Settlement halts million-dollar Muir Beach bus depot, preserves endangered salmon and wetlands habitat, and guarantees environmental review
SAN FRANCISCO (October 22, 2014) – The Mount Tam Task Force, a Muir Woods area conservation group, and the National Park Service (NPS) agreed yesterday to settle a lawsuit challenging the intrusion of a million-dollar construction project in a protected aquatic ecosystem. Though NPS originally gave itself a “categorical exclusion” from environmental review of the project, it has agreed in the future to at least prepare an Environmental Assessment, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
“We are pleased that the National Park Service has finally agreed to conduct an environmental review of its high-volume bus stations,” said Morrison & Foerster partner Chris Carr, chair of the firm’s Environment and Energy Group, who represents the Task Force pro bono. “We regret that it took a lawsuit to remind the agency of its crucial mission to protect and preserve.”
The Mount Tam Task Force is a conservation umbrella group focused on the long-term stewardship of the Muir Woods area. Task Force Chair Kristin Shannon commented: “We hope this settlement ushers in a new era of cooperation between NPS and the ecology groups whose thoughtful views should be heard to protect Muir Woods and Redwood Creek.”
“The towering redwoods at Muir Woods are a sanctuary deeded to the government for protection in 1909; this gift was not intended to host twice the population of San Francisco in a small, one-square-mile area,” she said.
Only thirty minutes north of San Francisco, the rare coho spawning grounds at the center of this legal action were originally protected by the indigenous Miwok; the grounds passed into the hands of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) in the 1970s. GGNRA manages tourist sites such as Alcatraz Island, as well as Muir Woods and nearby Redwood Creek.
The million-dollar project for high-volume visitor bus stations is located at the junction of two fragile salmon restoration projects. Green Gulch Creek recovery is underway, and Redwood Creek, which flows through Muir Woods (a UNESCO biodiversity site), is a spawning stream for rare coho salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act.
The Redwood Creek salmon facing extinction were removed on August 13 in a rescue attempt to try to save them via transplant to a hatchery. At the farewell ceremony, Miwok tribal elders noted the steep drop in salmon during the last 50 years, a reminder that they had been effective stewards for thousands of years.
The settlement requires the National Park Service to perform an Environmental Assessment (and possibly an Environmental Impact Statement) for any similar projects in the area, as required by NEPA.
“We are glad to know this special habitat for coho and other endangered species will get the environmental protection it deserves,” said Christian Riehl, Chair of the Muir Beach Association and a wildlife rescue volunteer.
The threat came to the Task Force’s attention when a local resident noticed construction survey teams laying out pavement markings. They then discovered a million-dollar bid request posted by the National Park Service for construction due to start in September. As the Park Service would neither retract the plan, nor perform the normal environmental review, the Mount Tam Task Force was forced to file a lawsuit seeking an injunction in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco to stop imminent construction.
This large intrusive construction project was a complete surprise, as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is providing grants to adjacent Green Gulch Zen Center to create a salmon sanctuary by restoring Green Gulch Creek, which flows into Redwood Creek at Muir Beach. But these expansion plans were not disclosed to conservation groups, nor to the adjacent Green Gulch Zen Center, which is responsible for initiating and managing the tributary creek salmon restoration project.
The construction project would disrupt Highway 1, the main coastal road to the beaches north of San Francisco, California. Two 120-foot-long cement slab bus stations were scheduled for tiny Muir Beach, a town of 150 homes. Specifications included a massive concrete retaining wall and installation of some 60 “helical piers” sunk 35 feet into wetlands – based on geological surveys dating back to 2011.
The settlement will safeguard one of the last native coho salmon spawning areas in California. Construction of the stations, designed to shuttle 2,000 riders per day to and from Muir Beach and Muir Woods, has been halted indefinitely. GGNRA will notify the Task Force if it revives the project. “We’ve asked that the Sierra Club and the Marin Conservation League be notified, too, given their significant contributions to stewardship,” Ms. Shannon said.
Other park guardians worry about the repeated failure to disclose NPS/GGNRA development plans. “We do not want to have to use Freedom of Information requests to discover GGNRA plans …they are a public agency and they should finally deliver on their unfulfilled promises of open dialogue and full disclosure,” said Robert Wright, of Muir Woods Park Community Association.
The bus stations plan is but one of a series of controversial GGNRA visitor expansion projects for Muir Woods, the area surrounding it, and the roadways leading to it. Similar projects were previously rejected by Marin County Supervisors in 2005 after two years of public debate due to concerns about habitat destruction, vehicle pollution, runoff to streams and wetlands, safety risks to hikers and cyclists, and wildfire dangers in the impacted areas.
The Task Force is also working with the National Park Service on its Freedom of Information Act requests to gather data on its 20-year general management plan for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that includes expanded commercial access by both car and bus through and to the fragile Muir Woods ecosystem.
“We hope the improved dialogue will result in a general management plan that responsibly and lawfully protects the sensitive ecology of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, especially Muir Woods,” Ms. Shannon said.
As Teddy Roosevelt established Muir Woods and other national parks, he cautioned:
“I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it, in your own interest and in the interest of the country — keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.”
The NEPA lawsuit against the National Park Service was filed by Chris Carr, Corinne Quigley, and Navi Dhillon of Morrison & Foerster.