Palo Alto Online – May 1, 2009
Tom Jordan: An environmental perspective
Battle-scarred conservationist takes a long-term view
by Chris Kenrick, Palo Alto Weekly Staff
Commuting from Palo Alto to his San Jose law office, Tom Jordan recalls when 50 percent of the land on both sides of U.S. Highway 101 consisted of pear orchards.
In those days in the mid-1960s, few people had even heard of environmentalism, much less imagined it would become any kind of movement.
Towns surrounding San Francisco Bay were filling in bay waters to create more land, shrinking the bay from 680 to 400 square miles. And the Santa Clara Valley’s ubiquitous fruit orchards were rapidly giving way to industrial development.
“People were truly unaware,” Jordan recalled recently. “They were busy. Cities had always filled the bay — that’s the way it was done. The Save the San Francisco Bay Association was really a public awakening.”
Jordan, a young tax lawyer drawn to Palo Alto by its reputation for good schools, developed an interest in the nascent field of environmental law.
“I’d had a strong interest in the environment going way back,” he said. “Environmental law began to grow, and I began to do more and more of it.”
Jordan had grown up playing in the woods, among forests, creeks, vines and wildlife along the James River in Hopewell, Va.
With his law office in San Jose, Jordan became chairman of the San Jose Goals Committee, a quest to make the rapidly developing City of San Jose a more attractive place.
“Our No. 1 recommendation was to hire a professional planning director for the city,” Jordan recalled. At the time, the city’s public works director, who was in charge of roads and sewers, also handled city planning.
“San Jose was growing rapidly, absolutely everywhere,” Jordan said. “You’d drive down to the south or east and go through 300 yards of orchard — and then there’d be a housing development.
“It’s not so much that it was bad; it was just completely unplanned.”
The city hired its first professional planner. “He did quite a bit to make San Jose look better than it would have without him,” Jordan said.
Later in the 1960s Jordan joined the board — and became president — of the Committee for Green Foothills, a nonprofit organization protecting local open space, which counted acclaimed novelist Wallace Stegner its first president in 1962.
It was because of the Committee for Green Foothills’ “squeaky clean” reputation, Jordan thinks, that he was asked to head up the “residentialist” forces in an epic Palo Alto political battle in 1967, when a pro-development group attempted to recall the entire Palo Alto City Council.
“It was a bruising election,” Jordan said. “The only people we got re-elected were Enid Pearson and Kirke Comstock.
“It was very eye-opening. We ran an honest campaign in 1967 and slowly regained council seats until in 1971 the residentialists were a majority of the council.”
Since then, Jordan said, “all council candidates have run as environmentalists whether or not they later voted that way.”
Jordan’s proudest achievement was helping to halt the rampant filling in of San Francisco Bay when he was a board member and general counsel of the Save the San Francisco Bay Association. Prior to the 1969 state law creating the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), dredging or filling the bay was largely a matter of local jurisdiction for some 30 cities that touch the bay.
Jordan is particularly proud to have been a founding board member of the Peninsula Conservation Center, which provided coordination among local environmental groups and later became Acterra.
The great conundrum of environmentalism is that most of the bad effects it warns about are in the future, Jordan said.
“You can talk about the consequences, but you can’t show people because once the consequences are there, it’s too late. That’s what’s happening with global warming right now. Once the bad effects happen, it doesn’t do much good to say, ‘I told you so.'”
Even though people today are far more aware and concerned about the environment, “we’ve never been able to get it to the top three on the list,” Jordan said. “There’s always something more important — the war, the economy, health care.
“So the environment gets a lot of acknowledgement but less determined action.”
Besides environmental causes, Jordan has also supported the arts. He served from 1985 to 1995 on the board of the San Jose Symphony Association. Two of his four children became professional musicians.
“I’m not a musician myself, but I loved dealing with the musicians,” he said.