Twenty-seven members of the original open space group organized in May 1962 to preserve the foothills, calling themselves the Committee for Green Foothills, later renamed Green Foothills in 2020, according to a history of the organization.
Among its founders were Palo Altans Gary and Betty Gerard, George Hogle and Lois Crozier-Hogle, former Palo Alto Mayor Kirke Comstock and his wife, Dorothy, Karl and Ruth Spangenberg and novelist Wallace Stegner.
In recent years, Green Foothills joined other environmental organizations and filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration and Cargill to protect the salt marshes in Redwood City from development under the Clean Water Act. They won their lawsuit in a lower court and Cargill backed down on its appeal.
Green Foothills and other environmental groups have also fought multiple development proposals in Coyote Valley, an open space area south of San Jose. In 2021, after several years of advocacy by the Protect Coyote Valley coalition led by Green Foothills, the San Jose City Council voted to change the land-use designation of north Coyote Valley to open space and agriculture and removed the urban reserve designation from mid-Coyote Valley, which signaled its intent not to annex and develop those parts of the valley.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors also approved a Climate Resilience District for both mid- and south Coyote Valley, which restricts the size and type of development on the land and supports climate-resilient agriculture. The changes protect the valley from major industrial development, according to Green Foothills.
Alice Kaufman, Green Foothills' policy and advocacy director, said the organization's greatest achievements included its work on the statewide Proposition 20, which voters passed to form the California Coastal Commission.
"It really paved the way in 1976 for the San Mateo County coastal protection initiative Measure A to protect the rural nature of coastal farmland from coastal development. It prohibited onshore facilities to support offshore oil drilling," she said. The initiative kept the San Mateo County coast from turning into another Malibu, covered over with development and with beach access limited to the ultra-wealthy, she said.
Green Foothills also fought to keep Caltrans from building a massive freeway bypass through sensitive wildlands and historic ranches as a go-around to the dangerous Devil's Slide on state Route 1. The campaign took 25 years. In 1996, a countywide initiative, Measure T, mandated Caltrans to build a tunnel rather than the freeway bypass, she said.
How climate change will impact the organization's work
One of the impacts of climate change that affects Green Foothills' work in particular is related to linking wildlife corridors. The organization has been working for decades to protect wildlife habitat and especially the corridors and linkage areas that allow animals to migrate to new habitat areas in order to find food and mates, Kaufman said in a follow-up email.
"The increased fragmentation of our open space by development and freeways is a huge challenge for many species' survival. What climate change will do is create even more of a need for animals (and plants) to be able to migrate, because food and water may no longer be available in the places where it used to be and the habitat that animals rely on may no longer provide the resources it once did," she said.
That's an oversimplification, she added, but at the least, a major impact of climate change is that many animals will need to have larger ranges simply in order to survive, Kaufman said.
Two of Green Foothills' major advocacy campaigns focus on this issue of wildlife connectivity, she said.
The Santa Cruz Mountains are an island of wildlife habitat surrounded by a sea of development, and there are only two functioning linkages for animals to move in and out of the mountain range: Coyote Valley just south of San Jose and Juristac just south of Gilroy. Both of those areas are under threat of development that could severely impair their functionality as wildlife movement corridors.
In Coyote Valley, Kaufman said Green Foothills achieved "a huge victory" a year ago when the San Jose City Council unanimously voted to change the land use from industrial to open space and agriculture. Yet, some landowners there are still trying to roll back that protection so they can develop on their property. Juristac, which is a sacred Indigenous landscape as well as being a critical wildlife corridor, is being threatened with an open-pit sand and gravel mine that would block that movement corridor, Kaufman said.
"We need to protect both Coyote Valley and Juristac for the survival of our local population of mountain lions (recently identified as a candidate for listing under the California Endangered Species Act), as well as the health of many other species that need those linkages," she said.
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