The chaos of 2020


West Marin is sheltered in many ways, but it was not immune to the upheavals of 2020: the social and economic impacts of the pandemic, the consequences of climate change, and the political turmoil that swept the nation.

Covid-19 cases stayed relatively low on the coast thanks to regional public health orders, but the most vulnerable were disproportionately affected, education was impeded and local businesses were injured. Coastal residents grappled with the increasing severity of California’s climate, living on a razor’s edge as the Woodward Fire burned through the Point Reyes National Seashore. Meanwhile, in a county reported to have the greatest racial disparities in the state, locals joined the movement against systemic racism and police brutality, pushing for reform. 

March was a month to remember: On Monday, March 16, public health officials issued a three-week shelter order for residents in seven Bay Area counties to stanch the rise in Covid-19. A hard line was drawn between what was essential and what was on hold to minimize the risk of a surge. There had been 15 cases in Marin at that point. 

Throughout the spring, West Marin began to adapt to a new reality. People were increasingly in need of food, rental assistance, childcare, medical attention and shelter. Groups like the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, West Marin Community Services, West Marin Senior Services and the Coastal Health Alliance were buoyed by the county and local foundations to provide services, and food banks increased capacities. The library lent hotspots to school districts, seeking to ease an achievement gap that continues to grow while most students participate in distance learning from home. 

West Marin businesses were hit hard, and the hits kept coming. Federal loans kept many afloat, paying salaries, rent, mortgages or other utilities. But keeping up with the changing regulations, which loosened and tightened often, was too much for some. In the summer, a flurry of businesses shut their doors. 

Drought and fire added uncertainty to the year. February saw not a drop of rain. Dry and warm conditions persisted, and residents were asked to conserve. The Inverness Public Utility District reported the driest year in its 40-year history. The drought exacerbated the chronic issue of salinity intrusion for North Marin Water District, leading customers to choke down salty water. 

The biggest fire in Marin in 25 years arrived in August. The Woodward Fire, sparked by a rare lightning event that ignited the worst fire season in California history, burned nearly 5,000 acres in the seashore. Evacuations and fear shifted between villages with the changing winds, and thick smoke became commonplace for weeks. The fire smoldered until a few inches of rain fell last month. 

This year saw a milestone in a long-running controversy that has taken a national stage: The fate of agriculture in the Point Reyes National Seashore. In September, the National Park Service affirmed its support for the historic dairy and beef operations, committing to 20-year leases in an amendment to its management plan. Two tule elk herds that roam the ranchlands will fall under stricter management, with annual culling keeping numbers level. 

The public has been polarized over the issue for years, debating the purpose of national parkland, the cultural value of multi-generational food production and the environmental impacts of agriculture amid a climate crisis. The plan, prompted by litigation from three groups concerned with preserving biodiversity, is awaiting a record of decision by the park’s regional director. 

Other legal battles involved agriculture. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which has preserved thousands of acres of farmland with public funds, was scrutinized this year over its ethics and transparency, and some reforms are already at play.   

The call for change was systemic in 2020. Following the police killing of George Floyd, hundreds of West Marin residents participated in a series of protests that echoed those taking place nationwide. Political pressure has continued to mount for Marin to address its racial inequalities and reform sheriff’s policies.

In June, the Board of Supervisors responded by withholding half an increase to the sheriff’s budget and setting aside those monies for racial equity initiatives. In response, Sheriff Robert Doyle cut nighttime patrol hours for deputies on the coast, to the chagrin of residents and first responders. Earning further public criticism, Sheriff Doyle has resisted some changes, including over collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The local news of 2020 was not without uplift and occasional mystery. 

On Valentine’s Day, a retired couple vacationing in Seahaven disappeared during an evening stroll in Tomales Bay State Park, leading to an extensive search-and-rescue effort that spanned seven days. The couple was found in dense vegetation less than a mile from their rental, and had survived on puddles and ferns, holding each other at night to stay warm. Michael St. John, the Marin search and rescue unit commander, told the Light, “There’s a huge emotional component to being with someone you love in trouble, to keep pushing.”