October 1972 was a watershed month in the environmental movement, with a number of important milestones that are now celebrating their 40th birthdays. The Clean Water Act was passed on October 18, 1972 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed on October 21, 1972. Both of these pieces of legislation were signed into law by President Richard Nixon, whose legacy of scandal and corruption has come to overshadow the significant role he played in promoting bipartisan support for environmental issues. A few days after these pivotal laws were passed, Nixon signed another law that has proven to be critical for the protection and preservation of public land here in the Bay Area.
On October 27, 1972, an Act to Establish the Golden Gate National Recreation Area became the law of the land.
To commemorate this 40th anniversary, a birthday party was held at the Marin Headlands Visitor Center on Saturday, Oct. 27. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) was feted with speeches and song, followed by birthday cake and a hike through the Marin Headlands. Among the speakers and people in the audience were a number of the “founders,” people who were instrumental in bringing the park into existence. The master of ceremonies was Doug McConnell, formerly host of the TV series Bay Area Backroads and currently working on a documentary about the GGNRA entitled Saving the Golden Gate. Doug introduced Martin Scott of the National Park Service, who gave special acknowledgement to the meaning of national parks by singing Woody Guthrie's classic anthem This Land is Your Land. It was especially fitting for a birthday celebration because Woody would have turned 100 years old this year.
The late Congressman Phil Burton, who is credited with shepherding the legislation that created the GGNRA through Congress, used to say that "every successful deed has a thousand mothers." The next speaker was perhaps the most important of those mothers, Amy Meyer, who has earned the nickname "the Mother of the GGNRA." Amy spoke about the early efforts to save park lands around the Golden Gate and the critical work that was done by three organizations in particular: the Marin Conservation League, the Sierra Club, and San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR). She cited an expression that speaks to the ongoing nature of the struggle to preserve precious natural areas: “All of our gains are temporary; all of our losses are permanent.”
The next speaker was Frank Dean, superintendent of the GGNRA. He described the significance of the GGNRA in the National Park System and how it has grown from its original 34,000 acres to almost 80,000 acres today. It stretches from Tomales Bay in Marin to Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County. It has more endangered species than any other park unit except the Everglades, a particularly significant figure considering that the GGNRA is located in the middle of a densely populated urban metropolis. It has the second highest number of annual visitors, more than 15 million, of all the 394 units within the National Park System, after the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. Probably the most important statistic however, is one that reveals the level of community support for this park. The GGNRA has 35,000 volunteers, more than any other park unit, who perform more than half a million hours of work for the park each year.
The most poignant moment of the ceremony came when Greg Moore, president of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, invited Amy Meyer back up to the stage. Citing her role as the Mother of the GGNRA, and describing the park itself as her daughter, Greg got down on bended knee and asked Amy for her daughter's hand in marriage. Such a strong expression of love for our park brought the audience to its feet and an expression of joy on Amy's face.
The last speaker was Ernesto Pepito, associate director of Youth Leadership at the Crissy Field Center. He talked about the generation of young people that is coming of age today, and how important it is to instill in them a sense of ownership and stewardship of our national parks. McConnell wrapped up the speeches with a call for a return to bipartisan/nonpartisan support for national parks and other protected lands. As we prepare for another bitterly contested election, it is startling to consider that Republican President Richard Nixon signed more environmental legislation than any president since Teddy Roosevelt. There actually was a time when Republicans and Democrats could work together on issues that are important to all of us.
The efforts to create the GGNRA had their roots in a 1970 campaign to stop the National Archives from building a large warehouse at East Fort Miley. This remote location in the northwestern corner of San Francisco, adjacent to the Richmond District and the rugged cliffs of Lands End, was envisioned as open space, a part of the greenbelt that would wrap around the coastal areas of the city. At the same time, developers in Marin were planning a massive development in the Marin Headlands called Marincello, which would have had more than 50 high-rise residential towers, commercial areas, and a population of 30,000.
Amy Meyer wrote in New Guardians of the Golden Gate, a definitive history of the creation of the park, about how it all came about:
Not long ago, land owners were making plans that would have covered the ranches on coastal hills with apartment towers, replaced forested glens with acres of suburban housing, and turned scenic country roads into freeways. Only because of the dedication and hard work of a group of citizen-activists were those plans deflected, the pieces joined together, and the land protected in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).
These battles coincided with a government proposal, led by Burton, to protect coastal and scenic areas around the Golden Gate in a new national park. Amy, together with Dr. Edgar Wayburn and a number of other activists, founded a group called the People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area in January 1971. They began to work closely with Congressmen Burton and William Maillard, a Democrat and a Republican, to flesh out the details of creating one of the country’s first urban national parks.
For many years, the concept of a national park was embodied by the "crown jewels" of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. These vast wilderness parks were born out of the conservation movement of the late 19th century, at a time when the western frontier was rapidly disappearing in the face of large scale settlement and development. As the beauty of western landscapes seeped into the popular imagination, the desire to protect wild and scenic places from exploitation grew stronger. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted wrote in his 1864 Preliminary Report, on the establishment of a government reservation in Yosemite Valley, that "It is the will of the nation as embodied in the act of Congress that this scenery shall never be private property, but that like certain defensive points upon our coast it shall be solely for public purposes."
In the early 20th century, the criteria for what constitutes a national park began to expand beyond wilderness and nature. More culturally oriented parks, such as National Historic Sites and National Battlefields, were added to the park system, reflecting a change in attitudes toward protecting public land in order to tell the story of our nation. When the National Park Service was created in 1916, its stated mission was "....to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
By the mid-20th century America had transformed into a heavily urban and increasingly suburban society. The concept of parklands changed along with this and the need for more parks in urban areas was met with the establishment of the Legacy of Parks program. In his 1971 State of the Union message, President Nixon declared "...I will put forward the most extensive program ever proposed by a President of the United States to expand the Nation's parks, recreation areas, open spaces, in a way that truly brings parks to the people where the people are." Thus the groundwork was laid for the establishment of the GGNRA as an urban national park that would serve as a backyard for the people of the Bay Area.
GGNRA stands out among national parks as a model for the conversion of surplus military properties to peaceful and productive purposes. It is without a doubt the best representation of the concept of "swords into plowshares." Mentioned several times in the Bible, beating swords into plowshares refers to transforming the means of war into peaceful civilian uses. Isaiah 2:4 states "…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; They shall never again know war." This idea is taken to heart in the GGNRA, where former military buildings at Fort Cronkhite, Fort Barry, Fort Baker, the Presidio, and Fort Mason now house nonprofit organizations that work to carry out the mission of national parks. Organizations like the Marine Mammal Center, the Headlands Institute, the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and the Institute at the Golden Gate are housed in former Army barracks, administrative buildings, and even a Nike missile site. These buildings now serve to protect our environment and wildlife, and educate our children and the general public about the land, the ocean, and the world around us.
As we progress into the 21 century, the transformation of the GGNRA continues as it moves forward to its 50th birthday. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) proposed in 1996 to change the name from Golden Gate National Recreation Area to Golden Gate National Parks. The new name would recognize the many different parks that make up this sprawling park, and also give it the prestige of being more than a mere "recreation area." Parks as diverse as Muir Woods, the Marin Headlands, Alcatraz, and the Presidio make up the GGNRA, providing not only recreation, but also education, culture, and wilderness to the people of the Bay Area. The name change has some opposition however, primarily from dog owners, who fear the new designation could result in curtailing off-leash dog walking privileges. Whatever the name, it is clear that our park is beloved by the community, and valued as a nearby place to find serenity, solitude, scenery, and cultural enlightenment. Historian and writer Wallace Stegner said it best, in a quote that has been popularized by filmmaker Ken Burns:
"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."