Bill Kortum, Sonoma County environmentalist, dies at 87

Greta Kaul, SFGATE.COM

 Press Democrat article

Bill Kortum, a longtime Sonoma County environmental activist, died early Saturday in Petaluma after battling prostate cancer for more than three years. He was 87.

Mr. Kortum’s extensive resume as an activist began in the 1960s and lists many of California’s most important land-use campaigns.

In 1972, he worked to pass Proposition 20, a measure that established the California Coastal Commission, the agency that regulates land and water use along the state’s coastline. Mr. Kortum also helped establish an open space district in Sonoma County and worked to create Sonoma County Conservation Action, an organization that aims to educate the public on environmental issues.

He did it all with a twinkle in his eye, said Sheri Cardo, communications director at the Sonoma Land Trust and a longtime friend of Mr. Kortum.

Soft-spoken but tenacious, “Bill was like a big, strong redwood tree — bending with the wind but never breaking, and always looking far ahead,” Cardo said. “He was an amazing guy. Even his political opponents liked and respected him, which is saying something in Sonoma County.”

A veterinarian by trade, Mr. Kortum grew up on a poultry farm outside Petaluma, where he and his wife, Lucy, — the strategist to her husband’s idealism — later raised their own three children and where they lived together until his death, said their daughter, Julie Groves.

“He would light fires under people,” Groves said. “As a kid, that was true, too. There was a lot expected of us and you never felt pressured, you just were motivated.”

The fire in Mr. Kortum’s own belly came, in part, from his father, Max. During his early years, it seemed like the family could hike or pitch a tent almost anywhere in Northern California.

“We were allowed huge liberties in those days,” he told The Chronicle in 1998. But, his dad warned him, such opportunities might someday be lost to development.

Bill and Lucy Kortum became especially concerned about California’s oceanfront after traveling to hike the coasts of England. Groves said they were inspired by that country’s open access to coastal land and came back worried that California’s would be blocked from the public.

“Wilderness is still rare in this country and marine wilderness is rarer,” Mr. Kortum wrote in a 2011 Chronicle opinion piece urging the preservation of Drakes Estero.

Mr. Kortum saw public office as a way to advance the causes he was passionate about. He was appointed and re-elected to Petaluma’s school board in the 1960s and was elected as a Sonoma County supervisor in the 1970s, though he was later recalled for what his family said were his strong stances on environmental initiatives.

In Mr. Kortum’s later years, he fought for voter approval on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, a train that will connect the two counties.

Cardo met him 20 years ago working to open Lafferty Ranch, a 270-acre parcel on Sonoma Mountain, to the public.
Cardo said he was developing strategies for that project, which is still ongoing, until his last breath and that someday she hopes to see the ranch turned into a park with her friend’s name on it.

“The thing about Bill Kortum is he never gave up and he never stopped fighting for what’s right,” she said. “He was fighting for all of us and for future generations.”

Mr. Kortum is survived by his wife, Lucy, children Frank of Glendale, Julie Groves of Los Gatos and Sam of New Haven, Conn., and five grandchildren.

A celebration of the activist’s life will be held in the new year. In memorial, his family suggests donations in Mr. Kortum’s name to Sonoma County Conservation Action, Coastwalk California and Room to Roam.

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