A look back at the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore

04/29/2020

It’s the 50th anniversary of the signing of legislation that saved the Point Reyes National Seashore from becoming a relentless series of subdivisions, marinas and developments. The story of how former Marin County Supervisor Peter Behr, Katy Miller, Bill Duddleson, Congressman Pete McCloskey, Marin County planner Margaret Azevedo and many others convinced President Richard Nixon to allocate funds to complete the purchase of the seashore is of interest from a historical perspective, and holds lessons for modern conservation battles.

The National Park Service originally recommended the inclusion of Point Reyes in the National Park System in the 1930s. Caroline Livermore and the Marin Conservation League supported the idea, which was championed by Marin conservationist Roger Kent and Marin County Congressman Clem Miller. First proposed by the park service in 1959, the move was authorized in legislation signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. After that, the park service began purchasing land for the seashore, and by the late 1960s it had acquired land from Olema to near Lake Ranch, around Drakes Estero and near Bolinas, and some scattered parcels on the outer point and Pierce Point.  

Yet it was obvious that existing funding would be woefully insufficient to complete the planned acquisitions. Less than half the land had been acquired, and only a third of the precious shoreline.  Logging was proceeding on private parcels, and developers were creating subdivisions, especially at privately held Limantour.  

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, with revenue derived from offshore oil sales, was traditionally used for national park acquisitions, but Nixon proposed to cut it 40 percent. The park service wanted to sell off 14 square miles of the existing parkland for subdivisions and commercial use. This proposal horrified Katy Miller—Congressman Miller’s widow—and Bill Duddleson, his former aide, and galvanized them into action.

Katy convinced former Marin County Supervisor Peter Behr to take on saving Point Reyes. He led the Save Our Seashore campaign and provided much of the political strategy. Margaret Azevedo led a petition campaign that gathered nearly 500,000 signatures asking Nixon to purchase the rest of the seashore.  

Miller used Congressional connections to get help from highly influential members of Congress like Wayne Aspinall, “Bizz” Johnson and Senator Alan Bible. San Mateo Congressman Pete McCloskey was a good friend of John Ehrlichman, an environmental attorney serving Nixon as chief of domestic affairs. McCloskey and Ehrlichman commuted together in a White House limousine. McCloskey urged Ehrlichman to save Point Reyes.

Ehrlichman said it was a key meeting with Inverness resident Peter Behr that convinced him—along with the petitions, politics and pressure from members of the California congressional delegation—to urge Nixon to budget the funding necessary to save the seashore, and to restore the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The politics were critical. Nixon wanted to look more environmental in preparation for the 1972 election. Senator George Murphy, up for re-election, wanted credit for saving Point Reyes. 

Politics made it possible for Nixon to save the seashore. If this effort had failed, Point Reyes would probably look like Sea Ranch at best, and Huntington Beach at worst.  

Behr later became a state senator and led the fight to create the California Wild and Scenic Rivers System, saving the North Coast rivers from dam builders. He also forced legislative committees to start taking recorded votes on bills.  

Point Reyes National Seashore recognized Behr’s contribution by naming the short trail from the Drakes Beach parking lot to the top of the bluff after him. (A sign describing Behr’s contribution is needed.) 

Today, the Point Reyes National Seashore is a refuge of trails, forests, grasslands and beaches. In normal times, more than 2 million visitors a year enjoy it. Almost none of them are aware of the tremendous effort required to achieve the vision of the people who made it possible. Without their individual actions, Point Reyes would not have been saved.  

Perhaps the greatest lesson that can be learned from this fight is that key individuals must decide to take decisive action. A combination of grassroots action and high-level political contact must follow.  This has been shown time and time again in such efforts as creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the salvation of the Tuolumne River from dam builders and, with any luck, the fight against climate change.

 

Jerry Meral is an Inverness resident and a board member of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. In late 1969 and early 1970, as a young graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, he assisted Peter Behr in mobilizing funds and public support using Phil Hyde’s poster of Point Reyes in the Save Our Seashore campaign.