An article about California’s coast that caught my eye recently turned out to be a remembrance of Peter Douglas, who was responsible for writing and helping pass the measure that created the California Coastal Commission and then served as its executive director for 25 years. I did not know Mr. Douglas personally, and I am not going to recite his accomplishments on behalf of that spectacular coast; but I will share my personal memories of it.
I grew up in northern New York as far from sunny beaches as one could be. Never a strong swimmer and with fair skin that burned from even short exposure to the sun, when I moved to Los Angeles in 1982 it was not for the siren song of Malibu beach! But like many before me I soon found myself making a regular trek to the coast. Los Angeles seemed to have no end to it or at least not one that didn’t require a couple of hours of driving. From my west LA apartment a 45 minute Sunday morning drive not only got me to the beach but well up the coast to what became my favorite haunt – Westward Beach in Malibu. Adjacent to the better known Zuma Beach, what attracted me to it was its relative isolation and solitude. I would arrive early – always before eight – and leave early as well just as the crowds were starting to build. I was usually covered from head to toe in clothing for sun protection and rarely did more than dip a toe in the water. Nonetheless the beach became for me my retreat from the city and something I looked forward to all week long.
As I read about Mr. Douglas’ advocacy on behalf of the public’s right to access and enjoy California’s coastline, I thought about those Sunday mornings and was grateful for his efforts and those of so many other who recognized the incomparable gift that the state’s coast is. It became a bit of a game over the years as I traveled the coast to spot the coastal access signs that were result of the Commission’s work (and all too often in the face of dogged opposition by the privileged and wealthy who are fortunate enough to own a piece of that coast and somehow feel that their enjoyment of it will be lost if it must be shared with the public). I can think of no better memorial to Mr. Douglas than to insure those signs remain forever and grow in numbers over the years.
California coastal access
Legend has it that King Canute of Denmark demonstrated his limitations to his courtiers by sitting at the edge of the sea and commanding the tide to stop. When the water inevitably continued to rise and dampened his feet, he contrasted his limited powers with the unlimited powers of God.
In an opinion announced this week, the Texas Supreme Court has asserted its power to stop nature and the oceans from redrawing property lines. The Court held that while hurricanes may change the physical location of beaches that will not change the location of the public portion of the beaches as they existed prior to the hurricane. Of course, those public portions may well be underwater permanently as a result of the storms. The upshot of this ruling is that the State of Texas will not be able to enforce its Open Beaches Act which had been used to reestablish public access in the wake of hurricanes even if it meant requiring landowners to demolish structures that were encroaching on the water’s edge post-storm.
West Galveston beachfront after Hurricane Ike
This was the rehearing of the Court’s initial decision which sparked an outcry from state officials and environmental groups alike. The result was the same though the three dissenting judges voiced strong objections.
The Court gives the State two options: (i) reacquire the public beach access easement by paying the landowner or (ii) relinquish public beach access in the affected area. Given the cost of purchasing such easements and the dynamic nature of beachfront ecosystems, over time this ruling is likely to dramatically restrict the ability of Texas residents to access the oceanfront.
As if battles with the federal government over immigration and health care weren’t enough, several western states have embarked on a campaign to wrest control of tens of millions of acres of federal lands in the West. Utah is furthest along with the governor there having just signed into law a measure asking the federal government to give back more than 20 million acres of public lands. Not to be outdone, the Arizona Senate just passed SB1332 which would require the federal government to transfer nearly 30 million acres (or roughly 40% of the state) to the state by 2015 or face the imposition of property taxes. Governor Brewer somewhat unexpectedly vetoed the measure acknowledging that it was unconstitutional and would have imposed a huge budget liability on the state if the federal lands were actually put under state control. Measures are expected to be introduced in Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and New Mexico.
Coupled with these legislative efforts are a new raft of lawsuits alleging that the federal government reneged promises made at the time these states entered the Union that federal ownership would be temporary. While most legal commentators agree that this issue has been resolved in the federal government’s favor repeatedly over the years, that doesn’t address the very different public-private land ownership patterns between states in the Mountain West and the rest of the country.
Its clear from comments being made by sponsors of the bills that if they are successful they believe state ownership will pave (literally and perhaps figuratively as well) the way for more aggressive resource extraction and development. The issue has even reared its head in the Republican primary where Senator Santorum has said if elected he would work to transfer much of the federal lands to the states and sell them to private interests. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has recently issued a lengthy study discussing possible reforms to federal land management including the transfer of such lands to the states.
Environmentalists have been quick to raise the alarm of what such a transfer would likely mean for treasured wilderness areas such the red rock lands surrounding Moab, Utah. As this issue evolves it is almost a certainty the public trust doctrine will be invoked by those seeking to insure continued management of such lands in a manner that promotes the interest of the general public rather than a small group of private parties interested only in economic development. A recent Nevada Supreme Court decision did just that in applying the public trust doctrine to a dispute about whether the state had to transfer some land recently acquired from the federal government to a county.
While the takeover is supported by many in the Tea Party, in this case it is environmentalists who are raising the disastrous impact such a transfer of land could have on state budgets.