How Big Sur Almost Became a National Park and Why It Didn’t

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

In autumn 1977 Gary Koeppel, a Big Sur gallery owner, learned that some affluent Monterey Peninsula residents led by Ansel Adams wanted to make Big Sur a national park. What irked Koeppel and the Big Sur residents he told was that the park advocates had held secret meetings with county, state and federal officials. An informal poll found 98% of Big Sur people opposed the park idea, so Koeppel vowed to stop federalization by whatever means necessary. Ironically, Adams and Koeppel and most Sur residents shared the goal of protecting Big Sur. They simply differed radically about how to do it.

When park proponents started the Big Sur Foundation in spring 1978, Koeppel countered by starting the monthly Big Sur Gazette to communicate among the locals. The state attorney general soon called the paper “inaccurate and highly inflammatory,” but locals loved it. In early 1979 the California Coastal Commission directed the county board of supervisors to develop a Big Sur Local Coastal Plan (LCP). Big Sur residents enthusiastically participated in the hearings to draft the CP, seeing it as the local control alternative to becoming a national park. Adams and his group ignored the LCP, pressuring Washington instead. In November, Adams presented President Carter with a confidential memo about preserving Big Sur. In January 1980 evidence was revealed that Adam’s Big Sur Foundation had been lobbying the Senate Energy Committee about placing Big Sur under federal ownership. That month Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA) tacked an amendment on an omnibus parks bill that would allow Los Padres National Forest to expand by any amount of land. When the powerful senator asked Senator S. I. Hayakawa (R-CA) to support the amendment, however, Hayakawa called Big Sur residents instead. Cranston’s office was flooded with 2000 telegrams and phone calls urging that he drop the amendment. Cranston did so, but later quietly introduced a new bill virtually the same.

Tactics shifted. In February the Wilderness Society, now led by Adams’ former business manager, announced a plan to make Big Sur “the first national scenic area. ‘The only difference between this plan and Adams’ original was that Big Sur would be under the Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of the Interior. Cranston introduced another bill to “save” Big Sur under the Wilderness Society plan, complete with a $100 million appropriation to start buying Big Sur land. When Cranston scheduled a day of hearings on the bill in Washington, Big Sur residents had to journey 3000 miles to argue their case. Several Sur residents stayed a week, breaking into teams and visiting as many senators as they could. At a pivotal meeting with Cranston, they expressed their concerns, but it became clear that Cranston not only hadn’t written the bill, he didn’t know it’s content. When they got to the meeting with the next senator, they were told the meeting had been canceled after Senator Cranston’s office called. In fact the Cranston staff had called every senator connected with the bill to say the group’s objections had been resolved. The Big Sur resident-lobbyists had to call and reset the rest of the week’s appointments, then call every senator they’d already met with to repeat their concerns. The bill died in the Senate for lack of support.

Meanwhile the Big Sur park idea was taken up by Philip Burton (D-CA), powerful head of the House parks subcommittee, SO action shifted to the House. Burton told Monterey County congressman Leon Panetta (D-CA), “Either you do it or I’ll do it.” In June Panetta introduced his own bill with several concessions to local control. Panetta saw the Big Sur park as an important local issue and attempted “the best solution I could come up with.’ Resistance in Big Sur continued at the same fevered pace. Panetta held hearings in Monterey where both supporters and opponents of the bill presented compelling arguments.

When Burton’s committee held another day of hearings in Washington, much of the testimony opposed the bill, but Burton pushed hard and got the House to pass the bill by a two-thirds majority.

Cranston pledged to guide the bill through the Senate, but the election year recess loomed just two days away. The Big Sur park advocates decided to gamble all for their original goal. Cranston got Senator Bumpers (D-AR) to make six amendments that removed all local control from the Big Sur park. When the Senate neared adjournment without the committee voting on Big Sur, Phil Burton tried a last ditch technical maneuver, attaching the Big Sur bill to a minor noncontroversial bill bound to pass. Why pass the bill through the House when it had already passed it? Because the Senate had already approved the non-controversial bill (without the Big Sur attachment), it would likely be rushed through for approval without anyone noticing that the Big Sur park was attached. It nearly worked, but fortunately for Big Sur residents Senator Hayakawa’s staff had placed a “hold” on any legislation concerning Big Sur. Thus the Senate minority leader was required to inform Hayakawa that the bill was back in the Senate. The bill was shelved for the next session of Congress. Five weeks later Ronald Reagan was elected president and when Congress reconvened, both Democrats and Republicans agreed to pass only noncontroversial legislation. Obviously the Big Sur park bill didn’t qualify. It was never introduced again.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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