Laurel Marcus
Project Manager, California Coastal Conservancy
Oakland, California

Laurel Marcus, an award winner in the state government category, is almost single-handedly responsible for some of the most significant coastal wetland and watershed restoration efforts in California. Marcus is project manager for the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency created in 1978 to preserve, enhance, and restore the wetlands and other resources of the California coast. The Coastal Conservancy is not a regulatory agency. Rather, it works to negotiate innovative solutions that benefit landowners and the environment. The Coastal Conservancy provides funding and direct technical assistance for wetlands acquisition, enhancement, and restoration to local governments and non-profit organizations.

As a biologist and program manager, Marcus has initiated, coordinated, and implemented numerous wetland and watershed restoration projects up and down the 1,100-mile California coast. Among her most notable projects are the development of the Russian River Resource Enhancement and Public Access Plan and the coordination and development of the Sonoma Baylands salt marsh restoration project.

The Russian River Resource Enhancement and Public Access Plan is concerned with stemming the long-term combined effects of federal water development projects and agricultural development in the “reclaimed” floodplain. Marcus recognized that sustainable restoration of riparian values, fish habitat, and other watershed functions could not occur if the realities of human uses of the river were ignored: in addition to agriculture, the 1,500-square-mile watershed offers significant recreational opportunities, supports gravel mining and other industries, and provides water for half a million people. Therefore, she initiated a true, community-based planning effort emphasizing the involvement of the landowners, as well as the more usual interest groups. Today, the Russian River project is the largest restoration planning effort underway in California. It is likely that restoration of the Russian River, including reestablishment of a healthy riparian system, will require a mix of negotiated land exchanges and easements as well as active reconfiguration work.

The Sonoma Baylands project in northern San Francisco Bay is particularly indicative of Marcus’s effectiveness in melding environmental and economic benefits. This project will restore over 300 acres of salt marsh—critical habitat for two species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act—using dredged material from a controversial port deepening project. “Beneficial reuse” of the dredged material to establish proper elevations for the marsh will expedite habitat development. At the same time, it is fundamental to overcoming local political and environmental concerns about the port project, and will therefore expedite the port’s economic interests. Through monitoring, this project will also be an important example of practicability for other large-scale beneficial reuse proposals in the Bay area. A portion of Marcus’s Sonoma Baylands project was unanimously recommended for, and selected as, a1991/1992 Coastal America project.

Perhaps Marcus’s most outstanding talent is her ability to work and communicate with landowners, business interests, environmental groups, regulatory and resource agencies, the state legislature, and California’s congressional delegation, with equal effectiveness. Without the good will Marcus has developed with all involved parties, environmental enhancement to thousands of acres, benefiting both landowners and other economic interests, would not have been possible.

— Brian Ross, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Region 9