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Sonoma Coast Kortum Trail - Bill Kortum Legacy to Sonoma County


Sonoma Coast Kortum Trail - Bill Kortum's Legacy to Sonoma County

Sonoma County Environmental Icon, Bill Kortum, Passes Away

By Frank Kortum & Julie Groves 

William Kortum, who championed the cause of environmental protection in Sonoma County and on the California coast, died at home of prostate cancer on December 19, 2014.  His role as mentor to a generation of activists led many to regard him as the father of the Sonoma County environmental movement.

Well into his ninth decade, he energetically focused on promoting Sonoma County Conservation Action (SCCA) which he founded 25 years ago. In recent years he was campaigning for public access to Petaluma’s Lafferty Ranch, and for the completion of SMART rail and the California Coastal Trail.  

Coastwalk California, another organization he co-founded 31 years ago, is the nonprofit that advocates for the statewide California Coastal Trail (CCT) and public access to the California coastline.  A popular segment of the CCT on the Sonoma coast bears his name, the Kortum Trail.

Bill traced his awareness of environmental concerns to early conversations with his parents: his mother, Vina, a descendent of the Donner party, and his father, Max, whose parents were the first wine makers in Calistoga on Kortum Canyon road.  His parents introduced him at an early age to the outdoor splendor of Northern California.  Even though there seemed to be no limit then to where he and his family could hike and camp, his father warned him that their access to such activities might well be lost to development by the time he grew up.

Bill Kortum, Sonoma County Environmental ActivistBorn in Petaluma on July 22, 1927, Bill grew up first on Western Avenue in Petaluma and later on the Ely Road poultry farm that his father purchased in the 1930s.  There, for his high school FFA project, Bill built a Grade A dairy barn and raised and milked a small herd of cows.  He was inspired to pursue veterinary medicine by caring for his beloved cow “Choco”.  

He attended Petaluma High School (Class of 1945) but cut short his high school education to join the Merchant Marines.  Bill then attended Santa Rosa Junior College and graduated from the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis (class of 1952).   Following graduation he was drafted into the Army Veterinary Corps and then established a veterinary practice in Cotati, worked on Cotati incorporation and advocated to locate the proposed State College to the area.  He specialized in bovine veterinary medicine, and his travels on rural roads to far-flung dairies renewed his appreciation of the role of agriculture in preserving natural beauty.

During the early 1960s, Bill began to more actively pursue his interest in environmental protection, helping his older brother Karl, Karl’s wife Jean, and David Pesonen in their efforts to stop PG&E from building a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head. As new challenges from well-financed development interests appeared, he worked with Chuck Rhinehart, Chuck Hinkle, Dick Day and others to form Californians Organized to Acquire Access to State Tidelands (COAAST). They opposed Castle & Cooke’s efforts to cut off 13 miles of coastal access at Sea Ranch, a battle which elevated public awareness of the importance of coastal access throughout California. Bill was a key player in the political maneuvering that led directly to the passage of Proposition 20 which established the public’s right to access the state’s coastal tidelands and created the California Coastal Commission.

Bill then turned his attention inland to his beloved Sonoma County, becoming involved in the preservation of open space through the creation of community separators and urban growth boundaries, the establishment of the Sonoma County Open Space District, the creation of SMART, and the preservation of Heritage Roads. He was an early board member of the Sonoma Land Trust.  One of the main objects of his attention and prime achievements was the creation of Sonoma County Conservation Action with its focus on educating and directly engaging the public on local environmental issues and policies using grassroots organizing.  Bill and his wife Lucy were widely known as consistent sources of optimism and inspiration to all who worked with them.  Lucy played a key role as partner and strategist.

Bill knew from experience that, as Peter Douglas said, “The coast is never saved, it’s always being saved. Our work, your work, is a labor of love that is never finished.” He applied this concept equally to his cherished Sonoma County. When he learned of a plan by the City of Petaluma to sell the Lafferty Ranch (a reservoir site in the Sonoma Mountains) to a private landowner, his timely letter to the editor alerted the environmental community to this sale, and the potential loss of public access on the west side of Sonoma Mountain. That battle still rages.

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.