‘Bring me men to match my mountains!” one of my professors many years ago read from the poetry of Sam Walter Foss. Then he demanded, “Where are the Kit Carsons today? The Jim Beckwourths? The Jedediah Smiths?” New circumstances produce new kinds of heroes, and one I encountered, a Sonoma County veterinarian named William Kortum, died shortly before Christmas after a lifetime that seems to define “citizen advocate.”
In 1962, for example, PG&E determined to build a nuclear power plant atop the San Andreas Fault at Bodega Head, and Bill Kortum along with his brother Karl provided evidence of not only seismic danger but also radiation leaks at a similar plant operating near Eureka. The Bodega project was halted, and Bill said the great lesson was that “you could take on a giant and win.” Take them on he did.
Access to California’s coast was increasingly being lost to private ownership by 1968 when Sonoma County officials agreed to trade developers of nearby Sea Ranch 10 miles of exclusive shoreline access in exchange for a 120-acre park. Bill and other activists founded the memorably named COAAST – Californians Organized to Acquire Access to State Tidelands – and mounted a ballot initiative that would mandate public access whenever coastal property was developed, a revolutionary idea at the time. That proposition lost to a well-funded campaign by commercial interests, but a seed had been planted.
Bill was a founder of the California Coastal Alliance, which teamed with Assemblymen John Dunlap and Alan Sieroty in opposition to seaside privatization; the eventual result was another ballot proposition, Proposition 20, which won 55 percent of the statewide vote in 1972, creating a California Coastal Commission to control tidal property. Developers at Sea Ranch then had to provide public access corridors to the ocean and scale down housing density. Historian Kevin Starr called the victory “an astonishing achievement.”
With wife Lucy, Bill also campaigned to prevent Santa Rosa’s wastewater from being dumped into the Russian River; he fought for growth boundaries around Sonoma County towns, for tough land-use planning and for open-space protection. In pursuit of the latter, the Kortums helped form the ever-alert Sonoma County Conservation Action. He wasn’t an opponent of growth, but he opposed sprawl, saying: “We’ve got to protect agricultural land from development.”
As he turned the corner into the new century, Bill supported the California Coastal Trail, as well as a Sonoma-Marin commuter train. He also challenged blockage of public land by affluent neighbors at Lafferty Ranch near Petaluma. He was still fighting that battle when prostate cancer ended his life.
Along the way, Bill was elected to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, then recalled, and he unsuccessfully ran for Congress. In an oral history interview, he said he won “only 30 percent” of his battles, but he believed deeply in an informed, involved citizenry – whether conservative, moderate or liberal.
Former Santa Rosa City Manager Ken Blackman said of his occasional foe: “His tenacity got to be a pain in the neck at times, but it was not a mean-spirited tenacity.”
He may not have wrestled grizzlies, but Bill Kortum fought daunting foes hard and fair … and sometimes we all won as a result.
Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the “quintessential California writer.”