Blaming the seashore for local problems is misguided

06/23/2016

Recent reports in the Light feature comments from locals who blame the Point Reyes National Seashore for a visitor influx that has created congestion and a lack of affordable housing. Yet an analysis of publicly available data shows that since 1986, seashore visitation has been virtually flat. There has indeed been an influx of visitors to Point Reyes Station, most likely helped by Marin County’s construction of a public restroom that now allows seashore visitors to linger and shop, rather than bypass the town. 

It is estimated that every visitor to the seashore contributes an average of $54 to the regional economy. But seashore visitors offer only economic potential, not economic certainty. It is local entrepreneurs, with the help of the county, who have learned to capture an increasing share of those potential seashore dollars. 

Whether you regard the recent influx of visitors to local towns as “congestion to blame somewhere” or “opportunities to credit somewhere,” none of this recent influx is due to any change in seashore policies or visitation levels.

Nor do visitors to the seashore cause congestion near local oyster farms. That’s caused by oyster aficionados. Well-dressed tourists lunching in town are not visiting the seashore; rather, our upscale restaurants have become destination sites. When a local dairy advertises itself as “an exceptional location for any private party or corporate event,” their customers come for the farm experience, not for the seashore. The seashore did not prompt Prince Charles to tour local farms or a Swiss corporation to buy a local cheese shop. Instead, these examples show that organic and farm-to-table marketing efforts have succeeded.

Although some regard these changes as a creeping “Napa-ization,” the fact remains that West Marin has become a destination site separate from, and in addition to, the seashore. Blaming the seashore for the resulting congestion is incorrect and misguided.  

Blaming the seashore for the affordable housing problem is similarly misguided. The seashore is already one of the largest providers in the county of publicly owned housing for its employees and their families. No rationale exists for the seashore to save the handful of homes that compromise public access or were built with inadequate septic systems in highly sensitive areas like Duck Cove, Tocaloma and Jewell. The notion that the seashore should create affordable housing out of these infeasible situations is a fantasy that would impact endangered species and waste taxpayer money. 

It is the county, not the park service, that is responsible for affordable housing. Unfortunately, county policies by default discourage affordable housing in West Marin, both with the over-regulation of proposed second units and the under-regulation of existing second units. The latter allows Airbnbs to hollow out our neighborhoods and empty our schools.   

The Light has also reported news that could be misinterpreted to imply that the seashore was responsible for the eviction of families from a seashore ranch this month. The coverage did not make clear that the mobile homes are the property of the ranch operator, not of the seashore, and that decisions about whether or not to rent to ranch workers are made by ranch operators. The seashore encourages its ranch operators to provide housing for their own employees; its comprehensive ranch management plan will consider a suggestion to allow operators to offer housing to employees of any seashore ranch.

The seashore’s ability to address issues of affordable and ranch-worker housing in West Marin is immaterial compared to the county’s ability to do so. These problems won’t be addressed by blaming the seashore; they can only be addressed by working with the county.  

Unfairly blaming the seashore for these local problems feeds the narratives of the “anti-ranch” lawsuit. Criticizing the seashore for failing to address impacts from a nonexistent influx of visitors echoes the lawsuit’s claim that the seashore’s 1980 General Management Plan should be thrown out because it fails to address impacts from similarly nonexistent “increased visitation.”

Criticizing the seashore for failing to address affordable-housing impacts also echoes the lawsuit’s claim that the seashore has failed to address ranching impacts. These misguided criticisms inadvertently contribute to the lawsuit’s efforts to turn public opinion against the seashore and the seashore’s support for ranching on its lands.

So perhaps those members of the public who criticize the seashore for problems it did not create, and over which it has little control, should consider which side of the public debate on ranching is helped by their incorrect and misdirected criticisms. 

The county’s support for farm-worker housing reform, and its new study on tourism through 2065, are steps in the right direction. And perhaps our new supervisor will work on second-unit reform.

 

Gordon Bennett is the president of Save Our Seashore. He lives in Inverness.