Honoring activist Sara Wan

Friends and admirers of coastal activist celebrated her life with memorial at Calamigos Beach Club

By Emmanuel Luissi

Special to The Malibu Times

Former colleagues and friends of the late Sara Wan gathered at the Calamigos Beach Club on Oct. 8 to honor her life and legacy by sharing memories of her tenacious spirit and sharing their thoughts on what her life’s work has meant for the city of Malibu and the entire California coast.

Hosted by The Recreation Alliance, the afternoon began with a memorial hike at the Sara Wan Trailhead at Corral Canyon Park and followed with memorial reception.

Speakers took turns sharing their thoughts and paying respect to Wan, who passed away last month at the age of 83. 

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Organizers also connected Wan’s family through a virtual call to take part in the event. 

Those who knew her admired and praised her for her unrelenting attitude for environmental preservation and passion for coastal and ocean protection. 

Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission Jack Ainsworth said he met Wan early in his career, over two decades ago, when she was an activist for environmental protection. He went on to be part of her staff when she became a Coastal Commissioner and said Wan brought her activist spirit to the commission.

He said he will remember her as a fierce warrior for coastal and ocean protection.

“She set a standard for all commissioners going forward,” Ainsworth said. “She’s an inspiration. She taught me what it meant to be brave and fierce, and at the same time she would just be so sweet and wonderful.” 

Wan served longer than anyone on the California Coastal Commission, having served from 1996 to 2011, and acted as chair of the commission twice.

Wan also served on the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, was a member of the California State Coastal Conservancy and Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, and co-founded the Western Alliance for Nature with her husband, Lawrence Wan. 

She was an expert in habitat and wetland issues, marine mammal issues, water quality and coastal land use and planning. 

Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Executive Director Joe Edmiston said Wan’s intensity and dedication to environmental protection battles were unmatched. He said she was an inspiration to others to fight hard for what they believe in.

“If you don’t deviate, if you’re uncompromising, if you know what your goal is and you go straight toward it, things will coalesce around you,” Edminston said. “She had that direction and that firmness and it was an enlightening thing for me. You never had to wonder where Sara Wan’s compass was and that was a great thing.”

Wan was a Malibu resident since 1986 and was a proponent for the incorporation of Malibu as a city. She combatted large developmental projects on the beaches of Malibu as well as fought for the rights to keep public access to beaches.

Edmiston said that Wan’s work should be recognized not just in Malibu, but throughout the state. 

He said she would say that she was not just a representative of Malibu, but a representative of the coast. She would say that not all people lived in the coastal zone, and most of her true constituents lived outside of the coastal zone. She considered herself as a representative for all of them.

“She had a significant impact on projects all up and down on the coastline,” Edmiston said. “In that leadership, she was not just a person from Malibu, she was really for the entire coast of California and the people of California.” 

Fran Pavley, former senator and state assembly representative, served with Wan as a member of the Coastal Commission. She said she admired Wan’s attention to detail and her bravery to stand up for what she believed in. She said Wan may have angered some powerful people in her career, but she was unwavering.

“She wanted to pass on an appreciation for the coast,” Pavley said. “She wanted to preserve the ocean’s water quality, the views of the ocean, the marine mammals, all of it. There was no vested interest other than just personal commitment.” 

Jill Jones, chair of The Recreation Alliance and a land use and environmental attorney for Wan’s conservancy, worked with Wan on beach access projects and the acquisition of land in Marin County for habitat preservation. She said it was an honor to work with her. 

“We should be grateful for still having beach access and having preservation of our beaches,” Jones said. “California’s coastline is what it is because of Sara Wan.” 

In a tweet on Oct. 7, former California Governor Gray Davis also honored Wan.

“Wan was a giant in the environmental movement. She served during the entirety of my governorship. Her leadership helped ensure that our unrivaled coast would belong to all Californians,” Davis said in the tweet.

Ainsworth said that although Wan’s career could be measured by her many accomplishments, a lot of her legacy lies in the projects that helped keep Malibu undisturbed.

“The habitat that hasn’t been destroyed, the beach that hasn’t been obstructed, the beautiful views that we still have, the public access that she’s helped secure, those are the things that she’s left her mark on in this incredible place,” Ainsworth said.

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