Phyllis Faber

From a Biologist's Perspective

Recorded: January 24, 2013

Phyllis Faber, a California biologist and wetland restoration expert talks about how being a biologist has contributed to her life as an educator, scientist, activist, and board member. Phyllis founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust with Marin County farmers/ranchers and she is concerned about the future of our food systems in the face of climate change. She urges environmentalists to look at the big picture, not just focus on "do-gooding".

A biologist first and foremost, Phyllis Faber has found many ways to pursue her passion of plants and wetlands. A well-respected wetland scientist, Ms. Faber is also an editor and has been honored by the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to San Francisco Bay wetlands and to Marin County agriculture. Phyllis is known as one of the first California Coastal Commissioners and one of the founders of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. She a Fellow of the California Native Plant Society where for many years, she edited the Society’s journal, Fremontia.  During this time, she was responsible for editing all of the major biological texts relating to California flora.

Never a shrinking violet, Phyllis is bold about achieving her goals and pursuing her interests. Wherever she goes she makes her mark. For example, when she visited Madagascar, she found that the native plants and animals were not available in any museum or exhibit, so she created a natural history exhibit and donated it to the Madagascar government.

Phyllis Faber:    I think the environmental community has to, to rethink what their goals are.  I think the world is going to become very difficult.  I think we’re going to have to defend our shores, our communities.  I think, I think this nation has been strong because we’ve been able to feed ourselves, that’s critical for a nation.  I think we’re going to have a tough time if we have droughts like we’ve had this year.  So I have some real anxieties about, about what the environmental community’s role is going to be in helping us through these changing times.  And I think they have to set aside our personal delights like notions of wilderness, those sort of do gooder, I don’t think they’re realistic, I think they’re do gooder instincts and [they should] say “What’s real?  What are the real problems? And rethink how they think.

Huey Johnson:    You’ve had experience in, as a consultant in the beginning.

Phyllis Faber:    As a consultant, right and that’s an interesting tale.  Yes, I’m a biologist and there was a Harding Lawson, I don’t even remember, they were a soil engineering firm; they came to me and said “We would like to have you as a consultant.”  Well, you know I’m just, I was a housewife basically that had a biology degree and did some teaching and I thought “oh, I don’t know enough to be a consultant.”  So a couple of other women in this teaching group came along with me and we formed a company called Madrone Associates and we were biological consultants.  And it was just after the CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] law was passed, so we did – we wrote EIR’s [Environmental Impact Reports] and I wrote the EIR for the Larkspur Ferry and set up the mitigation that created the Muzzy Marsh.

Huey Johnson:    Uh huh.

Phyllis Faber:    So that was, that was very pleasing to me to think that that sort of wasteland could be turned back into a marsh and that sort of set me off in the direction of wetland restoration.  I didn’t stay at Madrone more than three or four years, I didn’t like consulting.  I ended up feeling like I was working so hard to get jobs to keep the people employed that were doing the work that I loved doing, and that was one thing.  The other is that biological consulting; in some ways is really a vehicle for allowing development to happen.  You know they need biological consultants to pave the way for developments so I didn’t, I didn’t love that.  So I left and I did some teaching and then I started doing what I really like doing which is restoration work and I did that with Phil Williams.  And so we did, we did a lot of monitoring and understanding how wetlands restore themselves and so I have the longest database for a wetlands in San Francisco and the tragedy is that I can’t get funded anymore so that data sits there, its been published, it’s on the web.

Huey Johnson:    I’ve had a long, long had a dream that restoration would be a huge public enterprise, well funded.

Phyllis Faber:    Huh, it should be.

Huey:    What have you learned that are the most important tools to you in your success in your career in life?

Phyllis Faber:    Ooh, I think being a biologist has been a – I really am so grateful that I am a biologist.  I think its made my life, I mean I think of my life as being sort of a magic life.  I’ve lived in prosperous times where I could get schooling.  If I were 30 years younger, I probably would have gone on to graduate school.  My grandmother was a physician and I had wanted to go to medical school but my parents absolutely would not encourage that, wouldn’t allow it.  And so I think I’ve lived in really wonderful times.  Being a biologist has allowed me to do things that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and liked.

Huey:    You’ve been able to teach and be an environmental leader and…-

Phyllis Faber:    To teach, to understand a lot that goes on I think.  As a biologist you understand some basics that are helpful.

Huey Johnson:    I think you’ve been courageous in translating that so the public could often understand it as well, one of the – seems to be the good thing [unintelligible].

Phyllis Faber:    Well, I would encourage any young person to become a biologist.  I mean no matter what you do, you enjoy your life more.