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Bay Nature magazineApril-June 2008

Marking Time on the Dunes

by on April 01, 2008

A walk at Lawson’s Landing is a step back into simpler times, when families returned to the same spot every summer, and nobody worried too much about building permits and planning boards.

The Lawson family originally bought land at the mouth of Tomales Bay for grazing in 1928, but their bread and butter since 1957 has been a campground and trailer park.

The Lawsons’ old-fashioned hospitality, low rates, and great location attract thousands of campers every year. “Eighty percent of our clientele comes from Sacramento, Lodi, and the foothills,” says co-owner Carl “Willy” Vogler Jr., whose mother was a Lawson. “That was where the Lawsons came from, around the turn of the last century, to get away from the heat.” Some campers have almost as long a history with the place. “There are people who have been coming out here since the late ’50s and early ’60s,” Vogler says.

A lot has changed since the Lawsons first arrived. Blowing sand was the rule in the 1920s, but the spread of nonnative beachgrass on the foredunes has since made for a sheltered campground. “Those foredunes are what make it possible to have everything else here,” says Vogler, “so we’re pretty partial to them.”

But the stabilized foredunes have starved the formerly mobile dunes of new sand, posing a complex problem: Dune restoration, while possible, might make the area much less pleasant for camping.

Dune restoration is a difficult issue, but there’s less debate that the whole operation has been running without required permits for decades, and that the permanent trailer park at the site is especially problematic.

More than 200 trailers line the south end of the beach, all served by substandard septic systems. To address the situation, the Lawsons have applied for permits from the county and the Coastal Commission. The commission will likely hold hearings on the matter this fall.

The need for permits provides leverage to activists arguing for dune restoration. The Lawsons say they want a workable compromise that protects both the dunes and their livelihood. A master plan released in late March (after we went to press) calls for reducing recreational use by one-third, varying capacity seasonally, and removing most campsites from seasonal wetlands along the road, says co-owner Mike Lawson.

Local environmentalists agree that compromise is possible. But as the permit process drags on—it began in 1990—the campground and trailer park continue to operate as usual. “It will be several more years before the protections we seek are put in place,” says Catherine Caufield of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. “So we need interim measures.”

To voice your opinion on the issue, write to Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission, at 45 Fremont St. #2000, San Francisco, CA 94105.

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