Maureen Pinto had been waiting more than 15 years to deliver a document to the National Park Service, a proposal for a lease in a public bidding competition she sent in before the deadline last Friday.
As head of the nonprofit Ocean Riders of Marin, Ms. Pinto is asking for the right to continue managing the Golden Gate Dairy Stables in Muir Beach, a historic operation that predates the inception of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The stables have been operating on month-to-month permits, preventing them from making substantive repairs and conduct
ing public programs. Those limitations have caused the once-popular facility to fall into disrepair. Horses are a less common sight on the beaches and trails above, the stables just another blur down Highway 1.
“It was a very lively place. I watched my child ride here and grow up here. I have so many memories,” Ms. Pinto said as she walked through the stables this week. At its peak, nearly 50 horses filled the stables and the calendar was full of events. Restricted to 11 horses, Ms. Pinto added, “We don’t have many children here now.”
The process of applying for a lease has placed Ms. Pinto into a strange dilemma: if her bid is selected, she will not only be allowed to revivify the stables—she will be forced to.
The National Park Service expects a functioning enterprise to emerge from 15 years of deferred maintenance and a ban on riding programs for the public—all at her organization’s expense.
Following the creation of the first comprehensive plan for equestrian use in G.G.N.R.A. last summer, the National Park Service opened the public bidding process in November for 10-year leases at three stables on federal lands. As conditions of the lease, the stables will need to offer programs for the public and better preserve the natural and cultural resources at the site.
“We’ve been waiting. For years, we haven’t been able to do anything but maintain. We’ve had public programs we’ve wanted to start,” Ms. Pinto said. “Hopefully, starting in September, we’ll sign a lease and be able to do that.”
As a condition of the lease, Ms. Pinto —who owns a pinto horse—would need to follow strict federal regulations on historical preservation, forcing the small horse-boarding operation to pony up an estimated $250,000. The layout of the entire facility must be reconfigured, essentially removing evidence that the stable is indeed a stable.
The property was formerly run as a dairy ranch owned by a Portuguese immigrant family beginning in the late 1800s, and the existing buildings are one of the county’s few surviving examples of a dairy operation.
The barn that now stores hay was once the place where cows were milked; milk was stored and cooled in a concrete building under a corrugated steel roof, now the location of Ocean Riders’ offices and lockers. Off to the side of the property, the former creamery is now home to the Muir Beach Volunteer Fire
Many of the buildings are in severe need of maintenance, having been neglected long before Ocean Riders assumed management responsibilities. The south end of the hay barn collapsed in 1978 and was never replaced. The former creamery “is not, by any means, rodent proof,” a recent cultural resources report by the park service noted, and the offices are characterized by a steel roof that has rusted at the seams, deteriorating wood rafters and a “severe” crack in the north wall, not to mention the “ramshackle” outhouse added to the back.
“No clues to the use of the space are left to connect it to the dairy operations, no refrigeration units, no bottling or canning equipment, no boiler for steam and hot water, none of the dairyman’s ghosts remain,” the report said in a rare moment of lyricism. “Equestrian use of the site has brought to light conflicting and competitive approaches to management of cultural and natural resources.”
Ms. Pinto was unable to do much. “Over the years, the fog and air and salt take their toll,” she said. “We didn’t have the funds, and we didn’t have the
To restore the property to its original look, Ocean Riders would have to demolish the stables and arena, preserving open space around a tight nucleus of buildings akin to what existed in the olden days, when cows circled from pasture to stable to milking station. (The park service would allow the turn-out, paddocks and horses to remain in view at the front of the property.)
A new arena would be rebuilt behind the historic buildings, a move that constitutes the majority of the construction costs at $110,000, with an additional $40,000 for a cover that would catch rainwater and lessen the stable’s impact on the watershed. Rebuilding the stalls would cost $55,000; demolishing and recycling the old material a few thousand more.
When she talks about these changes, Ms. Pinto refers to “improvements” in scare quotes. She has worked extensively with environmental regulations in the past, but she said there was no room for compromise on the site’s cultural resources. Cypress trees that have died, for example, must not only be removed but replaced in imitation of the dairy’s original windbreak. Another $4,200, she estimated.
As she ran through the costs, Ms. Pinto paused to check her numbers. The cost of grading the land where the stables now sit and installing bio-swales was not $1,100, but $11,000.
“They really start adding up,” she sighed. “We are viable when it comes to maintaining the stables and taking care of our animals. But the challenge is raising these additional funds. The income from 11 horses cannot make the improvements that are required here.”
In a 104-page proposal—prepared in just three months over the holidays—Ocean Riders detailed plans for a history display commemorating the original dairy and a potential trail to other historical sites from the ranches along the coastline.
They also plan to teach environmental stewardship related to the watershed and wildlife and offer programs with their horses for leadership seminars or therapy.
Ms. Pinto said she knows there is interest because she tested pilot programs at the stables as far back as 2000, including one to bring together inner-city kids and police officers. A video showcasing that project earned applause from park service employees when it was shown at a meeting, Ms. Pinto said, but she was not allowed to carry out the project at the time.
Although a 10-year lease would be a considerable improvement, Ms. Pinto is still worried about revisiting this bidding process a decade from now. The park’s long-term plan stresses continued equestrian use, though not necessarily with Ocean Riders at the lead. Since the stables technically belong to the park, a wealthier group could outbid them now or in the future, after all the expenses have been paid out of pocket.
“It’s been hanging over our heads. Is it worth it to invest all of this money and energy into it?” Ms. Pinto said. “Someone else can repair any damaged stuff, but only we can keep the feeling that it’s got. We are just doing the best we could. And we hope we’re the only people crazy enough to want to do this.”
A 10-year lease is standard practice unless a large amount of capital investment warrants longer. For Golden Gate Dairy Stables, “it was determined that the amount of needed investment did not warrant a longer lease,” said Howard Levitt, G.G.N.R.A.’s director of communications. Lease competition rules also prevented him from disclosing whether Ocean Riders submitted the only application.
The group has raised enough funds for the first two years of renovations, partially by offering equine Jackson Pollock imitations—an abstract assortment of lines the horses made with a paintbrush in its mouth—to large donors.
After all this work, Ms. Pinto is hoping to submit another document to the park service starting in September: her 10-year lease.
“I feel that for 15 years, it’s just been very peaceful. We’ve had no challenges,” Ms. Pinto said. “We’ve got challenges ahead. But they’re challenges we’re prepared for.”