Remembering Pete McCloskey

Pete McCloskey and Green Foothills legislative advocate Lennie Roberts at Buck’s in Woodside, May 2019

Former Congressman, environmental champion, and former Green Foothills board member, Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey, died on May 8 at age 96. Pete served on the Board of Green Foothills in 1963, and was a Green Foothills Nature’s Inspiration Honoree in 2010.

Pete McCloskey was one of the most principled people that I have ever known. He never hesitated to speak up for what was right, just, and ethical, no matter the consequences.

McCloskey was born in Loma Linda, attended Occidental College, and graduated from Stanford University and Stanford Law School. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War and was awarded both the Navy Cross and Silver Star, as well as two Purple Hearts.

As a newly minted Palo Alto attorney in the 1960’s, Pete gained early fame when he won scenic protections for the construction of the 7.5 mile long Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) power line. He had initially sought to require undergrounding of the line, but had to settle for a compromise which reduced the project’s visual impacts and saved many redwood, Douglas fir, and oak trees along the right-of-way.

In 1967, Pete ran for Congress in a special election and, against all odds, defeated his fellow Republican, former child actress Shirley Temple Black. He was re-elected to Congress seven times, before giving up his seat to run (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate.

A lifelong outdoorsman, back-packer and fly fisherman, McCloskey was fiercely protective of nature and unspoiled wilderness. In 1970, with U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, he co-founded the first Earth Day, and in 1973, he was a key co-author of the federal Endangered Species Act. He also championed the successful passage of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, and served for six years as Congressional Delegate to the International Whaling Conference.

Throughout his political career, McCloskey was a maverick, remaining independent of party ideology and pressure from special interests. In 2006, McCloskey bucked his party’s leaders, and ran against seven-term incumbent Republican Representative Richard Pombo of Tracy, accusing the congressman of being corrupted by power. After losing in the primary, he endorsed and walked precincts for Pombo’s Democratic opponent, Jerry McNerney, who won the general election in what had been previously considered a “safe” Republican seat. In 2007, McCloskey became a Democrat, stating, “the Republican Party was historically the party of civil rights, free choice for women, fiscal responsibility, environmental protection, honesty and ethics. I finally concluded that it was a fraud for me to remain a member of this modern Republican Party.”

Pete’s environmental legacy includes several notable court decisions. In 1979, he took a leadership role in a successful citizen lawsuit filed by the Surfrider Foundation against two pulp mills that were polluting Humboldt Bay by discharging millions of gallons of untreated wastewater. Pete also played a prominent role in the successful lawsuit brought by Joe Cotchett of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy on behalf of Surfrider, which forced billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla to provide public access to beloved Martin’s Beach, near Half Moon Bay. Additionally, in 2021 Pete and the Cotchett law firm won a crucial lawsuit filed on behalf of Green Foothills and other Bay Area environmental groups against the Environmental Protection Agency and Cargill, Inc. for failing to protect Redwood City’s salt ponds under the Clean Water Act.

Throughout his career, Pete’s actions were guided by his sense of justice, not political ideology. His personal integrity, grit, and legacy of enduring environmental protections are bright beacons of hope for the future as we face enormous challenges to the planet Earth upon which all species depend.

McCloskey is survived by his wife, Helen H. McCloskey of Winters; daughters Nancy McCloskey of Washington, D.C., and Kathy McCloskey of Mercersburg, Pa.; sons Peter McCloskey of Tuscany Italy, and John McCloskey of Davis; seven grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and five dogs.

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