Sonoma County environmentalist Bill Kortum dies at 87
Bill Kortum, a veterinarian who helped lead the seminal battle to protect public access to the California coast and spent most of his life fighting to rein in sprawl and preserve open space in his native Sonoma County, died early Saturday at his Petaluma home. He was 87.
Soft-spoken and gentlemanly even in the political cauldron, Kortum’s decades of relentless activism made him the dean of the local environmental movement - one he both led and helped conceive. He grew up on a chicken ranch outside Petaluma and became an early cautionary voice against the unchecked growth that marked much of his era. In countless public meetings, he challenged the bankers and builders who openly embraced the vision of replicating San Jose-style development in Sonoma County.
By his own reckoning, Kortum lost more battles than he won over six decades of activism. But through his efforts, including his election in 1974 to Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, he became one of the most influential figures in conservation on the North Coast.
“He’s one of the grand old men of the environmental movement in California,” said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy, a state agency that has funded more than $1.5 billion in coastal protection projects since 1976. “It’s hard to imagine a modern California environmental movement without him.”
Kortum had battled prostate cancer for more than three years.
His activism underpinned environmental politics in the county from their very start - in a successful fight during the late 1950s and early 1960s against PG&E’s planned nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay. He led ensuing campaigns that resulted in the voter-approved formation of the California Coastal Commission in 1972 and related legislation four years later that extended to the public unprecedented rights to access the state’s 1,100 miles of shoreline and closely oversee its development.
“Anyone who’s gone out and enjoyed the coast, pulled over and sat there and looked at the waves and the rocks, owes a debt of gratitude to Bill,” said Mike Reilly, a former west county supervisor and Coastal Commission chairman.
The Kortum Trail, which runs from Blind Beach to Wright’s Beach south of Jenner, was named in Kortum’s honor in the 1990s.
A descendant of a Donner Party survivor and a child of the Great Depression, Kortum nevertheless saw his efforts as a sustained attempt to break away from the past - from values and policies that allowed rough treatment of land and resources - to shape a future that would preserve more than a little of the open landscape he knew from his youth.
As a young veterinarian based in Cotati, he made rounds to local dairy ranches that were falling steadily to development, part of the postwar growth spurt that quadrupled the county’s population in the second half of the 20th century.
“I saw it absolutely being cut to ribbons by developers,” Kortum said in an oral history video recorded in 2010 and archived at Sonoma State University. “I wanted to stop that.”
And he did, to a considerable degree, with help from a burgeoning corps of environmentalists who transformed local politics and helped set aside more and more of the county’s open space.
His master stroke in that effort was the establishment of Sonoma County Conservation Action in 1991, a canvassing organization that mobilized local voters in support of urban growth boundaries. The limits on sprawl now ring every city in Sonoma County - a first in the nation as of 2010, when Cloverdale, the last of the county’s nine cities, approved restraints on leapfrog outward development.
Without such limits, Sonoma County “would look a lot more like San Mateo or Alameda County,” said David Keller, a former Petaluma city councilman and chairman of Conservation Action, now the largest local environmental group.
“Bill’s vision, insistence and strategic planning were critical for UGBs to take hold for voters in all nine cities,” Keller said.
For much of Kortum’s early life, Sonoma County was a Republican stronghold governed by businessmen, bankers, developers and their allies, who were riding the postwar boom of the 1950s and ’60s during an era of minimal land use regulations. His family, however, were Democrats, and political activism ran deep in their ranks. His father, Max Kortum, fought off a proposal to push Highway 101 through the family ranch in the early 1940s, and the elder Kortum later ran unsuccessfully for Congress. Bill Kortum would make his own unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1970 and would have his tenure as supervisor cut short by a recall in 1976.