A Widow’s Campaign Saved Point Reyes, and Sparked a Conservation Surge

September 1, 2023
Beautiful view of the lighthouse in Point Reyes

The Point Reyes National Seashore Lighthouse is a landmark in the 71,028-acre park preserve on the Point Reyes Peninsula in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco. (National Park Service photo)

Gerald Warburg set out to explore a local environmental story, but instead discovered unrecognized heroes, unwrapped a family’s history, and found a pivotal episode in U.S. environmental policymaking.

A professor at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Warburg has written a book that he describes as a political history of California’s Point Reyes National Seashore. It arose from a term paper assignment in an interdisciplinary Batten School project: study a past success in non-governmental organization advocacy and apply its lessons to a current challenge, such as climate change. Batten students were hired as research assistants and critiqued manuscript drafts extensively.

In “Saving Point Reyes,” Warburg also explores the complex personalities and politics involved.

Determine to Make Alzheimer’s A Memory | Learn More About What It Means to Be Great and Good in All We Do
Determine to Make Alzheimer’s A Memory | Learn More About What It Means to Be Great and Good in All We Do

Point Reyes National Seashore is a 71,028-acre park preserve on the Point Reyes Peninsula in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco. It is maintained by the U.S. National Park Service as a nature preserve. Once a hub of dairy operations, its ranches now coexist with more than 1,500 species of plants and animals.

The park was initially created in 1962 after President John F. Kennedy signed legislation designating first Cape Cod, then Point Reyes as national seashores. But Point Reyes languished, unfunded and unsupported, for seven years.

“I was driven by an intense curiosity about a simple mystery,” said Warburg, who was raised in Marin County. “I never knew how it got saved. Once I started to write, I realized for every layer of the onion I peeled back, there were more mysteries and more insights that are highly relevant for young policymakers today.”

Kennedy, according to Warburg, had wanted the designation for Cape Cod, but for political and regional balance added Point Reyes, which was being championed by U.S. Rep. Clem Miller, a Marin County Democrat who had secured a seat on the House of Representatives’ Interior Committee. Neophyte Miller learned politics quickly and worked hard for his Point Reyes plan, including manufacturing grassroots support where there was little.

Professor Gerald Warburg
Batten professor Gerald Warburg explored the personalities and politics in a legislative history of the Point Reyes National Seashore. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“Congressman Miller and his district staff were scrambling to create the appearance of local support for what was initially a Washington-driven park proposal,” Warburg wrote in his book.

Miller won Kennedy’s support for the plan, but little more than a year after the bill’s signing, both Kennedy and Miller were dead – Miller in a plane crash in October 1962, and Kennedy from an assassin’s bullet in November 1963. As the federal government moved on to more pressing issues, the Point Reyes Seashore project slowly foundered, with little support and little money to buy the land.

Book cover

Gerald Warburg, in UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, wrote a political history of California’s Point Reyes National Seashore.

By 1969, the National Park Service proposed to sell some of the land it had already acquired, subdivide a section of the peninsula, and build 4,500 houses.

That spurred Katherine Miller Johnson, widow of Clem Miller, into action. When she married Clem Miller, she was a 19-year-old Bryn Mawr College student, who left college. When he died, she was a young widow with five daughters. Six years later, when she had heard of the Park Service proposal, she was remarried, had another child and was helping raise three stepchildren.

But she knew what Point Reyes meant to Miller.

“One by one by one by one, she was writing to key influential journalists and politicians around the country about this park,” Warburg said. “She was writing The New York Times and The Washington Post, creating stories, getting free media, writing [former First Lady] Lady Bird Johnson to ask her to write President Richard Nixon, writing [Nixon’s domestic policy adviser] John Ehrlichman. She flew back to California and paid for the Save Our Seashore campaign with personal funds.”

Neither was Katherine Johnson afraid to play the widow card. She readily conceded that she leveraged it for access to influential people and used their sympathy to negotiate with committee chairs before whom she testified.

Older photo from election

Point Reyes National Seashore was championed by U.S. Rep. Clem Miller, a Marin County Democrat who had secured a seat on the House of Representatives’ Interior Committee, shown with his family. (Contributed photo)

While Katherine Johnson was the public face of the campaign in congressional testimony, Nixon, a California native, was looking at the midterm elections and calculating that support for preserving Point Reyes would be rewarded at the polls. In the end, Nixon signed a bill increasing the funding for the Point Reyes National Seashore from $14 million to $54 million. As part of this Point Reyes deal, more than $300 million for other parks projects around the country was also released by the Nixon administration.

Nixon was also influenced by Ehrlichman, another surprise for Warburg.

“I didn’t realize the depth of the White House support for Point Reyes,” Warburg said. “I grew up thinking John Ehrlichman was a villain from Watergate days. I didn’t realize he was actually one of the heroes of Point Reyes. His best friend from their time together at Stanford Law School was [U.S. Rep.] Pete McCloskey, who helped him raise his kids – and he was fighting for the park. There are a lot of surprises in this story, including the fact that Republicans like Nixon and Ehrlichman played a key role.”

Point Reyes, Warburg realized, was not a regional story. It was a turning point in the nascent national environmental movement, with people such as Katherine Miller Johnson and Ehrlichman as the fulcrums on which its history pivoted.

“The whole environmental consciousness of 1969 and 1970 and just an extraordinary amount of legislation all happened right around this time,” he said. “The National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the renewal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Marine Mammal Protection Act , the creation of another dozen national seashores and lakeshores– these all happened right after this fight.”

Older photo of the family

Katherine Miller Johnson, shown with her first husband Clem Miller and their daughters, carried on his fight for the Point Reyes National Seashore. (Contributed photo)

Researching the book was also a personal journey for Warburg, whose father, Felix, had been head of the Marin County Planning Commission and a player in the Point Reyes saga. Although he was unaware of his father’s role at the time, Warburg discussed it with him before he died and found that newcomers to the area, such as his parents, were often the people who most wanted to preserve the peninsula against the threat of subdivision.

“The newcomers recognized how precious it was,” he said.

While Warburg had never heard of Katherine Miller Johnson, who died in 1991, in connection with Point Reyes, he knew his parents were friends with Clem Miller and his wife. During his research, Miller’s daughters provided him photos of their parents together.

“There were 24 rolls and contact sheets from his last 1962 campaign, and one of the last rolls was shot in our living room,” Warburg said. “And it was my mom and dad sitting talking to Clem Miller, about stuff they cared about. That was the proof. I’d known all along that they were close, and that they cared, and that they would be talking about these environmental issues.”

Despite the diverse cast of characters, Warburg believes the thriving park would not exist today were it not for Katherine Miller Johnson, a woman so erased from the story that there is nothing about her in the signage at Point Reyes.

“This was an example of a woman nearly forgotten in the first drafts of history,” Warburg said. “I thought as we examined this case study to help guide current policymaking challenges, it was important to rectify that omission.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications