Barbara Salzman has been speaking out to protect wetlands, wildlife and the health of our ecosystems for almost forty years, but she did not start out as an advocate for these resources. Barbara grew up in Upper Darby Pennsylvania, a mostly-developed area with very little natural environment left. The only open space was a neighborhood public school yard and a locked Quaker cemetery, so Barbara had limited access to nature. She graduated from Rosemont College and earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. From there she worked as Psychiatric Social Worker in a state mental hospital and later in a child guidance clinic.
Barbara did not think about the environment until moving to Marin in 1968. Her husband wanted to move because of the lack of open space on the East Coast. Visiting a cattle ranch close to Barbara’s work did not impress him. Though Barbara considered it open, Jay explained that if you cannot walk on it, it does not count. It was not the kind of open space he was used to in California.
When the Salzmans moved to Marin, Barbara felt in awe of the “really” open space and the diverse wildlife. Even the beaches seemed empty – she was accustomed to New Jersey beaches where there were so many people, beach blankets were the edge of your space.
Barbara began her environmental career several years after her son was born, after volunteering as LaLeche League Leader to encourage breastfeeding. In her first effort, she worked to save seasonal wetlands on the site of the current Bon-Aire Shopping Center. Barbara called the Marin Audubon Society to find out about bird usage of the area. Several people came to her house and gave her a species list for the remnant wetlands and Corte Madera Creek. The tidal marshes in Larkspur used to extend to the base of the hills, basically covering the flat land until it was filled for the developments present today. Permits for that project were denied, but a smaller shopping center was, of course, approved and later built.
The Marin Audubon Society’s Conservation Committee invited Barbara to join, and so began her career reviewing and commenting on Environmental Impact Reports for projects with the potential to impact wetlands and wildlife, and participating in the preparation of general plans. She has stood firm for protecting wetlands and wildlife habitats in countless development projects in Marin, major projects throughout the Bay Area, through three revisions of the Marin Countywide Plan and revisions to many city general plans.
These were the early years of California Environmental Quality Act and the Clean Water Act, which gave authority to regulate wetlands to the Army Corps of Engineers. Together with other Auduboners from around the Bay, Barbara formed relationships with agency staff and attended most BCDC meetings. They learned to work together and that each needed the support of the other. Barbara has attended many government-sponsored conferences and workshops throughout the country, and has lobbied legislators in both Washington and Sacramento.
In 1985, Barbara made her first venture into actual habitat restoration. She and other MAS volunteers decided to take matters into their own hands when a population of the highly invasive water hyacinth was found at Smith Ranch Road Pond in San Rafael. The small group removed the entire hyacinth by hand-pulling and, with a small amount of funding from the city, using a harvester to remove the last patch of the plants. Barbara continued to take advantage of, and seek out, opportunities to restore and enhance the wetlands.
Working through MAS, in 1987, Barbara worked to enhance the pond at the Richardson Bay Sanitary Agency Remillard Pond in Larkspur and the marsh at Redwood High School. A Regional Water Quality Board program majorly funded restoring a habitat channel and island at the State Department of Fish and Game properties at the Corte Madera Ecological Reserve, Gallinas Creek and Rush Creek Marsh, and restoring a section of Marin County’s Bothin Marsh. Barbara wrote the applications for all of these grants and then managed the restorations projects.
Taking up the challenge from some development-interests, who said, “If you want to save habitats you should buy them,” Barbara spearheaded the formation of Marin Baylands Advocates in 1995. It began with a small group of like-minded folks from various organizations who felt concern about the fate of Marin’s baylands. They saw agencies in other countries purchasing many marshes and diked baylands, and development proposed on Marin’s baylands. The group set out to permanently protect baylands by purchasing them where possible. MBA’s vision, held in partnership with the Marin Audubon Society, is to permanently protect current tidal marsh and baylands that are historically tidal marsh, but have been filled or diked along San Francisco and San Pablo Bays.
The MBA group began meeting once a month on a Saturday morning, developed a plan to advocate for bayland protection, identified about 8,000 acres of diked bayland at risk of development because they are still privately owned, and spread the word that the many hundreds of acres of diked former tidal marshes are important to protect by producing fact sheets and conducting tours for decision-makers and the public. They sent the message that baylands are important habitat, places that offer marsh restoration opportunities and improve water quality. Additionally, bayland areas are unsuitable to develop because they consist of unstable Bay mud, and are subject to subsidence, differential settlement and flooding. Moreover, marshes and baylands restored to marsh protect against the inevitable sea level rise.
The first opportunity to actually purchase a property came in 1998 with the thirty-one-acre Triangle Marsh tidelands, wetland and uplands created by filling. MAS had made an unsuccessful effort to purchase this property some years earlier, but a developer purchased the property. MAS ended up buying it from that same developer. That owner tried twice to build houses on the property, and MAS opposed both attempts. When they learned that he was interested in selling, MAS negotiated a contract to purchase the property. Funds were patched together from various private and state sources, and an anonymous $250,000 donation allowed them to complete the purchase. The site was restored to marsh and high tide refugia habitat in 2005.
To this day, the MAS-MBA partnership approach is for MBA to strategize and raise money locally in cooperation with MAS, which applies for larger grants and takes ownership of the properties, sometimes donating them to government agencies. The partnership of MAS and MBA has now permanently protected 1,025 acres of San Francisco and San Pablo baylands through purchase. MAS has restored and enhanced wetlands on almost 800 acres. Barbara continues to act as the primary grant writer for funding to purchase land and to restore habitat, and manager of the wetland restoration projects.
Purchase of most of the properties goes against the prevailing view that one cannot both actively oppose development and then work with the owners to purchase those same lands. Barbara, working through MAS, has actively opposed five of the six major acquisitions this partnership has made. Properties permanently protected include 182-acre North of Redwood Landfill, purchased from Waste Management Inc. after opposing expansion of the landfill proposed by former owners; parcels at the intersection of Olive and Atherton Avenues on which a golf course had been considered; and the largest property purchased so far, the 635-acre Bahia property purchased at a cost of $15,800,000. The EIR for a housing development was one of the first Barbara reviewed in the late 1970s upon joining the MAS Conservation Committee. Restoration and enhancement projects have been implemented on all of these properties.
Another important success of these bayland supporters was the designation of a Baylands Corridor along San Pablo Bay in the 2007 Marin Countywide Plan, which means county policy now recognizes the importance of the baylands. Barbara continues to advocate for the protection of wildlife and habitat before decision-makers. Her current focus of the partnership is to acquire a five-acre filled former tidal marsh adjacent to the Corte Madera Ecological Reserve.
Barbara does all of the above as a volunteer with no paid staff. She also finds time to serve on five boards, in addition to Marin Audubon Society and Marin Baylands Advocates. She serves on Friends of the San Francisco Estuary, Friends of Corte Madera Creek Watershed, San Francisco Estuary Institute, San Francisco Estuary Project Implementation Committee and San Francisco Bay Joint Venture (representing the Bay Area Audubon Council.) She has received many awards, including the National Wetlands Award for Community Service in 2004, National Wetlands Conservation Award, Heroes of Marin Award in 2014, Marin Conservation League Green Award, and recognition from National Audubon Society, Save the Bay Association and the Marin Environmental Forum.
Barbara lives in Larkspur with her husband, Jay, who she would not have been able to accomplish what she has without his support and patience. Her son, a veterinarian, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren live in San Jose. Barbara also enjoys cooking, traveling, knitting and reading mysteries. Her philosophy is that protecting wildlife, wetlands and other habitats benefits wildlife, and what benefits wildlife also benefits people.