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Jug Handle natural wonders get overdue recognition by National Parks

The bridge and beach at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve.
Submitted photo by Alden Olmsted |

MENDOCINO — Finally, the story of how the unique geology and natural wonders of the Mendocino coastline was saved by naturalist John Olmsted and a band of activists will get the recognition it deserves.

Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is located on the rugged Pacific coastline, between the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. The park draws thousands of visitors from around the world each year to see its rare living museum where one million years of time and geologic uplift can be viewed in five terraces along the Ecological Staircase Trail — from the windswept sea to the Pygmy Forest, two and a half miles inland.

This week, as part of Mendocino County’s celebration of pygmy forests, National Park officials will visit Jug Handle State Preserve to dedicate a plaque to the important natural landmark.



On Wednesday, son of the late naturalist, filmmaker Alden Olmsted was in the area with State Park officials to install a new kiosk and interpretive panel. Funded by community donations, the panel, designed by Alden Olmsted, tells the nearly forgotten story of how John Olmsted and others stopped bulldozers from forever altering this now cherished reserve.

“I’m representing John Olmsted and all those people who worked together in ‘72 and ‘73 to protect Jug Handle. Part of this event and celebration is to finally get things straightened out and properly recognized. I think this is what happens when someone like dad moves away — no one is there to keep the story straight,” said Alden Olmsted.




John Olmsted was a California naturalist and conservationist most known for creating the Independence Trail in Nevada City and Jug Handle in Mendocino. In the 1970s, he and a group of dedicated activists stopped bulldozers and developers who saw the Pygmy Forest as useless scrub brush. He died on March 8, 2011 after a long fight with cancer.

“John was a crusader, but he didn’t know the law, and I was a lawyer who didn’t know the law but liked crusaders so we got along fine. There were a lot of people who simply were realizing they had a shot — at stopping things that shouldn’t start,” said Doug Ferguson, an activist and lawyer from Marin County. 

John Olmsted considered Jug Handle to be one of the “gems” of a “necklace of parks” he envisioned strung across California from the Pacific to Lake Tahoe.

At 4 p.m. today, a representative from the National Natural Landmarks Program of the National Park Service will unveil a new plaque declaring the Pygmy Forest as a National Natural Landmark. The Pygmy Forest was first declared a National Natural Landmark in 1969 but a plaque wasn’t installed until 1994, at the top of the staircase, a long hike from the entrance of the park, in an area not all visitors see.

“This is a new plaque and a proper dedication so that when people stop by — even for five minutes — they will know of the significance,” said Alden Olmsted.

In 2011, Jug Handle State Reserve was threatened when it became one of 70 state parks on a closure list in response to drastic cuts to California’s general fund. That year, Alden Olmsted launched an ambitious fundraising campaign up and down the state in an effort to save the parks “one buck at a time.” In 2012, Alden Olmsted and the California State Park Foundation donated $19,000 to keep Jug Handle open.

This week’s events are part of a Celebration of Pygmy Forests on the California Coast that include nearby Van Damme State Park and the inland park, Charlotte M. Hoak Forest near Comptche.

“We are celebrating the unique geology, soils and botany of our Mendocino Coast Pygmy Forests. It’s the wonderful culmination of efforts that started more than 80 years ago. There is magic to find if you look for it,” said organizer Ruth Sparks.

To view the full listing of events scheduled for this weekend, visit: http://www.visitmendocino.com/event/rediscovering-pygmy-forests.


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