Bill Kortum


Recorded: March 19, 2012

What would the California coast be like if it was developed and inaccessible to the public? Bill Kortum speaks about his early career mobilizing people to protect the coast. The California Coastal Initiative protected the entire California coastline for public access.

Bill Kortum was born and raised in a civic-minded Petaluma, California family. A rural veterinarian, his interest in land conservation issues motivated him to act. In the early 1960s PG&E announced its plans for a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head. Dr. Kortum was just getting started with a veterinary practice but abandoned it to fight the proposal for a nuclear power plant on the Sonoma County Coast. He was concerned about the potential for health hazards to the community, including the dairy industry, should the San Andreas Fault rupture beneath such a nuclear power plant.

Thanks to Dr. Kortum and his team, all that is now left from that proposal is the ‘Hole in the Head,’ the abandoned PG&E excavation in Bodega Head. Dr. Kortum has tirelessly fought to preserve the rural character of Sonoma and was instrumental in creating the California Coastal Commission. To create the Commission, Dr. Kortum mobilized and organized 110 organizations in order to carry out the epic initiative that protects the coast of California for all its citizens in perpetuity.

Bill Kortum:  I was born and raised in Petaluma in a house right next to the countryside. We kids would go everywhere, no questions asked. My dad told us. He said, one day you are going to lose that ability to roam when you grow up.

Bill Kortum: I built a very successful veterinary practice. We had the largest veterinary practice, with a full time manager, in Northern California. I loved the work but it was too contained; it was too repetitive. I wanted to get into something that got things done, and save this great countryside. I was out in it every day, four or five times, driving all over Sonoma County taking care of animals. I saw it being absolutely cut to ribbons by developers, and ranchetting, and that type of thing, and I wanted to stop that.

Bill Kortum: It started with the battle at Bodega Head –where PG&E wanted to build a nuclear power plant on Bodega Head, one of the few headlands in the whole State of California. It took 50 years to be exonerated by the recent disaster in Japan. But anyway, some say that was the real beginning of the post-war environmental movement, at least in Northern California. We put together an organization Californians Organized to Acquire Access to State Tidelands (COAAST), which lasted for 25 years. We ran an initiative to prevent the Board of Supervisors from giving the coast away. We didn’t get very far in the first year lobbying, in Sacramento. We put together a group of 110 organizations, anywhere from the League of Women Voters to these local groups, to you-name-it. We felt our oats, and felt–gosh we’ve got 110 organizations agreeing on something, and we thought lets make it political. In the state constitution, for goodness sake, it says that the public shall not be denied access to the tidelands to the mean high tide.

Bill Kortum: We contracted to have a canvass, and we went door to door in the Bay Area, sometimes 100 canvases in a night. When I left the board, I got their top canvasser, Mark Green, and we went to Sonoma County and set up a canvass in Sonoma County. We just completed our 20th year going door to door and educating the public about what is going on. That attempt was to take the money out of politics and try to do it at a grassroots level. We have been very effective in getting public opinion changed around by going door to door, and many times engaging a resident or a citizen or voter to write a letter– the first time in their life writing a letter to a public official.

Bill Kortum: We got 1,300 letters written one time when Santa Rosa wanted to dump their wastewater in the Russian River. And two or three councilmen said, “Well we had a few, but we don’t believe you.  We are going to run a public survey to see if we can dump in the river.”  Sure enough, the public survey said 60 percent of the public said: Don’t you dare put that water into the river. With one stroke they essentially lost a 15 million dollar study they had made to get that water into the river. I knew that it could be done, and I didn’t hesitate. When I presented the petitions to the board of supervisors on our coastal initiative, the county manager said, “That that is the dumbest odd thing I have ever seen in my life.” So I was hitting the right note.

Huey Johnson: You know, you never back down or given up, no matter how many times you lose. And we all lose some. People have to understand that. Can you tell us statistically how many of your efforts have been successful compared how many haven’t been?

Bill Kortum: I am purely guessing, I win only… 30 percent of them.

Huey Johnson: Pretty good. If you’re a baseball player, that is darn good. What lessons have you learned that can be reflected as wisdom that might be of use to younger people starting out in the environmental area?

Bill Kortum: Don’t be hesitant about expressing yourself in your love of the landscape. It is the bottom line that nobody wants to talk about. Nobody brings it up in their campaign. But what’s our measurement in the end? It’s to get– to have access to, get on something they love to be in, and love to see.

  • beachmama

    “The public shall not be denied free access to the coast” . . . thank you Bill Kortum for a lifetime of activism to protect our beautiful Sonoma county coast. As a Bodega Bay resident I’m so grateful to enjoy the ocean everyday. You’ve inspired me to get out several times a week and clean the beach, to write letters and to speak out in public forums. Thank you for all you’ve done and all you’re still doing!

  • Pingback: Remembering Bill Kortum: Legendary Civic Leader in Sonoma County, CA 1927-2014 - FORCES OF NATURE()