In the October Issue of Traveler, our Destination Watch department looked into the ongoing controversy surrounding Trestles Beach in southern California, a shore made famous in the Beach Boys' classic "Surfin' U.S.A." National Geographic magazine Production Coordinator Jeff DiNunzio recently visited the beach and sends us this update.
Just below San Diego’s northern border with Orange County sits San Onofre State Beach, or San O. The park includes three distinct areas, the Bluffs, San Onofre Surf Beach, and San Mateo Campground, and over the past year, San O has become a battleground between supporters of highway infrastructure development and challengers who favor fewer cars and preserving the park.
The Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) want to extend the Foothill Toll Road—Route 241—and link coastal Orange County with its expansion eastward. In order to deal with the estimated 60 percent traffic increase expected in south Orange County in the next quarter-century, the TCA believes the six-lane, 16-mile extension will be a vital accommodation. The road in question falls under the California highway system but is operated by the TCA, which is funded by the sale of bonds to both private individuals and institutional investors. The extension boasts a list of supporters and research on congestion-induced environmental hazards.
The addition, however, would cut through a patch of well-maintained terrain in San O, and opponents fear it would threaten the operation of its campgrounds (eliminating all of San Mateo’s 161 sites). Furthermore, it would diminish water and wildlife quality (San Mateo Watershed purportedly contains six rare or endangered species) and adversely affect the waves at Trestles Beach, which draws surfers from around the world. The assertion that new roads will mitigate, rather than worsen, congestion has met persistent skepticism. Organizations like Save San Onofre, the Surfrider Foundation, and United Coalition to Protect Panhe are campaigning to counter the TCA’s lobbying efforts for approval, boosting press coverage to rouse public support.
The surf break, known as Trestles, hosts the only Association of Surfing Professionals’ World Championship Tour (WCT) contest on the mainland United States. Each September, thousands of spectators crowd San O’s shores—already the fifth-most-visited of California’s roughly 270 state parks. So, on Friday, September 12th, I went. But the contest was over and the pros had skipped town. (WCT events have about a two-week waiting period so they can be held in the best waves; thus, end dates fluctuate.) A blessing perhaps. People travel far to attend the contest. But on a normal day, it’s mostly local surfers and beach-goers hiking to the beach. Rather than watch surfers and talk to out-of-towners, I surfed and spoke with the locals.
“It’s pretty amazing that sandwiched in the middle of San Diego and that whole L.A. mess is a relatively pristine natural habitat,” said Kyle McGee, a skinny, curly-haired San Diegan who frequently surfs Trestles. “You were out there. You saw how clear the water is. And the white wash from the waves—where else in California have you seen anything that blue?” Nowhere, in fact, except the sky.
Surfer and science teacher Nick Ritchie has been camping at Trestles since he moved to Los Angeles five years ago. “Just look at this place. North and south are all paved—stores, houses, parking lots, freeways. I don’t think saving the park for its own sake is a bad reason for denying the Toll Road. There are mountain lions in the hills and steelheads in the creek. And those waves... There’s a reason the contest is held here and not anywhere else on the West Coast.” It's a valid point. “Here’s what I don’t get: how can the government override the Coastal Commission’s decision against the construction? I understand the right to appeal, but at some point the feds have to concede that the local community knows what’s best for itself.”
The decision Ritchie referred to was made by the California Coastal Commission (CCC) last February to deny the TCA’s request to build the extension. The CCC is an independent, quasi-judicial state agency charged with planning and monitoring the use of land and water in the coastal zone in coordination with the California Coastal Act of 1976. How does the CCC view the controversy? They voted 8-2 against the toll road. At the February hearing, Executive Director Peter M. Douglas said, “this is the most significant project to come before this commission since the San Onofre nuclear power plant in 1974. I know of no other coastal development project so demonstrably inconsistent with the law that has come this far in the regulatory review process.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Commerce Department, reviewed the TCA’s appeal at a public hearing on September 22 in Del Mar, California. A decision by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez is expected by January 7th, 2009. If the appeal is won, and the newest extremity of Route 241 approved, there will still be a reason to visit San O’s campsites, trails, and beaches: legal and logistical delays. The implications of the road are debatable; the status of the park is not. For now, it's open for all to enjoy. So, as Orange County wave-rider Alex Knost suggests in the 2007 film One California Day, “enjoy it while it’s here and quit complaining.”
Photos: Will the sun soon set on San Onofre's relatively pristine surroundings? Above photo via TiffyALee's Flickr. Below photo by Jeff DiNunzio.