Redwood Coast

sanctuary coast
Coast Redwoods once lined the Sonoma Coast prior to logging operations that began in the mid-1800s. Courtesy of Jenna Batchelder.

The California shoreline from Bodega Head to Mendocino, part of the “Redwood Coast,” is a dramatic marine and coastal environment. Thousands of years of human interaction have impacted this region and its marine and shore-side resources as much as this environment has shaped the activities and cultures of its people.

These interactions have left physical as well as cultural traces on the region ranging from place names, coastal settlements, industrial structures, and shipwrecks, which form a maritime cultural landscape that is unique and nationally important.  This coast is a perfect illustration of how the offshore ocean connects with the shore, and beyond, in terms of humanity’s engagement with the marine environment.

This region helped build not only California as we know it today, but the national economy, all the while being settled by people who came from around the world to establish new lives on these shores for themselves and their families.

This maritime cultural landscape’s uniqueness and historical significance makes it an ideal place for inclusion in a National Marine Sanctuary.  A sanctuary not only protects these resources and cultural connections, but provides a framework for historical context and narrative, ongoing research, and outreach, instilling sense of place and the will to protect in its visitors. 

The initial review of the maritime cultural landscape of the “Redwood Coast” is not intended to be comprehensive.  Rather, it is a beginning of an exploration of these resources and the stories of human interaction with the marine environment here.  Now part of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, using the maritime cultural landscape as a tool for characterizing this coast is the beginning of a process of engagement and partnership with local communities to define, better understand, and share its history.  This approach is a process that focuses on the resources and their human stories to market this area for sensitive visitation to support the local economy and to inspire wider awareness and support for the protection of this unique area.


What are the elements of the maritime cultural landscape of the “Redwood Coast”?

  • It is the location of prominent and long standing landmarks for international and national maritime traffic, connecting to offshore Cordell Bank and Point Reyes as a key intersection in shipping traffic from hundreds of years ago to today, with place names forgotten as well as still known place names left by Spanish, Russian, British and American mariners;
  • It is a drowned coastal environment of 18,000 years ago on which ancient humans likely migrated to settle the Americas and where the ancestors of the modern Coast Miwok and Kashaya Pomo once lived and harvested the resources of an abundant marine landscape that was inundated by sea level rise with the end of the last great Ice Age, which reflects persistence and adaptation to a changing climate;
  • It is an area strongly shaped and influenced by the offshore marine environment of Cordell Bank and the edge of the continental shelf, where the upwelling of the California current created a fishery as well as inshore kelp forests on marine terraces that provided habitat for marine mammals.  The same environment of cold sea merges with warm air from the coastal hills and valleys to pull in thick blankets of fog that created an ideal climate for the growth of the redwood forests and which today provide the climatic conditions for a wine industry with unique vintages that sell based on the marketing of their origin on this coast;
  • It is an area whose rich pelagic and shore-side marine resources provided sustenance for the Coast Miwok and Kashaya Pomo peoples who have lived here for thousands of years.  The heritage of the first peoples is today represented not only in the sites of former settlements but also by the traditions and heritage of those people, who have persisted as important members of the coastal community.  Their place names, their memories and their traditions remain on these shores and waters whether written on a map or not;
  • It is an area whose climate and marine mammal habitat brought the first non-native settlers to this coast.  Russian and Aleut farmers and fur traders established agricultural outposts and a fortified settlement from which hunters on baidarkas hunted the marine mammals to near-extinction, working in the numerous small coves and kelp forests of this area before venturing farther south to the Farallones and into San Francisco Bay.  Their place names, the standing and reconstructed buildings of Fort Ross, and the archaeological remains of their other settlements and camps at Bodega Head and along the coast remain as a reminder of them and their activities;
  • It is an area whose fishery inspired the growth of a commercial and recreational industry whose people came from as far as San Francisco to harvest off the Farallones, Cordell Bank, and thence along the Redwood Coast, with many of those who fished coming from different lands and cultures to settle here and build an industry and communities.  That fishing community was multicultural and diverse.
  • It is an area whose thick redwood forests inspired a lumber trade that lasted from the mid-19th into the 20th century.  They adapted to the rugged maritime environment by creating unique “doghole” ports and building large fleets of small, maneuverable schooners that hugged the coast to log the redwoods and carry the timber to markets as close as San Francisco and as distant as the Eastern Seaboard, Australia and Asia.  The only highway to create that economy was by the sea, with vessels working the coast before heading to Cordell Bank and thence turning south to commence their run to the Golden Gate.  That trade left not only place names and the archaeological remains of the dogholes and those vessels unlucky enough to be lost on these shores, but also lasting communities like Bodega Bay, Gualala, Point Arena, Mendocino and Caspar to name a few;
  • It is an environment whose nature resulted in as many as 200 shipwrecks.  The dangers  inspired the mapping of the coast as well as the construction of two lighthouses, one at Point Arena and the other at Point Cabrillo, the placement of buoys and other markers, and which inspired the placement of a life-saving station at Point Arena to assist those in peril on the sea;
  • It is an area whose history, culture and rugged beauty, as well as the need to provide regular links, inspired pushes for access by land as well as by sea..  Limited wagon roads gave way to a coastal railroad, and in the early 20th century, to State Route 1, the “Coast Highway,” which links the coastal environment and its communities.  These led to increased tourism and development that marketed the benefits and beauty of the maritime landscape.
  • It is a significant section of the California coast, where battles for its preservation and access to it spawned the California Coastal Commission, fourteen marine protected areas, including state parks and preserves, and a strong push for either national monument or sanctuary designation.

This history and the uniqueness of the maritime landscape are not lost on these communities and their residents or the elected officials on this section of coast.  Nor is a sense of the need to protect it.  Fierce battles were fought in the early 1960s to prevent the construction of a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head, and to provide public access through the ten-mile section of coast enclosed in the Sea Ranch development.  Along with inland State Parks that preserve remaining stands of the coast redwoods, the coast’s marine parks and reserves are part of the modern maritime cultural landscape, with their perceived resource values and human uses all part of the ongoing saga of human involvement with this unique coastal/marine environment.

Read the complete Maritime Cultural Landscape of the Redwood Coast (PDF, 2.4MB)

-- Dr James Delgado, Director, Maritime Heritage Program, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries