California's Crowded Coast

Published on July 9th, 2013

“Preserving California’s Precious Resources” read the large, rustic wooden sign greeting motorists along Interstate 5 in northern San Diego County.

I-5 is the major north-south transportation corridor on America’s West Coast, running virtually from Canada to Mexico, through Washington, Oregon, and California. It’s like a transportation twin to the East Coast’s I-95, connecting Maine to Miami on the opposite side of the country and continent.

“Preserving California’s Precious Resources?” And just who or what was preserving California’s precious resources? Was this sign marking the boundary of a state or national park? A national forest perhaps?  No, no, and no.

It marked where I-5 crossed into Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Only in “Crowdifornia,”where there is virtually no extensive undeveloped beach front property left – except for Camp Pendleton – for more than 100 miles from L.A. down past Orange County and San Diego to the Mexican border, would a Marine Corps base boast that it is defending the nation’s natural resources as well as its homeland.

Established in 1942 to train U.S. Marines for World War II – back when California’s population was about one-fifth of today’s – Camp Joseph H. Pendleton is the Marine Corps’ major West Coast base, and serves as its primary amphibious training facility as well as the home of the 1st Marine Division.

Camp Pendleton also manages a variety of natural habitats that have dwindled or disappeared elsewhere as California’s coastal population boomed over the last half-century – salt marsh, floodplain/riparian, oak woodlands, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and vernal pools. As subdivisions, strip malls, and freeways invaded the coastal landscape at a blitzkrieg pace, obliterating native plants, animals and habitats in the process, the Marine Corps guarded California’s precious resources against this onslaught.

Camp Pendleton protects breeding habitat for rare birds like the Western Snowy Plover and the California Gnatcatcher, as well as for the Pacific pocket mouse and Stephens’ kangaroo rat.

Military bases elsewhere also manage natural resources that are found inside their boundaries, within the extensive buffer zones needed to protect surrounding communities from live fire exercises, readiness and training activities. But few exercise the critical role played by Camp Pendleton in protecting the disappearing habitats and species of California.

As I learned very well when I worked in Orange County as an environmental planner, another guardian of the coast is the California Coastal Commission, established by Proposition 20 in 1972 and strengthened by the Coastal Act of 1976. In the words of recent Commissioner Steve Blank:  “It was the Coastal Act that saved California from looking like the coast of New Jersey.”

Under the activist, uncompromising 26-year leadership of its legendary executive director, Peter Douglas, who passed away in 2012, the California Coastal Commission pursued its mandate of limiting coastal development, ensuring public access to the waterfront, and promoting regulation of offshore oil drilling.

During Douglas’ tenure, the commission facilitated the creation of thousands of acres of park lands and public trails. It obtained more than 1,300 easements for paths to the shore across parcels of private property. In addition, its efforts helped preserve much of scenic State Route 1 (SR 1) – the Coast Highway – as a two-lane road meandering across a mix of farm and ranchlands, woodlands, headlands, cliffs, and dunes, rather than a superhighway bulldozing across the tranquil countryside.

Unfortunately, with the passing of Douglas from the scene, and with population pressures mounting, the prospects for California’s picturesque coastline have dimmed.  As ex-commissioner Steve Blank told The New York Times:

     “All we’ll be talking about is the color of the concrete used to pave over what’s left of the coast.”





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