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The California Coast's Friend in Deed

Mel Lane, the Onetime Owner of Sunset Magazine, Didn't Merely Publish Pretty Pictures of the Western Environment. His Preservation Work Is One Reason Why We See Sand and Water, Not Just Subdivisions and Strip Malls.

August 22, 2004|J. Michael Kennedy | J. Michael Kennedy is a Times staff writer.

Mel Lane likes to brag that he got a good deal on his used Volvo convertible. His wife, Joan, finally got her first new car this summer. Upon meeting a fellow vacationer on the shore of Lake Tahoe, he volunteers that he once worked at Sunset magazine.

And what, the vacationer asks, did he do there?

"I owned it," Lane replies.

Bragging, it turns out, is something Lane reserves for the little things. Otherwise, surely more would know the name of a man who played a major role in preserving open vistas along the California coast, not to mention San Francisco Bay. For while his day job was running Sunset with his brother, Bill, he spent almost as much time as a pioneering chairman of the California Coastal Commission and in other conservation roles under former Govs. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown. A powerful argument can be made that Lane, through the unique combination of Sunset and his preservation work, became a driving force in what California now looks like and how Californians live. He may not have had that goal, but it's the result nonetheless.

"What can I tell you about my hero Mel Lane?" asks outgoing state Sen. Byron Sher of Stanford, himself a longtime environmental champion. "He was one of the early visionaries in the effort to protect the coast."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 31, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Sunset magazine -- An Aug. 22 Los Angeles Times Magazine article about Mel Lane, former Sunset magazine owner and California Coastal Commission chairman, said the cover of the first issue of Sunset magazine in 1898 featured the Golden Gate Bridge. The cover illustration was a painting of the Golden Gate, the area where the Pacific Ocean meets San Francisco Bay. The bridge opened in 1937.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 12, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 10 Lat Magazine Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
A story about former Sunset magazine owner and California Coastal Commission Chairman Mel Lane ("The California Coast's Friend in Deed," Aug. 22) incorrectly said that the cover of the first issue of Sunset magazine in 1898 featured the Golden Gate Bridge. The cover illustration was a painting of the Golden Gate, the area where the Pacific Ocean meets San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937.

Now in frail health at 82 and suffering from the initial stages of Parkinson's disease, Lane is being applauded in subtle ways for his role in thwarting rampant development of the California coast. A small table in the corner of his Menlo Park office contains an array of recent awards and mementos, many of them thanking him for his environmental work. And at Whaler's Cove, south of San Francisco, work will begin soon on a section of the California Coastal Trail that has been dubbed Mel's Lane.

"His legacy is what you don't see along the coast--subdivisions," says Peter Douglas, the present executive director of the Coastal Commission. "People often ask me who was the best coastal commissioner, and the answer is easy. The best was Mel Lane. He's a national treasure."

All of which causes Lane to quietly protest that it was no big deal, that all he did was take on a subject or two that were of interest to him and follow them to a natural conclusion.

His work was not without criticism. His tendency toward negotiation was a source of dismay in the early days of the Coastal Commission, particularly by hard-line environmentalists who contended that all development along the Pacific Coast should be banned. At the same time, developers complained bitterly that building regulations set down by the commission were ruinous.

But in hindsight, the most commonly held view is that the commission, charged with writing a preservation plan for the state's 1,072-mile coast, could well have self-destructed had it not been for Lane's steadying hand in its fledgling years. In 1998, the California League of Conservation Voters named Lane its conservationist of the year, declaring, "If you look around California, you would be hard-pressed to find a place of beauty that Mel hasn't played a part in preserving."

The foundation of all of this was Sunset, which was created in 1898 by the Southern Pacific Railroad as a vehicle to draw visitors and investors to the West. It was named after the Sunset Limited, the passenger train that ran from New Orleans to Los Angeles. The first cover featured the Golden Gate Bridge and the lead article was about the fledgling Yosemite National Park.

In the beginning, Sunset had a literary bent, with contributors such as Jack London, Bret Harte, Sinclair Lewis and Erle Stanley Gardner. When the railroad decided it no longer needed a magazine to attract visitors, it sold Sunset in 1914 to a group of magazine employees headed by editor Charles K. Field. In 1928, the cash-strapped publication was sold again, this time to an ambitious advertising executive from Iowa who had traveled the West and sensed that the region needed its own voice and vision. He thought Sunset might be the right forum. The buyer, who purchased Sunset for $60,000 after putting together a group of six Des Moines investors, was Laurence W. Lane, Mel's father.

The elder Lane immediately set down a new editorial policy: "The magazine will be maintained as a strictly Western one, designed to serve Western and national advertisers in reaching the substantial homes of the Western states. Editorially, a large portion of the magazine will be devoted to home and outdoor life of the West."

In short, how the West would live and play. To that end, the magazine focused on the Western lifestyle, which for the elder Lane meant homes, gardens, food, travel and leisure--essentially what it is today.

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