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Belvedere conservationist Marty Griffin helped protect Richardson Bay, Marin-Sonoma coast

Updated: 11 hours ago

The late Martin Griffin of Belvedere, who died May 22 at age 103, is seen in 2016 with a map and aerial photos depicting development plans for West Marin that would have included 150,000 more people, 25 grammar schools, 15 shopping centers and a freeway to the East Bay. Griffin and his Audubon Canyon Ranch helped lead a political revolt to protect the area with 25 land purchases. (Elliot Karlan archive / For The Ark 2016)

Marty Griffin, a renowned conservationist who led the successful effort to block artificial-fill development on Richardson Bay and is directly responsible for the preservation of several other large swaths of the Marin and Sonoma coastlines, died May 22 at his Belvedere home. He was 103.


After teaming with others to convince the city of Belvedere, local landowners and the National Audubon Society to buy up the local tidelands in the late 1950s, halting a plan to build a marina and luxury homes, Griffin himself purchased a 503-acre ranch near the Bolinas Lagoon and Tomales Bay in the early 1960s. The effort thwarted attempts to turn the wildlife-filled area and its adjacent waters into the largest city north of the Golden Gate Bridge, with 150,000 people, schools, high-rise apartments, thousands of homes and a freeway running across the lagoon that would have run out to the East Bay.


About 1,000 protected acres of the lagoon is now known as the Martin Griffin Preserve in his honor and is managed by Stinson Beach-based conservation nonprofit Audubon Canyon Ranch, which Griffin founded in 1962.


Griffin’s decades of activism made him an icon in the conservationist movement, those who knew him said, and complemented a distinguished career in public health, including serving 15 years as public-health director at the Sonoma Developmental Center in Glen Ellen and six years as the chief of the state’s hepatitis B and AIDS task forces for 11 hospitals from the mid-to-late 1980s.


“Marty was a truly impressive person, with vast contributions to conservation and public health,” Audubon Canyon Ranch CEO Tom Gardali said in a statement. “He has left an indelible mark that should inspire us to work together to create a beautiful future, where nature benefits all.”


U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, called Griffin’s advocacy in land and water conservation peerless.


“His legacy is more than the beautiful places he helped preserve — it’s also the inspiration he instilled in so many of us,” Huffman said.


Southern Marin Supervisor Stephanie Mouton-Peters echoed those sentiments.


“Marty Griffin was a giant in Marin’s conservation and habitat protection efforts,” she said in a statement. “His tireless commitment and advocacy leave a lasting legacy in Marin that the community will enjoy for generations to come.”


Loyal Martin Griffin was born July 23, 1920, in a cabin on the Ogden River in Utah to Loyal Griffin Sr. and Frances Stoddard. His younger brother, Robert, was born two years later.


Griffin said in a February 2015 interview for the University of California at Berkeley’s Oral History Center that his mother loved the outdoors. When he asked her why he was born in a cabin, she replied, “To be closer to nature.”


The first three years of his life were marked by the sounds of birds, the sights of running rivers and the smells of sage, trout and willow, he said.


The family moved to Portland, Oregon, in the aftermath of the Great Depression after the food-supply business run by Griffin’s father went bankrupt. They relocated again to Los Angeles before eventually settling in Oakland around 1935, according to census records.


In his youth, Griffin was a member of the Boy Scouts, where his love of nature grew even more as he learned from Stanford-trained entomologist and naturalist Brighton “Bugs” Cain. He eventually earned the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest in the organization.


Griffin graduated from UC Berkeley in 1942 with degrees in zoology and biology and went on to the Stanford University School of Medicine, graduating in 1946, according to state records. He later returned to UC Berkeley in 1972 for a master’s degree in public health.


In 1945, Griffin married Mary “Mimi” Murray, one of his classmates and one of the first women to attend Stanford’s medical school.


After graduation, Griffin briefly worked at the military base at the Presidio of San Francisco as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, attending to returning veterans, before taking over a practice in Sausalito and then Kentfield. During his time as a physician, Griffin became known as “the nature doctor,” as he’d often recommend a walk outdoors to his patients.


He and Mimi raised their four daughters, Linda, Anne, Carol and Joan, in Kentfield before divorcing.


In 1957, Marin naturalist Elizabeth “Mrs. T” Terwilliger, who was one of Griffin’s patients, asked him to help save Richardson Bay, where developers planned to fill in 800 acres to build a marina and homes.


Alongside Terwilliger, socialite and Marin Conservation League founder Caroline Livermore and others, Griffin helped convince the city of Belvedere, local landowners Howard and David Allen of the Belvedere Land Co. and the National Audubon Society to purchase the land, now known as the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary, to stop the project.


“I literally apprenticed myself to Caroline Livermore,” Griffin told Marin Magazine in 2020 ahead of his 100th birthday. “She and her ‘ladies,’ as she called them, had the vision, connections and clout to be effective, and I mobilized my medical practice and colleagues to join them in helping save the bays and lagoons of Marin County.”


The effort was later captured in the 2006 documentary “Turning the Tide: Saving Richardson Bay” by town historian David Gotz.


After learning of the development plans to turn the former dairy ranch between Stinson Beach and Bolinas — home to a heron and egret rookery — into a city, Griffin, who at the time was president of the Marin chapter of the National Audubon Society, agreed to buy the 503 acres for $337,000, signing the mortgage and putting $1,000 down. He then worked with his Marin Audubon colleagues on a successful fundraising campaign that allowed him to pay off the mortgage within five years.


As the acquisition manager for Audubon Canyon Ranch, Griffin also led efforts to preserve more land around the lagoon and along Tomales Bay, where another new city was planned.


“It turned out to be a wonderful purchase,” Griffin said in a 2016 article in The Ark. “It led to a complete change in the attitude of the county.”


Other victories spearheaded by Griffin include helping to halt the planned Bodega Bay Nuclear Power Plant, which would have been perched on top of the San Andreas Fault on the Sonoma coast. Construction was already underway when the project was stopped.


After winning a seat on the Marin Municipal Water District board of directors in 1973, Griffin led efforts to stop imports of cheap water from the Russian River that he said would have hastened development in Marin. He co-founded the Friends of the Russian River to protect California rivers from logging, dams, destruction of riparian habitat and gravel mining and also created the Environmental Forum of Marin alongside fellow conservationists with the goal of educating Marin residents on ecology, environmental issues and political-action techniques.


Outside of California, Griffin’s participation in a 1968 scientific expedition laid the foundation toward including the Kīpahulu Valley in Halekalā National Park, the National Park Service said in a post celebrating Griffin’s centennial in 2020.


Griffin’s career in public health was also an accomplished one; he helped start the Ross Valley Clinic, Ross General Hospital, Kentfield Psychiatric Hospital and The Tamalpais retirement center in Greenbrae. He also was chief of medicine at both Marin General and Ross hospitals.


The state honored Griffin in 1989 with a gold medal for superior accomplishments because of his work heading its hepatitis B and AIDS task forces, specifically his work to eliminate the hepatitis B infections among his staff.


Griffin in 1961 purchased a ranch near the Russian River in Sonoma County that had previously operated as a hop kiln. He began restoring the hop kiln and eventually opened the Hop Kiln winery on the property in 1975, using his biochemical training from medical school to enhance and develop high standards for winemaking, the Forestville Gazette wrote in 1999. He sold the winery in 2003.


He married his second wife, Joyce, who chaired Santa Rosa Junior College’s English department, in 1982.


“I was so impressed with all that he did and cared about that I just fell for him,” Joyce said.


The couple first lived in Sonoma County but bought a weekend home on the Belvedere Lagoon near City Hall in 1999. Five years later, in 2004, they bought a home across the water on Peninsula Road, where Griffin lived until his death.


Beyond his conservation work and medical career, Griffin was an avid traveler. Joyce said they visited Europe and the Middle East together but that Griffin had a soft spot for Antarctica “because it was unpopulated and close to nature.”


Griffin also played several instruments over the course of his life, from singing in his high school’s glee club and playing violin for the school orchestra to taking up the accordion at 90.


“He came home and he taught himself to play, and he got pretty good,” Joyce said.


Griffin continued to advocate for environmental causes up until his death, including calling for an end to cattle ranching at Point Reyes National Seashore in a December 2023 opinion piece in the Marin Independent Journal.


Ahead of his 100th birthday in 2020, UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health opened the Martin and Joyce Griffin Terrace Garden, a rooftop green space featuring a vegetable garden, native plants, steel panels etched with his favorite quotes and naturescapes and four trees for his four daughters. Griffin graduated from the school with a master’s degree in 1972.


Joyce said she admired Griffin’s benevolence and his love for the environment and for his family and friends.


“He worked so hard for so many causes,” she said. “And he had so many friends, and everyone loved him. He had a great lovable personality.”


One of those friends was Tiburon resident Barbara Winter, who knew Griffin for 15 years and was neighbors with him at one point. Inspired by Griffin, Winter decided in retirement that she would volunteer as a docent at Audubon Canyon Ranch and later joined the nonprofit’s board of directors, carpooling with the Griffins for board meetings. She also spent time with the couple swimming in the lagoon and attending events in Belvedere.


Winter said Griffin was a “great storyteller,” which came in handy when he wrote his 1998 book, “Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast,” chronicling his preservation efforts.


“What impressed me about him is he made up his mind and went for it,” Winter said of Griffin’s environmental advocacy. “And to me, that’s very admirable.”


In addition to his wife and four daughters, Griffin is survived by stepson Brian Nielsen; grandchildren Kira, Steve, Casey, Erika and Greg; and four great-grandchildren.


He was preceded in death by his parents, former wife Mimi Griffin-Jones, who died in 2015, his brother Robert Stoddard Griffin, who died in 2020, and his granddaughter Gina, who died of leukemia in 1998.


A public celebration of life will be held in the fall at the Martin Griffin Preserve. Details will be announced.

Reach Tiburon reporter Francisco Martinez at 415-944-4634.



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