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Climate Change: Navigating the Climate Crisis of Silicon Valley

In This Episode:

Silicon Valley faces critical climate challenges: rapid urbanization has caused a 40% loss in wildlife habitats over 20 years, worsened air quality due to a 25% drop in tree cover impacting health and ecosystems, and increased water pollution, leading to a 30% decline in aquatic biodiversity since 2000. These issues underscore the region's urgent environmental concerns.

Climate Change Problem of Silicon Valley:

  • Urban Expansion and Habitat Loss: Silicon Valley's fast urban growth has substantially lost native wildlife habitats, with a 40% decrease reported in the past 20 years.
  • Air Quality and Tree Cover: Declining air quality in Silicon Valley, worsened by a 25% reduction in urban tree cover over 15 years, has impacted human health and ecosystems.
  • Water Pollution and Aquatic Life Decline: Water pollution from industrial and residential sources in Silicon Valley has led to a 30% drop in aquatic biodiversity since 2000.

"Persistence shapes our world. Like the 27 people in 1962 who united for nature, every small group's passion can lead to significant change."

About Julie Hutcheson & Alice Kaufman:

Passionate about conserving southern Santa Clara County's natural spaces, Julie Hutcheson has significantly contributed to Green Foothills for over a decade. Since joining in 2008, she has risen from Organizational Coordinator to Executive Director in 2023, protecting thousands of acres and enhancing the organization's marketing, administration, and funding strategies. As a Santa Clara County Food System Alliance member, she co-authored critical publications on local agriculture. Julie, holding an M.A. in Slavic Linguistics, also enjoys travel, art, hiking, and quality time with her husband.

Alice Kaufman oversees the Advocacy Program’s priorities, strategies, and campaigns, as well as engaging directly in advocacy efforts. Alice began her service with Green Foothills in 2010 as a Board member before joining staff in 2012 as a Legislative Advocate and transitioning to Legislative Advocacy Director in 2017. Her position was renamed Policy and Advocacy Director in 2022.

"Advocacy is making it easy for decision-makers to do the right thing."

Show Notes:

  • Guest Introduction: Features Green Foothills' directors with 12 years of experience in environmental protection. 
  • Green Foothills History: Founded in 1962, the organization has preserved nearly 200,000 acres in the Bay Area. 
  • Preservation Efforts: Highlights key successes like Coyote Valley and Bear Creek Redwoods and the creation of the Mid-Peninsula Open Space District. 
  • Favorite Preserves: Guests share personal stories about their favorite nature preserves, showcasing their accessibility and beauty. 
  • Work Passion: Discuss the guests' transition from environmental law to environmental protection. 
  • Advocacy and Leadership: Insight into Green Foothills' programs for environmental advocacy and community change. 
  • Protecting Coyote Valley: Details the campaign against industrial development in Coyote Valley, emphasizing community collaboration. 
  • Core Programs: Overview of the advocacy and leadership training programs to influence land use and develop environmental advocates. 
  • Urban Development Role: Explores Green Foothills' involvement in urban nature protection and green space promotion. 
  • Volunteer Impact: Discusses the importance of volunteers in initiatives like Healing in Nature and the nuances of advocacy work.

"Nature is not just scenery; it's our sanctuary. Protecting 200,000 acres isn't just a number; it's preserving a legacy for future enjoyment."

Episode Transcription

Why don't you start by telling us a little bit about yourselves?

Oh, sure. Well, I'm the Policy and Advocacy Director for Green Foothills. I've been with the organization for 12 years, and my work is through our advocacy to help protect the open space, farmland, and natural resources in our area according to what we do. 

I am the executive director. I've been with the organization for 12 years, so I consider myself very lucky to do our work and help lead a fantastic staff. 

We'd have to go back to 1962 when 27 people, like you and me, gathered together in a living room around a shared passion. And that was to ensure that local open space was protected amidst a quickly growing Bay Area. Fast forward almost 62 years ahead, and here we are. Greenfoot Hills has protected nearly 200,000 local natural landscapes. And many of those are loved local nature preserves that thousands of people visit every day.

Some folks might recognize the name of the Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve or Bear Creek Redwoods. There are many of them, many of the county parks. We had a big hand in ensuring that the Mid-Peninsula Open Space District was formed and that we supported ballot measures to ensure that the county parks were well-funded. We've been in the trenches doing that work for a long time. So that's why you see our lovely green belt around this valley.

Oh gosh, I could go on. You know, like Julie said, some of the preserves in the Santa Cruz Mountains that Santa Clara County Parks and Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District have helped to preserve. I love to go hiking in El Corre de Madera Preserve. It is a lovely redwoods area. It's just so wonderful on a hot summer day to go there and go underneath the redwoods and the peace and the silence of the Redwood Forest. It's amazing that we can have this open space so close to where millions of people live. It's an incredible privilege we have to live here. 

Well, I started out my career as an environmental lawyer working in toxics litigation. And what drew me to Green Foothills was the desire to help to protect the beauty of the open space that's all around us. And whenever I get the chance to go out into open space as part of my work, it's so rejuvenating. And it just reminds me of why we do this work. One of those beautiful places that I think of when called Eurostock. It's a landscape that covers thousands of acres in southern Santa Clara County and northern San Benito County. And it's a landscape that is sacred to the Amamutsun tribal band. It's also a critical wildlife corridor for mountains mountain lions and other animals. But unfortunately, Eurostock is under threat from an open pit sand and pits hundreds of feet deep and completely block the wildlife corridor as well as devastating the sacred indigenous landscape. And so we, our Greenfoot Hills, is supporting the tribe, the Amamutsen Tribal Band, and helping to lead the fight to protect Eurostock and to defeat this open pit mining proposal. 

Well, actually, I've been super fortunate all my life in that I have grown up close to nature. So I've been able to enjoy it and access it so easily. And I think because of that, I have a very strong bond with nature, and that really spurred environmental activism in me. I started out by forming a community group that raised its voice for the protection of local farmland that was under threat into contact with Green Foothills. And then of course I had the super good fortune of being hired as an advocate. And I'm very passionate about our advocacy program, but I'm also really passionate about our leadership program. And the reason for that is this is a training program within for environmental advocacy, and have people learn how to do effective environmental advocacy for wanting to do change in their communities. I wish I had that when I first started out, but it's just wonderful to see the people who come out of this program and how they change things in their community that they know are important and what their communities would like to see change around.

Well, for the advocacy program, we hire professional staff like Alice. For our leadership program, that's open to a diversity of people, 18 and up. We all sorts of backgrounds. So you just have to have a passion for wanting to make change in your community around an environmental issue. And we just get folks from all walks of life. 

Yeah, I think one of our most impactful efforts has been our campaign to protect Coyote Valley. So Coyote Valley, for people who don't know what or where that is, it's in the southern part of San Jose, and it is a critically important wildlife corridor and floodplain. It's the way that animals migrate between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range from west to east and back again. And it's so important for flood and groundwater protection some of our last remaining prime farmland. This area used to be called the Valley of Hearts Delight because of the beauty of the orchards that blossomed in the spring. And Coyote Valley is one of our last farmland areas. So it's really important for all of these reasons. However, for decades, the city of San Jose had targeted Coyote Valley for industrial development. So instead of the fields and creeks that we have there now, we could have had warehouses and other industrial buildings. It took a broad coalition to convince the city to change its course and to decide to protect Coyote Valley. It wasn't just environmental groups. We partnered with labor unions and business organizations. We partnered with educators, farmers, tribes, and over 2,500 San Jose community members who contacted the city council and told them they wanted them to protect Coyote Valley. So we got to give credit to the city. they took to change their course and declare that this land was just too important to be developed and to say that it needed to be protected for open space and farmland. There are still some developers who are still trying to get the city to to approve development there so we're going to continue fighting as long as we need to to protect Coyote Valley. Well it sounds like there's tenacity in your group. One of our core values is persistence. We, it took decades to be able to protect Coyote Valley and we're gonna keep protecting it for as long as it needs it.

We have a few, but we have two core programs. Our advocacy program and our leadership program. And our advocacy program, as you're hearing from Alice, is really about weighing in on issues, on land use issues. So making sure we're speaking up for nature, but making sure it's in a science-based, factual way. And we talk to decision makers and help them understand why it's important for them to institute policies and vote as well as mobilizing community members. That's really important too, getting them involved because you find out that community members, when they understand what's going on, everybody's so busy, but when they do, they want to weigh in. And they have a very strong voice and they make change by weighing in. And we do that in ways that makes it simple for them. So you have another program too. The leadership program, yes. The leadership program, that's a really wonderful eight month training program. And it trains and supports people to make effective environmental change in their communities. It's open to a diversity of people, and it's offered in Spanish and English. And it's followed up by an alumni program where we support their change. Now and we have over 260 graduates out there with more than half of them in leadership roles.

We're more in the sense of looking at nature within cities. So if nature is being affected in the sense of a creek, you know, if there's development too close to a creek or we want to make sure that some green space needs to be protected. One of our, right now, one of the things that we're working on with many other folks is the Reed Hillview Airport. That's a real opportunity to make sure that we create some open space, which is tough to do in San Jose. And make sure that… the community has access to nature close to home. That's very important.

Well, we offer a program called Healing in Nature, and that's getting out into nature, having a very peaceful experience. We offer meditative activities, and docents share information about local nature. And those docents are volunteers, so they help lead in this program, and they're critical to making sure that people have a lovely experience out in nature. Another one would be our, just our community members. Community members who voluntarily listen to, act on our calls to action and submit comments, or speak up at meetings. Time is so precious and it really makes a difference.

Well, the work that we do is unique in a lot of ways, the advocacy work. And a lot of people don't have a good sense of what advocacy work means. A lot of people will picture rallies or protests or going to speak at a city council meeting. And those are all important. Those are very important tactics that we use in advocacy. But you really can't create real change unless you lay the groundwork ahead of time and what that really involves is building relationships and you know forming thoseconnections and communicating effectively and so that can be a real challenge when you're trying to reach elected officials who are so busy and have to balance so many competing demands but the mantra that we live by is that it's our job to make it easy for decision makers to do the right thing and we found that when elected officials. Listen to us and find out that we're supported by the community, that community members agree with what we're saying, that our positions are supported by science, and that what we're really asking them to do is protect the environment for future generations. Then it is easy for them to vote the way we would like them to vote. But the challenge is just reaching people. And so we are working at that all the time.

Yeah, I would say that a common misconception is a lot of people think that environmental groups are anti-development. And that's not the case. The truth is that the vast majority of developments get approved without any problems. The question is where? The question is where is a development project located? And the reason that that's important is because if you build development on open space of cities, then that creates sprawl. And sprawl is problematic not just because it's gobbling up open space habitat farmland, but also because it is a problem for climate resilience. In order for our communities to be climate resilient and to effectively combat climate change, we need to build infill development in cities close to transit, close to where jobs are in schools. We shouldn't be building sprawl development out on the edge of cities because then everybody has to drive everywhere. You have more greenhouse gases and more carbon emissions as well as, you know, destroying the trees, grasses, vegetation that absorb carbon from the atmosphere in the first place. Greenfoot Hills, we're very, very vehement in believing that our communities need to build up rather than out, and we need to really focus the future of our communities in infill areas. 

Well, I'm sure that there's a lot that we don't know. We're doing the best that we can with the knowledge that we have. And of course, we're learning more all the time. But yeah, wildfire is a huge concern for California and for the whole world in a lot of areas. Where our work intersects with that is the fact that we're taking a very strong stance that we really should not be building more homes in areas that are vulnerable to wildfire putting people's lives and homes at risk. And it's harmful for the environment as well because the wildfire zones typically are out in the wildland urban interface, which is abbreviated WUI or wooey. If you hear people talk about wooey, that's what they mean. And it's really just sort of that in-between space that isn't wilderness and isn't urban. It's an area that is very difficult for firefighters to get to, to put out the fire that are threatening people's homes and you know it's also an important area for wildlife so you know keeping the keeping homes in development out of wilderness areas and not expanding further into them you know with additional development protects both people and nature and you know that's one thing that's really important. Another thing that I want to mention that we're that has really gotten a lot more attention in recent years is going management practices for fire prevention. And I'm really glad to say that the state of California has really leaned in on that, on partnering with tribes, and bringing back, well, bringing back, I mean, tribes have always had this knowledge, but bringing back as far as sort of the official, you know, governmental way of managing for wildfires, and just learning again, relearning from the tribes, how to just work with nature to prevent wildfires things like controlled burns and wildfire fuel reduction. So controlled burns and wildfire fuel reduction.

Well, I can tell you, we're doing it now. So I can definitely tell you what it looks like. We're doing, and by we I mean, you know, like our area, our governmental agencies in our area and organizations that work on this. There's a lot of, especially since the wildfires that happened in 2020. investment in this type of work. And controlled burns happen, this is something that will happen when there isn't any danger of a controlled burn getting out of control. So you'll do it when conditions are low risk for wildfires and agencies and land managers will go out into areas that are considered to be higher risk for wildfires and set controlled burns, which they monitor very sure they don't get out of control and that will make that area less likely to burn during the next fire season. And there are other…and wildfire fuel reduction includes controlled burns. It also includes mechanical reduction like going out there just and physically removing the underbrush that's more likely to catch fire but leaving the trees to shade the forest floor so that it stays cooler and moister rather than you know just taking out the trees and letting everything get very hot and dry, which is of course exactly the conditions that would spark a fire. 

That is such a good question. Yeah, the Bay Area is definitely vulnerable to sea level rise. San Mateo County, where green which was one of the county's green foothills works in, and it's where I live, is considered to be the most vulnerable county in California for sea level rise in terms of the economic impact to the county. And the reason for that is because San Mateo County has two coastlines. We have the Pacific Ocean coast and we have the bay. And San Francisco Bay is projected, the projections are just that, projections, the sea level is expected to rise by… as much as three feet by mid-century and as much as seven feet by the end of the century. So it is a serious problem that we need to address. And the good news is we are addressing it. There are a lot of planning efforts that are going forward and a lot of funding that's going into adapting to sea level rise. So the cities and the communities along the bay are working on protecting communities areas by doing what's called green infrastructure. You can create horizontal levees, which are levees that instead of being, you know, sort of like short walls, are more horizontal and they're green. So you will have tidal marsh, you will have upland habitat and so on. And when a storm surge happens, instead of breaking against a hard levee, which can erode tidal marsh which absorbs the storm surge and slows down the force of the water and that really helps to protect the communities that we're working to protect.

Well, I think the first thing is Greenfoot Hills is local, vocal, effective. And part of that is, too, because people speak up along with us. And that means you can make a difference. It's not hard. We make it easy. Sign up for our emails at our website at greenfoothills.org and we'll tell you when there's opportunities to speak up for local nature. And three, we also, if you want to dive in a little bit more, we have our leadership program. And that can help you gain the skills that you would like to use to make change in your community. And again, you can apply for our leadership program at our website.

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If you would like to learn more or contribute to the mission of this organization, please connect with Julie Hutcheson or Alice Kaufman:

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“Green Foothills’ dedication and passion show us that protecting our natural landscapes isn’t just a duty, but a shared privilege that enriches our communities and ourselves.”

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