The Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Chapter
September - October 2007
Volunteer of the month
Suzanne Jones - a scientist turned activist
From nuclear power to people power, from the heights of academia to the hills of Lamorinda, Suzanne Jones brings energy to her projects.
After earning three degrees and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, Suzanne Jones abandoned physics - for a new career as an open-space activist.
A visitor to Suzanne's home in Bollinger Canyon might see an animated and attractive woman with a small child exploring their semi-rural 10 acres, walking their three large dogs, checking on their five bluebird boxes, and putting native plants into their garden, but the visitor might not pick her out as a physicist or as a dynamic and effective leader of open-space campaigns.
Suzanne is a local girl returned to the Bay Area. Born in Oakland and raised in El Cerrito, she attended Richmond's Crestmont Elementary, an innovative, independent co-op run by parents and the teachers they selected. Even then interested in environmental issues, Suzanne talked other Crestmonters into eliciting 25-cent-a-mile pledges from their neighbors for Greenpeace's Whale Walkathon in Golden Gate Park.
She also talked her parents into keeping the stray animals she brought home - dogs, cats, parakeets, fish. At 14, she wrote a school report on factory farming, which converted her to vegetarianism - which she has now practiced for close to a quarter century.
After graduation from Kennedy High School, in what was then the Richmond School District, Suzanne asserted her independence by studying physics at a school as far away as she could imagine - Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. She then began a Stanford Ph.D. program with an emphasis on elementary particles, but because of a lull in funding at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, she couldn't find the right research project, and so pocketed a master's degree and transferred back to Cornell to finish her Ph.D.
During her university years Suzanne continued her volunteerism, working for a campus animal-rights organization and for the United Farm Workers' grape boycott, and participating in student organizations that opposed nuclear arms. She walked dogs for the SPCA, and became a "big sister" to an eight-year-old, a relationship she maintained for three years. One summer she canvassed for CALPIRG on behalf of a bottle-recycling bill. She maintained memberships in Greenpeace and the Jane Goodall Institute.
Her Ph.D. completed, Suzanne accepted a post-doc at Princeton's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. She published articles on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and became interested in the relationship between global climate change and nuclear energy. A MacArthur Foundation fellowship - the first year of which she spent at Princeton, the second at UC Berkeley - supported her research on the role nuclear energy should play in solving global energy problems - particularly in China. Suzanne's conclusions? Nuclear energy should be the energy source of last resort; its connection to nuclear-arms proliferation is even more threatening than radioactive waste and the likelihood of nuclear accidents. She is convinced that conventional reactors and breeder reactors are poor choices, but fears that because of the "mammoth scale" of global climate change, we might be forced to rely in part on nuclear power. If so, she says, only the most passively safe and proliferation-resistant technologies should be considered.
Back in California Suzanne married another East-Bay-bred Cornell-Stanford-Berkeley physicist, Rob Elia, who talked her into staying in the Bay Area, close to their families. They bought a fixer-upper in Bollinger Canyon near Moraga and set about making themselves an environmentally sensitive home - Suzanne acting as their general contractor. The green-home project would serve as Suzanne's transition to "get out of academia". She wasn't sure what she wanted to do professionally, but she wanted more than a paper and a slide presentation at the end of a big undertaking.
Even during her home-building sabbatical she found other local projects. Living in El Cerrito before the move to Bollinger Canyon, Suzanne got involved in the environmental battle against the Sea Cliff Estates at Point Richmond. With Kay Walker she founded the Richmond Environmental Defense Fund, which studied wetlands and native flora and fauna, educated itself on environmental laws, raised money, hired a lawyer, met with the Richmond City Council, sued Richmond, and worked with environmental protection groups, in particular, the Sierra Club, which Suzanne had joined when she returned to California. The REDF lost its battle with Sea Cliff Estates, but the experience brought people together and taught them how to protect the land that was left. They were involved in the establishment of the Eastshore State Park and the North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance.
The Richmond crusade was "a turning pointing in my life", Suzanne says. It taught her how she could make a difference - through protecting open space. By now she and Rob had moved into the house they were renovating; still she served as REDF president for four years and REDF boardmember for many more.
Barbara Bream, Suzanne's successor as president of REDF, worked closely with Suzanne for close to seven years. "Suzanne is a totally remarkable woman," Barbara says, "with a capacity to describe very complex situations and principles" and a "wonderful ability to get commitments from people to volunteer and follow through." Barbara is impressed with Suzanne's ability to communicate with government agencies, town councils, developers, and environmentalists. "She knows their lingo," says Barbara.
As Suzanne directed the greenification of her home, she turned part of her attention to open-space conflicts in her new locale. After reading a Yodeler article in 2000 about the group SOS (Save Open Space - Gateway Valley), she called the article's author, Amelia Wilson, and thus came into contact with other Lamorindans (residents of Lafayette, Orinda, and Moraga) deeply committed to saving open space. Of great concern was the proposed Palos Colorados development, which was to comprise 123 homes and a golf course on a sensitive 460-acre wildlife corridor between Las Trampas Regional Wilderness and the Lafayette Reservoir. The Moraga development was considered by many, including the developer, a "done deal".
Those people didn't know Suzanne Jones. She examined the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). She knew from her work on Sea Cliff that the project needed to go through a rigorous review by several agencies. Had Palos Colorados already received the necessary permits? It hadn't.
A chain of phone calls resulted in a small group of passionately concerned citizens - including representatives from the Sierra Club. PLOS - Preserve Lamorinda Open Space - was formed. The Yodeler published an article about the new organization and Palos Colorados. The steering committee flooded the area with simple flyers - questionnaires asking the recipients to explain why they were concerned about the proposed development. Hundreds of the questionnaires were completed and returned; PLOS's mailing list got a lot longer.
While waiting for the developer to apply for the permits, PLOS went to work. Suzanne stayed in close touch with the review agencies. Articles in the Yodeler and the local newspapers kept the issues before the public. Suzanne received a phone call from local landscape painter Teresa Onoda, who offered to organize an art show - the first of many successful fundraisers. (For the announcement of this year's art show, see page G.) PLOS hired an attorney and environmental consultants on endangered red-legged frogs, wildlife corridors, creeks, wetlands, and economics. Aroused residents wrote letters. Three hundred people turned out for a hearing. Three agencies - the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state Department of Fish and Game, and the Army Corps of Engineers - concluded that the Palos Colorados golf course was not viable.
Suzanne and PLOS met with the new developer, who agreed to remove the golf course from the project and to reduce the development area from 300 to 70 acres. The wildlife corridor would remain intact.
PLOS board member and long-time environmental advocate Amelia Wilson fought 18 years to save Moraga's Gateway Valley. She can't say enough about Suzanne's work on past and current open-space projects. "She manages to keep so many balls in the air at the same time," Amelia says. "She is aware of what is going on with each." Amelia also praises Suzanne's ability to zero in on what really matters. "She knows which battles to fight. She is dogged - she'll follow an issue all the way." And, Amelia adds, "she can read an EIR like no one I've ever met!"
During the Palos Colorados struggle, Suzanne continued with the home renovation. "Suzanne really practices what she preaches," Amelia says. From the old house, Suzanne and Rob reused all the nails and lumber that they could, and found salvaged building and plumbing supplies for most of the rest. Parts of two enormous fallen oaks on the property became structural columns, countertops, a breakfast nook, benches, stair treads, and closet shelves. Solar panels supply most heat and power. Insulation (including recycled newspapers in the walls) and design provide natural air conditioning. A 10,000-gallon steel storage tank under the deck collects rooftop rainwater for irrigation. The house was featured in the April 12 issue of Natural Home.
Another successful home project was the birth of Dean, who will be three in October. Before his birth Suzanne had acquired some experience with children as a court-appointed special advocate - a volunteer who supports and mentors a child, who is a victim of abuse and neglect, and has become a ward of the juvenile-court system. She had responsibility for a teen-aged Richmond girl for four years.
A little over a year ago Suzanne found the paying job she had been hoping for - one that deals with the protection of open space. She became the land-program manager for the Muir Heritage Land Trust. She commutes to her Martinez office a couple of times a week, working from home other days. She compensates for the commute by filling her gas tank with biodiesel made from recycled grease. Husband Rob has also left physics, to work as a mathematician, a quantitative analyst for an asset-management firm in San Francisco.
There are always, of course, more development projects threatening open space - two current ones being Rancho Laguna (35 houses next to Palos Colorados) and Bollinger Valley (125 houses and 180 acres about five miles from Suzanne's home). Long-time Club volunteer and now Moraga Vice Mayor Lynda Deschambault would be more worried about these developments but for the fact that Suzanne and the PLOS are "on top of them". To learn about exciting new efforts to protect Moraga open space, see article on page 8.
"Suzanne knows how to deal with politics without being adversarial," says Lynda. "We'd all be living in much nicer places," she adds, "if there were more people like Suzanne Jones."
© 2007 San Francisco Sierra Club Yodeler
|EXPLORE, ENJOY AND PROTECT THE PLANET|