Nature’s Inspiration: Steve Abbors Speech

Thank you, Ana, for that very warm introduction and thank you Megan and the Committee for Green Foothills for this unexpected recognition.  I’ve been retired from MidPen for almost nine months now so it’s nice to have the opportunity to see you all again.

I know each of you has a story about how you came to be an advocate for the environment.  There many paths that lead us to this important calling and in the next few minutes, I’d like to share mine with you.

In many aspects of my life I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate and for that I am very grateful.  I was able to pursue my early love of nature throughout school and was then able to apply that knowledge to jobs that focused on protecting the environment in one way or another.  I also pursued my childhood love, that is until she caught me, and we have been chasing butterflies ever since, joined now by our two daughters and son in law.

I can’t think of a time when living creatures didn’t fascinate me.  It’s clear now that the course of my life was irrevocably set when my Dad had 1-year old Stevie watch an Anise Swallowtail butterfly emerge from a chrysalis.  Just imagine how that event would fascinate a little kid…and I’m still not sure if my Dad knew impact it would have on me, but I do know that his hope that I would pursue a career in electronics… as he had… was permanently dashed with the first flap of that swallowtail’s wings.  Since Carlene and I have always been of one mind on these matters,  we decided to suspend a pinned Anise Swallowtail by a guitar string above both Ali’s and Rose’s cribs so that their slightest movements would cause the butterfly to dance in front of their faces.  And so that’s how we passed on my love of electronics to our daughters.  My parents did another interesting thing related to nature that had a big influence on me.  Once I was old enough to thumb through a book and not chew on it, they gave me the 1952 Golden Nature Guides on a variety of topics: Insects, Birds,  Reptiles and Amphibians, Mammals, Fishes, Trees,  Flowers, Weather, Rocks and Minerals…but not all at once.  Every few months they’d give me a new one and I’d read it cover to cover…and so my interests moved from one taxon to another. To this day, in the fall, when the insects die and the birds migrate, I go looking for amphibians instead and when spring arrives, it’s wildflowers,  butterflies, reptiles and, of course, birds  all over again.

When I was growing up, I spent every spare moment wandering through the east bay hills, usually trespassing on East Bay MUD land, whether it was with an insect net, bow and arrow, a glider or even as a falconer.  (At one point in the mid 1990s when I was addressing the EBMUD Board about their watershed master plan, I confessed that my time working with them was actually penance for spending my youth trespassing on their land).

My interactions with nature had always been very personal and later in life, when I started to use a camera in lieu of hunting, it became even more so.  The camera forced me to look closely and carefully and also gave me the ability to study what I’d seen at some later time.  When reviewing the photos, I’d often notice things I’d originally missed when I first took them.  I love using a camera and one type or another has accompanied me on my daily hikes for years.  But that wasn’t all of it.  If you came to my room in my parent’s house, which I later figured out was located downstairs for a reason, you might encounter anything…snakes, lizards, raccoons, bobcats, large moths, birds of all sorts including loons and owls.  More often than not, I was rehabilitating the birds from an injury or mishap, but in doing so, I came to see them as individuals, often seeing them again after they were released…as familiar friends.  That’s how I spent my free time in the late 1950s, 60s and 70s and that way of interacting with nature has continued in our family in one form or another to this day.

There was also a lot of social change during those years and, with the my family’s political involvement, I was fortunate to hear both John F Kennedy and Robert F Kennedy speak in person.  Their voices and those of Caesar Chavez and Martin Luther King were always in the air in our home.  Some of you may remember the CBS Thanksgiving 1960 documentary, Harvest of Shame, narrated by Edward R. Murrow, about the plight of farm laborers in the richest country on earth.  You can find it on YouTube.  I remember those years as a time when everything seemed possible… until sequential assassins erased those hopes…or so they thought.  But echoes of those voices stayed with me and would inform future decisions.

One day, in the spring of 1971, I was climbing the stairs in the Science Building at Cal State East Bay when friend of mine stopped me and asked if I’d like to work at the boat dock at Lake Chabot in Castro Valley.  I said,” Why not?”  And so that’s how my career in Parks and Open Space started.  As it turns out, at the same time, leaders of the Committee for Green Foothills including Nonette Hanko and Lennie Roberts, who are here with us today, as well as the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club, were spearheading an ambitious campaign to create a new open Space District which became the organization you now know as the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District or Midpen.  But more about that in a bit.

I spent the next thirteen years working for the East Bay Regional Park District as a Naturalist.  During that time, Carlene and I got married (in the snake pit in the Environmental Education Center at Tilden Park) and we were blessed with two daughters.  I also became close friends with a man who would become my mentor and dear friend, the late Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, the UC Berkeley Herpetologist and Naturalist…and had the joy of accompanying him with our families on many field trips throughout the western states.  One day in Tilden Park, by happenstance, I introduced him to USGS Astro Geologist Dr. Howard Wilshire, who was a long time member of Committee for Green Foothills and its president during its 20th year.  They combined their deep knowledge…and passion for nature and the environment…and together successfully challenged the off road vehicle lobby in southern California. Their work led to the passage of the Desert Protection Act in 1994 which added 1.3 million acres to Death Valley National Monument and changed its status to National Park.   As my mentor, Dr. Stebbins’ views on Nature…and Man’s interaction with it… had as much impact on my world view as that metamorphosing Anise Swallowtail had so many years earlier.

After East Bay Parks, I spent the next by twenty-five years at the East Bay Municipal Utility District, where I transitioned from teaching the public about the environment to actually managing it.  The lessons I learned at those two organizations were ones I would carry with me to MidPen.  Some of the most important lessons were:

  1. The responsibility to provide REAL transparency and inclusion in the public process, especially when planning access opportunities for all members of the community;
  2. The value of listening to your critics and recognizing the kernels of truth hidden in their criticism; they are often unexpected gifts.
  3. The importance of acquiring and using good data to inform decision making, rather than using it as a way to buttress a predetermined decision.

During those years I had the opportunity to see firsthand how large, successful organizations worked and the resources they required…and this became essential information for me as a new General Manager tasked with moving a small, established organization into the future.  MidPen wanted to change and expand, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it and… change is scary.  Most of the effort had gone into land acquisition, but restoration and public access needed to be improved to maintain public support;  the organization needed to fully reflect the rapidly changing demographics of Silicon Valley to stay relevant…an so had to become far more visible;  it needed to find the funding to deliver on promises made years earlier; it needed to engage the public to create a long-term vision that a majority could support and it needed to develop a strong, collaborative relationship with the San Mateo Coast and the essential agricultural interests there, which represent 40% of the District.  These were big tasks, but with the support of a wise Board of Directors, a passionate and collaborative staff, committed partners and a generous public, we were able to figure it out and start making those changes.  And for the first time in a long time, I once again felt I was in a place when everything seemed possible.

As a leader, self awareness is your best friend.  It is important to remember that your frame of mind, your approach to problems, and even your mood, effects the entire organization – for better, or for worse.  You need to be comfortable with the notion “the buck stops here” and that if you make a decision, you own it.  That encourages the thoughtfulness you need to avoid unnecessary missteps.  I always liked the idea of “fixing the problem, not the blame”, because it addresses the real issue and keeps everyone engaged.  I also believe that you don’t hide information and that a well informed Board makes well informed decision and the opposite is also true.  Those values helped guide me in working with the Board, the staff and the folks who pay for it all – you…the public.  And for all of you in your various leadership roles, now and in the future, I wish for you many opportunities to take action with those values in mind.

But the one thing that helped me keep everything in perspective, and I know many of you feel the same, is my personal and familiar relationship with nature.  Understanding it and passing it on to anyone who will listen does matter.  It is too easy to view ourselves as separate from nature…and it’s also not true.  Our relationship with the natural world is as personal as it gets and when we are mindful of our place in nature and our role in the global life support system, the actions we need to take become very clear.  Thank you.

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