Marin Women's Hall of Fame

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Jean Mogridge Starkweather

        Jean Starkweather has devoted a large portion of her adult life to reserving the natural beauty of Marin County.  An issue such as saving wetlands areas for posterity has not always been the headline-grabber it is in these times of growing ecological awareness and re-invigorated  "Earth Day" celebrations.  Jean Starkweather began her contribution to this effort back when "progress" seemed inevitable and most of the population shrugged off the destruction of Marin's beauty with a sigh of resignation. Jean was born and raised in Seattle, Washington.  As a young girl, she witnessed the results of unchecked development as beaches; open fields and mountainsides were lost to the onslaught of concrete, steel girders and asphalt.    Yet, there were places where she and her family  (her parents and a younger brother, Thomas) could go to enjoy the outdoors.   Her favorite place was a rural area across Puget Sound, a place that filled her memory with summer scenes of playing on a large beach, hiking and sunshine.  She was very project-oriented.  "I was born busy," she claims.  One of the things she liked to do was to build little towns with gardens around them.  She also liked to organize games for others to play.

During these years, Jean feels that her mother had the greatest influence on her.   A professional librarian, she also loved the out of doors and was involved with activities surrounding Jean and Tom.   A soft-spoken woman, she hesitated to speak out, but would work on community projects if she saw that she was needed. Says Jean, "Looking back, she was somewhat of an activist.  Those things rub off...." In high school, Jean was  "one of those people who is involved in everything."  Her career dream was to work with groups of children, and during college summer vacations she worked as a camp counselor and program director at various children's camps.    She graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota, and married John Starkweather shortly thereafter.

 She supported John through graduate school in Illinois.  They soon relocated to the Bay Area.  While living in San Francisco, John and Jean looked around for a place where they could raise a family. When the Starkweathers looked in Marin, they fell in love with it and moved here in 1956. Raising three children, David, Timothy and Stephen, kept Jean busy over the next few years, and she supported them with involvement in such activities as Cub Scouts and school programs.  It was her three boys that also got Jean started into a broader community activism.  When a hillside near their house was threatened by development, one of her sons asked her what would happen to the Burrowing Owls living there.  Jean decided to find out.

Three years later, after organization of a neighborhood and much learning about local government process, not only was the ridgeline saved, but also a new focus came into Jean's life.

 By 1969, she had helped to organize an outdoor education program for fifth and sixth graders at Santa Margarita Elementary School. Each week, with two other volunteers, Jean would share her knowledge and love of the natural world in the classroom and on nearby hillsides.  It was a program that she would lead for the next seventeen years, training volunteer helpers, collecting information about the local ecology and teaching children.   It was also a realization of her girlhood dream.  Jean took classes to enhance her framework of knowledge about the environment. She became a decent at Audubon Canyon Ranch, where twenty years later she continues to teach children.   She joined the Marin Audubon Society, the Marin Conservation League and the Save San Francisco Bay Association, later becoming a board member of all three. And, she began to become involved in the politics of protecting Marin's beautiful environment.

         It is hard for her to recall now, but her biggest surprise about the political process was that  "it was not separate from the community.  Ordinary people can have a great effect locally. Politicians are real people."   She realized that the best thing any environmentally minded citizen can do is to  "be aware of where you live and what's important about where you live."  It was important to Jean  to create  "backdrops", open  green spaces between Marin's  towns.   Looking back, this was not unlike her penchant for building "little towns with gardens around them" as a child.  Jean felt strongly about planning land use and the need for open space and for undeveloped ridgelines.

         In her efforts to preserve some of the best natural features of the county, Jean learned that the wetlands of the county along San Francisco Bay were in jeopardy of disappearing from either being filled in or dredged out.    As president of the Marin Audubon Society and later as chair of the Conservation League's Bayfront Committee, Jean became a primary spokesperson for these wetlands and the creeks and ponds that are a part of the wetlands. Through education and advocacy, she worked at explaining to politicians, developers and the concerned public that wetlands were important habitat for many species of birds, and nurseries for fish.  Wetlands enhanced the quality of our air and water by filtering pollutants; they served as a valuable food source for everything that lives in and on the water; and, they were "wonderful places to walk near and enjoy their open spaces." In fact, without the San Francisco Bay's wetlands, the climate of the Bay Area would be very different.

Her biggest wetlands victory, and yet an ongoing struggle, was the planning for preservation of two miles of shoreline in the San Rafael area  (from the San Rafael Canal out towards San Quentin).  Ponds and wetlands were saved from being filled in and built upon.  As part of one project, several ponds were purchased and rehabilitated, and the area around them was replanted. Five hundred thousand dollars were raised to buy and renovate the area.   The work was completed and though the ecosystem is slow in re-establishing, the bird habitat and wetland vegetation are making a comeback.   Building in the area will now be set back from the ponds, using them as an aesthetic feature. Her biggest wetland challenge has been the preservation of an area along that two-mile stretch of shoreline.   Called  "Canalways", the development would destroy eighty-five acres of wetland.  This area has been embroiled in controversy for many years with a seemingly never-ending series of building plans, environmental studies, meetings and failed acquisition possibilities.   Does this make Jean angry?   "I don't tend to anger,    [in fact], I wasn't brought up to argue.  I had to learn to argue...You do all you can do, and then the chips fall...." 

Jean does not want to be viewed as "anti-development". Rather, she wants to see building done right, in the right places.  For example, she read on a Planning Commission agenda that discussion would take place about  "filling in a hole" near a development off Smith Ranch Road. Having hiked that area with her family, she was not familiar with any hole.  That "hole" turned out to be Smith Ranch Pond.  Her advocacy saved the pond and the willows near it. Now the people who live in the clusters of housing nearby can enjoy the beauty, but not encroach upon, the habitat. It is a good thing for Marin that Jean believes "If it's worth doing, do it!" For her constant efforts on behalf of the environment, Jean was awarded the 1979 Environmental Award from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a 1989  "Speaker of the Year" Award from the organization. People Speaking.  The Corps award was "in recognition of her outstanding environmental contributions to the Bay Area."  The Speaker of the Year award is made annually to an individual who has made a contribution to society by speaking out of behalf of issues that need to be addressed   (but are often neglected) in our community.  The irony of Jean winning a speaking award is that when asked if she could change anything about herself, she replied "my speaking voice"!

         In addition to her work with the Marin Audubon Society and the Marin Conservation League, Jean has also served on the Marin County Parks, Open Space and Cultural Commission for ten years. The commission is an advisory to the Board of Supervisors for the operation of the Civic Center's theater and exhibition hall (including the annual Marin County Fair), and the operation of the county's parks, trails and open space.  Jean served as chair of the Commission from 1987-1989.    She finds her biggest reward is being a part of the open space purchases of the county, knowing that she is "a part of preserving land for open space for all time".

         She is a member of the board of directors of Audubon Canyon Ranch, as well as a Ranch docent, and the decent training committee.  For five months every other year, Jean helps to teach new volunteers about the features of the thousand-acre sanctuary, its history and its natural values, in addition, Jean is a volunteer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory surveying wetland birds.  Birds are an  "indicator species"  - they are small and sensitive to environmental conditions.   Thus, by noting species, numbers of birds and their behavior, local wildlife groups and government agencies have records which over time indicate where there are problems, interested in many aspects of wildlife habitat, Jean has kept records of local bird-life for many years, and leads other bird census volunteers in regular monitoring of threatened ponds and other wetlands. She has been appointed to several advisory committees on wetlands management. 

In viewing the future, Jean feels the biggest threat to the environment is  "too many people trying to move into the same space".  Her worst fear for the next twenty years is "that steps aren't taken to preserve our lands, our air and our water". However, she feels we are very fortunate that there were far- sighted, community-minded people who set a direction for this county. "It is up to us and to future generations to build on those efforts," she states.  And, rest assured, Jean Starkweather has no plans to retire from the ecological vigil.   When asked what   quality a   environmentalist needs, she proclaimed, "Persistence!"   Luckily, Jean’s tenacity and her commitment to "doing what you can do the best you can", will certainly one day lead this modest woman to be remembered as she wishes to be remembered:   "...as [a person] with energy and persistence who worked on projects that needed doing." 

Note: Jean Starkweather's advice to anyone who wishes to become involved in environmental issues:  "Join a conservation group."
 
 

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