Denning on Watt, 'The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore'

Laura Alice Watt
Robert Denning

Laura Alice Watt. The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016. 368 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-27708-3.

Reviewed by Robert Denning (Southern New Hampshire University) Published on H-California (August, 2018) Commissioned by Khal Schneider

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Denning on Watt, The Paradox of Preservation

In The Paradox of Preservation, Laura Alice Watt tells the modern human history of the region known today as the Point Reyes National Seashore and the National Park Service’s attempts to erase that human history during recent decades. In doing so, Watt demonstrates the paradox at the heart of the wilderness preservation movement: the landscapes that environmentalists, wildlife officials, and often the public wish to protect from human exploitation are usually the products of generations of constant human manipulation, and attempts to preserve those landscapes in a “natural” or “wild” state will continue to require constant human manipulation. This book uses Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate, to demonstrate how government land-use agencies like the National Park Service (NPS) struggle to navigate this paradox. In Watt’s telling, the NPS does not do this very well.

The Paradox of Preservation is organized chronologically and starts with the guiding ideologies behind the wilderness preservation movement. Americans in the nineteenth century viewed scenic locations like Yosemite and Yellowstone as markers of their national heritage. Visionaries like John Muir convinced politicians and concerned citizens that these sites deserved protection from human development. Since these were public lands, however, other, more entrepreneurial visionaries argued that Americans were entitled to visit and explore those sites (and pay for concessions while doing so). Park planners thus became responsible for somehow protecting wilderness sites from humans while also allowing those humans to roam as freely as possible. Congress created the NPS in 1916 to administer the parks while upholding those competing goals.

The NPS was able to do this fairly well in remote, unpopulated areas like Yosemite and Yellowstone by focusing on the wilderness ideal and erasing the scarce signs of human settlement, but this became more difficult by the end of the Progressive Era as federal, state, and local officials began to create parks in areas with much larger human footprints. Urban residents lobbied for more recreation options closer to home, and the NPS and Congress began to develop parks in or near cities. To provide such options to San Franciscans, the NPS chose Point Reyes as a new park site because of its ocean access, its picturesque rocky headlands and open grasslands, and its numerous plant and animal species.

Of concern to the NPS, however, and a violation of the wilderness ideal, was the existence of numerous nonpicturesque human activities in Point Reyes, including dozens of dairy and cattle ranches. Thus we reach the paradox at the heart of Watt’s book. The scenic landscape that existed there in 1962, when the area was designated as the Point Reyes National Seashore, was not wild at all, but was instead the result of manipulation, cultivation, and alterations by generations of Miwok Indians, Mexican settlers, and American ranchers, and maintaining the landscape in this “pristine” condition would require continuous human intervention.

Ideally, according to Watt, federal agencies like the NPS would attempt to present both the natural and human history of the sites they administer. Doing so would require collaboration and cooperation between federal agencies, environmentalists, and local ranchers and other users of the land. This collaboration never happened in Point Reyes. Instead, the NPS, supported by environmentalists and wilderness advocates, pursued policies that mostly favored the creation of a natural landscape that excluded ranchers and other human inhabitants. Over the past half-century, Watt notes, the NPS has pressured nearly two-thirds of the ranchers to leave, shut down a century-old oyster farm, and destroyed many historical buildings and culturally important sites, often in violation of state and federal laws. The service introduced a herd of tule elk, which had not existed in Point Reyes since the nineteenth century, in the 1990s in an effort to reconstruct a bygone wilderness, but this herd created more difficulties with local ranchers.

This summary, and much of the argument in Watt’s book, makes the NPS out to be the bad guy in all of this. The book presents a story of mom-and-pop dairies and ranches getting squeezed out by a powerful government agency that lacked oversight or accountability. This book is not a right-wing screed against big government, however. As Watt notes, “this book does not advocate for the privatization of Point Reyes, nor of any other public lands—yet neither would I encourage absolute federal control of working landscapes, as it is simply not a good fit at this time” (p. 231). Watt is calling for a balanced approach in which private landowners collaborate with Park Service officials. Rather than displaying the complex relationships between nature and people that contribute to the development of beautiful sites like Point Reyes, the NPS is pursuing stubborn, and unrealistic, policies intended to separate humanity from nature and to protect parks from all change.

The NPS’s management of Point Reyes is in the midst of a potential transition, so it is difficult to determine whether arguments like Watt’s will influence future park policies. As of this writing, the NPS’s official website on Point Reyes calls the region “A Natural Sanctuary, a Human Haven.” “Home to several cultures over thousands of years,” the site notes, “the Seashore preserves a tapestry of stories and interactions of people.” The front page displays information on the famous Point Reyes lighthouse, a replica Miwok village, and a habitat restoration project that calls for volunteers to help “protect and restore endangered plant and wildlife habitat.” While the website seems to provide a better balance of human and natural history than in the past as described by Watt, the service is also in the midst of amending the General Management Plan for Point Reyes, which could ultimately exclude ranching from the region.[1]

The Paradox of Preservation is well written and thought-provoking. Watt makes excellent use of legislative hearings, agency reports, and personal interviews to provide a detailed account of the development of Point Reyes and the NPS’s management thereof. To this reviewer, the book’s greatest accomplishment was to spark a reconsideration of the definition of “wilderness” in the context of the titular paradox. Watt is obviously indebted here to William Cronon’s famous essay on “The Trouble with Wilderness,” a debt that Watt acknowledges more than once in her book.[2] Where Cronon’s essay was wide-ranging and general, Watt’s book is focused and specific. This book is a valuable read for students of environmental history, California history, federalism, and federal wilderness policy.


[1]. “Point Reyes National Seashore,” National Park Service website,, last updated July 22, 2018, accessed July 26, 2018.

[2]. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (1996): 7-28.

Citation: Robert Denning. Review of Watt, Laura Alice, The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore. H-California, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL:

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