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Beachhead defense.

Byline: Larry Bacon The Register-Guard

AT FIRST, THE GOVERNOR appeared cool to the idea that he push to pass a law ensuring Oregon's beaches remain open to the public.

But Tom McCall quickly warmed to the suggestion that day in 1967 when told about the growing public support for such a bill, recalled his visitor, Bob Bacon of Gearhart, now 83 and former leader of Citizens to Save Oregon Beaches. "He realized he had an issue there," Bacon says.

The rest is history. With McCall's unrelenting support, the Beach Bill became law. At the signing ceremony on July 6, 1967, he quoted former Gov. Oswald West, who, in 1913, persuaded the Legislature to designate the wet sand portion of Oregon's beaches as a state highway so it would forever belong to the public.

"This fulfills the dream of Gov. West that `No local selfish interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people,' ' McCall said.

Thirty-five years later, Oregon's beaches and its Beach Bill continue to be a matter of intense state pride. Only one other state, Hawaii, guarantees public access from the surf line to the vegetation line.

Still, there are concerns that have prompted the Department of Parks and Recreation to begin work this year on the first-ever comprehensive management plan for the 230 miles of beaches along Oregon's 362-mile shoreline. The goal is to have a draft plan done by fall 2003.

Parks planner Kathy Schutt says the department has exercised its rule-making and permit-granting authority on an area-by-area basis in the past but never looked at the big picture. Planning efforts have usually targeted individual parks, she says.

"But we've come to realize the ocean shore is the biggest day-use area we have, and we don't have any management guidelines," she says.

Mike Carrier, parks department director, says there are important questions to be answered by an overall management plan, such as, "Is there adequate public beach access, and what will adequate public access be 25 years from now?" Also, he asks, "How do we balance the need for natural resource protection with growing recreational demand?"

Population growth problems

Conservation advocates say the state needs to take steps now to ensure that Oregon's beaches remain a public treasure for decades to come.

Some claim that one reason Oregon's beaches are generally unspoiled is that, unlike most other coastal states, the Oregon Coast has no major cities. They say big cities not only generate pollution, they also attract thousands of people who can ruin a beach simply by overusing it.

But Oregon beach use is on the rise. Information gathered for the proposed management plan shows more than 6 million recreational beach visits on the north coast in 2001-02, up 83 percent over a five-year period. On the less-visited south coast, the number was nearly 1.6 million, up 38.5 percent. Some north coast beaches draw as many as a half-million visitors a year.

David Revell, a 28-year-old Lincoln City surfer with an Oregon State University degree in marine resource management, figures Oregon has a 30-year window to put protective measures in place before its population grows to the point that it could ruin the beaches.

Revell is coastal campaigns coordinator for the Oregon chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a beach advocacy group.

On a glorious fall day from a cliffside viewpoint in the small community of Otter Rock, Revell looks out over a dark blue expanse of ocean and talks about beach issues of special importance to him.

He says the quality of water just offshore is a major concern. A volunteer Surfrider testing program turned up fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria in the water on both sides of Otter Rock, he says.

"It could be from seal poop or dog poop, or it could be from septic or sewer systems," he says. "It just shows there's a problem."

Because Oregon is the last coastal state without a program for testing the quality of ocean water, Revell says surfers and other beach visitors who spend time in the water have no way of knowing how clean it is, or whether they are exposing themselves to health hazards.

It's a situation he hopes will change after a state testing program, to be supplemented by an expanded Surfrider testing program, gets under way next year.

"This is one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth," he says. "If we don't do this right, I think we could end up looking like some of the California beaches or Hawaiian beaches, where people have just loved them to death."

The snowy plover issue

A companion "habitat conservation plan" is being developed in addition to the overall beach management plan that would aid in the recovery of snowy plovers, small shorebirds listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Between March 15 and Sept. 15 of this year, the parks department closed more than 18 miles of dry-sand area, mostly on the south coast, to protect nesting plovers. The nesting population on the Oregon Coast numbers about 110.

Michelle Michaud, the parks department's natural resource manager, says the planning process will take into account not only how the closures benefit the birds, but also the economic effects on humans - some of whom say closing portions of the beach to the public hurts tourism.

One of those is Coos County Commissioner John Griffith, a surfer and sport fisherman who was the driving force in a decision by the county commissioners to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an attempt to fend off a federal "critical habitat" designation for West Coast plovers. The commissioners said the government failed to properly consider the economic impact of the designation.

About 43 miles of the proposed critical habitat is along Oregon beaches, and Griffith fears the parks department plan might expand the closure areas to include those 43 miles, or more. He also challenges the validity of the current 18 miles of seasonal closures.

Onno Husing, director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Agency, which represents a variety of local governments on the coast, says coastal communities that have endured downturns in the fishing industry have come to depend more and more on tourism and can't afford beach closures that might keep tourists away.

Husing also says biologists haven't determined how well the plovers can tolerate human recreational activity, and contends no intelligent decision on closing beaches to protect the birds can be made until that's done.

But Michaud says such a study has been done in California, and one may be done in Oregon. She expects preliminary plover habitat conservation alternatives to be available for public review by next March.

Michaud and Schutt, the parks planner, say the plans must define how people can share the beaches with plovers without harming them, and provide guidance on how to address user conflicts, such as those between pedestrians and motorized beach visitors.

Dave Wright, who oversees the department's planning efforts, says the number of such conflicts is smaller than most people might think. A department-sponsored survey found some beachgoers bothered by vehicles, dogs and horses, he says, but also that such run-ins are infrequent.

The beach management plan will generate a wealth of information about beach activities and where conflicts occur, Wright says, including finding out which beaches are overused and which ones have visitors who want more elbow room.

"We're certainly not looking at eliminating whatever recreation is causing the conflicts," he says. "But there may be ways to separate uses so we can avoid conflicts."

Running out of sand

Phil Johnson, leader of a beach watchdog organization affiliated with the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, applauds the management plan effort and says even if it leads to more restrictions, it's worth it to protect the beaches.

"We do have to manage ourselves," Johnson says. "And that sometimes means excluding ourselves from the places we love."

He and other conservation leaders expect the management plan to pay dividends, but they say other measures possibly outside the scope of the plan will be needed to ensure the continued health of Oregon's beaches.

One thing that needs to happen, they say, is better management of the primary ingredient of ocean beaches: sand.

Sand moves onshore and offshore, up and down the coast, within "littoral cells" - the stretches of beach between prominent headlands. It also gets pushed around by seasonal charges in weather, waves and currents.

Many people are concerned about the loss of sand on some beaches caused by protective structures designed to prevent the shoreline erosion that supplies some of the sand.

More than 18 miles of Oregon coastline have some type of protective structure, including nearly 18 percent of the Lincoln County coast. The parks department no longer issues permits for such structures for developments completed after 1977 or for lots platted since then.

The state Department of Transportation and organizations representing coastal counties and cities want to do away with a requirement that public agencies go through a complicated process for getting exceptions to state land use goals before they can build protective structures along the shoreline.

But conservation groups, including the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, argue that waiving the requirement would give highway and city engineers less incentive to seek alternative erosion control solutions.

A state-hired mediator is now working with the two sides in the dispute, trying to forge a compromise.

To help keep Oregon's beaches healthy, scientists with the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries say it makes sense to explore replenishing beach sand with sand dredged from river entrances along the coast.

They say the state should also explore some recently developed alternatives to hard shoreline protective structures, and do a "state of the beach" study of the sand system on Oregon's beaches.

"It's a publicly owned resource, and we have no baseline data to even see what we started with," says George Priest, coastal section leader for the geology and mineral industries department.

Keeping beaches clean

Jack McGowan and his wife, Jan, walked every mile of Oregon's beaches last year.

They are leaders of SOLV, the conservation organization founded in 1969 by former Gov. Tom McCall that sponsors twice-yearly coastwide beach cleanups.

The McGowans' walk was intended to be a fund-raiser to help build up the nonprofit group's endowment fund. But it turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.

The McGowans were joined along the route by about 1,000 beach lovers.

The couple saw wide expanses of deserted beach flanked at times by cliffs and dunes. They strolled past people flying kites, building sand castles and splashing in the surf next to busy coastal communities such as Seaside and Cannon Beach.

"It was a wonderful experience," Jack McGowan says. "What was really impressive to Jan and me is that the Beach Bill is alive and well."

They saw plenty of development up off the beach, he says, but from the California border to the south jetty of the Columbia River, they walked on sand unimpeded.

Planning and a vision for the future will help keep it that way, Jack McGowan says. But to his way of thinking, there needs to be another important element: building a sense of stewardship.

He has in mind the kind of stewardship exhibited by the thousands of volunteers who participate in SOLV's beach cleanups, hauling away 50,000 to 85,000 pounds of trash each year.

Those who help with the cleanups earn "sweat equity" and develop a sense of responsibility for beaches that all Oregonians should share, he says.

The smokers who littered the sand with more than 8,500 cigarette butts that were picked up by SOLV cleanup crews last year need to learn how to be stewards of Oregon's beaches, McGowan says.

So do newcomers to the state who will help swell the number of beach visitors in years to come, he says.

"We need to get to them the message that ... with Oregon citizenship comes a certain degree of responsibility," he says, "to preserve all that Oregon has to offer."


To find out more about Oregon's beach planning program or to provide input on beach issues, click on Or write to Kathy Schutt, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, 1115 Commercial St. N.E., Salem, OR 97301-1002.

1899: The Legislature declares 30 miles of beach a highway "forever open as such to the public" between high tide line and low tide line from Columbia River to Clatsop County south boundary.

1913: Gov. Oswald West persuades the Legislature to amend 1899 law to extend wet-sand beach highway to include all tidelands along Oregon Coast.

1947: The Legislature changes designation of beach "highway" to "recreation area."

1966: William Hay, owner of Surfsand Motel in Cannon Beach, fences off section of dry sand adjacent to motel and posts it for "Surfsand Guests Only." Although most Oregonians believed all Oregon beaches were public, 112 miles of dry-sand beaches above high tide line were deeded to private individuals such as Hay, who sought to exercise his right of ownership.

1967: State Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, headed by Loren L. "Stub" Stewart of Eugene, orders preparation of Beach Bill to ensure public's access to dry-sand beach area. Idea gains backing of Gov. Tom McCall and slightly amended bill eventually passes in the Legislature. Bill provides for public recreational easement between high tide line and line 16 feet landward, approximating beginning of vegetation.

1969: State Supreme Court upholds beach law in landmark Thornton vs. Hay case in which Attorney General Robert Thornton sues Surfsand Motel owner Hay for refusing to remove fence outside his motel.

1994: The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the state's beach law by declining to review a state Supreme Court decision against Irving and Jeanette Stevens, owners of Ecola Inn in Cannon Beach. The couple wanted to build a seawall on dry sand adjacent to the motel so they could expand their building.


Cape Arago Beach

near Charleston

You clamber down the steeply curving path, past grey weathered picnic tables tucked in the hill, dump your goodies behind some driftwood, shout greetings back at the seal barking in the bay, and rush to the finger tickle of sea anemones glowing in the wide expanse of tide pools stretching out before you like a banquet.

- Jane Sanford Harrison, Eugene

South Jetty Beach

at Bandon

On stormy days you can park and watch the waves roll down the Coquille River, knocking huge driftwood logs off the jetty as if they were toothpicks. Other times it is exhilarating to walk along the edge of the ocean watching for agates or shells that might have washed in, or watching the sea lions and seals just offshore. Each time you visit is like a new experience.

- Pamela George, Coquille

Simpson Beach below Shore Acres State Park gardens near Charleston This beach is the perfect private beach, and I've spent hours fantasizing it as my own. Depending on the tide, there are many rocks to explore with teeming tidepools and cliffs on each side sheltering the small beach. Seabirds abound, nesting in the cliffs and rock overhangs as seaweed, mussels, anemones and starfish creep up the sides. At any time of the year, Simpson Beach in its raw and naked beauty epitomizes the glorious power and wonder of the sea.

- Terry Lee Sears, Eugene

The beach below Yaquina Bay State Park

at Newport

I love the cove, the lighthouse and the seals on the rocks. Newport has so many things to do that are free. I would take my children, and we would go to the Marine Science Center and play there for quite some time, then drive up to the lighthouse, gaze out at the ocean for a little while, then walk down to the cove, beachcomb, watch the seals, picnic and just have a very good time.

- Anita Threatt, hometown not listed

The beach at Blacklock Point, south of Langlois and north of Cape Blanco The beach is awesome. It is about a three-mile hike from an old abandoned airport two miles west of Highway 101. Because it is not convenient to get to, you are almost always alone there, and there is usually no sign that people have been on the beach.

- Dan Harris, Ashland

Hobbitt Beach north of Florence near Heceta Head We loved the Hobbitt Beach because it was so secluded and the walk down to the beach went through tunnels of laurel and other coastal shrubbery. Once there, a lovely unpopulated beach stretched out for miles. Since then someone has "improved" the path, and more people have discovered what was for us a mystical spot.

- Nancy Bowman, Eugene

The beach at Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint (Devil's Elbow) north of Florence

It has something for everyone. The younger ones can dam the stream that runs across the beach or wade or throw rocks in the creek at the south end. There is the hike to the lighthouse with great views along the way. Although we do go to other beaches, in our family this beach is known as the REAL beach!

- Kay Pitt, Florence

Ponsler Memorial Wayside Beach between Florence and Yachats

This is a beach with little sand, but much gravel, colored rocks and agates. In the 1960s my two young children, Randall and Peggy, learned to pick agates and small colorful stones. Our family purchased a tumbler and polished our own treasures. Many years later we have a huge collection of beautiful agates and stones to share with others.

- Harvey Speck, Eugene


The Oregon Beach Bill is a part of the enduring legacy of Gov. Tom McCall.
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Title Annotation:Oregon takes a new look at how it governs its popular public sands; Environment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 17, 2002
Previous Article:Guilt may feel bad, but it can be useful.

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