RE-WILDING A BEACH
The lost land of the Long Beach Peninsula in the time of the Great Virus, SARS-CoV-2
By Mark Magee
With humans locked inside our cages, bears and bison roam Yellowstone freely, mountain goats wander through Welsh towns, Punjabis can see The Himalayas for the first time in 30 years, and coyotes window shop along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. And now people peacefully wander the beaches of Washington State without a care or car.
“The beaches of Washington are public highways, forever “declared Washington State Bill 35. In 1901 the expansive beaches, including the twenty-eight mile fetch of peninsula called The Peninsula by the current locals, and of no discoverable name by the original locals, the Willapa Chinookan speaking people. was declared a highway. The current locals will defiantly declare their right to drive the beach because of SB 35-1901. The original locals will tell you that the hard-packed sand accreted since the end of the ice age was always a great way to travel up and down the sand spit for trade with the settlements in the area.
I first visited the Long Beach Peninsula in winter, 1985. Newly arrived in Portland from the Midwest, I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean. As many college adventures start, at 11pm my friend had the idea to drive out to the ocean, only three hours away. We raced through the rain and the night on old logging roads to the back entrance of Astoria, Oregon where we then launched up the great span of the Astoria-Megler Bridge and across the four miles of Columbia River to Washington State and a land that time forgot.
At 3 am, in Ocean Park Washington we walked out onto the shallow flats of the tidal sweep bordered by low dunes to the east and the infinite Pacific to the west. The clouds cleared and the stars shined above and reflected below in the sheen of the retreating surf line. Without landmarks, this beach was border-less, infinite, and this was my first experience of the grand palette of the Long Beach Peninsula.
Anchored on the south by Cape Disappointment, the peninsula is a sandpit that stretches miles north to the Leadbetter State Park, established 1978. On the Pacific Side the sand is firm and steady, perfect for traveling by any method of wheels or feet or combination of those two.
There has been, on the peninsula, a tension between those who would restrict driving on the beach and those who would consider that an infringement on their rights and a restriction of their freedom. There are current residents that still chafe at the restrictions on the north end for the state park and area closures during nesting times of the threatened species snowy plover. It is a great divide indeed, sharing similar characteristics and tone of environment vs. resource use struggles. How do we use the beach today? What are the best ways to play on this beach? Some dream of a return to the wild beach of 300 years ago, filled with birds, driftwood and no sound but the waves and wind. Others want to play rowdy games in their trucks, haul out all their toys and family members and enjoy a day at the beach while keeping their creature comforts within reach, and still others want access they otherwise wouldn’t have due to injury, frailty or disability. Everyone feels they have a particular right to this beach, mostly informed by their desires, like any romance. I am no different. The result is a stalemate. No change, not even the consideration of a change to use patterns.
I spoke with a city councilperson regarding the most minor changes in beach use, one I know to sit far left on most political issues of ecology. “No, too much tourism dollars there.” That was it. No discussion allowed. Most conversations go the same way. I’ve repeatedly asked the local newspaper to revive this issue. Nope.
On the other hand, I have had many conversations with both locals and visitors. Anecdotally, there is an opening. Many secretly do not like the traffic. There is a hard truth to this opposition though. The changes would come from elsewhere, not the local government. The state parks department make these rules driven by legislative lawmaking, not the local community. This is a timeless debate. Who controls a resource? The local inhabitants, the region, the state or the federal government? More broadly, do we believe all people of a nation have equal access to all resources, especially those from outside of the region?
Oregon and Washington issued social distancing suggestions in mid-March, asking people to limit their contacts, keep six feet distant for others and stay at home as much as possible. After a week of this, residents of both states were looking for a release, and en-mass headed for the coast. Towns normally populated at 3-4000 swelled to 10,000 or more, all with the threat of COVID-19 perched on the tourist’s shoulders. This felt like nothing short of an invasion to these small towns already fearful of the virus, knowing full-well the fragility of their healthcare and public services networks. To stem the tide of tourists and their potential threat to spread the virus, the coast towns in Oregon and Washington and Pacific County Washington took action. On March 22nd 2020, they closed the hotels, closed the restaurants and for the first time in history, Pacific County Washington shut down vehicle access to the Long Beach Peninsula. On March 23rd, both states made distancing and the stay-at-home request and order. From 3/23/2020 until now, there have been no (legally operated) vehicles on the beach for the first time in over 100 years.
My first drone photo of a vehicle-less beach was published in the local newspaper. You can see only vague tire tracks above the high-tide line.
This was one of the first comments posted on Facebook regarding that photo and attending story. The resentment of a lifetime flooded out:
“There’s absolutely no reason locals should be prevented from driving on our beach. It's a state highway. Are we shutting down all highways to prevent CV? Walking on the beach provides more risk of personal contact than being contained in a vehicle. We were walking the dogs the other day just south of the Ocean [sic] Park approach and had 3 people approach us with no hesitation. That would not have happened if we'd been in a vehicle. The beach wasn't an issue, it was the clam dig enticing visitors here that caused the problem, and responsibility for that lies directly with Jay Inslee trading our safety for King County votes.
It concerns me greatly that now that the beach access has been closed, which has been a push for years from out of area people with vacation homes on the dunes as well as State Parks staff, it'll just be easier to do it again for no reason. State Parks has already colluded with USFW and others to create their own preserve by blocking locals from driving north of Oysterville. Parks also stated last year that they are considering closing more areas because of a claim that people are interfering with Plover nesting. Its complete bull and is just an excuse to take away "our" access. Of course when the tourists show up it all opens up for clam digging. It's a complete scam. Locals who pay taxes here, volunteer in the community, support local business and utility infrastructure, etc. have more right to area benefits like the beach in spite of the brainwashing agencies push around everyone in the state having equal rights. I don't have, or expect to have, the same rights to areas of Eastern WA as the locals over there do, and that is basic common sense. In spite of that, we locals are constantly blocked from our beach, forests, etc. except when the rest of the state shows up and amazingly it's fine to allow tens of thousands of vehicles and people to trash the entire beach.
About 15 years ago many of our long established accesses were simply blocked with no real resistance. These were legally established accesses spread along the length of the Peninsula, and they were simply blocked with no effort to protect our established right to them. That restricted our legal accesses to a few primary entrances, which are now road blocked. For the most part, tourists didn’t use ourvalternaye [sic] accesses, so those were our community accesses. Point is, that when those alternate accesses were illegally taken it made it much easier to simply close the beach like has just been done.
Food for thought when thinking about how our local rights are being eroded by land grabbing policies. I get the initial closure to get visitors to leave, but why are they still closed? Who is that actually serving?”
The debate over who has “the most right” to local resources rages on, especially in an area saturated with part-time residents, tourists and a strong local contingent. The author of this rant traces their lineage on the peninsula back to the 1800s and believes they have a privilege others do not or should not have. I would like to challenge the author on tribal rights, as the native Americans had this place for thousands of years before the European settlers.
COVID-19 has done temporarily what decades of mild activism failed to do.
Day two and the beach is clear of vehicle tracks.
If feels calmer without the traffic. While walking that morning I stopped and asked a few walkers, from six feet, what they thought. “...it seems so peaceful” , “really nice, actually” , “I guess it’s nice for now” and one beachcomber said, “I like it. I don’t have to look over my shoulder.” Another person said on Facebook it felt like the beach was almost breathing again.
To be fair, this is not a representative sample of beach users. Those who prefer to drive the beach aren’t allowed at the moment. One woman, who generally liked the car-less beach and walks it almost every day said, “most days there’s a whole line of people, seniors, who like to drive out and take a nap. It’s kinda sweet to see them snoozing by the ocean.” Another older man said, “I won’t use the beach if I can’t drive. I have a bum leg and this is how I run my dog.”
I want all of these people to be able to use the beach, from the quiet strollers to the slumbering seniors, but how are we to do this when one use disturbs the other? Surely in the twenty eight miles of beach we can all find some space.
And on the sixth day, the driftwood began to return.
Without vehicle access to the beach all visits must begin on foot. The northern miles of the beach are accessible only through the state park, which are also closed to the public. Those eight miles are now inaccessible and no human will set foot on that section of beach until the closures are lifted. What must be going on up there? We will never know, but the idea of zero human access has its charms.
There are a significant number of people who drive the beach every morning looking for commodities in the form of driftwood and flotsam. Each day they scour the beach looking for whatever they can find to sell later to tourists, or even just to burn in their stoves. Driftwood burns hot but at a cost. The salt slowly eats away at their stoves, but with many poverty-level scavenger activities, current costs deferred are often worth the instant savings.
As that days of the stay at home order and the vehicle closure continues, the beach continue to change. The driftwood continues to build, the large pieces begin their natural decomposition. There is a subtle shift in the perception of the beach. Each piece of driftwood reminds me of the energy of the pacific and makes me wonder where it came from, how long it floated which opens a sense of time and space far beyond my usual daydreams.
In a one week update of the changes to the beach to a local Facebook page. Several comments specifically mentioned how they enjoyed the beach without vehicles. A resident wrote to the local paper about how they were able to find washed up items while on foot, where as all the interesting stuff was swept up in the early-morning tide of vehicle-supported beachcombers.
Washington State’s stay-at-home order was extended to May 4th, so I assume Pacific County WA. will continue the closure of beach access until then as well. The beach will remain untouched for vehicles for six weeks by then.
What will we see then, and what will we see the day after it opens again? As the days of natural reclamation continue, I feel a creeping dread for that day when vehicles once again churn the sands into linear scars and the driftwood quickly disappears, leaving the beach a barren moonscape once again.