Best of the Best! Our Lanphere and Ma-le’l Dunes


by Dan Sealy

In the mid 1980’s Peter Alpert (now Professor Emeritus, Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts – Amherst) was conducting his postdoctoral botany work at Año Nuevo and became interested in coastal dunes. That interest, as he says, “led to a summer contract with The Nature Conservancy, during which I documented remnants of native dune vegetation from San Francisco to the Columbia River.  The most extensive remnant in northern California was certainly that at the then Lanphere Dunes Preserve. “ He was joined in this effort by an employee of The Nature Conservancy, Jimmy Kagan (currently at the Institute for Natural Resources at Oregon State University) and included explorations of coastal dunes  from the Canadian border to San Francisco Bay. Their task became part of a nationwide, systematic effort to identify the best of the best  geologic and biotic resources for potential consideration by the National Natural Landmarks (NNL) Program. Established by the Secretary of the Interior in 1962 and administered by the National Park Service, this program recognizes public and privately-owned sites that exemplify the nation’s diverse natural heritage.

A restored salt marsh on the east side of the Lanphere Dunes. Photo by Andrea Pickart

They found that most of the dunes had been either developed or native vegetation had been overtaken by invasive non-native plants such European beach grass. They found the Lanphere Dunes near the north end of the entrance to Humboldt Bay, a remarkably intact collection of native plant communities atop an emblematic dune formation. It was no accident the dunes were intact since Hortense and William Lanphere, pioneers of the Humboldt State University (HSU) wildlife and botany programs, had a home at the edge of the forested dunes. The area had been sustained by the Wiyot people who had lived here and the Lanpheres had worked diligently to keep off-road vehicles away from the dunes and to study them for better understanding. These were, in fact, the best of the best and if not protected, they would disappear. In 1976 Hortense Lanphere donated most of her land to The Nature Conservancy, inspiring other landowners to sell or donate their adjacent properties.  Though the dunes were not included in the first rounds of NNLs, the land eventually came under the administration of both the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM.)  

Map showing the Lanphere / Ma-le’l Dunes location and
units north of Arcata Bay. Source: Alpert and Kagan Report

Kagan and Alpert enlisted the help of geologist and HSU botany graduate, Andrea Pickart, who worked for The Nature Conservancy and later became a USFWS employee. In 2019 Kagan and Alpert updated their report to include new geologic and botanic studies by Pickart along with updated lists of plants and animals compiled by local conservationists like Carol and CJ Ralph who bought the Lanphere home from Hortense.  Carol is the president of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society and CJ is a research Wildlife Ecologist Emeritus at the USDA Forest Service’s Redwood Sciences Laboratory.

The identification and protection of natural areas is the legacy of dedication and perseverance often coupled with science. In 2020, the National Park System Advisory Board recommended the Lanphere  and Ma-le’l Dunes as one of our newest NNLs. Although there are no funds or new regulations that come with this designation, as part of the NNL program, the site gains in public pride and support and any federal action on or near the site, such as federal highway construction, must address impacts to the integrity of the NNL resources.  Upon landowner request, NNL program coordinators can arrange for technical assistance to make recommendations or to help solve problems.  

What makes Lanphere and Ma-le’l Dunes the Best of the Best? Geology is at the foundation and the dune complex “contains exceptional examples of eolian (wind-driven) resources, specifically those associated with sand dunes such as beaches, foredunes, transverse dunes and stabilized dune forests,” explains the NNL program on its website.  The area provides the “perfect example of this concept, containing one of the most diverse and highest quality remnants of coastal dunes in the North Pacific Border Biophysiographic Region, specifically the “Klamath–Siskiyou Coastal Sand Dune” complex. 

Seaside daisy at Lanphere Dunes. Photo by Andrea Pickart

Dune ecosystems are sometimes overshadowed by other local ecosystems such as redwood forests or mountains but looking closely at the dunes, observers first might notice the important Beach Pine, Red Alder forests and dense willow thickets. Closer observation reveals the smaller plant communities that form mats near the more recent sand movement.  There are many varieties of flowers and animals, especially insects, that often go unnoticed as well.  

Along with hundreds of types of lichen and fungi, the new Lanphere landmark supports hundreds of species of vascular plants including a number of at-risk plant species such as the federally endangered Menzies’ wallflower (Erysimum menziesii) and beach layia (Layia carnosa), both found only in California and only on coastal dunes. Native fauna includes forty species of mammals, twelve species of amphibians and reptiles as well as a large and diverse invertebrate fauna, including over forty species of native, solitary bees which are important in plant diversity and ecosystem functioning. “The checklist of bird species on the project area and immediately adjacent properties is well north of 300 species, amazing for such a small area.  The density of birds is especially rich in the forest/riparian/pasture interface and edges and exceeds virtually any other area in northwestern California,”  says ornithologist, CJ Ralph.  From birds and bees to seals and salamanders, this is a world full of animal life. 

Scientific Questions

NNLs are recognized as “magnets” for scientific research that helps unlock clues to geologic and ecological factors.  Lanphere and Ma-le’l Dunes provide a rich first-hand opportunity for scientists. 

Kagan wonders about the impacts on sand deposition and erosion caused by new dams, less water and climate change. Pickart recorded impacts in the dunes of a mega-earthquake 300 years ago.  And Alpert finds it puzzling that a native strawberry can be found along coasts from the Aleutians to Santa Barbara but has not been found inland. What more might  we learn?


The scientists agree, beyond the effects associated with climate change (sea level rise, drought and extreme storms), the biggest continuing threat is invasive plants pushing out native vegetation. 

Native dune restoration requires a Herculean effort. If any European beach grass is present with its long runners buried in the sand, it must be removed. In the 1990’s the first major dune restoration project on the west coast began at Lanphere dunes. Using almost entirely human-powered invasive plant removal the USFWS and conservation partners have restored about 16 acres. The BLM, under the supervision of botanist Jennifer Wheeler, accomplished about the same acreage working with the California Conservation Corps and was awarded the 2019 “Champion of the Year” by the BLM for her work. 

Dunes are very fragile environments. Visitors can help protect the ecosystems by staying on designated trails, only bringing pets where allowed, and not removing wildflowers, plants and wildlife from the public lands. Do take a deeper dive by volunteering at a nature center or helping with dune restoration by contacting one of the offices below.

Once again, our natural community is recognized as the “Best of the Best!”  But we knew that already!     

Learn more:

Friends of the Dunes and Humboldt Coastal Nature Center and guided Walks (707)444-1397   website:

Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center:

National Natural Landmarks Program: