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May, 2007



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Coastal Post Interview - Dave Mitchell
by Jeanette Pontacq

This interview is the first in a series that will address the twin concerns in West Marin of losing knowledge of our past and understanding issues of today within the context of West Marin's history. We have chosen Dave Mitchell, former editor and publisher of the Point Reyes Light newspaper and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public seervice, as our first interviewee because of his long memory as a news gatherer in West Marin and for his flair for insightful analysis. As the author of this interview, I find it telling that old adversaries like Dave Mitchell and myself are now in a situation of interviewer and interviewee. Dave and I have not always agreed on issues concerning West Marin, to say the least. We do, however, agree completely on the need for West Marin residents to understand why West Marin is as it is now, in anecdotes and analysis. So here we go.

As I parked my truck just below Dave's cabin on a hillside overlooking the head of Tomales Bay, thoughts ran furiously through my head of the best way to do an interesting and efficient interview with a highly experienced newsman. As it turned out, I should not have worried, because Dave was both forthcoming with his memories and open with his analysis. As he made coffee and tea for us, we decided to divide the interview into sections, to include changes in West Marin communities over the last decades, influence of, and results from, the takeover of much of West Marin land by the National Park Service, and an analysis of community journalism.

Who we were

In 1975, when Dave arrived here, virtually every town in West Marin had a gas station. Tomales even had two of them! Point Reyes Station had a cobbler to fix your shoes and a shop where you could get your radio or tv repaired. Similar shops existed in other towns. There was an amazingly all-inclusive hardware store (geared to the needs of local lives) in the Grandi Building in PRS. There was even a West Marin fashion show of clothes that could be bought in town, The fashion show, Dave told me, was heavy on affordable and practical country clothing, not Gucci. The Palace Market was full service, with all the necessities and basic supplies. An organic produce store was across the street.

There were two community centers - 600 people in Point Reyes Station had both the original Dance Palace and the Red Barn for entertainment and community get togethers. The Lions Club owned the Red Barn then and called it the West Marin Community Center. The Center, hosted many a civic activity. Bolinas was still a hidden hamlet dominated by the counterculture.

It was common in the 70s, Dave said, for many year-round renters to move out for 2-3 weeks once a year while the owners of the houses came to stay, especially in Inverness and the larger Inverenss Park. Virtually all Latino residents lived on the surrounding ranches at that time.

Pouring me another cup of tea, Dave said that the West Marin of those years was what he would consider "sustainable," something he feels has been essentially lost. In the 70s, local communities were pretty much self-contained, without the necessity of going over the hill for basics.

In the mid-80s, things really started to change with the arrival of the Dot-Comers, for whom money was no object. Youngish dot-comers with "money up the kazoo" could, and did, buy a second home for fun in Inverness or Bolinas or wherever. As Dave explained, commercial real estate has a real value in how much it can generate in money; private real estate, however, bases its price just on how much one is willing to spend. So the dot-comers offered huge prices for homes here, the owners sold, and the dot-comers then often kicked out the tenants, who were local workers.

All of a sudden it seemed there were fewer people here all year long, and local workers still here entered an era of difficulty in finding affordable places to live. At the same time, tourism increased, with the changeover of more and more homes to vacation rentals, weekend homes and Bed&Breakfasts;, exacerbating the housing problem for local workers.

Local stores became more "deli-like," Dave said, doing the bulk of business on weekends via tourism. Thus was born the beginning of the changeover from basic necessities and supplies to more fancy foods and wine, in order to cater to visitors, not year-round locals.

When I asked Dave to describe to me the most telling sign of the changeover from a sustainable village to a tourist economy, he smiled a bit ruefully and said it was the growth in the number of art galleries and art shops in West Marin and the 50% drop in the number of community centers just in Point Reyes Station.

He explained that there are now 3 delis in even just Point Reyes Station, the Whale of a Deli at the southern entrance, the Palace Market deli and the upscale deli at Tomales Bay Foods. The Palace Market, he said, has changed by necessity as populations changed. The Tomales Bay Foods building' deli was created to take advantage of the change, while the Whale, which was once Cheda's Market, has increasingly become less of a market and more of a deli.

As to the Latino populace in West Marin, Dave reminded me that there were a number of Latino families here that, even in the 70s, prospered as they left the ranches because they were able to buy homes. This happened because they pooled family resources to buy homes and businesses together. Unlike the "Gringo" community, the Latino community was able to accept multiple family members living together without the level of privacy so prized by "Gringos."

As the hard-working Latino populace increased, a change in workers in town occurred, with many in the socio-economic lower middle class of "Gringos" forced to move out due to costs. A number of those lost jobs went to the emerging and increasing Latino population. Dave also wanted to remind me that the current wave of Latino immigration, so much talked about now, actually started with one specific guy back in 1968!

Point Reyes National Seashore - foe or friend?

Obviously, Dave Mitchell has opinions from his long experience in West Marin. It is well known that he has been at loggerheads with the present Park administration on several issues. I asked him what issue or moment made him finally decide that he could not trust the Neubacher administration.

Dave told me that "the night it changed" for him in regard to Don Neubacher was the night there was a meeting at the Dance Palace on the pepper-spray incident in Point Reyes Station (incident took place on the corner of Highway One and Sir Francis Drake Blvd in July 2004, when Park ranger Roger Mayo extensively pepper sprayed Chris Miller and his sister Jessica (teenagers) in the face, even as Jessica was kneeling on the ground and was in handcuffs from a perceived altercation.)

Dave gave me a blow by blow description of how Neubacher had told the worried local audience that "We've started our own internal investigation. I know some of you have doubts about it. So we have asked the Marin District Attorney's office to conduct a parallel investigation...etc." Dave, for the Light, called the D.A.'s office the very next morning to verify and found that not only had Neubacher not asked the D.A. for a parallel investigation, but that the D.A.'s office did not have authority to do such an investigation. Instead, Neubacher had actually asked the D.A. to prosecute the two kids instead of even look at investigating the action of his ranger. The D.A. refused. In the end, of course, newspapers have commented on the fact that Mayo was ultimately transferred out and a financial settlement was made by the Park to the victims.

Dave told me that he feels that the present Park administration's policies are ruining the West Marin he loves. Dave then went into a calm and studied soliloquy on his contention that a great deal of the lack of affordable housing in West Marin can be laid at the feet of Neubacher's policies in buying up historic buildings on the periphery of the Park (Jewel, for example) and then either 1) standing back and letting vandals trash them and then tearing them down or 2) denying private tenants renewal of leaseback arrangements and then providing the housing to rangers.

Park policies, he explained at length, seem to want to erase human history around here and create a pretend nature preserve. Even some ranches leased back to ranchers within the Park are too often not real ranches in every sense, but partial Disneyland attractions for visitors. When questioned for more details, he told me that his dispute is more than just a philosophical one, but that he considers it an environmental disaster that grasslands, here since the last ice age, are being destroyed in the name of "wilderness purity."

He told me that, according to Charles Lauff, a Mexican-era resident, the largest elk herd in the world was once living here, feeding on the grasses. With the Spanish conquest of California, Spanish cattle took over from the elk, with the last two seen swimming across Tomales Bay in 1868! After that, Mexican cattle kept the trend going, soon replaced by American cattle. All those ruminants were munching on the same grass, and acted to keep the grasslands healthy by suppressing the prickly chaparral.

When the National Park bought the ranches, eliminating cattle within the core Park, coastal chaparrals quickly took over thousands of acres of native grasslands. "Park policy is to change the long-time environment of Point Reyes and turn it into a nature preserve that never previously existed - at least since the last ice age," he said. Dave went on to say that such a Park was not the one envisioned by Congress when they began talking about its creation. Clem Miller, who is considered by many to be the father of the Point Reyes National Seashore, made it clear that they were not creating a nature preserve, but a park to serve an urban area, according to Dave. Congress wanted the pastoral identity retained, Dave said, and the congressmen were adamant on that during committee hearings. It was obvious that Dave is saddened by the loss of the grasslands and of Clem Miller's dream for the Park.

Community Journalism

In beginning the conversation with what is wrong in community journalism in West Marin at the moment, Dave started with a lesson on participatory democracy. There are 14 special districts and 7 school districts in West Marin, and all have elected boards, something important to remember, he said. Since West Marin is unincorporated and has no local, elected official specifically representing the area alone, the one and only way locals have to take part in a democratic process in regard to West Marin is to impact those 14 special districts and 7 school districts, or at least the ones that pertain to a specific resident's life and property. In Dave's opinion, providing a clue to residents about what is on those special districts' agendas is part of community journalism, a part that is now missing.

Direct participatory democracy, he explained, means someone in Inverness with rust in their water can go to the Inverness Utility District meeting and tell them that he smells rust in his water and needs help - nd get action. Issues, both minor and overwhelming, can be addressed directly that way by an individual resident. Keeping residents apprised of how they can participate in local decisions should be an important part of the reason for a local paper, he said.

Dave continued his explanations by saying that a major trend in the USA in order not to lose circulation is to go hyper-local in news coverage. Knowing what is going on locally, in some depth, has proven to be very important to the average person. Covering those district meetings for the public is kind of a rite of passage for interns in journalism as well, he said, since they will be expected to do so as professional journalists.

Of course, both of us sipping our drinks at that moment knew that there were other problems and issues with Dave's former paper, most expressed by its subtitle changing from "West Marin's Pulitzer Prize-Winning Newspaper" to "Marin's Pulitzer Prize-Wining Newspaper," and neither one of us was probably thinking about the obvious typo in the April 5th issue's subtitle.

As I left Dave's cabin atop the hillside, I was glad I had been able to do the interview on that particular day. The sun was shining and the view was terrific and I had the feeling that both West Marin and Dave Mitchell would keep on being interesting.

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