In Vallejo, ‘Bureaucratic Bullying’ Threatens a Nature Preserve and Unlikely Arts Hub

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Myrna Hayes has volunteered to run the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve in Vallejo since 2008.  (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

On a recent Sunday morning, Myrna Hayes reclined in an upholstered chair beneath a chirping swallow nest on the stoop of what was once a munitions bunker on Vallejo’s Mare Island. She looked out at some 200 acres of scrub and structures overrun by vegetation, former naval facilities she’s helped restore and manage as a nature preserve for the past 25 years.

“It’s like the Presidio,” Hayes said. “But gone wild.”

As head of the shoestring nonprofit overseeing the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve, which opened to the public in 2008 and overlooks the San Pablo Bay and Carquinez Strait, Hayes and her fellow volunteers facilitate events and manage a dozen campsites here. They also run the depot-turned-visitor-center, where artifacts of natural and naval history commingle with hand-painted signs soliciting donations.

Hayes, 63, has a familiar rapport with the preserve's regulars. As we spoke she greeted Richard, who built yurts on two of the campsites, and then Rina, a camper who was returning some rags she’d taken home to wash. Hayes brings her conviction as a conservationist to the preserve, familiar with the island’s endemic species, and also her vision as a sort of “curator,” as supporters call her, who encourages the preserve’s appeal to naturalists and artists alike. “It’s riveting for me to watch this place as a real-time play,” she said.

Once the largest naval base on the West Coast, Mare Island is dramatic redevelopment.
Once the largest naval base on the West Coast, Mare Island is undergoing dramatic redevelopment. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Re:Sound, a concert series of experimental electronic music, started five years ago as part of the San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival, which draws hundreds to the island to observe migrating birds. The shows occur in a disused munitions magazine; artists including Rova Saxophone Quartet’s Larry Ochs and Thingamajigs Performance Group have also played in the concrete structure. Paul Boneberg, a Vallejo arts commissioner, described the sound art programming as creative reuse like little else in the city.


Now, though, Hayes believes the unique blend of arts and outdoors uses is at risk. Real-estate development on Mare Island, coupled with what she considers “bureaucratic bullying,” threaten her volunteer group’s longtime role, and with it Hayes’ open-minded style of stewardship and public access.

“I’m told that rich people are buying the island,” Hayes said. “And they don’t like the way I run this park.”

Soliciting New Management

Mare Island, once the largest naval base on the West Coast, looks largely untouched since the military left in 1996, but it’s the site of one of the Bay Area’s largest development mega-projects. The Nimitz Group, led by a local wine entrepreneur and a southern investor, has acquired hundreds of acres of property for what it envisions as a practically self-contained commercial and residential district. And city officials in Vallejo, recovering from a municipal bankruptcy in 2008, eagerly await the new economic base.

At the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve's visitors center, artifacts of naval and natural history commingle.
At the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve's visitors center, artifacts of naval and natural history commingle. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

At a Vallejo City Council meeting in May, City Manager Greg Nyhoff said that there’s no plan to develop the preserve; it’s actually set to expand when the navy transfers an adjacent tract to the city. But Hayes sees a campaign to remove her group. Officials recently told her to disallow overnight camping, which last year accounted for roughly a third of her nonprofit’s $97,000 in total revenue, and the city is reluctant to issue once-routine permits for events such as Re:Sound.

Last year, Vallejo set aside money to renovate the visitors center, but Hayes’ group hasn’t received it. And at the meeting this May, City Council voted to issue a request-for-qualifications soliciting organizations for operations, maintenance and management of the Mare Island Regional Park Lands.

“We absolutely invite the Mare Island Heritage Trust to be an applicant,” said Nyhoff, referring to Hayes’ nonprofit. “There’s no action that’s been taken to this date about ruling anybody out or ruling anybody in.”

But councilperson Robert McConnell, who cast the sole vote against the request for qualifications, said at the meeting that the city should already have a formal agreement with Hayes’ group. Vallejo should find another entity to manage the land expected to transfer from the Navy (which will require extensive remediation), he argued, and enshrine its partnership with Hayes for the extant preserve. “I do not believe we should be turning our backs on a partner of eleven and a half years,” McConnell said.

Re:Sound, an experimental music series, occurs in a disused munitions magazine.
Re:Sound, an experimental music series, occurs in a disused munitions magazine. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

'No Sensitivity'

Appointed to a restoration advisory board in 1994, Hayes remembers the Civil War-era artillery rusting on the shoreline, a vending machine pulled out of the pond, and the protracted years of environmental remediation and approvals. The preserve first opened to the public weeks before the municipal bankruptcy in 2008, and she steered it through the ensuing services crisis, all without compensation. Now that the city is finally poised to invest in the preserve, Hayes and her volunteers feel sidelined.

Nimitz Group recently acquired an overgrown golf course next to the preserve, and Hayes pointed out where city contractors have begun trimming weeds and, to her dismay, spraying herbicide. “No sensitivity for historic trees, native plants,” she said. Picking blackberries, she worried aloud about foraging habitat for bluebirds, which nest in front of the visitors center, seeming stressed to be left out of critical upkeep decisions. “Some people say the rattlesnakes listen to me,” she said. “And they do.”

Vegetation overgrows former naval facilities at the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve.
Vegetation overgrows former naval facilities at the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Musicians and sound artists, meanwhile, worry another operator won't continue to make the dilapidated but intensely resonant buildings available for performance and recording. Six years ago, Hayes recommended the 12,000-square-foot munitions magazine as a venue to Jen Boyd, who asked fellow experimental musician Kevin Corcoran to help organize the inaugural Re:Sound. “Without Myrna, Re:Sound wouldn’t be possible,” Corcoran said.

Corcoran, who has incorporated Mare Island field recordings into his work, recalled first encountering the munitions magazine. “You open the door and this enormous, squealing sound echoes through the space with something like a 7-second reverb tail,” he said. “It’s industrial, it’s brutal, it’s designed to contain an explosion, but there’s also this aroma of fennel pollen drying in the building.”

Awed by the setting, and encouraged by Hayes, what was meant as a one-off became a series, since attracting performers including Paul Clipson, Maggi Payne, Voicehandler and Zachary James Watkins. Often, artists reference the island in their sets. “But whatever you do there becomes site-specific,” said Corcoran. “You work with the sound of the door, the ferry and the migrating birds overhead.”


He added, "We also encourage performers to think critically about repurposing this venue with a past rooted in destruction."