Tomales Dunes

Honor Thy Dunes

The coast is never saved, it’s always being saved
— Peter Douglas, former executive director of the Coastal Commission


The Tomales Dunes are a complex of several distinct habitats: mature mobile dunes, central dune scrub, dune prairie, and dune wetlands.  They are surrounded by and connected to a rich coastal environment that includes coastal prairie, coastal scrub, salt marsh, tidal flats, bay and ocean. This extraordinary site, which includes a 230 foot high dune known as Little Sugarloaf supports at least nine special-status species.

These dunes are responsible for much of the unique character of Tomales Bay and the surrounding area. They provide a buffer to the prevailing westerly winds and modify the tides creating a relatively protected bay that is more complex, hospitable, and biologically diverse than a simple marine inlet. In addition, the rich variety of dune and coastal environments adds to the diversity of habitats in the Bay making it a year-round home and an important migratory stop-over for a variety of bird species. More than 40 species of waders and waterfowl find their winter roosting and feeding grounds at Tomales Dunes. This is one of only eight sites in North America where Pacific golden plovers (Pluvialia fulva) have been known to overwinter.

The Tomales Dunes are one of the few dune systems in California that have a vital population of native dunegrasses, including a recently discovered and unidentified species.  In addition, there are mobile dunes completely lacking vegetation and constantly shifting.  As winds push these mobile dunes slowly inland an ever-changing series of new habitats is created.

Winds also carve depressions in the exposed sands of the bare dunes.  Where these depressions are fed by groundwater, rain, or intermittent surface streams, they develop into rich and unique seasonal wetlands, ranging from freshwater ponds, to marshes, to wet meadows. Tomales Dunes are a wetland paradise, with the richest collection of these seasonal wetlands–known collectively as “dune slacks”–in central California. The same subterranean waters that feed the slacks have also created an amazing “Grand Canyon of the Sands,” which is recut and reshaped in wet winters by a rain-fed underground spring, the only such dune canyon in central California.


Tomales Dues - 2001 from CCC.png
© Sue Vander Wahl

© Sue Vander Wahl

1998 tomales dunes permit application

In 1998, EAC called Tomales Dunes “Marin’s least-known ecological treasure.” Today, it is recognized as a nationally important coastal resource that deserves protection. Thanks to our leadership, commitment, passion, and long hours of work; we succeeded in protecting this amazing place!

To put it into perspective, in 1998 Marin County was about to approve – with no environmental review – the Lawson's application which called for:

  • camping on 83 acres of functioning wetlands and other sensitive habitat;

  • no buffers for wetland or dune scrub;

  • continued artificial drainage of wetlands;

  • no public access to a large part of the campground, in favor of small group of travel trailer owners;

  • a new septic system with a leachfield situated in dunes and wetland;

  • continued sand quarrying;

  • no controls on grazing in wetlands;

  • no protections for listed species, including western snowy plover and California red-legged frog;

  • no plans for removal of invasive species such as European beachgrass;

  • no plans for introduction of rare species, such as the Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly;

  • no conservation easement;

  • no management or restoration plans at all;

  • no alleviation of the traffic impact on Dillon Beach; and

  • no undergrounding of utilities to protect viewshed from public lands.

final coastal development permit

After 13 years of work on this issue by EAC and our partners, the final Coastal Development Permit:

  • allows camping on 18 acres of sensitive habitat (an 80% reduction over 1998);

  • mandates 100 foot wetland buffers and 50 foot dune scrub buffers;

  • requires restoration of the natural wetland hydrology, except for camping areas;

  • requires removal of several roads through wetlands;

  • eliminates the private travel trailers and opens all camping to public access;

  • moves the leachfield out of sensitive habitat;

  • restricts grazing in wetlands;

  • puts 465 acres under a permanent conservation easement;

  • has a Protection Restoration and Enhancement Plan (PREP), the goal of which is to restore and enhance the dunes-wetland complex by restoring natural hydrology of wetland, protecting listed species, preventing spread of invasive species, planting native species to create habitat for Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly, etc.;

  • has a traffic plan that sets standards for traffic flow and safety;

  • provides for additional measures if those standards are not met; and

  • requires undergrounding of utilities.

This is a great coastal victory!  EAC is very grateful to everyone who supported our efforts to protect the dunes and for your indispensable part in it!!
— Catherine Caufield, EAC executive director 1999-2006
Tomales Dunes - from website.png

EAC tour of the Tomales Dunes

EAC tour of the Tomales Dunes


We continue to work with the Lawson family as they implement the many provisions of their Coastal Development Permit, particularly the Tomales Wetlands-Dunes Complex Protection Restoration and Enhancement Plan (PREP). The PREP is already underway and we are working with the Coastal Commission and the Lawson family to ensure the protection of the wetlands, dunes, and wildlife of this exceptional coastal site.

In December 2015, Lawson’s Landing applied to the Coastal Commission for an amendment to the Coastal Development Permit that was issued in 2011. They sought approval for moving the planned new wastewater treatment plant and leach field from the approved location on the upper agricultural part of the property to a part of the property that the Coastal Commission has identified as an environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA), and is much closer to Tomales Bay and Lawson’s Landing’s drinking water wells. For these reasons, the Coastal Commission’s Executive Director denied their application.

Lawson’s Landing appealed this denial. In response, we and many members of the public wrote letters asking the Coastal Commissioners to reject the appeal. On April 11, 2016, less than 48 hours before the matter was to be heard, Lawson’s Landing withdrew their appeal.

We hope the Commission's rejection of this amendment means that the Commission intends to protect the environmentally sensitive habitat area at Lawson’s Landing and is committed to enforcing the protections included in the 2011 Coastal Development Permit. We expect another amendment to be filed in the near future since the 2011 permit requires the Lawson’s to apply for final approval of the wastewater treatment system that was described in their permit. A functioning septic system is key to bringing Lawson’s Landing into compliance with the Coastal Act.


In 2011, the Coastal Commission approved a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) that legalized Lawson’s Landing, the long-establishing campground that occupies a sensitive dunes-wetland complex at the mouth of Tomales Bay. That permit required the Lawson's to return to the Commission with a CDP amendment to put a wastewater system on the uphill, agricultural portion of their 960-acre property on a location already reviewed and approved by the Commission. The Lawson's submitted an amendment, which was heard by the Commission at its November 8th meeting in Bodega Bay.

There were two main problems with the amendment. First, it proposed to place an administrative and retail complex and a wastewater system in a location (known as Area 6) that has been designated as an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA) and is also the habitat corridor of the endangered California red-legged frog, a federally- and state-protected species.  The July 2011 CDP requires that all illegal development in Area 6 be removed and the habitat restored, and it expressly prohibits any future development in Area 6, apart from agriculture and improvements to the road that runs through it.

Second, Commission staff recommended that this illegal development be approved by using a process called Conflict Resolution, which is a way to resolve a conflict between two equally important mandates of the Coastal Act, such as coastal recreation and protection of natural resources. The Commission used conflict resolution in the original 2011 CDP to approve recreational development in wetlands and ESHA in which development is prohibited. Having done that, the Commission explicitly protected specific areas of ESHA from future development, including ESHA in Area 6. To now undo those specific limitations imposed on present and future development that formed critical parts of that conflict resolution process, would signal that all such protections obtained under conflict resolution can be removed and render the process itself meaningless.

NOVEMBER 8, 2017: Coastal Commission meeting

On November 8th, the Coastal Commission upheld the Coastal Act and the 2011 Coastal Development Permit (CDP) and denied the amendment proposal which would have allowed large-scale development in environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA) and would have degraded endangered species corridor for California red-legged frogs.

As outlined in the 2011 CDP a wastewater facility still requires construction, however, it cannot be developed in Area 6 that is designated as an environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA), that includes corridor for California red-legged frog. 

Thank you to all of our members who continue to engage on this issue and send in comments in the final stages of the Coastal Development Permit are completed.


EAC looks forward to supporting an amendment to approve a septic system that meets the Coastal Act and Regional Water Quality Control Board standards and will allow Lawson’s Landing to move forward with this key coastal improvement.
— - Morgan Patton, EAC Executive Director

Lawson's Landing, September 2018

Lawson's Landing, September 2018


November 2018, the Coastal Commission considered the findings from the 2017 denial of request by Lawson’s Landing to amend their coastal development permit. The Commission approved the Revised Findings that denied approval of the amendment as it was inconsistent with the intent of the original CDP regarding protection of ESHA in Area 6. In addition, the Commission directed any future development proposals within Area 6 must avoid areas of established ESHA, not interfere with California red-legged frogs, and avoid impacts to the California red-legged frog breeding pond, creek, and Bodega Bay.

The Lawson’s are required to update their wastewater system and have now submitted a new amendment proposal. Despite the clear instructions to stay out of ESHA, the new amendment seeks to construct a shed and emergency operations center in the same ESHA location as the amendment that was denied in November 2017. As proposed, this is an amendment that EAC cannot support.

EAC is hopeful Lawson’s Landing will agree to reconfigure the new proposal so that sensitive habitat is protected. We believe that all sides would like to bring this long permit process to a fair and amicable resolution. We look forward to supporting an amendment that protects ESHA and meets the Coastal Act and Regional Water Quality Board standards. The Commission will likely hear this issue in February 2019, and EAC will be there to ensure the sensitive habitats of the Tomales Dunes-wetland complex remain protected.