News - August 8, 2007

Obituary: Sunset's Mel Lane helped save coastlines and open spaces

by Marion Softky

Of Mel Lane's many legacies, the greatest may have been reviving San Francisco Bay as a scenic and environmental treasure, and preserving California's incomparable coastline from the onslaughts of urban creep.

As the first chairman of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and then the California Coastal Commission, Mel Lane pioneered a totally new government format aimed at balancing preservation and development of two precious natural resources.

Against all odds, he got opposing interests to work together toward a common goal, and set a model for coastal protection in the nation and world.

Melvin B. Lane, who died at age 85 on July 28 at his Atherton home of complications from Parkinson's disease, also left his mark on many other facets of western life and landscape.

As co-owner of Lane Publishing Co. with his brother Bill Lane of Portola Valley, and publisher of Sunset Books, Mel Lane helped define western living for millions.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of Stanford University and a trustee from 1981 to 1991. He was a co-founder of the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), which has preserved close to 60,000 Peninsula acres for open space, habitat, farming and ranching. He supported many other conservation, health and historical causes in California and around the world.

The California League of Conservation Voters gave Mel Lane a special award in 1998, saying, "If you take a look around California, you would be hard pressed to find a place of beauty that Mel hasn't played a part in preserving."

Sunrise to Sunset

Born in 1922 in Des Moines, Iowa, Mel Lane moved with his family to San Francisco in 1928 when his father, Lawrence W. Lane, bought the fledgling travel magazine, Sunset, to give a new voice to the fast-growing West.

As kids, Mel and Bill helped out at Sunset, selling subscriptions door to door, and working in the San Francisco office on Saturdays. Mel recalled helping their mother, Ruth Lane, test new recipes at home. "I don't know if we did a lot of testing, but we did a lot of tasting," he told the Almanac in a 1998 interview honoring Sunset's 100th anniversary.

Mel Lane attended Palo Alto High School and Pomona College, and graduated from Stanford in 1944. He served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II.

After the war, the Lane brothers went to work for the family as Sunset recovered from the Depression. Mel settled into the company's management, building up the book division as Bill focused on the magazine.

In 1951, Sunset moved from San Francisco to its landmark campus in Menlo Park. Bill and Mel took over company operations from their father in 1952. They sold it to Time Warner in 1990.

For those 38 years, Sunset magazine and books came to define western living — building, gardening, travel, cooking, and conservation. Sunset Books, appearing in hardware stores and nurseries, boosted the home do-it-yourself wave across the country. The "Sunset Western Garden Book" became a bible for anyone who wanted to raise plants in 24 western climate zones.

Bill and Mel Lane ran Sunset magazine and books very much as a team, Bill recalled. "We didn't always agree. But we shared core values."

Friends and colleagues remember Mel for his strategic business sense and his constant support of company employees. They apply many adjectives to him: soft-spoken, bright, unassuming, low-key, humble, elegant, thoughtful, visionary — and often funny.

"He was a humble man," said Fred Rea of Portola Valley, a travel editor at Sunset and author of Sunset travel books. "He was never overcome with the fame he had as a publisher and a doer of good deeds."

There was also fun and mischief. Sunset colleague Martin Litton of Portola Valley, who started running dories down the Grand Canyon and helped establish Redwood National Park, gleefully recalled rafting San Francisquito Creek with Mel during one of its occasional floods.

Mel said of the episode: "It was fun. All of us got dumped out."

Miracle on the coast

"The Bay would not look the way it does today if it were not for Mel Lane," said David Lewis, president of Save the Bay, a membership organization devoted to protecting and restoring San Francisco Bay. "He was a miracle worker."

When Gov. Pat Brown appointed Mel Lane to head the Bay Conservation and Development Commission in 1965, it seemed doomed to fail. One-third of the Bay had already disappeared under salt ponds, farms, pavement and building. Big companies with ambitious plans and lots of money laid claim to the remaining shallow waters, as early environmentalists demanded that the Bay be preserved and restored rather than filled.

There were no environmental laws, no regulations, no models for managing this political morass involving multiple interests, cities, counties and government agencies.

The state Legislature concocted the BCDC to resolve the issues and come up with a plan that would balance the competing interests. It had 27 members with drastically different, often conflicting, agendas.

These were the people whom Mel Lane convened in 1965. By 1969, they had produced a plan and process that works to this day, when the Bay is actually enlarging.

So why did it succeed? Mr. Lewis attributes the success of the commission to Mel Lane's skills as a chairman, backed up with strong support by the staff headed by Executive Director Joseph Bodovitz. "It was [Mel Lane's] incredible patience, persistence and vision," he said.

When similar battles heated up to save the coast from runaway development, the Bay commission stood as a model to handle growth. In 1972, California voters approved Proposition 20, which established a Coastal Commission, similar to BCDC, to guide growth along California's 1,100 miles of Pacific coast, from Mexico to Oregon.

Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed Mr. Lane chairman, and he moved over with Mr. Bodovitz to do for the California coast what he had done for San Francisco Bay.

In 2005, POST dedicated a monument to Mr. Lane to honor his contributions to open space and the coast. "Mel's Lane" is a quarter-mile of the Coastal Trail next to Pigeon Point Lighthouse overlooking Whaler's Cove.

"I view Mel as a California and national treasure," said Susan Hansch, chief deputy director of the Coastal Commission. He was able to get conflicting people and interests to work together, she said. "It was how he led meetings, how he pulled the public in. He made people feel welcome."

Open space and more

Closer to home, Mel Lane has been a major supporter of many good causes, most prominently POST and Stanford.

He helped found POST in 1977 and served actively on its board for 21 years.

POST President Audrey Rust was one of his admirers. He had no ego, no desire to take credit, she said. "He cared. He wanted to work things out. He knew how to compromise without losing his core.

"It was never us and them with Mel. It was the us without the them."

Bob Augsburger of Portola Valley, former vice president of Stanford and first executive director of POST, recalled that Mr. Lane used to say, "Remember, you only need to win 51 percent of the time."

"Mel was always low-key; he was never dogmatic or authoritarian," Mr. Augsburger said. "He let other people express their views. That's how he got things done.

"And when he agreed with you, he'd say, 'You bet!'"

Stanford is also counting its blessings from Mr. Lane's contributions. University President John Hennessy said in a prepared statement, "From helping to restore our beloved Memorial Church after the Loma Prieta earthquake, to supporting the humanities and creative writing, to lifelong support for our environmental research and teaching, Mel has touched virtually every corner of Stanford."

Mel Lane initiated the campaign to raise funds to restore Memorial Church after the 1989 earthquake. The campaign was so successful that Stanford was able to restore balconies damaged in the 1906 earthquake. He also led numerous development efforts, including the long-range land use plan, Stanford Athletics, the Center for International Security and Cooperation, and the Woods Institute for the Environment.

Mr. Lane was involved with a breathtaking range of business, environmental and social groups. He served for a period on close to 20 boards of directors and commissions. Besides Stanford and POST, these included Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Monterey Bay Aquarium, California Environmental Trust, the Nature Conservancy/California, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Filoli, the California Commission on Campaign Financing, World Wildlife Fund, Lucky Stores, and the Children's Health Council.

Mr. Lane is survived by Joan Fletcher Lane, his wife of 54 years; his brother, Bill; daughters Whitney Miller of Port Townsend, Washington, and Julie Lane Gay of Vancouver, British Columbia; and four grandchildren.

The family suggests donations to the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford, or the World Wildlife Fund.

A memorial service for Melvin B. Lane will be held 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, at Stanford Memorial Church. The balconies, which he helped raise funds to restore after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, will all be open. There will be a reception at the Arrillaga Alumni Center following the service.


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