Sonoma County event honors women’s coastal advocacy

Coastwalk California paid tribute this week to a long 'herstory' of women's involvement in protection of the coastline, beginning with the Battle of Bodega Head.|


They were told to trust the men in charge, the men who knew things.

But for women like Doris Sloan, then a young Sebastopol mother, being told by so-called experts to butt out only deepened their resolve to block a nuclear power plant going up at Bodega Head more than a half-century ago.

The casing for the reactor core was already framed inside a deep hole dug in the ground on the San Andreas fault line when widening opposition and concern about leaked radiation put a stop to the whole thing in 1964, establishing the model for future environmental crusades along the North Coast. Now, with the Battle of Bodega Head long over and the environmental movement firmly established in Sonoma County, Coastwalk California, a nonprofit organization dedicated to completing the 1,200-mile California Coastal Trail, is working to ensure the role of women in that effort is acknowledged.

Sloan, 87, served as Sonoma County coordinator of the Northern California Association to Preserve Bodega Head and Harbor. The retired UC Berkeley professor was among three women who received special recognition this week during a gathering of more than 50 female coastal advocates, part of an effort to preserve the stories of those who fought to protect the rugged coast for which Sonoma County is renowned.

“Women’s roles in these environmental battles are not often recognized,” Sloan said in an interview, “and especially when you have a lot of strong men who were working on these campaigns. I felt that it was very heart-warming to me to see the women who were involved in the Bodega Battle being recognized, and I felt very honored to be one of them.”

Coastwalk Executive Director Cea Higgins, who last year took the helm of the Sebastopol-based organization, as well as the California Coastal Trail Association, said the idea was inspired in part by the chorus of women’s voices raised in recent months as part of a national conversation about sexual harassment and abuse.

With so many champions of the fight for Bodega Head and other coastal conflicts already gone and new challenges on the horizon, the time seemed right to celebrate “the accomplishments of women advocates in hopes of inspiring the next generation of both young men and women,” Higgins said.

Held at the Bodega Harbour Yacht Club, within view of Bodega Head, now part of the Sonoma Coast State Park, the inaugural celebration enabled participants to gaze upon the place it all started.

The campaign included everyday people - widowed rancher Rose Gaffney, waitress Hazel Bonnecke-Mitchell, fishing boat Capt. Mary Darling, stay-at-home mothers, newspaper writers - who joined hundreds of other opponents of the power plant demanding additional fact-finding and reconsideration of what ultimately was deemed a flawed and dangerous proposal.

In addition to Sloan, a former environmental sciences professor who earned a master’s in geology and a doctorate in paleontology, the dinner paid tribute to longtime Sonoma County historian and Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron, 82, who followed developments in Bodega Bay as they happened and has dutifully kept the history alive.

Also recognized was 89-year-old Lucy Kortum, whose family, including husband Bill Kortum, has been integral to protecting the coast for Californians, beginning with Bodega Head. Their work continued through the 1972 voter approval of the California Coastal Act, which led to establishment of the California Coastal Commission and guides development and public access on the state’s coastline.

“It was not only inspiring and important, but it was fun,” Kortum said.

Retired Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey received an ovation for a 20-year tenure in Washington that included her continued defense of the Northern California coastline against offshore energy exploration.

The movement led to the 2015 expansion of the adjoining Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries, which put 350 miles of coastal waters off-limits to oil drilling - at least until the Trump administration revived the prospect of offshore oil and gas development.

“We’re not going to let that happen,” Woolsey said Wednesday night. “But it might not be easy.”

The gathering included women in a variety of age groups, though mostly past the half-century mark. It included survivors of the Bodega Head battle who talked of speeches and meetings they remembered, mimeographed pamphlets and the release of 1,500 tagged helium balloons from Bodega Head to mimic airborne radioactive molecules fanned by onshore winds across local dairy lands and inland as far as the Central Valley.

LeBaron said that county officials and community leaders had eagerly embraced the plant proposal. Those opposed “were swimming against the stream,” she said.

Sloan recounted how she led a respected government geologist to the construction site, where he found telltale signs of the fault running right through its midst, effectively marking the death of the project.

But geologist/geophysicist Pierre Saint-Amand would not even have known of the proposal had it not been for a Bay Area radio producer, Joan McIntyre, who aired a report on the matter, Sloan said. McIntyre also broadcast a 1962 public meeting from Santa Rosa in which the state coordinator of atomic energy development and radiation protection advised those listening “to leave it to the experts,” Sloan said, “and that’s what got me and the others so angry.”

“That evening meeting aroused Sonoma County citizens because we were all told to shut up and let the experts go forward - that we didn’t know anything,” she said. “It was pivotal.”

Wednesday’s event coincided with Coastwalk California’s 35th anniversary. It was held during a four-day women’s walk, where 11 participants hiked trail segments from the Point Arena-Stornetta Unit of the California Coastal National Monument, down the Kortum Trail near Jenner and then onto Bodega Head.

As part of the festivities, Coastwalk also assembled a “herstory” of 13 brief biographies of coastal advocates, now deceased. It highlights their work to expose the nuclear plant proposal, deflect plans to privatize 14 miles of coastal shoreline with development of The Sea Ranch, and prevent dredging of a deep harbor at the mouth of the Russian River near Jenner.

It profiles women involved in a variety of other efforts, from construction of Warm Springs Dam and creation of Lake Sonoma to preventing wastewater discharges into the Russian River. A late entry was made to acknowledge the contributions of Susan Williams, a marine biologist at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab who was killed April 24 when her car was struck by an oncoming driver near Petaluma.

Williams, 66, had studied ocean health and the effects of climate change and ocean warming, and also had worked to spare California coastal waters from energy exploration.

“She would have been here,” Higgins said somberly at the Wednesday event, tears glistening in her eyes. “I wanted her here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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