Why Saving Trestles Still Matters

I still remember the first time I walked down the trail to Upper Trestles, on the western edge of San Onofre State Beach in Southern California, to compete in a NSSA high school contest. While the memories of the waves I caught that day 42 years ago in 1979 as a 15-year old have faded, I still vividly recall the green canopy of San Mateo Creek and our first glimpse of the dunes and breaking waves beyond the train tracks. It was magical.

The over 2,000 acres of San Onofre State Beach as well as the watershed of San Mateo Creek provides habitat for 11 endangered species. Photo: Jeremiah Klein

I’m not the only surfer who feels that way. Greg Long, who grew up riding the cobblestone A-frames of Trestles prior to embarking on his career as a professional big wave surfer, calls San Onofre State Beach a “real treasure.”

“San Mateo Creek is one of but a few remaining unadulterated and channelized watersheds in Southern California,” says Long. “When I walk down to the beach it’s like entering a time capsule, home to multiple endangered species and the cultural history of the Acjachemen people, offering a glimpse into what coastal Southern California may have been like once upon a time before all the development.”

Trestles is on the village site known as Panhe, which is known to archeologists to be at least 9,600 years old. Photo: Danny Hardesty

Greg’s sentiment is echoed by Dan Silver, CEO of the Endangered Habitats League who has worked tirelessly to protect the park and the San Mateo Creek watershed. “San Onofre State Beach and Trestles remain important for a rare confluence of values – cultural, biological, and recreational,” says Silver. “It is rich in Native American history. An estuary, stream, and uplands shelter an astonishing 11 endangered species.”

But, before it was ever a state park or a world famous surf spot, San Mateo Creek, was an Acjachemen village known as Pahne, or “place at the water.” According to Callie Shanafelt Wong, “Today the Acjachemen consider what is left of Panhe to be their most sacred site. Pre-contact, the village spanned the entire valley now occupied by the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, San Onofre State Beach and much of the town of San Clemente. To this day the tribe conducts ceremony and an Ancestor Walk on a small designated area within San Mateo campground, which is also a burial site.” To learn more about the cultural significance of Panhe and San Onofre State Beach through the lens of the Acjachemen, see The Indigenous Coastal Stewards Who Helped Save Trestles.

Greg Long at the California Coastal Commission Hearing on the proposed TCA Toll Road at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, February 7, 2008 with groms from Imperial Beach. With thousands in attendance, it was the largest public gathering at a Coastal Commission meeting in California history.

For the Acjachemen Nation and the more than 2.5 million annual visitors who enjoy the beaches, waves, trails, and campgrounds of San Onofre State Beach, making it one of the top five visited state parks in California, clearly, this iconic landscape is irreplaceable.

It is amazing to think that even with all the love for San Onofre State Beach, and especially Trestles, by the public and especially surfers, that the Transportation Corridor Agency or TCA had the audacity to propose building a toll road through the middle of the park. But that is exactly what happened. Starting in 2005, thousands of surfers came out to protest the TCA’s proposed highway project that would have torn apart one of California’s most beloved state parks.

Video of Lower Trestles by Danny Hardesty 

“‘Save Trestles’ became a rallying cry for surfers and environmentalists in Southern California,” says WILDCOAST Associate Director Zach Plopper. “It was really inspiring.”

A foundational element in the campaign, was, according to Shanaeflt Wong, the development of the “United Coalition to Protect Panhe (UPCC) to assert the importance of the area to the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians/Acjachemen Nation.” The UPCC involvement played a major role in the California Coastal Commission’s decision to deny the TCA a permit for the highway project.

At a February 7, 2008 Commission hearing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds on the toll road project, Rebecca Robles, an Ajcachemem tribal member from San Clemente told the Coastal Commission, “I encourage you, I implore you to uphold the California Coastal Act. Panhe is one of the remaining sites where we can enjoy our spiritual individuality. I ask you to protect this sacred site.”

The fact that the first-ever winner-take-all Rip Curl WSL Finals is being held at Lower Trestles, highlights the importance of what the World Surf League calls one of the most high performance waves in the world. – Photo: Jeremiah Klein

As a conservationist who has been involved in multiple environmental campaigns in the U.S. and internationally, I was continually blown away by the ingenuity, creativity, diversity, and energy of one of the most groundbreaking and comprehensive movements to protect the coast in California history.

“The decades-long Save Trestle campaign has provided a treasure trove of lessons on how to save our beloved coastal places for everyone and forever,” says Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation.

“First lesson, perseverance pays off. We refused to give up for decades and we won. Second, people power matters. We were outspent one hundred to one, but we had thousands of people on our side who showed up when it mattered and that worked. Third, it takes a village. We had a strong, well-led coalition where everyone could focus on their strengths, whether that was grassroots organizing of surfers or political and legal strategy. We needed it all to win,” adds Nelsen.

The campaign, that included a lawsuit by the California Native Heritage Commission on behalf of the Acjachemen and another one by the Save San Onofre Coalition (disclosure- WILDCOAST, the organization I am the Executive Director of is a member of the coalition), ultimately culminated last year in the signing by California Governor Gavin Newsom of Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath’s Assembly Bill 1426.

Surfers, indigenous peoples, youth, businesses, and ocean lovers in Southern California teamed up to save Trestles and protect San Onofre State Beach from the building of road projects through the middle of the park. Photo: Jeremiah Klein

“AB 1426 permanently protects San Onofre State Beach,” explains Boerner Horvath, “which is home to the last remaining undeveloped watershed in Southern California – the San Mateo Creek – from road projects that would have cut through the creek bed, ruined the popular campground, and disturbed habitats of rare and endangered species. As a third-generation North San Diego County resident, I’m proud to say we saved Trestles for the generations to come and will continue to protect this coastal gem.”

Currently, efforts are underway to renew the San Onofre State Beach lease which is crucial for its long-term conservation and management. The park was created back in 1971 through an agreement between Governor Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon that established a 50-year lease with the U.S. Navy. That lease is up this year.

“After six years of working with Steve Long and the San Onofre Parks Foundation on the San Onofre State Beach lease renewal, on August 31, 2021 a three-year extension to the 50-year lease that was set to expire at midnight that same day was signed by the Navy and California State Parks,” says longtime Trestles surfer and San Onofre Parks Foundation Founding President Bob Mignogna. “The San Onofre Parks Foundation is committed to working with the Navy and the State of California on an affordable 50-year lease renewal, so that the pristine surf breaks in the park, including Lower Trestles, will continue to be open to the public for generations to come. The three-year extension gives all parties the opportunity to prepare that contract thoughtfully.”

As a uniquely intact coastal ecosystem, Trestles is a constant reminder of why protecting and conserving our coast and ocean is so imperative to our sport. Photo: Jeremiah Klein

“If we learned anything from COVID, it’s that we love to recreate outdoors,” says Nelsen. “Our surf spots and coastal state parks in California are recreational gems that are more popular today than ever. We must protect these amazing resources for today, tomorrow and future generations.”

As a reminder, WILDCOAST, the World Surf League, and a coalition of over 90 NGOs and businesses are calling on world leaders to adopt a target at the 2021 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to protect and conserve at least 30 percent of the global ocean, including international waters, by 2030. We urge world leaders to be driven by science, and led by an inclusive process that embraces all stakeholder communities and considers the ocean’s value to the peoples of every nation.

For more details and to sign and share the petition, visit weareoneocean.org

A version of this article was originally posted on World Surf League.

How the ‘Save Trestles’ Campaign Advanced Coastal Protection Efforts Everywhere

(Originally published in The Inertia) On September 14, the eyes of the surfing world were focused on Lower Trestles and the 2021 Rip Curl WSL Finals. WSL commentator Peter Mel dropped a nugget of wisdom when he described the overhead waves and incredible conditions as a “beautiful swell that traveled thousands of miles and focused on (the) cobblestone reef.”

The waves that produced a riveting day of professional surfing at Lowers were a product of distant storms meeting coastal ecosystems protected by the 2,000-acre San Onofre State Beach, which includes surf breaks from Trails in the south to Cottons on the north. 

There is no more intensely surfed zone in all of Southern California, which is why San Onofre State Beach is one of the most popular state parks in the Golden State. ADVERTISEMENThttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.480.1_en.html#goog_386882260 

In her UC San Diego dissertation, Briana Marie Iatarola described the area as, “Two cobble deltas, as well as substrate and sediment transport (that), play critical roles in the formation of Trestles’ reef and waves. The large cobbles produce two fan-shaped deltas on the seafloor. The first, which is fed by the Cristianitos and San Mateo Creeks. The other is located south of Lowers at Church and sustained by the San Onofre Creek. The creeks’ circulation and transport of sediment coupled with cobble substrate help produce Trestles’ sandbars, which affect the shape of waves.” 

Likewise, the ecological importance of San Onofre State Beach cannot be overlooked. “The San Mateo Creek watershed is a remarkable microcosm of vanishing Southern California biodiversity,” says Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League. 

“Its estuary, wetlands, creeks, and uplands shelter an astonishing 11 federally listed endangered species. It is the only coastal watershed south of Ventura which is un-dammed. This natural hydrology is essential for many plants and animals that depend on periodic flooding and dry spells. At San Onofre State Beach, visitors can access this unique, pristine, and nearby wilderness, and experience what our world used to be like.”

Greg Long with groms from Imperial Beach during the February 2008 Coastal Commission hearing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The affection for Trestles and the fabled waves, trails, and campgrounds of San Onofre by surfers and the general public alike are why a proposal to build a highway through the middle of San Onofre State Beach was met by such incredulity and outrage. The political power of the Transportation Corridor Agency to push its “highway from hell” by lobbying agencies, cities, and top government officials in Southern California, Sacramento, and Washington D.C. meant that coastal protectors had to up their game to protect a globally recognized surf spot, a popular state park, and what big wave surfer Greg Long calls “an ecological treasure.”

Given the TCA’s strong political connections that almost allowed the toll road agency to plow a highway through a San Onofre State Beach, a coalition of environmentalists, surfers, and indigenous peoples joined together to “Save Trestles.” In the process, they advanced how surfers and coastal defenders go about protecting our shorelines and surf spots. ADVERTISEMENT

Just as the everyday cutting-edge and innovative surfing at Lowers is advancing the technical side of the sport, the innovative and cutting-edge tools and techniques used in the effort to stop the TCA Toll Road furthered the coastal environmental movement.  Here are a few ways in which the Save Trestles campaign and movement helped to transform efforts to forever protect surf spots and the coastal ecosystems that house them. 

Protected Areas Need Protection

When I first heard of the TCA’s proposal to build a large highway project that was slated to plow through the existing San Mateo Campground in the San Mateo Creek Watershed just upstream of Upper Trestles, I was outraged.

 “How can anyone build a highway within a state park,” I remember asking during the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation-organized lobbying trip to Sacramento in 2005. “Isn’t the park already supposed to be protected?”

Ben McCue at the 2008 Coastal Commission Hearing on the proposed TCA toll road at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Photo: WILDCOAST

It turns out there were no laws on the books in California that stopped anyone from proposing to build road projects within California’s state parks. 

Getting state legislators to take action and pass a law that prohibited the construction of the TCA toll road project within San Onofre State Beach would take another 15 years. That is when North San Diego County Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath sponsored Assembly Bill 1426 that specifically prohibits road projects from being built within San Onofre State Beach.  California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law last year. 

“One of the key lessons from the Save Trestles movement and Save San Onofre Coalition,” says WILDCOAST Associate Director Zach Plopper, “is that we need to embed every park or protected area with multiple layers of legal safeguards, stewardship, and enforcement programs — so it can’t be ruined by a development project, poaching and pollution and is actually protected.” 

No surf spot is 100 percent protected forever. We can’t become complacent. We need to continually evolve our tools and strategies to conserve our waves and breaks.  ADVERTISEMENT

Surfonomics is Smart Stuff 

Long-held stereotypes about cheap surfers by municipal and tourism authorities pretty much everywhere have hurt our ability to use economic arguments to advance surf protection initiatives. That is until Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen and other surf economists developed the field of surfonomics to evaluate the economic impact surf spots have on local economies.

“For decades surfers have been ignored as an important part of the coastal tourism economy, but it turns out they are actually significant contributors to local businesses in surf towns,” Nelsen says. 

“Surfers are avid – many surf over 100 days a year – and they travel to adjacent towns for waves, year round and at all times of day, and spend money in local communities when they visit,” he says. “In many ways, they are perfect visitors. Surfonomics measured this at Trestles and found that surfers spend between $8-13 million dollars a year in San Clemente when visiting Trestles. When making the argument that the toll road should be denied, the Coastal Commission staff referenced my research to demonstrate the importance of the recreational resources found at Trestles and San Onofre State Beach.”

Since then, the global appreciation of the economic power of surfing has really advanced efforts to identify the value of saving our natural wave-riding venues. And forums like the Global Wave Conference have done a lot to promote the global movement to use a variety of tools including economics to protect surf spots around the world. 

Cultural Resources and Indigenous Peoples Count

Until recently, very little attention was paid to the value of Southern California’s indigenous peoples, who were unjustly forced into inland settlements and reservations away from their ancestral and coastal homelands and villages. 

This was especially the case for Panhe, a close to 10,000-year old Acjachemen village that was located within San Mateo Creek throughout what is now San Onofre State Beach. Acjachemen leaders such as Rebecca Robles made a convincing case to California Coastal Commissioners back in 2008 that the cultural and religious significance of Panhe, or San Mateo Creek, merited permanent protection. ADVERTISEMENT

The advocacy of the Acjachemen over the potential destruction of Panhe played a key role in helping convince state agencies, such as the California Coastal Commission, to deny a Coastal Permit to the TCA for its toll road project. 

Since then, organizations like the Sacred Land Institute, Native Like Water, as well as the Southern California Tribal Chairman’s Association among many others, have done an outstanding job of communicating the value of cultural landscapes for conservation and the importance of connecting Native American communities, especially youth, to their ancestral lands and waters in Southern California. But there is much more to do to recognize the value of cultural coastal landscapes that are key ecosystems as well as important areas for indigenous peoples worldwide. 

The Save Trestles movement and the ongoing Save San Onofre Coalition brought people from all walks of life together to preserve surf spots, watersheds, campgrounds, and a beloved state park. It illustrates that preserving our coast is a team effort. Saving waves requires constant vigilance and the combined energy of surfers and coastal conservationists, indigenous peoples, as well as the beach-going public. If we are to continue to fight for the places we love and give us meaning and joy, we need to broaden our coalition to protect the coast so we can preserve our surf spots, protected areas, cultural landscapes, and natural ecosystems for generations to come. 

San Mateo Creek in San Onofre State Beach. Photo: Danny Hardesty

Will Politics Jeopardize Access to the California Coastline

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This op-ed originally ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Feb. 4, 2016.

Each Thanksgiving week, my family and I load up our car with surfboards and drive north along the Pacific Coast Highway to spend the holiday with my brother and his family in San Francisco.

396673_309927975787691_1312602472_nHeading up that coastal road past emerald coves, perfect waves, elephant seals and sea otters is absolute nirvana.

Our annual family adventure reinvigorates my love and appreciation for what author David Helvarg calls our “Golden Shore,” where “wilderness cliffs and sea cliffs contrast starkly against the dazzling bright silver sea.”

485030_309927669121055_1576734659_nGrowing up in Los Angeles during the 1960s, and Imperial Beach during the 1970s, the son of European immigrants who escaped the horrors of World War II, my family reveled in the freedom of the wide-open and friendly beaches of California.

We took our first camping trips at Carlsbad State Beach, Mission Bay and among the redwoods and wild beaches of Big Sur.

Later, as a college student, I worked as an ocean lifeguard and witnessed firsthand how the 1,100 miles of open, accessible shoreline in California is our great melting pot where we come together as families and friends and share in the moments that create lifelong memories.

Thankfully in 1972, Californians had the foresight to ensure the fundamental right of everyone to access to the coast when they approved the California Coastal Conservation Initiative and the creation of the coastal commission. No other government body in the world plays as important a role in ensuring that every citizen, not just wealthy oceanfront property owners, has access to the beach.

Jumping off of the rocks at Steamer Lane.

Jumping off of the rocks at Steamer Lane.

Today, the Coastal Commission helps cities like Imperial Beach plan for the future and prepare for rising seas and a changing climate.

The coastal commissioners who are appointed, and the professional staff that advise them, balance coastal development with the need for clean air and water, wildlife protection and open space for Californians and millions of coastal visitors to picnic, camp, surf and enjoy a great day at the beach.

Dr. Charles Lester currently oversees the commission.

Through his training as a geochemist and attorney and with a doctorate in political science, Lester is uniquely qualified to oversee the protection of California’s coast.

Last year I observed him firsthand at a forum at UC Irvine on the challenge of sea level rise in California. I came away deeply impressed with Lester’s commitment to successful, adaptive and innovative problem solving for the significant and costly issue of coastal erosion.

It was as apparent then, as it is to me now, that Lester has the vision, expertise and leadership skills to guide the commission and our coastline into a climate-challenged 21st century.

Unfortunately, a group of commissioners, largely appointed by Governor Jerry Brown, who originally championed the development of the Coastal Act, are seeking to fire Lester.

These political appointees want to dismantle our strong and independent Coastal Commission, which puts the public good above private profits.

Not only is that bad for our ability to enjoy our coastline, but a threat to transparency, good government and democracy in California.

I hope for the sake of present day Californians who experience the best days of their lives on our shoreline and future generations who have yet to experience the thrill of their first day at the beach, that Governor Brown reigns in the forces that seek to eliminate our access to, and enjoyment of, our “Golden Shore.”

We cannot afford to play politics with California’s fragile coastline, which gives so much enjoyment to so many.

DSC_1449Note–on February 10, 2016, in an event now called the “Morro Bay Massacre”, Charles Lester was fired in a 7-5 vote of the California Coastal Commission

 

Coastal Flooding in Imperial Beach

The surf tripled in size on Saturday March 1st and by the end of the day was breaking out past the Imperial Beach Pier.

The surf tripled in size on Saturday March 1st and by the end of the day was breaking out past the Imperial Beach Pier.

On Saturday March 1, 2014, the surf from an unusual almost Hurricane like storm (in its appearance) battered the coast of Southern California. The surf went from 3-5′ on Saturday morning to more than 10-15′ on Saturday afternoon. High tides and surf that evening resulted in coastal flooding in Imperial Beach and up and down the California coast (especially in the Santa Barbara area).

A satellite image of the unusual storm.

A satellite image of the unusual storm.

 

Swell forecast for Imperial Beach.

In Imperial Beach this swell combined with high tides to create coastal flooding. Surf topped over the sand berm along the beachfront especially in the Cortez/Descanso area and at the Palm Avenue Jetty. On Saturday afternoon surf broke well past the Imperial Beach Pier and over a mile offshore on distant reefs.

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With high surf and high tides on the evening of March 1st, water came over the beach and into Seacoast Drive. Here is the end of Descanso Street the morning of March 2nd.

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The end of Seacoast Drive, March 2nd.

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The end of Encanto Street on March 2nd.

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Ocean Lane just north of Palm Avenune, March 2nd.

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Just north of Palm Avenue, March 2nd.

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The end of Palm Avenue, March 2nd. Flooding worsened here during the morning high tide of March 2nd.

Coast Guard Training in Big Surf in San Francisco

Here are a few shots of the U.S. Coast Guard training in big surf at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach on Thanksgiving Day this year. Very impressive display of seamanship. The surf was about 10-15′. Thanks to my son Daniel for taking these photos.

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