Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma among the public officials in the audience.
“I feel really overwhelmed,” said Lucy Kortum, Bill’s wife of 61 years, who was recognized as the other half of a team committed to preserving open space and preventing Sonoma County from turning into another San Jose.
“Bill was absolutely the best kind of a politician,” said Huffman, who credited Kortum’s support for his first major election victory in a 2006 state Assembly race. “For him, it was about doing something.”
Likening Kortum’s intellect and political acumen to Thomas Jefferson’s, Huffman also noted that Kortum was “a guy who lived right beside a quiet, abandoned railroad track and wanted the trains to come rolling back,” referring to Kortum’s strong support for the SMART commuter train.
“He was the opposite of a NIMBY; he was an ‘IMBY,’?” Huffman said.
Una Glass, a Sebastopol city councilwoman, described Kortum as “a big-picture kind of guy, a Renaissance man, an intellectual, a gentleman.”
Calling Kortum the man “who saved the landscape of Sonoma County,” Glass said his impact extended much further in pushing for a ballot measure that created the state Coastal Commission, which set limits on development along California’s 1,100-mile coast.
Glass also noted Kortum’s sense of humor, recalling that he complimented PG&E “on the nice pond they built for the birds.” She was referring to the Hole in the Head at Bodega Bay, left behind after the defeat of the utility’s plan to build a nuclear power plant on the San Andreas Fault.
In a 2010 oral history interview, Kortum said that victory, considered the birth of the anti-nuclear movement in California, was for him “a great lesson that you could take on a giant and win.”
Denny Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, noted Kortum’s “uncanny ability” to get people involved in his causes. “Often, you were left alone to move the idea forward,” Rosatti said, prompting a chuckle from the crowd.
Kortum founded Conservation Action in 1991 as a canvassing organization that mobilized voter support for urban growth limits around every city in Sonoma County, putting the brakes on suburban sprawl.
Rosatti also alluded to some unfinished business that was high on Kortum’s agenda. “I can’t wait for us all to take a hike at the Bill Kortum Regional Park at Lafferty Ranch,” he said. Activists have long waged a battle for public access to the 270-acre open space area on Sonoma Mountain east of Petaluma.
Gene Harlan, a longtime associate of Kortum’s at Cotati Veterinary Hospital, called him a “visionary in veterinary medicine.” The practice, started by Kortum in 1956, initially used a Volkswagen Beetle as its staff vehicle, Harland said.
Kortum may have honed “his kind and gentle ways” as a dairy cattle vet, Harlan said, noting that animals can sense a person’s intentions “when you walk into a corral.”
Frank Kortum said his father “did some of his best thinking” while tending his garden at Ely Hill. “The bonus for us was lots of tomatoes,” he said.
Matt Maguire, a former Petaluma city councilman and Lafferty Ranch advocate, recalled croquet matches on the “painstakingly manicured” croquet court at the Kortum home, followed by Lucy’s meals and serious political discussions.
“Losing him seems like losing a very part of the Sonoma landscape, like the sky and the wind,” Maguire said. “May the spirits take good care of Bill Kortum, for Bill Kortum took such good care of us.”
Peter Leveque, a retired Santa Rosa Junior College biology instructor and longtime Kortum friend who emceed the event, injected a note of humor by recalling Kortum’s response to a question about how his homemade wine had turned out one year: “Well, not so good, but we could use it to stain the redwood fences.”
The speech-making ended with the crowd standing up to sing “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s musical paean to the “redwood forest” and the “golden valley.”
You can reach Staff Writer ?Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or ?email@example.com. ?On Twitter @guykovner.