A Force of Nature: Seth Adams
Save Mount Diablo's conservation hero has spent three decades fighting to protect our region’s iconic natural landmark.
Over the course of his career, Seth Adams has seen the East Bay’s protected lands triple in size.
Photo by Jessamyn Photography
When the Lesher Center for the Arts hosted a recent celebration to salute Seth Adams and his 30 years of service to Save Mount Diablo, the festivities were by no means a retirement party. Adams—the land conservation director of the nonprofit, which works to safeguard the iconic mountain and its environs—has no intention of leaving anytime soon. “This work is too fascinating and rewarding,” he says.
Perhaps no one is more surprised by the length of his tenure than Adams himself. “When I started, I had trouble believing I’d stay more than five years,” he says. “My main interest was in water conservation, and I thought I’d find a job doing that.” But the organization’s mission won him over. “Land preservation,” he notes, “has an addictive quality.”
Originally from North Carolina, Adams credits his parents for supporting his early interest in the natural world, gearing family vacations around his desire to visit parks, zoos, and museums. After attending Michigan State University, he transferred to UC Berkeley to complete his biology degree and has been in California ever since.
In 1988, the all-volunteer board of Save Mount Diablo hired him as its very first staff member. Adams recalls that the board wanted someone to fill multiple roles: “They were looking for a secretary, a fundraiser, a bulldog, an activist. I was all of those,” he says, adding that over the years, his work has become more focused. “In a sense, my entire career has been an exercise in giving up things.”
He never gave up on his mission, though. Through skillful negotiations with a host of entities—among them ranchers, developers, the East Bay Regional Park District, the Sierra Club, the Greenbelt Alliance, and the California State Coastal Conservancy—Save Mount Diablo has helped to protect an impressive 110,000 acres of open space, creating dozens of parks and preserves in the process. The patchwork is steadily growing, with the ultimate goal of conserving a continuous swath of wild lands in which animals, plants, and nature enthusiasts can flourish. So noteworthy is Adams’ stewardship work that he received a John Muir Conservation Award from the John Muir Association in 2000. And in 2016, Save Mount Diablo achieved national accreditation from the Land Trust Accreditation Commission—a coup that highlights the organization’s ethical business practices and its role in keeping wild lands wild for the long haul.
Perhaps the most significant achievement during Adams’ run is the creation of Urban Limit Lines, passed by Contra Costa County voters in 1990. Designed to restrict sprawl, it constrains development to urban areas, facilitating the preservation of farmland and other open spaces. “Save Mount Diablo gets the lion’s share of the credit for its passage,” Adams says with pride. “Back when I was hired, development could be proposed anywhere in Contra Costa. Since the Urban Limit Lines were adopted, development has moved toward cities, where it’s much smarter.”
Being on the organization’s staff for 30 years has yielded important benefits, Adams points out, because many land acquisition projects take decades to come to fruition. For instance, he says, the reuse plan for the partially abandoned Concord Naval Weapons Station is currently in year 13 and counting. Then there’s Roddy Ranch at the foot of the mountain—home to several animal species, including the American badger and the endangered California tiger salamander and California red-legged frog. “Over the years, we thought we’d lost parts of it. But now it’s a regional park,” he notes. “We worked on Curry Canyon Ranch for my entire career.” That 1,080-acre property, which Adams calls the crown jewel of Contra Costa and “the heart of Mount Diablo,” was purchased in 2013 through a deft combination of grant and loan.
Surprisingly, it’s not the land acquisitions or restorations that Adams finds most difficult. “We’ve gotten pretty good at projects,” he says. “The biggest challenge has been the growing pains of the organization.” In its early days, the group was focused on a much smaller area: the mountain and its foothills. But now Save Mount Diablo has its sights set on protecting the entire Diablo Range, which runs from the Carquinez Strait to Kern County—a distance of 150 miles. “It’s an amazing wildlife corridor,” Adams says. “It’s the last big conservation story in California.” To him, a crucial component to the effort is educational outreach—helping people understand the value of preserving this remarkable resource.
Serving the Community
Adams acknowledges that the push for more housing will always be in tension with the desire to preserve wild spaces. “The housing crisis probably started even before the Gold Rush,” he says. Ironically, part of the reason so many folks want to live in the Bay Area is its natural beauty. “We have an amazing system here,” Adams explains. “Nowhere else in the world are developed areas more integrated with open space and agriculture.”
He lives in Martinez with his husband and their dog, Bolt. The couple are avid hikers, fitness enthusiasts, and travelers. One thing Adams especially relishes about Martinez is its easy access to the shoreline. In fact, his goal is to have every child in the East Bay living within a 5- to 10-minute walk of open space. “Currently, most people are within about a 10- or 15-minute drive,” he notes, “which is pretty good.”
Keeping that unparalleled access to nature comes down to a choice, says Adams. “Right now we have one-third of the land developed and one-third protected. The remaining third hangs in the balance,” he says. “We need to decide: Do we want two times as much development or two times the open space?”
To Seth Adams, the answer is obvious.
Grassroots Conservation Tips
Want to help preserve our region’s natural bounty? Adams offers advice on where to start.
Save Mount Diablo lends its support to many conservation initiatives, including banning plastic bags and the current campaign to do away with plastic straws. But given that Adams’ focus is on land protection, his personal advice to those wishing to help the environment is not surprising: “Support organizations working to protect and connect land,” he says. “Plant trees. Protect water sources.”
Taking a long view, he also stresses the need to instill an appreciation for the natural world in the next generation, as a way to ensure that they continue to fight for those resources. “Really, the most important thing people can do is to take kids out into nature,” Adams explains. “My motto is: No child left inside.”
A good place to start? Try one of the guided family hikes that Save Mount Diablo leads every month.
For details, visit savemountdiablo.org.