The Inspirational Beginnings of the Marin Conservation League

“The cars are coming, the cars are coming!”

Those might have been the Paul Revere-esque watchwords of four feisty Marin women nearly 75 years ago. They knew the Golden Gate Bridge would soon be spanning the watery chasm between Marin and San Francisco counties, bringing thousands of automobiles into Marin every day. At the time, a car and driver needed a ferryboat to reach the county from the south. However, those days were numbered. And the women had reason for concern.

Sepha Evers, Portia Forbes, Caroline Livermore, and Helen Van Pelt—at the time all members of the Marin Garden Club—wanted to do more than just worry. In January 1934, the Marin Independent Journal had editorialized that “our picnic spots are nearly gone. ‘No trespassing’ signs are posted all over. No community on earth is more favored with the wealth and beauty of potential playgrounds. We must act if we believe in building for the future.”

Act the four women did. Calling themselves the Citizens Survey Committee, they raised $2,500 to pay for county employee Hugh Pomeroy to produce Marin’s first set of general planning maps. Then, after adopting the name Marin Conservation League, whose role was “to preserve, protect, and enhance the natural assets of Marin County for all people,” they really set to work.

That first year, working with the Tamalpais Conservation Club, they negotiated the addition of 531 acres to ever-expanding Mount Tamalpais State Park. In 1938, the four women, now backed by a growing membership and fundraising potential, helped purchase 54 acres at what would become Drakes Bay Beach; a year later, the MCL came up with $20,000 to buy a portion of the Stinson Beach shoreline that later became a state park. They were, in today’s lexicon, on a roll.

Prior to World War II, the Marin Conservation League initiated a five-year struggle to have the state of California procure a 2,334-acre former paper mill so it could become a state park. The group succeeded with the state—and convinced county supervisors to forgive $32,000 in taxes owed by the previous owners. Now Marin has Samuel P. Taylor State Park.

But around the time Samuel P. Taylor State Park became a reality, local businesses were starting to question the league’s motivations. “They said we’d like to lock the bridge and keep people out,” longtime MCL board member Grace Wellman said in a 1982 interview. “But the Conservation League didn’t try to keep people out; (we) tried to plan for them so that when they came in there’d be a fine way for these people to live.”

Following World War II, the league, led by Caroline Livermore (in those days referred to as “Mrs. Norman Livermore”), resumed its efforts on behalf of a growing Marin. In 1951, it raised $15,000 to ensure the creation of Tomales Bay State Park; in 1963, thanks to $824,335 in gifts and grants, the acquisition of Angel Island State Park was completed; and in 1967, with help from the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society, $84,000 was supplied so that the county could purchase Kent Island and prevent Bolinas Lagoon from becoming a yacht harbor.

During the battle to save Bolinas Lagoon, the tactics of Livermore, Evers, Forbes, and Van Pelt impressed board member Wellman. “You know, you’d watch those gals work and believe they should have run the world,” she observed in her 1982 interview. “They knew exactly how to maneuver everything. They were marvelous. I learned a lot just by trailing along behind them.”

Other victories the Marin Conservation League had a hand in during the postwar years include stopping a Utah development company from filling in a portion of Richardson’s Bay between Strawberry and Belvedere, which would have created a yachting community for 2,000 residents (1958); the creation of Point Reyes National Seashore (1962); Olompali State Historic Park in Novato and the Marin County Open Space District (both in 1972); and establishing the Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve between Corte Madera and Tiburon (1981).

Many of the league’s triumphs are credited to the indomitable Livermore, who died in 1964 and is immortalized by a 781-foot Angel Island peak bearing her name. “Caroline would say, ‘If it’s something that has to be done, we’ll do it,’” Wellman told her interviewer in 1982. Often, Livermore would appear before county supervisors and challenge them to match funds raised by the Conservation League, whether the league had the funds or not, Wellman recalled. “Then she’d tell our board, ‘You’ll just have to go out and find $5,000.’ The truth of the matter was, until we found the $5,000, Caroline would put it up.”

The league’s far-sighted efforts “made a lot of difference in the county,” she added. “You can start the wrong way, and never undo it. You build a bad road and you’re through. You can restore a building, or rebuild it, or whatever you want. But when the good Lord’s earth goes to pieces, you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back up on that old wall.” Conservation may not have been a term very well understood or much in use back in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, but, as Wellman observed, “It was in Marin.”

With more than 1,200 paid members, the Marin Conservation League carries on that forward-thinking legacy, ever an active force in preserving the natural environment of Marin.

Marin Conservation League, 1623A Fifth Ave., San Rafael; J. Scott Feirabend, executive director; Roger Roberts, president of the board of directors; 415.485.6257; email mcl@conservationleague.org; www.marinconservation league.org

CAPTION: (Middle) Cars on 101 in the late 1930s.

(Bottom, clockwise from upper left) MCL founder Sepha Evers; Caroline Livermore, founder of the Marin Conservation League; Grace Wellman, longtime MCL board member and source of MCL’s oral history; Mary Summers, Marin County’s influential planning director of the 1950s [courtesy of Marin Conservation League].

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