Remembering the legacy of an environmental icon

Petaluma lost a longtime resident and one of California’s biggest environmental activists when Bill Kortum died on Saturday after a battle with prostate cancer.|

Petaluma lost a longtime resident and one of California’s biggest environmental activists when Bill Kortum died on Saturday after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 87.

“He received many honors for his efforts but probably his most cherished was the naming of the Kortum Trail from Goat Rock extending to Wrights Beach as part of the California Coastal Trail,” his family said in a statement.

Bill Kortum, his wife, Lucy, and the Kortum clan have been vital to the quality of life that makes Sonoma County a pearl in the world’s oyster.

If not for the Kortums, we might not be able to walk the state’s coastline. We could have a nuclear power plant built on top of the San Andreas Fault at one of the most beautiful coastal spots in the world. We could be drinking radioactive Iodine 131 in our milk. Cotati would have been absorbed into Rohnert Park and Penngrove could be a shopping mall or subdivision.

This is the story of the incredible impact one man and one family had on an entire county.

Bill Kortum’s parents, Max and Vina Kortum, moved to Petaluma in 1922. Their children, Karl, Maxine and Bill, grew up here. In a 2006 interview with columnist-historian Gaye LeBaron, Kortum said, “That probably had a lot to do with why I am what I am. Born and raised in Petaluma, a small town of about 6,000 people at that time. My folks were born and raised in Calistoga. In that little town, they were exposed to the surroundings and the landscape, and could go any place they wanted, no questions asked.

“They told me that’s the one thing you’ll miss in your life, that freedom to roam. All the hills around Petaluma saw our presence. My dad said ‘You’re going to lose that in your life, that freedom,’ but it gave me a sense, as a kid, of ownership. I thought I’d owned it all. And as Sonoma County grew up, you might say, subjected itself to growth, I saw that disappearing, just like my dad said.”

Bill Kortum entered the Merchant Marine during World War II. Afterward, he attended UC Davis, graduating in 1952 with a degree in veterinary medicine. The following year, he married Lucy Deam.

Bill Kortum served with the Army Veterinary Corps, interned in Petaluma, then opened a practice in Cotati in 1957, catering to all animals: from cows and horses to dogs and lions.

He became president of the Cotati Chamber of Commerce. Cotati was unincorporated at the time and he worked to establish it as a city. One of his first civic projects turned an empty field into La Plaza Park, and he was also on the school board.

In 1960, PG&E decided the Bodega Headlands would be a perfect location for a nuclear plant, not counting on the Kortums.

Karl Kortum contacted Petaluma historian Ed Mannion, who wrote an article about the power plant in the Argus-Courier. Then he wrote a letter about it in the San Francisco Chronicle, and the State Public Utilities Commission, which had authority over the project, received 1,500 letters in protest.

Bill Kortum was concerned about the effects of leaking, wind-borne radiation on pastures: that cows would eat the grass and the byproduct of the radiation, Iodine 131, would enter their milk.

At the time there was a smaller nuclear plant in Eureka. Bill contacted a veterinarian in Eureka and asked him to harvest the parathyroid glands of any cows that had died or been slaughtered. These were tested and came back positive for the presence of Iodine 131. PG&E told the farmers there was nothing to worry about. The Eureka plant was to be the model for the Bodega site, but the plant leaked so badly the Atomic Energy Commission shut it down.

Bill’s neighbor, trumpeter Lu Watters, composed “Blues Over Bodega,” performing it with the Turk Murphy Band at anti-nuke rallies. When San Francisco Chronicle editor Scott Newhall heard the song on the radio, he called Karl Kortum and said, “You’ve won. Soon as you get music, you’ve got a populist issue going and you’ve won.”

They did win, and plans for the plant were dropped.

In 1957, the state Department of Education was looking for a new state college site. As Cotati Chamber president, Bill Kortum and Realtor Joe Dorfman suggested the property of Forrest Benson at East Cotati Avenue and Petaluma Hill Road. On March 2, 1960 the decision was made to buy the property, and soon after Sonoma State University was built.

In 1963, a division of Castle and Cooke created a plan for Sea Ranch, more than 10 miles of pristine coastline that would have become inaccessible to the public. At that time, of California’s 1,300-mile coastline, only 100 miles were open to the public.

Bill Kortum was asked to organize a strategy, and the California Coastal Commission, of which he was chairman, was born. That morphed into the California Coastal Alliance.

The Kortum family continue their work to protect the environment. They were involved in the fight for the county’s open space initiatives, creation of Sonoma County Conservation Action and helped establish urban growth boundaries that are now the model across the country. Twenty years ago, they planted the seeds of support for the SMART rail system, seeds that are now bearing fruit.

Bill, Lucy, Karl and Maxine Kortum have all been honored by Congress for meritorious service. Their remarkable impact on the county cannot be overrated or overstated. We are privileged to walk in their footsteps upon the paths these monumental human beings that, like their pioneering ancestors, created through sheer will and determination.

This article is excerpted from “The Kortum Family” that ran in the fall 2012 edition of Penngrove Proud magazine. It is reprinted with permission of Penngrove Proud’s publisher, Lynda Sutton-Smith. Katie Watts contributed to this report.

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