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The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

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Amy Meyer and the Creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area

13 Aug 2020 8:35 AM | Deleted user
Brown Pelican at Ocean Beach  
During these pandemic times I sometimes meet a friend at Ocean Beach for a walk. To avoid a crowd, we try to go on a foggy, windy day when no one else will want to be outside. Even in the worst weather, I am awed by the beautiful expanses of sand and water at the city’s edge. Ocean Beach is a small but important part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), 82,000 acres of wonderful open space spanning three counties along the Pacific Ocean’s edge. Cobbled together from military, public, and private lands, it is both a protected habitat and an accessible space for recreational use. The existence of this amazing National Park is the result of years of persistent, skillful organizing by a small group of activists, supported by the bipartisan effort of local and national politicians. In this installment of the EFM Notebook I describe the early years in the creation of this remarkable “park for the people.” I particularly highlight the extraordinary efforts during the 1970s of a primary architect of the GGNRA, Amy Meyer, whom I had the pleasure of speaking with on August 11 about her work.

Imagining What Might Have Been

When I walk on Ocean Beach, I sometimes imagine alternative scenarios in which this open space had been displaced by development rather than preserved. In 1884, the first roller coaster was installed on land adjacent to the beach, and a steady stream of concessions, rides, and other attractions soon followed. Playland at the Beach, as it was called, was a popular destination for Bay Area residents, but by the late 1960s the complex had deteriorated. It was finally torn down in 1972. Today, the space is occupied by the Balboa Natural Area and a development of low-rise condominiums. Ocean Beach remains long, wide, and untouched except for a scattering of fire pits for night-time gatherings.

Compare these pictures of Ocean Beach and Coney Island for a glimpse of alternative scenarios.

Building the Case for Preserving Open Space

  Amy Meyer at Baker Beach in the 1970s
The GGNRA began as a small community project spearheaded by Amy Meyer and her neighbors, residents of the outer Richmond district in San Francisco. At the time, during the late 1960s, Amy was a mother of two young children. She had earned a degree in studio art and art history from Oberlin College, but consistent with cultural expectations of the time, she put aside career plans in order to focus on family life. Seeking to become involved in a community project, she began attending meetings of various organizations. At one of these meetings she learned of a plan by the General Services Administration (GSA) to construct a branch of the National Archives in East Fort Miley, located on federal land at Lands End. Several weeks later, at a meeting of the Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, she once again heard concerns about the plan for East Fort Miley. As she puts it, she volunteered to “look into the matter.” Her “look” could be better described as an intense laser beam. For nearly 50 years her focus has been on “preserving the lands at the Golden Gate to ensure that its scenery and history would be kept for public benefit in perpetuity.”

Working out of her house, Amy helped organized a campaign to thwart the GSA plan for East Fort Miley, collaborating with the Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club and SPUR, an organization dedicated to balancing the competing claims of business, housing, open space, and resilient neighborhoods. As she writes in an account of this period, “We had the opportunity to make use of a Department of Interior initiative ‘to bring parks to the people, where the people are.’"

Lands End 4 by Amy Meyer  

As the battle with the GSA heated up, Amy and her group brought on additional support from an array of over 65 environmental and civic organizations, including the national Sierra Club. The group was also supported by key legislators including US Congress members and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The group made an impressive case for the historical importance and natural beauty of the land and provided convincing evidence of the serious local opposition to building on it. On a foggy day in May of 1970, the GSA representatives finally gave up their plan. The first battle was won but a longer war had just begun.

Becoming Ambitious: Forming a Comprehensive Coordinated Plan

  Edgar Wayburn
By then the group had heard that East Fort Miley was also included in a different federal plan for an 8,000 acre national park on either side of the Golden Gate. There was clearly a need for additional local activism to bring this plan to fruition. Amy joined forces with Edgar Wayburn, 27 years her senior and four-term president of the national Sierra Club, to form a new organization: People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area (or PFGGNRA for sort-of short). Ed was a practicing physician and had less time than Amy to devote to the project, but with years of conservation experience under his belt he provided leadership and invaluable guidance with respect to PFGGNRA strategy. Amy writes of Ed’s ambitious goals for the park at that time: “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.”

A Winning Coalition Nobody Could Have Predicted

Amy and Ed began working feverishly to build a broad coalition that included environmental, civic, and neighborhood organizations. Congress members Phillip Burton, Democrat, and Bill Maillard, Republican, were major supporters of the GGNRA as was John Jacobs of SPUR.

Richard and Pat Nixon take a ferry ride along with Interior Secretary Rogers Morton  
In our conversation, Amy noted that there was little organized opposition to the ambitious new vision of the PFGGNRA. The value of conserving open space had been “built into the bones” of Bay Area residents, beginning with the establishment of Golden Gate Park in 1870 and culminating in the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962. In the case of the GGNRA, early strategizing by the Army to retain their hold on military lands proved unsuccessful as did sporadic attempts by developers to purchase and develop land on the Marin side of the Golden Gate.

The stage was almost set for action on a bill to create the GGNRA, but the Senate was balking and had not scheduled a hearing on it. How could the PPGGNRA mobilize the bipartisan support needed to get this bill through Congress? Various supporters began contacting their California senators to demand a hearing. Rancher Boyd Stewart invited his friend, Senator Alan Bible, Chair of the Senate Committee on National Parks and Public Lands, to join him on a truck ride to see for himself the beautiful rolling hills of Marin.

Then something amazing happened. The Committee to Re-elect the President (yes, CREEP) called John Jacobs of SPUR seeking Bay Area exposure for Nixon’s campaign. Jacobs proposed that the President take a ferry ride on the Bay and then greet local citizens on a pier off Crissy Field. A few weeks later Amy and Ed were standing on the pier with the President, where Ed exhorted him to endorse the establishment of the GGNRA. He agreed to do so and within 36 hours a Senate hearing was on the calendar.

Few of us remember Nixon as an environmentalist, but Amy reminded me that he supported the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts as well as the Endangered Species Act. He also created the Environmental Protection Agency. As reporter Peter Hartlaub noted in the SF Chronicle: “Remember the next time you walk through the Marin Headlands and enjoy the real estate development-free views: The president who resigned in disgrace was also an environmental warrior.”

While the success of the GGNRA must be attributed to smart strategizing and persistent effort, the fortuitous timing of this initiative cannot be understated. The early 1970s saw a surge in public support for environmental protection. The women’s movement and the anti-war movement left a legacy of commitment to grassroots organizing. Add a couple of unexpectedly pro-environment Republican politicians to the mix and you have it….a hugely successful new park.

By the Numbers: GGNRA in 2020

  • 3 counties
  • 62 miles of bay and ocean shoreline
  • 82,000 acres
  • 175,000 contiguous acres broken only at the Golden Gate including GGNRA, Pt Reyes National Seashore, and adjacent public land
  • 3,000 plant and animal species
  • 25 million visitors annually including Park Service and Presidio Trust Land

Lessons from the Past, Actions for the Future

Amy Meyer  
While the future of the GGNRA is undoubtedly bright, obstacles and challenges remain. Amy’s view is that environmentalists need to continue building and preserving connectivity among open spaces, including wildlife corridors. With growing numbers of people enjoying the GGNRA’s open space, she also notes the importance of creating and enforcing protective regulations. For instance, conflicts continue around the presence of dogs on park lands as do tensions involving the use of electric bikes.

These days, the EFM and other organizations are working with renewed focus and energy to foster inclusion in open spaces across the diverse Bay Area. How can we move beyond rhetoric to action? Amy notes that it is essential to work actively to retain staff of color in the GGNRA and other national parklands. Having a more diverse group of individuals at the helm is key to developing effective outreach to underserved communities.

She also highlighted the importance of training the next generation of environmental activists, helping them gain the skills necessary to speak effectively to citizens and elected officials as well as develop critical thinking and writing skills to make logical, cohesive, and persuasive arguments.

After talking with Amy and reading about her work I feel a deep sense of respect and gratitude for all she has accomplished. Here are some things you can do to build on the legacy bestowed by "green pioneers” like Amy Meyer:

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at

Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book at Visit to see more birds and other images.

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