How best to preserve the famed redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument is a question that’s been visited and revisited ever since William Kent donated the land to the government close to a century ago. Now the park’s federal guardian, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is facing criticism from neighbors that the demands of recreators may be trumping the protection of natural resources.
Recent proposals to construct a 180-space parking lot on Panoramic Highway and a reservation system for those visiting the monument by car and public transport triggered complaints in southern Marin, including in the adjacent community of Muir Beach, where some also cite a lack of transparency and general indifference to the community’s needs.
Gerry Pearlman, a longtime Muir Beach resident who was reelected to the town’s Community Services District board after serving two stints in the 1970’s, is developing a resolution that calls for a more equitable relationship between the park and the district.
His resolution, which will be voted on next month, asks the National Park Service obtain district approval for any plans that would affect the town. Its text notes that the two entities have different mandates—one to serve a community of a few hundred residents, the other to serve tourists who flock by the thousands to gaze upon the redwoods.
“It seems almost inevitable that the goals of these two organizations are at cross purposes. As a result of past experiences, more distrust than good will exists at present between the two organizations,” it states.
Golden Gate, like the Point Reyes National Seashore, was created in the 1970’s as an antidote to accelerating development. But Mr. Pearlman said the tables are now turned. “With their relentless task of bringing more and more tourists here, they are just like the developers,” he said.
Concern about the impact of visitors at Muir Woods dates to the park’s very creation in the early 20th century. “[D]uring the eighty-six years since its establishment, the small size of the unit and the huge crowds that visit it have forced draconian solutions and repeatedly raised the issue of the area’s ultimate purpose,” wrote Larry Dilsaver, a professor of geography, in a 1994 paper on the history of preservation at Muir Woods.
Visitation shot up in the 1920’s after the completion of a railroad. At that time, visitors could light fires, camp, picnic, unleash their pets and generally cavort as they pleased. Litter was abundant. Camping was banned later that decade in one of the first direct attempts to regulate visitor impacts. In the 1950’s, ballooning numbers of visitors led to the elimination of picnicking. Pets were banned in 1974.
Today, peak visiting times on weekends lead to massive congestion and traffic issues along the narrow Muir Woods Road, which follows Redwood Creek. Because the parking lot fills to capacity, cars often park illegally on the shoulder, causing erosion and sediment impacts to the creek, which is a home to endangered coho salmon.
A public meeting this week convened by the Mount Tam Task Force, a community group that formed to defeat a G.G.N.R.A. parking proposal in 2003, drew roughly 200 residents wishing to air their concerns to Marin County Supervisors Steve Kinsey and Kathrin Sears, who will present a letter for board approval in January. (The parking lot proposal has been shelved due to public
What emerged there and at a smaller meeting of the Muir Beach Community Services District last week was the belief that the park had not evaluated the environmental impacts of visitation, and that a profit motive was driving planning and decision-making.
Residents questioned how many visitors the park can accommodate before the toll on natural resources threatens the monument’s longevity, and said a study of the park’s carrying capacity should be undertaken before there is any discussion of increased parking or shuttle services.
“The bark on the trees is like they’ve been sandpapered,” said one man.
“We see people hugging the trees, going off track,” said Muir Beach resident Deborah McDonald.
G.G.N.R.A. spokesman Howard Levitt says several studies of the monument’s carrying capacity, which he claimed addressed resource impacts, were conducted in 2005, 2009 and 2011, and will hopefully soon be available online.
But according to a letter by Paul Jeschke, another community services district board member and a former reporter for ABC News, that appeared online, senior G.G.N.R.A. planner Brian Aviles had told him in an email that he was unaware of any studies of foot or auto traffic at Muir Woods.
Mr. Pearlman also said that the park could also not answer his questions about a resource-focused carrying capacity.
The task force, extrapolating from a 3,500 to 4,000-person daily cap suggested in a recent park presentation, said G.G.N.R.A. is aiming to bring at least 1.4 million people to the woods annually.
“Our goal is not to increase visitation,” Mr. Levitt told the Light. Instead, it is to mitigate spikes in visitation. “The goal is to address the traffic and congestion and crowding of Muir Woods in some kind of way that makes sense.”
The proposed parking reservation system, which would require roughly 80 percent of people arriving by public transportation or car to secure a reservation in advance, might soften the weekend peaks and encourage some to visit on weekdays, he said. That would improve crowding at the monument, improve visitor experience and reduce traffic and illegal parking.
Mr. Levitt does not believe that weekday visitation would reach those proposed maximums, although he explained that the park’s primary concern is peak numbers, not overall numbers.
Kristin Shannon, a Muir Beach resident and one of the leaders of the Mount Tam Task Force, rebutted those assertions, reciting what she says she heard at an agency meeting she attended in September where Mr. Aviles and G.G.N.R.A. Deputy Supt. Aaron Roth spoke. “They stressed over and over again that they’re looking at 4,000 people a day as a target,” she said.
Ms. Shannon said the task force would support a reservation system if it is tied to a scientifically-based carrying capacity study. She said her group has assembled data from information provided by the park service regarding parking spaces, public transport and typical turnover. According to this information, she said, the park can accommodate at least 1.4 million visitors without any additions to parking—if a reservation system is in place to dampen weekend peaks and if parking along Muir Woods Road is regulated.
Both the Muir Beach and southern Marin residents are frustrated with G.G.N.R.A. over a number of other issues.
At the task force meeting, Marilyn Barrett, a Mill Valley resident, said she felt betrayed by the park and the county because she only learned at the last minute about the public comment scoping for the two plans. Public comment periods for both were originally crunched between Sept. 4 and Oct. 4. After complaints about the short time frame, scoping for the reservation system was extended to January.
Others asked why the county does not ticket cars parked illegally on the side of Muir Woods Road, and questioned Supervisor Kinsey about a proposed Memorandum of Understanding being hashed out between the county and the park that would give the park more control over the county road. Mr. Kinsey replied that the details were not finalized but that a public presentation would take place when it comes before the board.
Some residents complained that the county knew about the scoping proposals for up to two years before they were announced publicly. Liza Crosse, an aide to Mr. Kinsey, claims they learned about the proposals in July, but that “things were being suggested very broadly.”
At the Muir Beach meeting, residents also aired complaints about Pacific Way, the road used by G.G.N.R.A.’s trucks and equipment to reorient the parking lot at Muir Beach in order to restore the natural floodplain and the health of Redwood Creek. The road has been torn up by construction vehicles, and the community believed G.G.N.R.A. would pay to repair it until park representatives at a recent district meeting said that responsibility would fall on the county.
Mr. Kinsey said discussions were ongoing, but that G.G.N.R.A. would indeed be financing the repair.
Residents also lamented G.G.N.R.A.’s dog management plan, which would ban off-leash dog walking in Muir Beach. A county-owned expanse known as Little Beach will still be available, but resident Laura Pandapas said that beach is not accessible during low tide. “What are we going to do? Where are we going to walk our dogs?” she asked.
Ms. Pandapas said some dogs behave better off-leash and argued that opportunities to encourage recreation, especially for older residents, should not be restricted.
“If they do make it illegal, they’ll be arresting me a lot,” said Chris Gove, another resident.
Mr. Kinsey brought up the fact that Marin County Open Space’s draft trail management plan, which closed for comments last week, would restrict off-leash dog walking on some open space areas, adding to residents’ concerns, and the district passed a resolution condemning the dog plan.
The dog issue has received significant attention, even nabbing the attention of Representative Nancy Pelosi, who sent a letter to G.G.N.R.A. requesting that the park extend the comment period until Feb. 17, more than two months beyond the original deadline, which was extended to Jan. 11.
To comment on the reservation and shuttle system proposal, visit http://parkplanning.nps.gov/muwo_parking between now and Jan. 11, 2014. To comment on the dog management plan, visit http://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=11759 between now and Jan. 11, 2014.