Thursday, November 24, 2011
A few blocks uphill from my old San Francisco apartment, halfway up the trail to the top of Buena Vista Park, is a viewpoint over much of the northwestern part of the city. It’s a beautiful spot, and also a place where one can see tangible evidence of the accomplishments of environmental activism and law. Had the highway planners of the 1960s had their way, the view would have been dominated by a major freeway. Instead, in one of the first major victories for the urban environmental movement, activists stopped the freeway and preserved a vibrant set of neighborhoods. Further in the distance are the Marin Headlands, once slated for a massive residential development but now largely preserved. On particularly fog-free days, you can look out over the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to the rocky outcrops of the Farallone Islands. The air is clear; the water of the bay, though by no means pristine, is swimmable if you can handle the cold; and the city below provides a great balance of development and green space. It’s a place where environmentalism has worked very well.
Just north of Portland, Maine, the city where I now work, the Presumpscot River pours over a series of ledges before spilling through a narrow gorge and into a small estuary. The falls are perhaps two miles from downtown Portland, but the river banks are largely undeveloped save for a local land trust's footpaths. It looks like a pocket of undisturbed nature in an otherwise urban setting, but looks are deceiving. In fact, for several centuries dams flooded this stretch of the river, and the falls weren’t there. Until fairly recently, the river also was so polluted that few people would have wanted to walk along the trails, let alone live nearby. But the Clean Water Act helped restore the river’s water quality, and after a 1996 storm damaged the dam, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers had it removed. Now anadromous fish are back, the river offers great spots to canoe or swim, and the trails to the falls are a short walk to an oasis of hemlocks and rushing water. It’s another spot where environmentalism has worked very well.
Thanksgiving seems a good time to think of places like these. For anyone who cares about environmental policy or law, the past ten years have not been easy, with the dysfunctional politics of climate change headlining a long list of frustrations. It's easy to feel that environmentalism has mostly been a lost cause. But all around us there are tangible reminders of what environmental law has achieved, and what it can achieve still. Today I’m thankful for those places.