Landscape Processes and Cultural Resources: Shifting Perspectives to Protect Mendocino Woodlands

This presentation is part of A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abstract and Presenter’s Bio

Laurie Matthews:            It’s late in the day. I know I’m a little tired, so I hope that this is an exciting presentation that will keep you awake. It’s definitely sticking to some of the themes that we’ve been hearing about this afternoon here about the New Deal era. I’m not going to really talk about the design of it. I’m really going to talk about what we’re doing to try to save one particular New Deal era site in Northern California.

As one of only two recreation demonstration areas built in the western US, and one of only two that remain intact nationwide, Mendocino Woodlands is a rare and complete example of the planning, design, and craft of the Works Progress Administration era. As a camp that still enjoys its historic use today, the threats to this national historic landmark don’t come from adaptive reuse. Instead, the dense redwood forest that continues to mature and the flowing streams that are rich with life that braid through the site both continue to contribute to this cultural landscapes character, but they’re also contributing to its loss. In addition, this site is struggling financially and has been at the short end of funding streams in a region that often prizes its natural resources over its cultural ones.

These aren’t isolated issues to this site, but they’re systemic of some of the types of challenges that we’re facing with many historic properties located in sensitive, very complex landscapes. A solution from my perspective is not to continue conserving one resource at the detriment of another, but looking at the resource more holistically and developing  preservation and conservation strategies that sustain the character of the place.

Mendocino Woodlands is a 720 acre parcel that was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997. Ethan Carr wrote the National Historic Landmark nomination, so it’s in obviously very good shape. It’s now a state park located approximately seven miles east of the town of Mendocino, California, which is right along the Pacific Ocean, and about 160 miles north of San Francisco, which is the closest urban center. It’s in a coast redwood forest. It’s in the Big River watershed and it’s a really special place. It was once part of a much larger RDA, about 5500 acres, and it was established by Congress in 1942.

Today, management of that acreage is divided between three groups. Mendocino Woodlands is owned by the State of California, but they have a concession agreement with the non-profit Mendocino Woodlands Camp Association. To be clear, throughout the presentation, I’m going to talk about Mendocino Woodlands as the place and I’m going to talk about the Camp Association as the entity that runs it. Don’t want to get everyone confused. They continue to run summer camps and outdoor school programs, which they’ve been doing on-site since 1948. Cal Fire, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which I will henceforth be calling Cal Fire, manages the remaining four thousand plus acres that surround the camp on all sides.

Map of the current boundary of 720-acre Mendocino Woodlands, highlighted in yellow, which is surrounded by Jackson State Demonstration Forest.

Mendocino Woodlands is a state park. It’s highlighted in yellow here, which is at the heart of the RDA that surrounds it. When it was established, the US Congress declared that Mendocino Woodlands RDA “shall be used exclusively for public park, recreation, and conservation purposes.” That mandate is at the root of this complex site where cultural resources, natural resources, and recreation resources all come together. In many ways, that is why this place resonates with so many people and why it provides such good habitat to the numerous flora and fauna that exist here today. Unfortunately today these elements are out of balance, and that’s really creating a conflict that’s threatening the vision that people had for this landscape all those years ago, that it was set aside for conservation and recreation.

In 2011, the Camp Association used grants to fund the development of a cultural landscape report to help them refine their understanding of the landscape and discuss issues associated with its long-term care and management. Funds were tight, I’m sure we’ve heard that theme many times today, so a critical partnership was established to help fill the gap between the level of work that was needed and the level of funding available.

To talk a little bit about that project, I know that we had a presentation yesterday that talked a little bit about doing work in partnerships with universities, so I’m not going to go into all the details there, but we teamed up with Robert Melnick at the University of Oregon, who’s in the audience here. He’s in the photo as well. We developed a design studio with landscape architecture and historic preservation students that resulted in a cultural landscape inventory and multiple design ideas for the site. The client was incredibly happy with those. It was an incredibly valuable project for them. I’ll get into a little bit more of that in a second.

The second phase followed the studio and focused on developing the CLR, a continuation of that project, and we really focused mainly on the treatment recommendations, which were born from the great ideas the students had, but also needed to address some fairly non-sexy issues and the broken partnership between those three agencies that I talked about earlier. A workshop was added to the process because we realized we really needed to get people to the table and address some really critical issues that started to bubble to the surface during the development of the CLI. There was a lack of understanding of the depth and breadth of issues that they were confronting, so we would need to get people at the table to start talking about that.

There were a lot of things we dealt with, but I want to boil this down. There were six primary treatment issues that we looked at in more detail. Deferred landscape maintenance, also something we’ve heard quite a bit about, changing environmental conditions, multiple partnerships, scarce financial resources, incomplete documentation, and current use and visitation. While all are very important to this site, it became really clear that addressing one of the most complex issues, namely the changing environmental conditions, would have the most benefit on this site and its future. Addressing this issue really also, this is kind of a side lesson that we learned, it really taught us how traditional cultural landscape reports are less effective when faced with the complex landscape issues that often go beyond the resources themselves. Deal with them for sure, but also go to the people and the agencies managing them.

It’s these challenges that I’m raising today with the goal of really starting a conversation that seeks solutions that we can take into the next century. Within that area, the primary limitations and challenges associated with the changing environmental conditions at this site and many others are threefold. The hierarchy in the western US of favoring conservation of natural resources over the preservation of cultural ones (oops let me go back), the framework and methodology for cultural landscape reports, and navigating those public and private partnerships, which we’re really seeing quite a bit more of. I’m going to go through each one and talk a little bit about the issue itself and then kind of talk through some of the solutions that we actually employed in the process and other ones that we’ve recommended.

The first issue deals with the battle, perceive battle, between conservation of natural and preservation of cultural. Many often say that the western US doesn’t have the breadth and depth of cultural resources which other parts of the country have. As we know, this is wildly inaccurate but perseveres and continues to affect the priority that cultural resources have in the planning and design of our public places in the west. I think we heard a little bit about that and the history of that in the Park Service, how it took a long time for some people in leadership to even recognize cultural resources in the west. That still perseveres.

Circa 1940 photograph of a Camp One cabin set on a slope in a forest clearing

This construct also perpetuates the separation of cultural and natural as if they’re two different entities. Within cultural landscapes, these resources are often one in the same, or at the very least, have a very strong symbiotic relationship. Isolating one from the other or ignoring how those resources are connected only puts them at risk. At Mendocino Woodlands, the steep typography, combined with powerful winter storm events and an aging and clogged drainage infrastructure, water is supposed to go through this, just imagine that, it doesn’t obviously, it creates significant drainage issues that are adversely affecting stream and river health given the amount of particulates that wash into the watershed, washing out roads and trails, and causing water damage to buildings and structures. This was a building at one point. It’s just a platform now.

Fixing this problem, which would involve the restoration of these cultural resources, namely the historic wood culverts, and natural resources, primarily the ephemeral tributaries that run into the big river watershed, excuse me, has not been addressed due to the overlap and the complexity of how these resources really work together and how they’re intertwined. It’s really kind of became a game of not it, in terms of wanting to address them, and it’s really the resources in the site that are most affected.

Camp Two Gatehouse shrouded in the coast redwood forest and covered in moss

As I said, one of the by-products of working on this project is that we started to kind of question some aspects of the framework and methodology of developing cultural landscape reports and how they deal with landscapes of this complexity. While that methodology really effectively embraces the complexity of historic landscapes and the types that there are out there and provides a critical framework for research, documentation, and analyzing all types, it remains to inward focused. Landscapes are interconnected physically and politically to watersheds, plant, and wildlife habitats in different agencies, just to name a few of the connections that they are together. However, there’s little acknowledgement of that aspect in the prevailing methodology, which prevents treatment sections from being equipped to address some of these more complex issues.

It became very clear early on that strategic planning, team building, and facilitation were critical to the success of this project and many others we work on. This is at Curry Village where we discuss treatment in the field with a multi-disciplinary team, something that we’re starting to do a lot more often. If you’re in the resource, in the landscape, and talking about it hand to hand, we find we come much more quickly to solutions that work for everybody. We want to try to moving this into the 21st century. Our methodology needs to tackle issues associated with engaging discussions outside our own field of expertise with the people and agencies that are stewarding these sites, not of all of which are as educated as those in the Park Service or state parks, which sometimes overshadow the issues that are associated with the properties themselves or they really go hand in hand. If you solved on, you could probably be more effective in solving others.

The final issue that we started to see was navigating these public-private partnerships. They’re gaining popularity, and rightly so, for the benefit that these collaborations can provide a site. However, we found that just forming that partnership, saying, “Hey, I’ll work with you if you work with me,” without really understanding what each partner brings to that collaboration, is not doing it justice. There are limitations that are inherent in each agency. There’s also benefits that each bring.

At Mendocino Woodlands, three groups are at the table, each with a different mission, they each have a different constituency, and they also have different access to resources. The Camp Association, as I mentioned, is the non-profit that manages the site, and they can apply for and receive grant funding fairly easily, or more easily than the other two agencies. They also bring in revenue from the rentals that come through the summer and during the shoulder seasons, so they actually have some access to revenue. What they don’t have, though, are access to in-house cultural and natural resource expertise in planning, design, and management.

California State Parks, the owner of the site, has the cultural resource expertise. They have a very deep understanding of park management, but they don’t have a strong regional presence in this area in California, so they’re not involved in the day to day operations and that’s created somewhat of a distance. In my sense, it kind of was an out of sight, out of mind.

Cal Fire is not directly associated with Mendocino Woodlands, but as I mentioned earlier, it owns and manages the land that completely surrounds this property, 720 acres of the Mendocino Woodlands to the 4000 plus acres that Cal Fire is managing. They have more natural resource management expertise and equipment, but have historically had a very strained relationship with the Camp Association due to the real and perceived conflicting missions and priorities.

For Mendocino Woodlands, we added a workshop to address these issues, like I mentioned earlier, with the site and the existing partnerships. We were really only to scratch the surface. However, it was very encouraging that one issue was actually solved while we were in that meeting, lasting maybe two or three hours. It’s kind of a miracle and I think it showed them where this partnership would take them. That issue dealt with fixing the deteriorating roads that provide access to Mendocino Woodlands. There’s one road in and one road out to the three camps that are dotted along the spine of it. The poor drainage that I mentioned earlier has wreaked havoc on the roads, creating potholes that you can see on the left side image, and then parts of that tributary during high water season comes right up against the road. You can see in the right handed image the water’s just about to go over the road itself.

What was happening was these potholes were causing the one and only garbage and recycling company in the area to say “We’re not coming in anymore. We have broken too many axels on our truck. We’re sorry. We’re going to have to move on.” That would have effectively shut down the camp, which in my estimation, would have ceased the preservation of the resources. You don’t have people coming in and using them, and that as we’ve seen neglect usually has that kind of an effect.

During the workshop, a representative from Cal Fire mentioned that they have access to road building and maintenance equipment that could help solve the problem. The Camp Association gratefully accepted the offer and the roads were fixed in time for the camp’s high season. While the workshop provided this jumpstart, there has been little to no progress on some of the other issues. There’s the garbage. There’s the garbage things. There’s a ton of them in here. You can imagine.

One of the things that we’ve recommended that’s outside the CLR methodology is that we feel that this project needs to be accompanied by a strategic plan that is developed with all three partners, clearly articulates the core values, mission, and goals, and then develops strategies and actions and really identifies who should take the lead on all of those for all of the goals, which will be the first step in easing the conflicts that are contributing to the lack of balance, in my estimation, between the recreation and conservation vision for Mendocino.

Conrad Wirth clearly outlined these two distinct types of areas in RDAs and acknowledged that they might be joined or even completely surround each other, like they do at Mendocino Woodlands. He saw them as really working together. They’re not right now, but that stewards should “always bear in mind the distinction between the two types.”

That distinction here has been lost, but can be regained with four primary solutions. I’m going to go through each one. Develop a forest management plan, which will open more of the canopy and create more forest edge conditions. Here’s an example. What’s happened here is when this place was put into effect, there was a lot more open meadows, sunlight was able to come down, it was actually having a much better effect on the preservation of the wood structures. Also what happens here in these edge conditions is you have a greater diversity of flora and fauna, so by having a forest management plan and having set areas where that canopy can be reopened or at least maintained in a more open habitat, you will provide a solution to the preservation of some of the built structures and also have the ability to increase the diversity of the flora and fauna.

Camp Three Dining Hall surrounded by water overflowing from the Little North Fork of the Big River during a spring flood event and which covers the road leading to the camp.

One of the other things that I think has been obvious is that we need to work on, design and implement, a storm water and sewage system that takes the current drainage into effect. How it was designed in the 1940s and how it works today are two different things, but there’s also these historic resources that need to be accounted for. The problem here, and I think actually we assumed we can tackle this, is that there’s no survey of the property, there’s no typography. We were able to piece some of it together from some of the plans from the New Deal era, but that’s just little bits and pieces of a fairly large 720 acre landscape.

This is really an area that the system is broken. The park feels that they can’t touch the wood culverts because they’re historic resources. They also feel that they can’t touch them because they are afraid that the regulations that will come into play in terms of preventing more silt and sedimentation into the creeks will trigger the Endangered Species Act in terms of the steelhead that are in the Big River watershed. There’s kind of a fear, and with no action, in my estimation, I argue that this hands-off approach is really doing damage to all the resources in this place.

Here’s another example of a culvert that water’s supposed to be moving through, not standing in place.

Square wood culverts have deteriorated under the primary access road that connects the three camp sites which causes flooding and washouts

The other thing that I think they need to do is form these partnerships between the three groups, and this is where the process of developing the strategic plan, which is not something that we typically call for in CLR, really needs to come into play. They really all three together, I don’t think they realized it until we had this workshop, they all bring something really special to the table. They all care about this place, but they haven’t really understood that they don’t have to do it all alone. I think if they team up together and understand where they’re coming from, I think they’ll have a much better success rate in terms of achieving some of the goals that they have.

Finally, it was just amazing to kind of see how this process really showed some of the chinks in the armor of the cultural landscape methodology. Not for all projects, but for those that are these complex landscapes that have ties to various other types of resources and that are in complex management styles, which I think we’re seeing more often, I think there’s a case for kind of looking at the methodology and making some adjustments. One of the other recommendations that we want to do is learn from this process and other ones and to kind of use it as a test case to start at the beginning and see what worked and what didn’t all the way through the end of the process, with the strategic plan, with some of the more detailed treatment plans, and kind of equip these stewards, and stewards like them. Outside the National Parks Service, they just don’t have the same access to the resources, and so providing them with tools to manage their landscapes is really, from my perspective, the goal that we want to get to.

So we want to update some of these.

This project identified a growing gap that is adversely affecting our historic resources and a failing of traditional methods that are no longer serving the places we’re working to protect. Mendocino Woodlands is not an isolated case, but it’s a harbinger of what our work in preserving and managing historic resources will require in the 21st century. To me, it’s up to us, especially this conference. Thank you Debbie and NCPTT for putting us all together because the ideas that are coming forward here, these are the people that I think need to push some of these ideas forward. I think we need to develop a new model for developing and implementing treatment recommendations and designs that possess fewer gaps and put our national treasures on a truly sustainable path. I believe we can forge a new path for places like Mendocino Woodlands that require not just historic architects and landscape architects, not just archeologists, but biologists, strategic planners, foresters, facilitators, consensus builders, grant writers, and others who together can develop, and most importantly, implement solutions. Thank you very much.


National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119