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.