Legend has it that Amy Meyer created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area from her kitchen table in San Francisco. But one part of that story is not true.
“It was actually a counter. We had it put in because we were going to have dinner parties and use it as a buffet—but it never saw a dish,” explains Meyer, speaking to The Standard from the Outer Richmond home where she and her husband raised their daughters and, indeed, from where she began and led the movement to create San Francisco’s 50-year-old urban national park in 1970. Added Meyer, “I did the paperwork on that counter. We did the maps there.”
Now called the “Mother of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area,” Meyer had a front-row seat for the changing of the guard, as Bay Area women took the environmental preservation baton and ran.
“The Sierra Club began in 1872," Meyer said. "It was an all-male organization where men went into the mountains together and did men things.”
But by the 1960s, many women became key drivers of environmental preservation, especially in the Bay Area. “Women thought about themselves differently 50 years ago—it was a period of change,” explains Meyer.
Unshockingly, for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the environmental movement was led by men. John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt, Ansel Adams—these are the historic champions of conservation’s early days who were the first to question whether every tree needed to be chopped, every river dammed, every bear shot.
And while the names of these men are legendary in U.S. history, the names of the women who fought to preserve the natural wilderness that covers so much of San Francisco and the Bay Area are far less familiar.
Meyer is one exception to this rule. And though not exactly a household name, she is well-known as the force behind the nation’s first urban national park—a park "for the people, where the people are"—and one of a strong, savvy group of female environmentalists who residents have to thank for the Bay Area’s natural beauty that we take for granted today.
An In-Between Generation of Powerful Women
While her mother’s generation had tasted independence by becoming “Rosie the Riveters” in World War II and her daughters’ generation would inherit the advances of the women’s liberation movement, Meyer and other mothers of the 1950s and 1960s were back to hosting teas and staying home with the kids.
“I wanted to go to medical school but my parents said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that,’” says Meyer, who then decided to follow a more traditional path for women in the 1950s: Married a doctor at 21, earned a master’s degree, taught art and then left her position to be a full-time mom. “You could get along on one salary in 1970.”
So the San Francisco housewife went in search of a “little community job” into which she could donate her time and ended up creating an 82,000-acre national park.
Volunteerism was a major reason why women founded so many groundbreaking environmental nonprofits in the Bay Area, according to Meyer. “Whether it was Save the Bay or SF Tomorrow or our group, the organizations that came into being in the late 1960s and 1970s were all led by women—and just about all of them were volunteers.”
Indeed, the female founders who helped “Save the Bay,” clean up Hunters Point, and preserve Glen Canyon, Mount Davidson and agricultural lands in western Marin County are all part of this post-WWII, pro-women’s lib generation of educated women.
The Kitchen Where It Happened
Meyer’s desire for a community project led her to a neighborhood meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), SF’s century-old urban planning organization, about developing greenbelts around the city.
At the meeting, she heard about a plan to decommission the eastern part of Fort Miley, a 12-acre tangle of brush and trees near the Veteran Affairs Hospital and her home. The government wanted to turn it into a National Archives building, but locals wanted a park. Also mentioned was the idea of preserving the failed “Marincello” development in the Marin Headlands as natural open space.
“So my neighbor and I walked over to Ed Wayburn’s house,” said Meyer, who told the San Francisco doctor and then-head of the local Sierra Club of the movement afoot to conserve the land. Wayburn was surprised because though he successfully lobbied to create the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962, he and his neighbor Ansel Adams had been pushing Washington to save the Marin Headlands for years without luck.
Thus in 1971, People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area—affectionately called PFGGNRA (“piff-gun-nurah”) by its members—was born at Meyer’s kitchen table, er, counter. (Meyer documented the entire park-creation journey in her 2006 book, New Guardians for the Golden Gate: How America Got a Great National Park.)
With Point Reyes now part of the National Park System, Muir Woods as a national monument since 1907 and Mount Tamalpais a state park since 1928, Meyer and Wayburn plotted a way to connect these dots of public land into a new national park to include SF’s Fort Miley, Marin County’s Olema Valley and even the recently vacated Alcatraz Island.
Armed with an answering service and an electric typewriter, Meyer leveraged her networking skills and boundless energy to inform San Franciscans that the future of their local environment was on the table. She spoke at Rotary Club lunches, talked to special interest groups like the California Native Plant Society, published a newsletter (secretly printed by a supporter at PG&E) and helped locals write their congressmen by drafting “model letters” to send.
With the support of a bipartisan group of national and regional officials, including Sen. Phil Burton, President Nixon signed the 34,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area into existence in October 1972.
When news of the new park became official, Meyer remembered one reporter’s surprise. “He told me, ‘Amy, I thought you were a nice person, but I also thought you were a little crazy.’”
READ MORE: Speaker Nancy Pelosi Kicks Off the 50th Anniversary of the Nation’s First Urban National Park in San Francisco
Meyer didn't just create a new national park that protected 35 threatened or endangered species, preserved prehistoric Coastal Miwok and Ohlone sites and gave SF Bay Area residents an epic place to play outside. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was the first U.S. park in a populated area and an example of the "parks for the people, where the people are" that the National Parks Service wanted to create.
In the ensuing five decades, Meyer and PFGGNRA continued their push to preserve the Bay Area’s natural environment, adding the Presidio in 1994 and large areas of the South Bay peninsula to the park.
The Next Generation of 'Mothers'
Meyers is quick to point to the many other women who worked to realize today’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, including Becky Evans of the Sierra Club, Jean Fraser of the Presidio Trust, Christine S. Lehnertz of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and Mia Monroe, one of the recreation area’s longest serving park rangers who began working at Muir Woods in 1982. Meyers remembers Monroe showing up on her doorstep as a 16-year-old wanting to get involved and now the two will lead a talk on May 2 about the park’s 50th anniversary.
Join SPUR on May 2 for "How We Got a National Park at the Golden Gate" to learn about the creation of an 82,000-acre national park + @GoldenGateNPS' 50th anniversary. Featuring speakers Jim Chappell, Amy Meyer & Mia Monroe. Free, registration required. https://t.co/IAizwvXme3— Presidio of San Francisco (@presidiosf) April 17, 2023
Today’s environmental activists—regardless of gender identity—have it tougher than she and her sisters from the 1960s and 1970s, says Meyers. The days of the single-income household are long gone and, with it, the raft of volunteers that powered many of these initiatives.
And sadly, bipartisan political support for any cause is tough to find.
“The mechanics of [creating an environmental movement] would be easier today, communication is far more instantaneous,” says Meyers. “The difference is that, politically, the dysfunction in Congress and Washington would make it extremely difficult to get anything of this nature done.”
But if you’d have told Meyer in 1970 that her little volunteer job would lead to setting up the first national park of its kind, she’d have likely become overwhelmed.
“You have to pick a cause that you stand a reasonable chance of accomplishing,” says Meyer, who advises today’s environmentalists to start small. “It’s important to choose something you can get your hands around and feel the edges of, then you can start to build support.”
And it's the nature of an environmentalist to not focus on today but on what today’s changes will mean to future generations.
“These views look the same now as they did 50 years ago,” said Meyer proudly, gesturing to the bay and headlands behind the podium set up in Fort Mason for GGNRA’s 50th-anniversary kickoff ceremony in October. “I want to look to 50 years from now and say, ‘We’ve really had a good time here.’”
Maryann Jones Thompson can be reached at [email protected]