The battle for Point Reyes


When waves wash just right across Limantour Spit, chunks of pavement are set loose from sand, traces of development never completed. In 1960, Benjamin Bonelli, a San Rafael lawyer, had plans for a 900-home subdivision called Drakes Bay Estates. There would be a boat harbor, a golf course and homes lining Limantour Estero and the hills beyond. But a coterie of conservationists, including a congressman with a cottage in Inverness and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, petitioned Congress for a federal park to save the land from development.

The fight wasn’t easy. Bonelli had the support of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, and ranchers were reluctant to give up land they had grazed for a century.

On September 13, 1962 President John F. Kennedy signed a bill authorizing the Point Reyes National Seashore, “to save and preserve, for purposes of public recreation, benefit, and inspiration, a portion of the diminishing seashore of the United States.” Development was avoided and the ranchers stayed, but managing a park rich in both natural and cultural resources proves problematic. “I think of wilderness as the sacred landscape of the environmental community and small farms as the sacred landscape for Mom-and-Pop, apple-pie America,” said Gordon White, chief of cultural resources at Point Reyes National Seashore. “Both are part of our national identity, and both are present here.”

A National Park Service report from 1955 addressing possible places for national seashores along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts painted a dreary picture: “Only a fraction of our long seacoast is left for public use, and much of this small portion is rapidly disappearing before our eyes.”

The Pacific coast was less developed, and far-flung West Marin was still rustic—yet even here, commerce came calling. In the late 40s the National Exploration Company purchased rights to drill for oil on Point Reyes, and a decade later the Sweet Timber Company began felling firs and redwoods in Olema Valley. “The view was they were going to develop the hell out of this place,” conservationist Amy Meyer said. “If people in Marin hadn’t fought back the county would like a lot like San Mateo or Daly City—all subdivisions.”

Yerna Dunshee moved to Marin County in 1922 and became one of the leaders in the fight against development. She and her husband,

Bertram, rode horses along the rolling ridges of Point Reyes. Enamored with the area, Dunshee suggested to state officials that a park be created out of the ranchlands. She toured the peninsula with George Collins, a park service planner. “He just went bust about it,” she said.

One year after Sweet Timber trained their saws on Olema timber, Collins scouted the West Coast for seashore spots. His report on Point Reyes emphasized the significance of biological riches in close proximity to a major metropolis. Possible recreational activities would include swimming, sunbathing and sketching. The report made no mention of preserving the dairies; the value of ranches, he wrote, was in “adding character to the foreshore of the seascape.” The Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments reviewed Collin’s survey, and in 1958 recommended Point Reyes be considered for national seashore status.

Locals like Dunshee, Marin County Planner Margaret Azevedo and Barbara Eastman, an avid birder, began a movement to get the legislation passed by Congress. Their agenda was twofold: bring people to Point Reyes to see the splendor for themselves, and publicize the place in magazines, books and films.

The Sierra Club devoted an entire issue of its monthly bulletin to Point Reyes and commissioned a documentary about the area called “Island in Time.” National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth, who became enchanted with the area on a trip he took in the 30s, went one step further and solicited Walt Disney for help: “I believe that a motion picture of the type you so successfully produce, showing some of these remaining seashore opportunities, explaining the need for early action to acquire them before the opportunity is lost, would have wide public appeal.”

Mr. Wirth and Congressman Clem Miller toured the peninsula in military helicopters on a sunny April day in 1960. “The fog lifted,” one correspondent wrote, “clearly showing the bright green fields, the dark green forests, the white cliffs of Drakes Bay and the golden sands of the shoreline.” On another fieldtrip, scientists and administrators crested a windblown bluff and caught a colony of seals asleep on the beach. “All seemed anxious lest the very action for preservation would result in the destruction of the area’s charm,” biologist Adolf Murie said. “There was a feeling of urgency.”

By 1961 several dozen homes had sold in Drakes Bay Estates and Bonelli was already busy crafting another development on the Inverness Ridge. “It is clear Point Reyes will not long remain undeveloped unless it is acquired for public use,” Mr. Miller said, urging colleagues to back the seashore.

Mr. Miller represented California’s First District, which extended from the Bay Area to the Oregon border. He summered in Inverness with his family, and according to his chief of staff, loved nothing more than to gather his daughters, climb in a car and head for the beach. It was

Mr. Miller, along with Congressman Clair Engle, who helped push through a resolution that sought authorization for a “national seashore park” at Point Reyes.

In an impassioned plea to Congress, the duo warned that in failing to preserve Point Reyes, “we will leave our children a legacy of concrete treadmills leading nowhere except to other congested places like those they will be trying to get away from.” Additional support came from recently-appointed Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, a former Arizona congressman who believed passionately in the preservation of public lands. “No other large area in the United States near a dense population center has been left so unaltered by man,” Mr. Udall said after reading a newspaper article touting the golf course destined for Limantour Beach. “I am amazed at the short-sightedness of some of the public officials out in this area.”

Mr. Miller recommended local leaders galvanize support by forming an advocacy group, and the Point Reyes National Seashore Foundation was the result. The ranching community, worried the federal government would swipe their land, formed their own group, the West Marin Property Owners Association. That same year, 1958, the Board of Supervisors voted four to one to oppose any plan for a seashore at Point Reyes, saying their rancher constituents opposed the park and that the county would lose a considerable amount of money as taxable private land went public. At a meeting between ranchers and state, county and federal officials in 1959, tensions exploded.

“Well, what the hell!” cried rancher James Kehoe, whose family operated a dairy on Point Reyes since the 20s. “We all have children. We require that property to make a living. We don’t want anybody to come over there and take it away from us. We have lived there all of our lives.” Some ranchers questioned why anyone would want to visit such a godforsaken land in the first place—it was perpetually cool and constantly windy, the currents were too strong and the water too cold for swimming. Hikers were liable to get lost in the fog and fall off a cliff, suggested one rancher. Visitors will spook cows and forget to close our gates, said another. “You can’t mix cattle and people,” Mr. Kehoe said.

And the local media piped in. A park at Point Reyes will “rip the backbone out of Marin County’s $12 million a year dairy industry,” read a July 1958 article in the Baywood Press. At the time, 16 dairies operated on the peninsula, covering nearly 19,000 acres. A KCBS radio announcer was even more skeptical: “If man cannot turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, neither can he, by merely passing laws, turn shrubland into desirable parkland.”

Even park service officials differed in their views of what the park should look like. Mr. Collins, who was so invested in the project that he at times dipped from his own pocket to cover survey work, wanted a recreation-oriented seashore with a marina, swim docks and golf course.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Engle acknowledged that Point Reyes policy would differ from that of most national parks in order to provide recreational access. Agricultural land uses such as grazing would be considered in certain spots, but dairy and cattle ranches were offered no general protection.Ranching land was to be condemned and leased back to ranchers if they agreed to continue business as usual.

“They actually tried to steal it,” said dairyman Joe Mendoza, who traveled to Washington, D.C. with several other ranchers to convince Congress that the park as it was proposed would ruin them.

In 1961, Mr. Wirth suggested a compromise. The park would acquire ranches on the outskirts; ranchers in the middle of the seashore would retain their title for some time. Keeping this 21,000-acre pastoral zone, referred to as the hole in the doughnut, would enable the county to continue to levy taxes and simultaneously lower the cost of obtaining the land. One last hurdle was the Board of Supervisors. Mr. Miller penned a personal note, explaining that the new proposal kept the county’s tax base intact. The supervisors voted again. The result: three to one in favor of the seashore.

On July 23, 1962 the House of Representatives passed the Miller-Engle bill. The Senate approved it one month later. On September 13, in the oval office, with Mr. Miller, Mr. Engle and Mr. Udall watching over his shoulder, President Kennedy signed into law the bill authorizing the Point Reyes National Seashore.

But the battle for Point Reyes had just begun. In 1964, under Superintendent Fred Binnewies, the park drew up the first General Management Plan. It called for 50 miles of new paved roads—including one through the remote southern end of the point—boating at Abbotts Lagoon and a recreation complex on Limantour Spit capable of accommodating 50,000 visitors. The estuary would be dredged for a parking lot.

The park had trouble finding money for the project, and several Drakes Bay Estates residents—seven homes had been built—refused to give up their right of way. One chained the road shut and posted an armed guard to stand watch. The newly formed Point Reyes Bird Observatory was commissioned to conduct a study of the estuary’s avian resources. Superintendent Edward Kurtz stated that if the park service indeed dredged the estuary “the ecological loss would be of major proportions.”

It was the beginning of a shift in ideology. Over the next decade a homegrown campaign raised money to purchase the ranches in the pastoral zone, and land that had been in families for generations was bought out by the federal government. “If we had our choice we wouldn’t have done it, but we made it work and we’re still here,” Mr. Mendoza said.

In October of 1976, President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 94-544, designating as wilderness 25,370 acres, including the same spot where only two decades earlier Bonelli had planned to build estates. About 8,000 acres of land and water, including portions of Drakes Estero occupied by an oyster farm, would remain potential wilderness. “I often tell people it’s kind of a miracle that it happened at all,” said Don Neubacher, superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore for 15 years. “All the stars lined up.”

A couple years ago, several of those stars visited the park they had created. Present were former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Harold Gilliam and Bill Duddleson, a former aide to Congressman Miller. “We took them out to Clem Miller’s grave on the edge of the cliff,” Mr. Neubacher said. “It was a beautiful day. In the back, grey whales were going by the bay, and an osprey flew overhead. I’m not exaggerating at all, it was just a magnificent day. Udall gave an incredible tribute to Clem Miller. ‘A lot of things went into protecting this landscape,’ Udall told us. ‘I didn’t realize how great a thing it was we actually accomplished.’”