Laura Watt on the Point Reyes National Seashore, its creation and controversies


Laura Watt had a troubling experience after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California, Berkeley. She was working for a friend’s firm that was drafting an environmental review of a proposed golf course. The land needed to be surveyed for the San Francisco garter snake, but the survey, which she helped conduct, took place in August and September, when the aquatic creature was sure to be absent. “That’s when I started shifting from being a biologist to being a social scientist, and wanting to understand the relationship between the natural world and the social and cultural world,” Ms. Watt said. 

For close to two decades, Ms. Watt, a professor of environmental history and policy at Sonoma State University, has closely studied the Point Reyes National Seashore—its legislative history, its controversies and its cultural landscapes, including the ranches and the oyster farm. In her newly published book, “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscape at Point Reyes National Seashore,” she situates these issues within the context of the National Park Service’s creation and ethos, and the evolving ideals of what a park should be. Last month, Ms. Watt sat down with the Light to talk about the seashore, the history of its cultural landscape, the concept of wilderness and whether or not the area was truly facing imminent danger of mass development in the 1960s, as is often claimed.


Samantha: You start the book talking about the earliest park ideals and how, despite changes over the decades, they continue to influence how lands are managed. That can create tension.


Laura: Once [we created a national park], or a bunch of them, in the late 1800s, they are this “nature as spectacle.” Nature is something you stand back and look at, and humans don’t belong there in some fundamental way, so the parks get structured to create that. That structure keeps re-creating the understanding of what a park is. The animals here are wild animals; I’m going to see deer and coyotes. And then you go to a park like this one, and you say, “Why are there cows? I’ve never seen cows in the park. That doesn’t seem right.”


Samantha: In the book you write about cultural landscapes—specifically, how people and their histories are often erased from a landscape through management, as well as more recent attempts to better recognize those histories and cultures. Can you talk about the history of cultural landscapes and their management at Point Reyes?


Laura: Part of it is how the park presents itself to visitors. These days, the website is starting to have more historical information. But when I started this project—well, websites were pretty new at that point. If you go to the visitor center, there is almost nothing about humans anywhere, and what there is really emphasizes Sir Francis Drake. It is astonishing how much you get out of a week’s visit, if he was here at all, which he probably was. But boy, he’s a popular guy.

Even if the land-use has changed, how visible is any evidence, so people can understand what used to be here? There’s a lot you can do here in Point Reyes, even in places where the ranches are not there anymore. The hike-in campgrounds are all former ranches and still have remnant trees. You can teach people that if you see a remnant cypress or eucalyptus tree, that means something. Most people don’t understand what that signifies. 


Samantha: What is the reason for the lack of interpretation in some areas?


Laura: I think it’s a combination of things. There is an intention in park management to make a place into something we recognize as a park. There were actually a lot of debates within the park service and its supporters in the 1940s, with some people saying, “We want as many parks as possible. Anything goes. Let’s bring it all in.” But other people said, “No; parks are a special category that you are messing up by putting too many things in it.” I was really struck by the first survey of Point Reyes done in 1935. They were like, “Nah, it’s not really national enough. Not grand enough.” National parks, amongst some people at the time, were supposed to be completely unusual and unique places.

Similarly, around the time Point Reyes was created, our concept of what history should be paid attention to was different than it is today. Old ranch buildings were not considered historic. They were just ranch buildings, and common, and who cares? I think around ‘67 or so, one of the historic preservation folks from the western regional office comes out for a day visit and drives around and says, “We should probably come back once more, to determine whether there’s anything historic other than the lighthouse and the life-saving station. What do you call all these Victorian buildings?” But you can’t fault people for that. That’s what society thought at the time.

There was a policy statement written two years after the park service was established, in 1918. It sets out a creed. One of the things in the creed is that private property does not belong. In that sense, a lot of the erasure of local culture here was deliberate and not seen as a bad thing. “Of course we have to do this!”

Sometimes what is forgotten in our current understanding of the seashore is that there were very clear intentions of protecting the local economy, if nothing else. It wasn’t couched in these cultural landscape terms, because those terms didn’t exist. But certainly the idea of protecting the local economy and protecting people’s connection to this place does exist. I think a senator somewhere in the hearings acknowledges that these are people who have not only lived on the landscape for around 100 years, but had just recently become landowners. 

Samantha: You delve into the conception that the park was necessary to save the ranches, that land prices were rising and the park saved the ranches from development. You question the perception. 


Laura: Honestly, I think that’s going to be one of the more controversial parts about this book. It really challenges people’s assumption of why the park is here. It was a period of time when there were massive amounts of development across the country. So it’s an easy narrative to say, “Of course, who wouldn’t want to develop here?” But it was striking when I looked back at the sequence and timing of events. There is one subdivision that had been proposed in 1957, which predates the first proposal for the seashore. But it was not what we think of as suburban development. The guy was hoping to create vacation homes at Limantour. And they were not selling well. The reason Inverness is over here is because it’s much more sheltered. You don’t want to be in howling, 50-mile-an-hour foggy wind. Point Reyes is considered one of the foggiest places in the world. 

After the park is proposed, you get more proposed subdivisions. They start to get bigger, and the selling starts. There’s maps the park service itself made in 1960 and they list the number of owners on the point. There are 60-some owners, and 25 ranches account for 95 percent of that in 1960. By then, the park had been proposed, but it didn’t start getting real yet. In 1962, when [the park] bought [the land], there were something like almost 400 within the boundary. Developers were like: “Oh, this is great. If we sell properties, and it doesn’t become a park, then we’ve sold land. If it becomes a park, the government will buy it at fair market value. We’ll make money either way.” So the idea that, from the beginning, the park was needed to stop this is backwards. It wasn’t an immediate danger that needed to be stopped. It was more in the air, and people presumed it would happen.

Similarly, what is the effect once you create a park and overpay for the first ranch, by a bunch? It has a domino effect of driving up everyone’s land values. That’s ostensibly nice, because you get a windfall when you’re bought out. But if you’re not getting bought out, it’s a horrible burden, because your taxes go way up. There was a lot of concern about what would happen if there were a death in the family, because the I.R.S. takes about half the value of what you have in estate taxes. 


Samantha: We talked about the term “cultural landscape.” The seashore has a historic ranching district. How does that affect management?


Laura: It’s been found eligible for a nomination [to become a historic district]. It was nominated maybe in the ‘80s, but they redid the forms maybe in 2008. When something is found eligible, they treat it as if it is. So there is recognition. But how much does that sanction translate into management? It’s unclear to me at this point. They have done an amazing job of these cultural landscape inventory reports, which are 50 or 60 pages long for each ranch. They are very detailed. But that doesn’t mean that management will change. And some [ranches] are falling apart because there isn’t funding to fix them. 


Samantha: In the book you talk about former superintendent John Sansing and his so-called “D8 policy,” named after a bulldozer. He dozed buildings that were historic. What are the repercussions?


Laura: Nothing.


Samantha: That seems crazy.


Laura: If you were a private individual, you might get fined, depending on the level of protection. But I wrote an article with a friend some years ago comparing the Endangered Species Act to the Historic Preservation Act, because they were passed seven years apart but they take completely different approaches. The Endangered Species Act criminalizes some of those actions, and the Historic Preservation Act does not. It’s less consequential in a lot of ways to lose a building than to lose an entire species; there’s some reasoning. But it’s a law more based in incentives.

I think it’s intuitive that a species doesn’t exist on its own but in an ecosystem, and if the ecosystem is broken, the species will not do well. I think it’s less well understood that with a cultural landscape—not as much a building, but even a building—it matters what is happening inside the building, in terms of that system and the cultural system that created it being protected.


Samantha: The cultural ecosystem.


Laura: Yes. Take the Pierce Ranch and the Kehoe Ranch. They are next to each other, essentially. The Kehoe buildings are messier, and some are more modern. It was a joke that the ranch in the best shape in the seashore is the one that is not used. They spent an enormous amount of money renovating those buildings, and they are gorgeous. It’s not that I wouldn’t want it there, but it’s like putting an animal in the zoo versus having it run around and do its thing.


Samantha: Historic preservation has focused on architecture. Yet it is a whole ecosystem; if you turn a building into an office, where is the meaning? 


Laura: It does turn into the animal in the zoo. It’s cool to look at, but what is the function? I use an example from David Lowenthal’s book [“The Past is a Foreign Country”] of a temple in Japan that is ritualistically destroyed every 20 years and rebuilt. They say that the thing we need to remember is how to build it and how the community comes together to build it. In some ways, trying to protect the cultural landscape here or keep the ranches so they can continue is that kind of thing: it’s not necessarily to keep all the old buildings, but rather to keep the function going.


Samantha: You also talk about how historic preservation always focuses on a discrete slice of time. 


Laura: The slices have gotten broader and broader in recent years. The first period of significance for Point Reyes—once they got the idea that the ranches were important in some ways—was identified as 1858 to 1939. That’s when the last Shafter ranch was sold out of the family. Then it got broadened to 1957. That’s when the park was proposed. This is not unique to Point Reyes—it’s common across the park service—that the period of significance almost never includes the time of the park itself. It is something that happened before. It’s omitting the preservation. What happens after that moment you protect something? What does preserving it mean?

There have been some attempts with new policies about how you identify a cultural landscape. It’s not just the buildings; it is the vegetation and transportation corridors, and use is on the list. But in terms of practice, I think use is often the smallest thing they pay attention to.


Samantha: You began your archival research around 1998. A lot of the examples of conflicts between natural and historic or cultural issues—non-native deer, the oyster farm, tule elk—happened after that.


Laura: There were moments in my work when I said, “Did I cause this?” I don’t think I had anything to do with that. But sometimes you happen to turn up when things are starting to shift. Richard West Sellars’s book [“Preserving Nature in the National Parks”], which is very critical of the park service for not paying attention for much of its history to ecology, came out in 1997. Everyone was blown away. Here’s a person who works for the park service being critical of the park service. The book helps crystallize the issue.


Samantha: As you researched these controversies, what struck you? What were alternate possible outcomes?


Laura: With the axis deer, the park’s own answer for decades was culling. And culling worked. If you have an incomplete ecosystem—it doesn’t have a lot of predators—the numbers have to be controlled by something. Honestly, if the decision is they’re non-native and we want to wipe them out because they don’t belong here, okay. But the part that bugged me is that they tried to create this argument—that they were causing ecological harm—that didn’t make any sense. They are browsers. The mule deer are browsers. The twisting of science to produce the political outcome is what bothers me. 

Closing the oyster farm could have been done as a discretionary decision. They shut down other ranches in the years before that. There was a huge outcry about Rancho Baulines, but they did it anyway. If they wanted to close the oyster farm, why didn’t they just close it? They had to create a whole edifice of argument that was inaccurate. 

With Rancho Baulines, there was this idea that the 1980 general plan said it should be an environmental education center. It didn’t say that. It says that if there were demand, this would be a good place to put it. But they used that argument, and there was huge outcry. And they did it anyway. Then they said, “Well, maybe we don’t need an environmental center.” Since then it’s only been used as staff housing.

There are wonderful people who work for the park service and do wonderful things, and I hate the way that I am sometimes portrayed as a park basher. But there is a real tendency, as an agency, to never admit when something was handled poorly, or when a mistake was made. I was at an environmental history conference this spring. I was struck by a panelist who is a retired park employee. He used the term “truth and reconciliation”: the need for some reckoning, for an admission that we made mistakes, before we can move into the next century. I think that’s accurate.

I don’t understand the mismatch between their words and their actions, and in some ways that’s what this book is ultimately about. You can say you value ranches; Don Neubacher was saying that in the ‘90s. Yet his actions went in a different direction. There’s a quote in your paper from Sarah Allen, like three days before the tule elk were released out of the holding pen in Limantour. She said if they wandered too far, we will retrieve them or possibly kill them. According to the park datasheets, the elk turned up on D Ranch three weeks later. That seems pretty far. 

The park had been saying they had no idea that tule elk would ever leave the wilderness area. But scientists were telling them that at the time. Don’t pretend they were not. Is it staff turnover or dishonesty? But there’s an inability to admit that maybe they should have moved them back.


Samantha: Given the lawsuit, what is the future for the ranches here?


Laura: I go back and forth. I’m worried. I’m worried about a lot of things. This doesn’t have to do with your question, but I’m worried that with this book, people will say, this is about the oyster farm and I don’t want to rehash that. It’s not. It’s trying to place that very ugly episode in a context, so that we understand that it wasn’t a weird outlier. 

One of the things that I hope comes through is how connected that episode was, and continues to be, to this overall push you can see clearly starting in the ‘90s, but which in some ways goes all the way back to the ‘70s, that is saying private land uses do not belong in a park. I work in an environmental studies department; I consider myself an environmentalist. I hate lumping people together. But the erosion and attrition of the working landscape over time is something that some people have wanted for a long time. In that sense, I am worried.

That said, I think there’s a lot more awareness and understanding. There is such a change in how we think about agriculture in the last 10 or 20 years, especially out here. The important piece that I haven’t seen articulated this way is that food has become recreation in a way that it did not use to be. If you say this is a park created for public recreation, what role does food play in that? Maybe the park will say, “It is important to our visitors to protect this.” It is awkward when you’re talking about protecting someone’s private livelihood; you don’t want them to be on welfare. But I think the balance has been struck well for many years. Their leases are lower than private land because of the extra burdens and responsibilities they have. 

To me, Point Reyes is a great lesson. You can use the landscape and not lose the wilderness. They can be side by side. That is such a potential win. Most of the rhetoric is that humans are terrible and we destroy everything, but that’s not a healthy way to look at environmental protection. One of the things that struck me, as I read about wilderness history, was the discussion in the 1970s: it was like that argument within the park service in the ‘40s. Do you let everything in, or are you selective? The wilderness advocates in the ‘70s said, “Let’s bring it all in. The more the merrier.” What people don’t realize about wilderness legislation is that it only applies to federal land. It is a break on the agencies, not anyone else, which is why agencies mostly did not like wilderness in those early days. It limits what they can do in decision-making. It forces them to manage in particular ways.

I was reading one of the hearings for wilderness areas in some other parks. One of them was Mesa Verde... There was a debate about whether a park that had Native American relics could be considered wilderness. They’re like, “Well, it’s really old. It’s okay.” The idea that native people are part of the natural world in a way that other people are not is, when you get down to it, fairly racist.

The reality is that this is all a used landscape. But the definition of what wilderness can be took a fairly radical turn in the ‘90s, coming out of Earth First! with an emphasis on an absolute and pure vision of what it is. And it’s so contradictory, because it is a managed landscape. There’re lots of visitors running around. Why those people don’t count, or counter the untouchedness, doesn’t make sense to me.

Many people have watched the documentary “Rebels with a Cause,” and that pretty much asserts that [the park] was needed to stop development. But actually, there is more complication to the story. I hope this book will help things somehow. And, in the same way, remind people that there used to be more ranches. Some left of their own volition and some were pushed. To get that in the open is, I hope, something the book will do. We all edit out things we don’t want to remember.