TRADITIONAL KUMEYAAY TULE-BOAT LAUNCH HIGHLIGHTS INDIGENOUS CALIFORNIA OCEAN CULTURE

On the morning of Sunday, September 26, more than 70 members of  Kumeyaay tribal nations and various community members gathered at Crown Point Park on San Diego’s Mission Bay for a traditional tule boat launch. Organized by Dr. Stan Rodriguez of Kumeyaay Community College in partnership with Jon Muir College at UC San Diego, the event was a powerful reminder of the indigenous roots of ocean culture in California.

Centuries before surfers rode waves at places like Malibu, Palos Verdes, and San Onofre, Native Californians were paddling tule craft and hardwood canoes on ocean, lakes, and rivers. In San Diego County there’s been a movement of tribal communities, most of whom were forcibly removed from coastal ancestral homes, back to the ocean through cultural and marine education programs. The tule boat launch included youth from the La Posta Boys and Girls Club of the Kumeyaay Nation as well as students and faculty from UCSD who were vividly reminded of the simplicity, brilliance, and sustainability of hand-harvested and hand-shaped tule watercraft.

With the assistance of students from UC San Diego, tule reeds were collected from Mission Trails Regional Park and then dried and assembled together with twine and hemp rope. On the beach, gunnels were assembled and into boats from piles of collected tule, which provided an introduction to the art and practice of shaping tule watercraft.

Finally, as Dr. Rodriguez gave the countdown in Kumeyaay, 21 boats were launched into the calm waters of Mission Bay adjacent to the wetlands of Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve. These ancient crafts paddled remarkably well and illustrated how Native Americans most likely surfed the coast and waterways of the Californias long before the Spanish arrived.

Launching tule boats into Mission Bay. Photo: Surfgrass Productions

A version of this article was originally posted on The Inertia.

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.

Five Reasons Why Protecting Coastal Oaxaca Matters

Diane Castaneda with a leatherback sea turtle in Oaxaca. Photo: WILDCOAST

(Originally published in The Inertia) With the endless barrage of swell raining down on Oaxaca this time of year, the eyes of surfers around the world are always fixated on the elevator drops and deep barrels at Puerto Escondido. But right now with the World Surf League’s Corona Open Mexico running, the tranquil village of Barra de la Cruz has both the world’s best surfers visiting and a global gaze on the surreal sand bottom tropical cylinders of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca is more than just a destination for waves, though. It also contains globally important coastal ecosystems, a myriad of unique wildlife species, and vibrant indigenous communities. The undeveloped state of this wave-rich zone (with the exception of Puerto Escondido) and its unaltered watersheds and coastline contribute to the exceptional quality and diversity of point waves. That, in turn, fuels the rare ecological conditions that result in wildlife and rich ecosystems seen in few other locations in coastal Mexico.

Coastal Oaxaca is influenced by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec whose Tejuano winds and other biogeographic features have produced rare coastal dunes next to patches of tropical forest as well as upwelling in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, which in turn results in an amazing abundance and diversity of ocean life. It is these contrasts that make its protection vital, not just for surfing, but for the health of the oceans worldwide.

This also includes the continued well-being of Oaxaca’s residents, especially indigenous communities that depend on natural resources, many of whom still deeply feel the stinging loss of their villages from the development of the coastal resort city of Huatulco.

With all that in mind, here are five resources we must continue to protect to preserve the miraculous and stunning coastal resources of one of North America’s most unique regions:

The coastline of Oaxaca includes some of the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beaches, vibrant coral reefs, pristine beaches, carbon storing mangroves, tropical forests and abundant wildlife. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob.

1. Connected and Undeveloped Coastlines and Watersheds

The coast of Oaxaca offers up what is increasingly rare in a tropical Pacific Mexico that has been hammered by urbanization, coastal tourism development, pollution, and deforestation (especially in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero): undeveloped coastal ecosystems connecting mangrove wetlands to watersheds and tropical forests.

Looking southeastward from Barra de la Cruz, endless green mountain vistas of the Sierra Madre del Sur fill the view and culminate in the 12,200-foot Cerro Nube at its southerly edge. Just down the beach from Huatulco is the mouth of the Copalita River that offers up whitewater rafting and hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical forests, home to some of Mexico’s most important watersheds, now referred to as “water reserves.”

While Huatulco is obviously a tourist resort, its development included the formation of the 29,400-acre Huatulco National Park and the preservation of local coral reefs and coastal wetlands and forests. That forward-thinking conservation is unique among Mexico’s heavily developed coastal resort cities.

The coral reefs of nearby Huatulco National Park are among the most well preserved in southern Mexico. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob.

2. Coral Reefs

Coral bleaching is a threat to coral reefs worldwide. But somehow the corals of Mexico’s Pacific have not seen the type of damage faced by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The coral ecosystems of Huatulco National Park are the southernmost in Pacific Mexico and home to a wide variety of wildlife species. Unfortunately, they have been impacted by overuse from tourists. Currently, the organization WILDCOAST is working with Mexico’s National Protected Area Commission to train outfitters in best management practices and place mooring buoys around the most fragile reefs to prevent damage from anchor drops.

During the nesting season, 100,000 olive ridley sea turtles can arrive at Playa Morro Ayuta in Oaxaca to lay their eggs in a single day. Photo: WILDCOAST.

3. Sea Turtle Nesting Beaches

Starting in the summer months, especially Escobilla and Morro Ayuta, tens of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs on Oaxaca’s beaches. In Barra de la Cruz, the protected beach and RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance play host to the most important remaining population of nesting leatherback sea turtles in Mexico. These marine reptile leviathans that face extinction due to threats caused by industrial and commercial fishing, only leave the ocean to lay their eggs (and only the females).

The sea turtle activity in Oaxaca is remarkable given that the now hipster tourist village of Mazunte down the coast from Puerto Escondido was once the site of Mexico’s notorious legal sea turtle slaughterhouse. Sea turtles have come back thanks to government protection, the cooperation of local communities who benefit from sea turtle conservation, and the preservation programs of the Mexican Sea Turtle Center at Mazunte.

The watersheds and tropical forests in the mountains above Barra de la Cruz and Huatulco, Oaxaca help to store water and atmospheric carbon and are critical in the fight against climate change.  Photo: Miguel Angel de la Cueva.

4. Blue and Green Carbon Ecosystems

The mangrove wetland and tropical forest ecosystems found widely in Oaxaca help to store vast amounts of carbon to mitigate climate change.

“By preserving natural ecosystems, the carbon they have already sequestered remains stored in the ground. When these blue and green carbon ecosystems are destroyed, they end up releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis,” affirms WILDCOAST Associate Director Zach Plopper. “So we need to not only protect every inch of Oaxaca’s treasured natural ecosystems for the sake of the people and wildlife that thrive there but for the sake of preserving our planet.”

These ecosystems are also home to humpback whales off the coast, along with jaguarundi, jaguars, anteaters, resident and migratory birds, deer, iguanas, and rare and other threatened marine species.

The sand-bottom breaks and raw beauty of Oaxaca make this area an unparalleled site for surfing. Photo: Claudio Contreras Koob.

5. Globally Unique Surf Spots

There is increasing recognition of the need to safeguard globally unique surfing sites as protected areas and World Surfing Reserves. The sand-bottom breaks of Oaxaca, which include Punta Conejo, now threatened by the proposed expansion of the port in Salina Cruz, are more than worthy of permanent protection. They are rare and treasured ecological features, coastal and marine ecosystems, wildlife habitats, and recreational, cultural, and economic resources that help to drive an important part of the local economy in Oaxaca.

Without more formal conservation protections, Oaxaca will fall prey to the same forces that have ravaged coastlines and natural ecosystems around the world. There is still time to make sure that this magical coastline retains its extraordinary resources and raw beauty so local communities and surfers continue to benefit from and enjoy Oaxaca’s natural wonders.

A set at Barra.
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