Andrew Seles_Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore via Flickr user Andrew Seles.

Nathan F. Sayre

Laura Watt’s catchy title, The Paradox of Preservation,[1] doesn’t do her book proper justice. What she terms a paradox is more accurately a contradiction: because landscapes are never static but “actually dynamic, continually shaped by social forces… and similarly affecting the forms those social forces take” (p. 5), they cannot be preserved but only managed. Moreover, it is the politics of land management, rather than any paradox, that makes the case of Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) so important. The changes that have occurred there in 50-plus years of preservation, Watt argues, have been “invisible to the public” and “invisible to the managers, who present them to the public as part of what was originally preserved” (p. 5).

This may seem paradoxical, but in the first instance it is some combination of error and deception—if it must alliterate, perhaps perversion is a better word than paradox? We are dealing with a case of collective illusion, akin to the “conspiracy of optimism” that Paul Hirt diagnosed in the Forest Service, but perpetrated in the name of wilderness rather than timber production.[2] Anyone who wonders why rural agricultural producers are so suspicious of environmentalists, or who thinks that ranchers’ complaints about the federal government are nothing more than paranoid delusions, needs to read this book.

Watt opens her account with Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s decision, in late 2012, to terminate the lease that permitted the Drakes Bay Oyster Company to operate in Drake’s Estero, an estuary situated within a designated “potential wilderness” in PRNS. She closes by likening the “absolutist environmental organizations” (p. 233) that opposed the oyster farm to the militants who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. But cows and ranchers, not oysters, are the primary focus of Watt’s book, which grew out of her doctoral research at UC Berkeley. (Full disclosure: Watt studied with a former colleague of mine, although she was not a student in our department.)

Point Reyes is one of a handful of national seashores administered by the National Park Service (NPS) but created in places and for reasons quite different from national parks. In 1962, when the enabling legislation for PRNS was passed, the entire peninsula was private land, descended from a Mexican-era land grant that had been finagled into Anglo hands a century earlier. Point Reyes comprised some two-dozen ranches, encircled by a rugged and supremely scenic coastline, all within easy driving distance of the booming San Francisco metropolitan area.

Point Reyes_Stefan Klocek

Point Reyes via Flickr user Stefan Klocek.

PRNS was antidote to and offspring of post-war urban sprawl. Congressman Claire Engle claimed in 1958 that public acquisition was the only way to protect Point Reyes from subdivision and development. This was untrue, Watt explains, but also self-fulfilling: speculators seized the opportunity to buy land and demand inflated prices from the federal government. This reinforced a vicious cycle: prices climbed, values rose, property taxes increased, and estate tax exposure exploded. Park Service Director George Hartzog positively exploited the situation by asking Congress to allow his agency to develop home sites to help offset acquisition costs. Congress demurred, but the ranch owners eventually agreed to NPS acquisition in exchange for long-term leases to continue ranching, seeing it as their only way out of the property and estate tax traps they had fallen into. In short, the NPS played “the major role… at Point Reyes, both in pushing to establish the park in the first place, and in driving the threat of development, thereby creating its own justification for acquiring the ranches” (p. 95). If it happened today, scholars would call this a land grab.

Watt portrays PRNS as both relict and bellwether of larger trends. Fee simple ownership gave the NPS ultimate authority over land use and management, even if private uses—including cattle grazing, dairy production and the oyster farm—were grandfathered in and protected by explicit legislative testimony as well as long-term leases. Shortly later, a backlash against perceived government encroachment on private lands and property rights helped propel the Reagan revolution, and in other parts of the country the NPS devised alternative models that permitted more private lands to persist within or around parks. But at Point Reyes the older paradigm held, and tensions mounted over the decades.

Many scholars have critiqued “wilderness” as a tool of colonial exploitation[3] and an ecologically incoherent, environmentalist fetish.[4] Watt adds an intriguing wrinkle to this literature, arguing that the original intent of both the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1976 statute that created the category “potential wilderness” was to prevent federal agencies from building new roads and developments, not to eliminate previously existing private uses and activities. She shows how an evolving alliance of NPS officials and environmental groups inverted this intent and turned the potential wilderness designation against ranchers and the oyster farm. Only forty percent of the land area devoted to ranching in 1962 remains in that use today, and roughly half of the built environment inside PRNS—including at least 170 buildings—has been demolished. By omission and commission alike, the NPS has worked to produce “the invisibility of the working landscape” (p. 142) in favor of “the appearance of hands-off, ‘wild’ nature” (p. 158, emphasis in original). As Watt pointedly puts it, “the authentic past is that which the authorities have chosen to preserve” (p. 21).

By the 1990s, PRNS and NPS officials viewed the dairies and ranches of Point Reyes as doomed anachronisms, destined to go out of business and thus unworthy of consideration. This again proved both false and self-fulfilling. The ranches persevered and even thrived in the marketplace by going organic, shifting into value-added products, and tapping into the Bay Area’s flourishing local “foodie” scene. But PRNS decisions regarding wildlife—especially the tule elk, which was (re)introduced to various parts of the peninsula in mysterious, seemingly duplicitous ways—depleted the ranches’ forage base, which could void their organic certification by forcing their cattle off of the native pastures. As leases came due, NPS negotiations for renewal or extension were capricious, ad hoc and divisive, further undermining the ranches’ viability.

m01229_The Point Reyes shipwreck

The Point Reyes shipwreck via Flickr user m01229.

Many of the details of this history are difficult to sift and reconcile from the tangle of conflicting memories, interviews, media stories and NPS documents that Watt assembled in her research. No doubt there are PRNS officials who might dispute some or many of her claims. Suffice to say, first, that Watt’s 20-year effort is undoubtedly more disinterested, sustained and thoroughgoing than any others, and second, that the “official” story has long since passed into a twilight zone of bureaucratic doublespeak and face-saving evasions.

When Watt returns to the battle over Drakes Bay Oyster Company, in her final chapter, it functions as an indirect or proxy validation of her larger interpretation. Starting in 2006, the NPS blamed the oyster farm for various environmental damages. “None of these claims have stood up to scientific scrutiny” (p. 189). A panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the PRNS had “selectively presented, overinterpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information” (p. 189) in evaluating the oyster operation’s effects on Drakes Estero, and the Interior Department’s own Office of the Solicitor “found five NPS officials and scientists guilty of violating the NPS Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct” (p. 191) by among other things withholding relevant material and data from the oyster company and the National Academy panel. In short, the credibility of the NPS and PRNS is severely compromised.

Ultimately, Secretary Salazar admitted that he shut down the oyster farm simply because commerce and wilderness are incompatible, not because of any scientific data (p. 199). “A long tradition of cultivation has vanished—in exchange, more or less, for a label, since the estero was already managed as wilderness… environmental activists have sacrificed the relative wild for an idealized one” (p. 213). And in so doing, they have been complicit in many of the same mendacious and duplicitous tactics that they habitually ascribe to big industry.

Watt correctly notes that this outcome is “increasingly out of step” with larger trends locally, nationally and globally, which uphold the value of agriculture, collaboration and heritage. “The NPS needs to recognize that residents have a different relationship to place than do visitors, and particularly that working the land, especially over generations, creates a unique connection that should be respected and incorporated into management practices” (p. 220). Instead, the NPS has “sacrific[ed] their needs to the illusion of pristine nature” (p. 5) and succumbed to environmentalists who “confuse a sense of shared national heritage with actual ownership and control” (p. 23).

In July 2017, a settlement was announced in a lawsuit, brought by environmentalists against the NPS, challenging the ranches’ leases in PRNS. The agreement provides five-year lease extensions to the ranches, during which time the NPS must assess the effects of grazing and formulate an official management plan. There is every reason to suspect that five years will not be enough time for the assessment and planning tasks—after all, the NPS has been pledging to do these very things for more than 30 years. But it is more than enough time for everyone involved to read Laura Watt’s book.

Point Reyes Oyster Farm_Ross Mayfield

Point Reyes Oyster Farm via Flickr user Ross Mayfield.


[1] Laura Alice Watt, The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

[2] Paul W. Hirt, A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War II (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

[3] Roderick P. Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles Over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[4] William Cronon, ‘The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1 (1996): 7-28.


Nathan F. Sayre is professor and chair of Geography at the University of California Berkeley. He specializes in the history and politics of rangeland conservation and management. His books include Working Wilderness: the Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range; Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest; and The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science.


Copyright: © 2017 Nathan F. Sayre. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See

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