I published an article recently about a race for a seat on the Board of the East Bay Regional Park District between Norman La Force and Elizabeth Echols. Based on my personal experience with La Force and with the help of a considerable public record, I recommended that voters in that Park District vote for Elizabeth Echols because Norman La Force has a long track record as an aggressive—often litigious—opponent of traditional park uses. La Force prefers parks behind fences, with no public access and he frequently sues the Park District to impose his personal preference that public parks be reserved for wildlife in which people are not welcome.
My article was read by over 2,500 people and may have helped Elizabeth Echols win that race with about 60% of the vote. Recreational users of the parks probably deserve the most credit for Echols’ victory. La Force has spent decades trying to prevent kitesurfing, kayak launches, biking, and dog walking in the parks in the district he wanted to represent. These recreational users of the parks weren’t having it.
I learned a lot about La Force during that campaign and everything I learned confirmed my judgment that he is an enemy of our urban parks with a fundamentally misanthropic view about the role of humans in nature. I will share a few of the stories about La Force with readers because La Force’s leadership role in the Sierra Club still gives him some power to launch his crusades against land use decisions that do not conform to his purist view of urban nature.
La Force horror stories
Berkeleyside published four op-eds about the race for the Park District Board seat; three endorsed Echols and one endorsed La Force. (1) The comments on those op-eds were instructive. Many people who participate in land use issues stepped forward to tell their personal stories about their bad experiences with La Force.
- This comment tells the story of the Sierra Club, led by La Force, trying to prevent a high school girl’s crew team from rowing at Aquatic Park in Berkeley about 20 years ago: “I attended a meeting of Berkeley planning staff when the Berkeley High girls crew team was proposing to rent and renovate the club house in Aquatic Park. The team was already rowing on Aquatic Lagoon–indeed, the lagoon is public trust land and they couldn’t be stopped. I had no real interest in that project, but I watched Norman verbally attack the representative of the girl’s team and call him a liar. He later threatened the city with a lawsuit if they leased the clubhouse to the girls team. The City backed down, the clubhouse remained vacant, and the girls were left with a very bad taste in their mouth about the Sierra Club and Norman in particular.” Jim McGrath
- This comment tells the story of the Sierra Club, led by La Force, trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent a dog park at Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley: “I first “met” Norman LaForce over 25 years ago when, as a member of a Mayor’s Task Force on Dog Use in Parks, I phoned to invite him to attend our kickoff meeting. I knew that he, in his position in the Sierra Club, had opposed a plan for an off leash area in Cesar Chavez. So I thought it would be good to get both sides to the table. Sounds reasonable, yes? That was a very rude (in more than one way) awakening to learn about what kind of person he is. He was livid, yelling and swearing at me, he was so loud that my family got to hear his vitriolic outburst as well. Needless to say he didn’t accept my invitation and did everything in his power to stop this dog park from happening—and being who Norman was and is, that means using the backdoor into city hall to thwart it.” Claudia Kawczynska (with permission)
- This kitesurfer tells the story of La Force trying to prevent boating access to the bay: “I am a kitesurfer who, along with hundreds of local kiters, make heavy use of the VERY limited number of local launch sites in the East Bay. Although we have an incredible opportunity to improve launches and build new launches to expand non-motorized access to the bay and expose more people safely to this vast natural resource, La Force has not only opposed launches, he’s tried to establish a legal basis to fundamentally prohibit non-motorized access to the bay by arguing, among other things, that we destroy eel grass. Most non-motorized sailors, kiters, windsurfers, kayakers and swimmers are keenly aware of and supportive of the environment we recreate in. These are exactly the kinds of coalitions we need to build in order to create the right balance between environmental preservation, ecological health, recreational use of and strong support for our local parks.” Andrew Sullivan
- This comment disputes La Force’s claim of responsibility for the creation of the McLaughlin East Shoreline Park: “I ultimately supported the plan in public—I could not oppose Sylvia McLaughlin and Dwight Steele who I revered. That’s how the dynamic on the plan really worked–Dwight and Sylvia commanded respect, and talked to everyone, Robert Cheasty cut the deals, and Norman ranted… I first met Norman at the first Coastal Conservancy charrette for what became the McLaughlin State Park. It was clear from day one that he was an advocate for wildlife and committed to keeping people out of the new park. It is not unusual to see many people claim credit for an undertaking like the park, which required many people. What is astonishing to me is Norman’s willingness to misrepresent, or perhaps forget, the positions he took at the time and represent himself as a consensus builder. Sylvia was much more of a people person, and would not be pleased to see the park named for her with so many fences that keep people out.” Jim McGrath
Of course, supporters of La Force also commented, but their comments corroborated La Force’s extremism. Some don’t want dogs in parks. Some believe boating threatens eel grass. One commenter believes that public access to parks threatens biodiversity. Many of their comments used the same antagonistic approach for which La Force is famous.
Another can of worms
The debate about this race opened another can of worms. Point Molate in Richmond is one of the most hotly contested scraps of land in the park district that will be represented by the Board seat that La Force wanted.
The City of Richmond would like to build housing at Point Molate. (Full disclosure: I consider new housing a high priority in the Bay Area where the cost of housing is prohibitive.) La Force and the Sierra Club are opposed to building any new housing in the Bay Area, whether it is urban infill or suburban open space. La Force’s original strategy in preventing this project was to promote the building of a huge gambling casino and resort on the property. He and his allies made a deal with the developers of the gambling casino that they would fund the removal of “invasive species” and the installation of native landscape in exchange for Sierra Club support for the gambling casino. (2)
The City of Richmond held a voters’ referendum to prevent a gambling casino from being built and developed a new plan for housing that would have preserved 70% of the land for parks and open space. La Force and his allies were forced to develop a new strategy. Now they claim that the site is a fire hazard with insufficient exits to evacuate in the event of fire. There was no fire hazard when La Force advocated for a gambling casino with parking for 7,500, a hotel with 1,100 rooms, entertainment complex and retail stores, but now there is, according to La Force and the Sierra Club. This is the subject of yet another La Force/Sierra Club lawsuit, filed against the City of Richmond, less than a month before the November 3, 2020 election.
La Force’s use of fear of fire as a tool to get what he wants is not new. He has used the same argument to justify the destruction of all non-native trees in the Bay Area. Anyone who is paying attention knows that virtually all the wildfires in California occur in native vegetation. Flammability of tree species has nothing to do with nativity of the species and everything to do with the characteristics of the species. For example, native bay laurels are more flammable than eucalyptus.
The SF Chronicle recently reported the new strategy of “environmentalists” of using fear of fire to prevent new housing from being built in suburban open space. The article quite rightly points out that the same people are equally opposed to building dense housing in urban transit corridors.
There is a grain of truth to concern about building housing in fire/wind corridors. But given the Sierra Club’s track record of using fear of fire to get what they want, would you trust them to tell us accurately where housing can be safely built? The Sierra Club has cried wolf too often. They are no longer a credible source of information regarding safe placement of new housing because they don’t want any housing…or any non-native trees.
I learned from following this race that recreational users of our urban parks will fight like hell to retain their access to the parks. They are less concerned about the loss of our urban forest to nativism or the use of herbicides in the parks, perhaps because herbicides aren’t used in dog parks. They want another park at Point Molate, rather than housing. Aside from helping to document the confrontational approach of La Force to impose his will on our public lands, I give credit to recreational park users for defeating Norman La Force in this race.
I hope that Norman La Force has learned something too. I hope he understands that his aspirations for political power are over. Maybe he also understands the cost of his confrontational behavior and lawsuits that force public agencies to waste taxpayers’ money to defend their sovereignty.
Most importantly, I hope the Sierra Club understands that it has paid dearly for La Force’s behavior. La Force has tarnished the reputation of the San Francisco Chapter of the Sierra Club. The endorsements of the Sierra Club for candidates for public office are no longer something to be proud of. They are an indication that the candidate is an extremist who views people as intruders in nature. This damage to the reputation of the Sierra Club is a loss to everyone because a strong and influential environmental organization is needed, but only if its objectives are to protect the environment rather than furthering the interests of a specific person who has been given more power than he can be trusted with.