Establishing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area

How SPUR helped establish our local national park

Urbanist Article

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) was established in 1972. Our national park came into being in record legislative time, between April, 1970 and October, 1972. When I think about how this happened, I come immediately to SPUR's leading role in the coalition named People For A Golden Gate National Recreation Area (PFGGNRA). In 1971, John Jacobs of SPUR, Edgar Wayburn of the Sierra Club and I sponsored the first meeting of a network which eventually included more than 65 conservation- and civic-minded organizations and hundreds of individuals who worked to establish our national park next door.

I am co-chairman of PFGGNRA, this organization born in a San Francisco public library on January 6, 1971. Nine months of work preceded that meeting. The first SPUR contribution I personally remember was when Roger Hurlbert, SPUR's neighborhood services advisor, held a meeting with the Outer Richmond Neighborhood Association to discuss local issues. A proposed Federal Archives building in East Fort Miley, on "excess" Air Force land tucked between the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and the Clement Street VA Hospital, was mentioned. Then I went to an April, 1970 Sierra Club Bay Chapter meeting, learned they were also concerned and, since I live nearby, volunteered to look into the matter. A San Francisco Chronicle article said that SPUR's then executive director, John Jacobs, opposed construction of "a warehouse as big as a football field" on the site, so I phoned him. "That land's supposed to become part of Headlands National Park," John said. "It's a plan of the Interior Department for a park on the headlands of the Golden Gate, like one they are considering for New York and New Jersey."

I reported this back to the Bay Chapter, which helped start a campaign to thwart the Archives project and further Golden Gate headlands protection. We had the opportunity to make use of a Department of Interior initiative "to bring parks to the people, where the people are." We took up those words and added, "to save the headlands of the Golden Gate for public use in perpetuity." It became evident that we were fighting another part of the federal government, the General Services Administration (GSA), sponsor of the Archives project, and would need opposition from Congressmen Phillip Burton and William Mailliard, Senators Alan Cranston and George Murphy, Assemblyman Leo McCarthy, the San Francisco Planning Department and Commission, the Board of Supervisors, the national Sierra Club and all other organizations willing to get involved.

I was one of a handful of activists guided by John Jacobs, Roger Hurlbert and SPUR's then associate director, Michael Fischer. Within six weeks, we succeeded in producing a pile of letters and testimony telling of East Fort Miley's outstanding views, its historical interest, the actual and potential beauty of these 12 1/2 acres, and its future place in a national park. We used this evidence at a series of meetings and hearings which forcefully let the GSA know the depth and breadth of the opposition to such development–on land that we had learned was an obscure piece of San Francisco's previously-designated greenbelt.

What I did not yet know was that SPUR had already led battles against Mayor Joseph Alioto's proposed high-rise condominium development at Fort Mason, Lamar Hunt's proposed casino on Alcatraz, the serious threat in the late '60s that portions of the Presidio would be sold for upscale housing, and a proposed USDA building in the Presidio. John Jacobs knew a fight was already brewing around two San Francisco public schools to be built in the Presidio at Inspiration Point and Lobos Creek. SPUR also had to defend the Presidio in small ways. John's secretary, the late Monica Halloran, had a friend who worked in the Presidio who learned some beautiful trees around the Officer's Club were to be cut down and telephoned Monica. John sent out a photographer, then sent a telegram to the post commander: "We have the 'before' photographs. Will it be necessary for us to publish the 'after' ones?"

The Fort Miley threat opened SPUR's eyes to the larger view: from Miley's heights you could see many of the other parts of the park. SPUR's leaders realized that separate battles for Forts Miley, Mason, Baker, Barry, Cronkhite, the Presidio and Alcatraz would be a losing strategy. The denouement of the Archives fight came on a foggy day in May, 1970, when we could barely make out the back of the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and nothing could be seen of the views of the ocean or Point Reyes. Michael Fischer later laughed that after standing between the puddles on the dismal cement parking lot at the rear of the site while helping us to battle the GSA representatives with their architectural drawings, he knew he was "just another dyed-in-the-wool conservationist." As we stood under our umbrellas shoulder-to-shoulder with the reporters SPUR had invited to the confrontation, I asked Michael once the GSA representatives gave up, what should our next step be to get the park? For several years he appeared embarrassed when I reminded him of his answer: "All you need is an Act of Congress," he wryly said, thinking he wasn't being very nice. One day I let him know there had been nothing wrong with his answer; once again, SPUR pointed out the direction we had to take.

East Fort Miley is just a tiny part of the GGNRA, but the lessons we learned there about city agencies and boards and the city, state and federal legislatures were to be used throughout the campaign for the park. We learned that we had to map the lands we wanted to add to the original park concept and justify the reasons for their inclusion. SPUR supported including the Cliff House and Sutro Baths and a failed "new town" project, Marincello, just north of the Marin Headlands forts. Indeed, the heart of that site was saved from development by a land purchase funded by Martha Gerbode, who was a SPUR Board member. Shortly after the defeat of the Archives project, we brought the national Sierra Club on board in the person of Dr. Edgar Wayburn, a former Sierra Club president. He wanted us to think about a bigger picture, to take in all the private lands that should be joined to the public lands to make a bigger, better, more complete park. Ed wanted to take care of some unprotected acreage near Muir Woods and then go up to Mt. Tamalpais State Park, and then beyond the State park to private ranches, and on up to Tomales Bay.

Michael Fischer and Roger Hurlbert were invited to become members of the extremely low-profile National Park Service planning team for the "Gateway West National Park," led by Doug Nadeau (who retired late in 1998 as the GGNRA's chief planner). Their meetings were held in an old cement vault in the Federal Building with one strict rule: everything which happened in that room was top-secret. SPUR never violated the letter of that rule (which is why I did not know of it until this article) but SPUR's public role in the early days of the GGNRA was hardly secret!

In the fall of 1970, we all stood by while Congressmen Burton and Mailliard and Assemblyman Leo McCarthy each introduced bills in Congress and the California legislature, to protect the increasingly inactive military lands at the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and city parks on the west and north coastline of San Francisco. These bills died at the end of the 1970 legislative sessions, but they helped finish off the Archives, staved off renewed development interest in the Marincello lands, and set the stage for the next Congress in the new year.

That fall we also took care of one unfinished piece of business. The proposal to put two schools in the Presidio was still alive, and a hearing was declared by the San Francisco Board of Education. John Jacobs lined up ten organizations to testify. He apportioned each an argument to make against the project. When I got to the hearing, the room was full. The Army had sent two busloads of buzz-cut soldiers and their families. I would like to say SPUR's strategy won the day, but must say it was the NAACP representative who said to the Board: "If you try to build these schools which will destroy the integration of the public schools in the Marina and the Richmond, we will sue you."

That episode taught us about the breadth of the coalition we needed to make the park a success.

At the January, 1971 meeting, thirty organization representatives gathered to figure out how to proceed. There was a slide show and discussion. Ed Wayburn was elected chairman and I was elected co-chairman, and the endorsements of the participating organizations were secured.

Shortly thereafter, John Jacobs hosted a meeting of SPUR supporters in his office so I could ask for financial support for PFGGNRA, because our activist group had been paying for everything out of pocket. A few weeks later, SPUR decided to tell its membership about the proposed legislation, and published an article in its February, 1971 newsletter that included a map by Michael Fischer. Then SPUR let PFGGNRA use its blue-ink mimeograph machine to spin out a series of fact sheets that kept a mailing list of people up to date. Gradually the maps of the park included more land, covered by the phrase "and other compatible ranch lands to the north." Michael Fischer, watching the map grow, said it was a big tail wagging the dog.

With Ed Wayburn's national connections through the Sierra Club, and using a local political strategy charted by SPUR's staff which included soliciting endorsements from every organization that would take an interest, PFGGNRA urged forward a much bigger park than that anticipated by the Interior Department. Because of the efforts of Congressman Phillip Burton, this was the park that emerged from House hearings held in August, 1971 in San Francisco, and in May, 1972 in Washington, D.C.

In between those two hearings, John Jacobs learned there was a chance for us to get regional, four-color advertising exposure through an advertising agencies contest. John and I ran over to the agency he had picked. A coupon-of-support campaign entitled "For 6 Cents You Could Give This To Your Kids" won publication in the regional edition of Time, was reprinted in the regional edition of Newsweek, then in Sunset, and became the first four-color advertisement to appear in the Sierra Club magazine, through which it received national circulation.

However, PFGGNRA could not get a Senate hearing for the park. The legislation for Gateway National Recreation Area in New York and New Jersey was moving through the Senate after President Nixon flew over New York harbor. GGNRA, on the other hand, seemed stuck. But then the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) called on John in the SPUR office to seek ideas on getting Bay Area exposure for Nixon's run for re-election. John described an elaborate scenario in which the President would greet local citizens involved in the attempt to create this grand national recreation area, on the old Coast Guard pier off Crissy Field. The CREEP instantly embraced the idea, and a few weeks later the leaders of PFGGNRA stood on the pier with Ed Wayburn and me in the lead and shook hands with President Nixon and exhorted him to endorse the establishment of the GGNRA. And he did! That got the ball rolling again and in 36 hours our Senate hearing was announced for late September.

As passed by Congress and signed into law by the President on October 27, 1972, the GGNRA included the southern Marin land now called Gerbode Valley, but once intended to become Marincello, stretched up to Mt. Tamalpais State Park and past it, moved up the Olema Valley, joining the public lands of the Marin Municipal Water District to the east to those of Point Reyes National Seashore to the west and halted at Olema. With a national political strategy devised by Democratic Congressman Phillip Burton, aided by Republican Congressman William Mailliard and Democratic Senators Alan Cranston and John Tunney, the original 4000-acre proposal became a 34,000-acre park in less than two years.

The legislation for the GGNRA also included an Advisory Commission to the Secretary of Interior. John Jacobs served with distinction on the Commission for several years, (Ed Wayburn and I have served continuously since its inception in 1974.)

With subsequent additions from 1974 through 1994, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area now has 75,000 acres. If including Fort Point National Historic Site, Muir Woods National Monument, the lands of Point Reyes National Seashore, the Marin Municipal Water District in the north, and Huddart and Wunderlich parks in San Mateo County, habitat, open space and park land stretch over more than 175,000 acres in three counties. The public shoreline extends for 100 miles. No other urban region has such a large protected area set aside for public benefit for all time. Additionally, these lands and waters are part of a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve of over 1,000,000 acres, and contribute to the conservation of the vital natural resources of our planet.

In ways both large and small, SPUR made an enormous contribution to the protection of the headlands of the Golden Gate. SPUR members and staff should be proud, and the public grateful. A friend told me that, too often, when he comments to those he visits on his travels about the beauty of some scenery or the pleasure of a view, he hears the reply "If only you had seen it sooner, before .... that development .... that change." My friend says he does not have regrets about the views and scenery around the Golden Gate; they are as they have been since he first knew them and he feels assured they will be the same in the future.

However, there is an old conservation adage that says, "All of our gains are temporary; all of our losses are permanent." No matter how secure we feel about what we have been able to achieve so far, SPUR, like all conservation- and civic-minded organizations, must continue to be vigilant and be willing and able to do battle.Spur logo

Amy Meyer continues to serve as co-chair of People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In addition to many other honors and leadership positions, President Clinton appointed her to the Presidio Trust Board of Directors in 1997. From 1975 to 1984, Amy Meyer served on SPUR's Board of Directors. In 1973, Ms. Meyer, along with Dr. Wayburn, received a Silver SPUR award for the work described in this article.