The most important step in creating a film is to write what’s called a “treatment,” which is a prosaic telling of the story that provides clarity about the project’s intent.  It’s a start-to-finish summary that takes what’s in the filmmakers mind and puts it on a page in black-and-white so that everyone involved in the project is conceptually together.  I’d never written a treatment before but found that the process of doing it was extremely clarifying and over the course of the project, as I edit drafts of the treatment, I’m refining my ideas and distilling them down to the most-important issues.

2013 West Peak Restoration Project video - Treatment Abstract

Gary Yost


I am a Mill Valley-based photographer and filmmaker who likes to tell stories about where I live, the people and the place.  Over the years I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some very interesting local community activities.  

One of my 2012 projects was to document a day in the life of a Fire Lookout based on the East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais.  I created it primarily as a recruitment piece for the Marin County Fire Department, but it saw much wider distribution as a testimony to the beauty of our mountain and was seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

At the end of 2012, while contemplating my personal projects for the next year I was called by the mountain to bring attention to one her three peaks.  Tam’s West Peak had been excavated and developed into an Air Force Station during the Cold War and when the government left the site abandoned, they didn’t clean up after themselves.   The junkyard they left up there includes many reinforced concrete foundations, asphalt roads, power poles, power lines, transformers, and toxic asbestos.  


Mt. Tamalpais is a sacred place.  The Coastal Miwok people considered it to be the home of their god, Coyote and for thousands of years it was a place of reverence.  When the Europeans came in the 1800s they logged almost all of its old-growth redwoods.  Luckily the early conservationists in the area formed the Tamalpais Conservation Club and their efforts led to it becoming the first state park in California.   The Marin Municipal Water District was established in 1912 to protect the watershed and provide water to the residents of Marin County.   A monument to the Marin County soldiers who fought in World War I was erected on West Peak in 1918  West Peak is still Tam’s highest peak, now 2,574 and originally 2,604’.  East Peak stands 2,571’ above sea level. 

But during the beginnings of the Cold War, when the US Government began building Aircraft Warning stations to establish early warning perimeters along its borders, Mt. Tamalpais looked to be the ideal place to put an Air Force Station.  West Peak had the best view towards the ocean (and Russia), and in 1950 the top it was removed to build the radar station that we still see as the “golf ball” on top of Tam, along with barracks to house the hundreds of soldiers necessary to man the station.

A series of leases for eventually 106 acres of the West Peak area was signed by the US Government in the late 1940s and early 1950s for the Mill Valley Air Force Station, leading to the construction of a military cantonment housing 300 servicemen for over 30 years.  60% of personnel were Air Force 666th Squadron, responsible for directing the interception of Russian bombers during an attack.  The other 40% were Army 40th Artillery Brigade and controlled the Nike Hercules short-range nuclear missiles that were supposed to protect us by intercepting any Russian bombers that got through the Air Force’s fighter response.  The short-range (30-70 mile) surface-to-air nuclear missiles were each more powerful than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, but the thought was that a nuclear bomb detonated within 100 miles of our coast was preferable to one detonated over San Francisco.  Sounds logical, but terrifying. 

Satellite and ICBM technology advanced quickly, and by the early 1980s these Aircraft Warning stations became obsolete, leading the Federal Government to abandon them all over the country.  Restoration was not a priority, and in fact the government unilaterally “re-negotiated” a lease agreement in 1955 that protected them from any legal liability for restoration post-abandonment.  

The Water District had little to say regarding the 1955 lease amendment or the treatment of the property.  As a newspaper article summed up in 1983, “it was the cold war, and no one questioned the imperatives. The defense establishment called the shots, the Air Corps wrote the lease and the water district signed it.” In the same article, MMWD Board Chair Patricia Yates offered a similar opinion. “Truman was in the White House and the military could do no wrong… The District certainly didn’t offer them the land.” But in the context of the times, national defense was paramount and few questioned the changes being made on the mountain.  Some anecdotal reports state that the government threatened the county with condemning the land and taking the top of the mountain for themselves in perpetuity.

After the station was abandoned in 1982, the FAA and Air Force retained control over the approximately 4 acres at the very top to continue manning the radar, now part of the Joint Surveillance System, which replaced the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system in 1983.  This area is still under the jurisdiction of the FAA and the Department of Homeland Security and will be for some time to come.

But that left 104 acres of land in limbo -- formerly the cantonment (barracks and administrative) area of the Station.   In 1983 the National Park Service began discussions and worked with numerous Bay Area agencies and stakeholder groups, most recommending natural restoration.

In 1991 the site was determined eligible for the Federal Defense Environmental Restoration Program.  The first stage of clean-up occurred in 1992-1993 with tank removal, soil sampling and contaminated soil removal, and by 1996 most of the structures were demolished and removed, including miscellaneous debris and much of the asbestos.  Unfortunately the demolition was not finished due to the great expense of removing the asbestos and toxins, with a lack of funds stalling the process in 1996.

Reinforced concrete foundations, asphalt roads, power poles, power lines, transformers, and lesser amounts of toxic asbestos remain.  This junkyard still exists today on top of our beloved mountain.

In the past 10 years in the Bay Area we have seen two major rehabilitation projects of the type that is being proposed for the West Peak of Mt. Tamalpais:

  1. Angel Island:  The army shaved the peak off of the top of Mt. Livermore for the Nike Missile site in the 1950′s, flattening the top of the island.  The mountaintop was replaced in 2002 and the island is now 16 feet taller than in prior years. When funds became available for natural resource improvements, the decision was made to put the top back on the mountain. The dirt was never removed, only bulldozed over the edge, so crews pushed it back up and re-sculpted the island to a close approximation of its original contours. In addition, the road that scarred the face of the mountain in its approach from the west side was removed, and a winding trail created, leading to the top from the east side of the island. Three picnic sites on the original concrete pads are in place. Thousands of native plants, cultivated from Angel Island cuttings, were added as well.

  2. Crissy Field.  GGNRA:  From a waste dump to a thriving coastal habitat, Crissy Field has gone through an amazing transformation. This former military land is now a dynamic public open space that recreates the multi-layered natural and cultural history of the site. Beginning in 1997, cleanup of hazardous materials on the site involved the removal of almost 90,000 tons of contaminated materials. The Park Service began involving the community in an extensive planning process to find out what uses the public wanted for this new open space in the city of San Francisco. From 1998 through 2000, the restoration of this 100 acre site included the recreation of an 18 acre tidal marsh linked to the San Francisco Bay, and the re-creation of 16 acres of dune habitat, together supporting 105 different species of shrubs, wildflowers, and marsh plants. More than 230,000 cubic yard of dirt, sand and mud were excavated and a channel was opened to the tides in November 1999, allowing fresh and salt water to merge at Crissy Field for the first time in 100 years.


A third project, in the Los Gatos/San Jose hills at the site of former Air Force Station  Almaden on Mt. Umunhum, is in the fund-raising phase for a similar restoration project.


The Marin Municipal Water District, along with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Marin Open Space and the California State Parks are currently in the process of creating the “Mount Tamlapais Land Collaboration” that will be the nonprofit body responsible for holding the funds and shepherding the completion of the restoration of West Peak.   Specifically, the project scope includes the restoration of approximately 103 acres of leveled or filled areas to their natural condition and removal of:

  • >50 power and light poles;

  • 17,500 ft of power lines;

  • >7,850 ft of fencing that surrounds the 104-acre property;

  • Nearly 30,000 sq ft of buildings and miscellaneous improvements (pool, tennis courts, bowling alley, etc.);

  • Over 45,000 sq ft of perimeter foundations and concrete building pads; and

  • Approximately 5.6 acres of asphalt pavement.


To me, this story goes way beyond “just” a restoration project.  It speaks to the way the mountain has affected people over the years/decades/centuries, and how lives have been changed by her presence.  I want this piece to drive change in the way people see the mountain and how they become empowered to do something about protecting their local environment (“Think Global but Act Local”).  

The overarching concept is to connect the audience to the mountain and remind them that she is there for us to enjoy always -- and to inspire the desire to give back.  

Of course Mt. Tamalpais is just one of hundreds of sites in the United States and around the world that our military has desecrated and left unrestored.  The West Peak is symbolic of all these forgotten places and the film in intended to raise awareness of the issue on a much larger scale than just here in Marin County.

There are significant people and events in the history of the mountain and the idea is to connect to them and make it real.  These include:

  • Coastal Miwoks, who lived here for 4,000-10,000 years;

  • Tamalpais Conservation Club founders, who protected the mountain;

  • Army Corps of Engineers, who removed the top of the mountain;

  • Military personnel, who lived at West Peak for 30 years;

  • The Dalai Lama, who flew on a helicopter to West Peak in 1989 to perform a Lhasang blessing, which is an ancient Tibetan ceremony designed to create harmony between people and their environment, and which is always performed at the highest point on a mountain; and

  • The custodians of Mt. Tamalpais at Marin Municipal Water Department, who work every day to protect the mountain and have been trying to find a way to fund the cleanup of the West Peak area.

The film will be comprised of major components, woven into each other to provide a historical overview and scenes from the area of the West Peak as it looks today.  The narrative will be driven by the historical overview, and will include (but are not limited to):

  • 3D reconstruction and animated visualization of the original shape of West Peak, which very few people alive today would even recognize;

  • Historical photographs of people on the original West Peak in the 1920s, in front of the WWI memorial cairn that was built there and signing the West Peak register;

  • Aerial/helicopter videography of the way the site looks today to put it in context;

  • Interview with a Coastal Miwok, speaking to issues specific to the mountain;

  • Interview with elders from the Tamalpais Conservation Club who were involved in the citizen’s action work parties that began demolition of the barracks in 1985 and continued for 3 years before they were shut down due to asbestos exposure;

  • Interview with three serviceman who were stationed on the Peak during the Cold War;

  • 3D reconstruction and photographs of the Air Force Station taken during its operational period;

  • Photographs of the Dalai Lama during his visit to West Peak; and

  • Interview with a MMWD representative, explaining how the restoration will work.

Narration during the historical overview will be provided by Peter Coyote, a local with the ability to help viewers emotionally connect to the project’s goal of saving this most-sacred part of the mountain.

Prominent visuals will be time lapse scenes of the West Peak area as it is today, with imagery selected to inspire awe of the beauty of the place in poignant contrast with the decrepit and decaying foundations and detritus that the military left behind.   The video is being shot during periods of dramatic weather to emphasize the feeling of time passing.  There will be an original soundtrack, supervised by co-director George Daly and composed by Michael Hoppe and Ron Alan Cohen that will enhance the feeling of awe and timelessness on the Peak.  


AuthorGary Yost