SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – Along San Francisco Bay, you can hear birds chirp, kite surf, and enjoy the waves. And you can thank 96-year-old Sylvia McLaughlin.

“I think it’s beautiful,” McLaughlin remarked on a recent walk along the Berkeley shoreline.

McLaughlin has spent more than 50 years leading the charge to protect the bay.

“It’s very gratifying for me to see so many people enjoying our beautiful bay,” she added.

To guard the bay against sprawl and pollution, McLaughlin co-founded Save the Bay in 1961 with two friends, Catherine Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick. Today, McLaughlin is the last survivor of the pioneering trio.

“The fact that we still have a bay today is due in large part to Sylvia’s leadership at a time when there weren’t environmental leaders,” said Save the Bay’s Executive Director David Lewis. “And there certainly weren’t women leading that kind of an effort.”

McLaughlin and her friends’ first victory was to stop Berkeley’s plan to double the size of the city by filling 2000 acres of the bay.

“We didn’t want to see anything as beautiful as our bay being filled in,” McLaughlin remembered.

Another landmark victory came a few years later, in the late 60s, when Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law the first coastal zone management agency to protect the bay.

“That is the model for all the coastal protection agencies in this country and around the world,” Lewis explained.

Because of McLaughlin and Save the Bay, public access to the shoreline increased from six miles in 1960 to hundreds of miles today.

In fact, an 8-mile park stretching through Berkeley and four other cities was recently renamed “McLaughlin Eastshore State Park” in her honor.

Patricia Jones is the Executive Director of Citizens for East Shore Parks. She calls McLaughlin a force of nature.

“She has that very genteel, diplomatic, friendly exterior,” Jones said. “But there’s nerves of steel inside.”

And McLaughlin’s won many battles with powerful developers who planned to fill the Bay.

“I met David Rockefeller,” McLaughlin recalled. “He shook hands and said, ‘You won.’ I thought that was pretty nice.”

Today, Save the Bay members and supporters number more than 40,000. An army of volunteers keeps the shoreline healthy; a beautiful sight, if you ask McLaughlin.

“I’m privileged to look out at it every day from my home half way up the hills,” she said contentedly.

So for more than half a century of Saving the Bay, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Sylvia McLaughlin.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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