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latest news Column: ‘We just lost a giant.’ Sara Wan, fierce environmentalist and coastal defender, dies at 83

California’s glorious 1,100-mile coastline has lost a passionate defender and a tireless champion.

Sara Wan, a Malibu resident who served longer on the California Coastal Commission than anyone else and was an environmental activist for four decades, died Sunday of complications from recent surgery. She was 83 years old.

“We just lost a giant,” said Jack Ainsworth, executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

“Sara was the driving force behind coastal activism as it exists in California today,” said Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network. “Those of us who were mentored by her, and the public, owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for her many years of extraordinary leadership, perseverance and vision.”

When I needed to know the story of an ongoing coastal dust over the years, Wan was able to break it down with historical perspective and encyclopedic precision.

A massive controversial development in the hills above Malibu. The government plans to poison the mice on the Farallon Islands. Non-compliance with the rules of communication between promoters and commissioners. Whatever the topic, Wan was eager to talk.

In 2016, during the controversial ousting of the head of the coastal commission, she told me it was about dark forces “taking control of the commission and undermining its independence, and ultimately ceding the coast to the industries of the development and energy”.

Wan is now remembered across the state by those who knew that when a battle was brewing, she was on the scene, armed with intimate knowledge of the state constitution, coastal law and fragile nature. of the state’s beautiful coastal habitats.

“She suffered no fools, refused to take no for an answer, and sharply criticized those she felt had failed to measure up, or worse, had corrupted law enforcement,” Jordan said.

“The most driven, toughest, most committed, tireless shoreline defender I’ve ever known,” said Mark Massara, one of California’s earliest shoreline conservation activists. “No lawyer, lawyer, scientist or elected official was safe from his midnight calls, his Malibu ‘war room’ and there was no rest in his efforts to protect the coastal resources of the California.”

Wan was on the Coastal Commission in 1998, when it rejected a mega-development project near the Hearst Ranch. In this case and countless others, it wasn’t just fish and wildlife that Wan was after. She believed in the principle that in California the coast belongs to none of us, but to all of us, and that it must be constantly defended. Not just against overdevelopment, but against attempts to make beach access private and exclusive.

“I’ll never forget the time she came down to Broad Beach in 2003 and sat there, when they had those beach rangers on ATVs try to get rid of her,” Ainsworth said. .

It was in Malibu, where the owners were determined to keep non-residents away from the beach. But there wasn’t a patch of sand in the state that Wan didn’t know intimately. She knew all the rules about easements and driveways, and she knew all the tricks landlords used to trick and scare the public.

Wan’s husband, Larry, is a renowned conservationist himself, and he recalled that day in Malibu when his wife slumped on the sand and refused to budge.

“It was an amazing sight,” Larry told me on Tuesday, saying his wife told security guards and later a deputy sheriff that she was right, they were wrong, and she wasn’t budging. .

“She had all the prescriptions to show them, and they didn’t know what to say. They tried to arrest her, and she showed them all the legal stuff, and they all left,” Larry said.

Larry said his wife brought a picnic basket to their protest and when the cops left they enjoyed a nice snack on the beach.

The Wans met while attending Yale University and moved to California in the 1960s, settling in Malibu in the mid-1980s. Wan had advanced degrees in zoology and engineering and worked in various jobs before moving on to what Eric Wan, his son, called “his second career” – full-time, full-time conservation advocacy.

It started with his close attention to coastal access and development issues in Malibu, Eric said, and morphed into advising others on how to present their positions to government agencies such as the Coast Commission. She was appointed to the commission in 1996 and served for 15 years, not always without controversy, or without incurring the ire of landlords or property developers.

In a fierce contest for the presidency of the commission, Wan prevailed. But in political circles and among some in the environmental community, feathers were ruffled and Wan ultimately lost his seat in 2011.

But not his passion for conservation.

Wan served on the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and was a member of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. She and her husband co-founded the Western Alliance for Nature, a land conservancy, and while on vacation, they sent Larry’s wildlife photos to friends and activists around the world.

Wan created Vote the Coast to promote candidate coastal protection advocates and the Organization of Regional Coastal Activists (ORCA) to form a citizen brigade of guardians and environmental guardians.

Mark Gold, director of ocean and coastal policy for the state, called Wan an “eco-warrior” and said her conservation work extends beyond state lines, covering everything from whale peaks.

Her efforts to preserve one of Malibu’s last undeveloped canyons led to the space being named Corral Canyon Park Sara Wan Trailhead. In Marin County, 34 acres of land earmarked for development was instead given to the Western Wans Nature Alliance last year, and the land will remain habitat for wildlife, including the northern spotted owl .

Larry and Eric told me they were grateful that Wan’s work was carried on by those she taught and inspired. Pam Heatherington of San Diego is a good example of what they’re talking about. Heatherington worked for years on a coastal access project there, and she learned the ins and outs from Wan.

“If I hadn’t been educated by ORCA, we might have missed the opportunity,” Heatherington said. “Sara wasn’t telling us what to do, she was teaching us what to do…She left a legacy that will live on in many people.”

Steve.lopez@latimes.com

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