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One Jump Ahead

[whitespace] Dr. Martin Griffin
Michael Amsler

Farsighted: Dr. Martin Griffin's life's work is simply to save the planet and our souls.

Marty Griffin's land-ethic revolution

By Dylan Bennett

A S A PHYSICIAN in the 1950s, Marty Griffin should have been content to make money and enjoy his social standing in affluent Marin County. No one would have expected him to question--let alone counterattack--the advance of urban "progress" that promised to make Marin more like Los Angeles.

But Griffin's consciousness had been imprinted as a child with a deep love of nature. In the 1920s, his family often vacationed along the natural beauty of the Russian River. A fateful Boy Scout outing in 1932 from his Oakland home to the Canyon Ranch on Bolinas Lagoon etched in his teenaged mind the beauty and wonder of birds nesting in tall trees. The Golden Gate Bridge was not yet built and the word ecology didn't exist.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1961, Griffin learned of plans to build a freeway over the Marin Headlands to Bolinas. A luxury marina project threatened to fill in the lagoon and destroy the bird colony of Canyon Ranch. The idea of it outraged his sensibilities. And this time the boy was man, an intellectual warrior trained in zoology at Berkeley and medicine at Stanford.

He would join the fight.

Not only the effort led by Griffin and the Marin Audubon Society to preserve the Marin coast from urban development, but also the ongoing struggle over the Russian River are the subjects of Griffin's new book, Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast: The Battles for Audubon Canyon Ranch, Point Reyes, & California's Russian River (Sweetwater Springs Press; $29.95), due to be published in March.

The book is both a personal memoir of Griffin's successful conservation efforts in the postwar era and an action manual for Sonoma County citizens to understand and influence the use of their own natural surroundings.

Griffin, now retired from his practice as an internist (and the former director of the Sonoma Developmental Center), is the owner of Hop Kiln Winery on Westside Road, co-founder of the Friends of the Russian River, and one of Sonoma County's foremost conservationists. His tale reads like a folksy business thriller, with the future of the earth in the balance--a well-rounded lesson in ecology, politics, and activism, illustrated with over 200 photographs and original maps.

As the president of the Marin Audubon Society in 1961, Griffin hatched what he called a "plot" to save Marin. He purchased key properties in the path of the proposed west Marin freeway and marina and set them aside for permanent wildlife habitat.

It was a strategy that had worked before. In 1957, Griffin was tapped by Caroline Livermore, the wealthy, high-society woman who had formed the Marin Audubon Society to help prevent the landfill and marina development proposed for Richardson Bay off Tiburon. Griffin learned to flash the cash for strategic parcels selected specifically to block development.

Griffin's first score on the coast was the Canyon Ranch itself, with a sale price of $400,000. But he closed the deal with only a $1,000 personal check, persuading the Marin Audubon Society to raise the rest of the money.

In this manner, a well-trained, would-be Establishment Man became a nature gangster--using the power of the almighty dollar to invert the purpose of private property and give the earth back to itself. "I was one jump ahead of the developers," Griffin chuckles, seated in the living room of his peaceful west county home.

In all, Griffin bought some 30 strategic parcels of tidelands and uplands totaling more than 1,600 acres and costing upwards of $1.5 million. Some people simply donated their land. These efforts killed the proposed freeway and homes for 150,000 people once planned for west Marin.

W HEN GRIFFIN MOVED to the Russian River in 1975, he found yet another fight, this time over the same wildlife habitat he loved as a boy. "The Russian River was paradise," writes Griffin, recalling childhood memories. "I thought it was the most inviting and sumptuous river I'd ever seen. The river was crystal clear and safe to drink, filtered through miles of gravel between us and the next upriver village, Geyserville."

But by 1961 this was no longer the Russian River of his youth. Already paradise had fallen. The enemy was, and still is, Griffin argues, habitat destruction from agriculture, disastrous gravel-mining practices by unregulated mining corporations, and a county Board of Supervisors subservient to these interests.

The river's many creeks funnel erosion through damming, agriculture, and steep-slope vineyards. This "apocalyptic erosion problem ... could eventually destroy the viability of the salmon fishery and the wine-grape industry and, all the while, continue endangering drinking-water supplies," Griffin says. In his book, Griffin shows how Sonoma County risks a drinking-water disaster, uncontrollable flooding from channelized streams and unchecked urban growth, and the death of the river.

The remedy he suggests is a "land ethic revolution" to gain political control at the county level and establish effective land-use and slow-growth population strategies. His "plot" to save Sonoma County is a prescription for mass rail transit, accountable public agencies, and a comprehensive hands-off policy for the Russian River. Finally, Griffin says plainly, the county needs a new planning department "led by the nation's finest ecologically trained planning staff and backed by alert citizen planners."

"Unless we face the challenge squarely and recognize that the cumulative impact of mediocre water- and land-use planning forced on our counties by land speculators, co-opted politicians, and the like is blighting our land and our economic future, we will continue to see a steady decline in the health of our families and communities, and in the quality of our lives," says Griffin forcefully. "The world of wildlife--egrets and salmon, songbirds and frogs--is a reliable indicator. We must heed its warnings."

Cynics and pessimists might say these ideas are idealistic and unlikely. But with this insightful book, the residents of Sonoma County have their wake-up call--Griffin has "belled the cat," as he likes to say--and whether they join the fight is up to them.


Dr. Griffin holds a slide show and lecture on Monday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m. SRJC Petaluma Center, Mahoney Library, 680 Sonoma Mtn. Pkwy. Free. 527-4372.

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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