Tomales Dunes

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

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 9 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.

    Download Tomales Dunes Quick Facts Sheet


    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 EAC’s 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 Lawsons’ 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, 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;
    • does not allow sand quarrying;
    • restricts grazing in wetlands;
    • puts 465 acres under a permanent conservation easement;
    • has a Protection, Restoration, and Enhancement Plan, 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.
      Tomales Dunes - from website.png

      Current Use

      EAC continues 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 EAC is 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 leachfield 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, and is much closer to Tomales Bay and Lawson’s Landing’s drinking water wells. For these reasons Coastal Commission’s Executive Director denied their application.

      Lawson’s Landing appealed this denial. In response the EAC 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.

      This was a wonderful victory because it means that the Commission intends to protect the environmentally sensitive habitat at Lawson’s Landing and is committed to enforcing the protections included in the 2011 Coastal Development Permit. EAC expects 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.

      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.