The freethinkers and eccentrics who live in the tiny, eclectic community of Muir Beach have united with other Marin County residents in a bitter struggle against what they see as an enduring threat to the culture and fabric of their fog-shrouded coastal village — government meddling.
The National Park Service wants to ease what everyone agrees is a growing traffic and parking problem in and around Muir Woods while still providing access to the internationally famous national monument.
But the folks in this isolated beachfront community 2 miles from the entrance to Muir Woods have become increasingly unsettled by what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as attempts by the Park Service to run roughshod over their interests and funnel busloads of tourists into the already-crowded cove.
“The level of mistrust among residents of Muir Beach has grown,” said Christian Riehl, coordinator of the Muir Beach Association and a member of the Mount Tam Task Force. “I have never seen much attention given by the Park Service to the effect they have on the gateway communities and the communities that surround the park.”
History of Disputes
The clash at Muir Beach is the latest of several disagreements the National Park Service has found itself in the midst of with longtime Bay Area communities that abut the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore.
Among the disputes are the proposed restrictions on dog walking and a decision by the Park Service not to extend the lease of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. In 2010, the Greek American family that had run Louis’ Restaurant on national park property on the western edge of San Francisco for seven decades was forced to bid with three others to keep its lease. Three stable owners in Marin recently had to agree to costly improvements to keep operating. And in 2002, the Park Service enraged thousands of people by kicking out San Francisco’s beloved Musee Mecanique from the Cliff House. The 1920s-era arcade, in danger of closing forever, eventually found a home at Fisherman’s Wharf.
All of these things, fairly or not, have contributed to a feeling among coastal residents that the two national parks are ignoring their concerns in favor of their own interests. Instead of preserving the landscape as the park’s founders intended 42 years ago — with working rural communities tucked in alongside agricultural land and pristine wilderness — many locals fear the Park Service is trying to turn the region into a tourist playground.
The recent trouble bubbled up after the Park Service proposed spending $150 million over the next 20 years on infrastructure, trails, historic preservation and other capital projects at Alcatraz, Muir Woods and the new park in San Mateo County called Rancho Corral de Tierra. The expenditures are included in a document that itself is becoming increasingly controversial — a new general management blueprint for the 80,000 acres of beaches, rolling hills, stables and historic military installations managed by the federal government. Some believe the document is part of a plot to limit the access and activities of the hoi polloi in what has always been touted as the first urban national recreation area.
The Park Service already spent $12 million on the restoration of the Muir Beach ecosystem and facilities, including new wetlands, a reconfigured parking lot, restrooms, new access trails and a new bridge over Redwood Creek.
The most recent outcry was focused on Park Service proposals to put in bus stops at Muir Beach and build a parking structure and begin shuttle service on the hillside above Muir Woods. The Park Service ultimately dropped those plans amid the furor, which includes a lawsuit.
The proposals, to the uninitiated, hardly evoke the apocalypse, but then most communities aren’t besieged — as the residents of Muir Beach are — with traffic, crowds and the willy-nilly parking habits of an ever-increasing number of tourists.
“I love Smokey Bear, but he’s gone,” said Kristin Shannon, a longtime Muir Beach resident and co-chair of the Mount Tam Task Force, a coalition of concerned local residents and environmental groups that filed the lawsuit to stop the bus stop plan. “Now I’ve got this huge commercial developer obsessed with ticket sales who wants to charge for parking on our salmon creek. … I’m sorry, but I don’t think somebody from Ohio, because they bought a ticket, should have priority” over the environment and the local community.
Equating the National Park Service with a developer may seem a bit hyperbolic, especially when the projects in question involve efforts to protect the environment and reduce congestion, the same goals Shannon and other locals espouse.
Howard Levitt, director of communications and partnerships for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which manages Muir Beach for the Park Service, said all the proposals are attempts to increase options, enhance shuttle service out of Mill Valley and Sausalito, and get people out of their cars.
“Really our goal is to reduce traffic and congestion,” said Levitt, adding that the parking and bus stop proposals were dropped specifically because officials were listening to the public. “The ultimate bottom line is protecting Muir Woods itself as a national resource.”
The Park Service is now looking at implementing a parking and shuttle reservation system at Muir Woods as a means of limiting the number of visitors during peak times on weekends. But the Mount Tam Task Force isn’t backing down. Shannon characterized the recent lawsuit as the first salvo in a larger battle over Muir Woods visitation, parking, transit management and protection of the surrounding ecology, including Redwood Creek which flows out across Muir Beach and holds one of the area’s last — albeit seriously struggling — wild coho salmon runs.
Trying to Cap Visits
Shannon and others are demanding the Park Service cap Muir Woods’ visitation at 750,000 a year, which they believe would prevent the area from becoming “another Yosemite Valley.”
Ultimately, though, it appears the question is not one of how the Park Service will deal with tourism, traffic, parking, environmental problems or even dog walking, although those issues will have to be resolved. It is whether the caretakers of the country’s signature urban national park can get along with their neighbors.
(c)2014 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by MCT Information Services.