Big Sur and California’s Beloved Coastline

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Shelley Alden Brooks, author of Big Sur: The Making of a Prized California Landscape

California’s world-famous coastline is integral to the state’s economy, to residents’ sense of well-being, and to the California Dream, but only since the 1970s has a groundswell of support emerged to protect this prized resource from spoliation. Alarm over rapid change along the coast, including its deterioration from residential and commercial development, disappearing wetlands, new marinas, and the proposed freeways and nuclear plants, catalyzed the people who had come to know the coast as the geographic “soul” of California. In 1976, the state legislature passed the Coastal Act to make permanent the California Coastal Commission, an agency created out of a ballot initiative passed four years earlier. The Coastal Commission’s efforts to guide sustainable coastal land use and increase coastal access have prompted support and appreciation from many Californians, as well as emulation from coastal governments around the country and the world. But there has also been pushback and resistance from the California industries, government officials, and private citizens who believe the Coastal Act gave the state agency too much power to regulate private property.

My book explores how locals in Big Sur (an exceptionally beautiful 75-mile stretch of California’s central coast) have worked alongside county and state officials to seek a balance between the priorities of preservation and property rights. Built into the parameters of Big Sur’s well-preserved scenery is an unusual conviction that preservation and habitation can be mutually supportive endeavors. In part this has been achieved because Monterey County and Big Sur residents began in the mid twentieth century to pioneer open-space planning, conservation easements, intergovernmental collaboration and citizen activism, and transfer development credits to accommodate the needs of Big Sur’s natural and human communities. But Big Sur’s unique status also derives from the mystique created by iconic writers such as Robinson Jeffers and Henry Miller who used their talents to showcase this unusual meeting of beauty and culture. Today, the name ‘Big Sur’ conjures up images of a place uniquely Californian, carved out of the geologic and cultural forces of which the state has a disproportionate share. While Big Sur’s well-preserved vistas and minimal development embody the Coastal Act’s mission, its high-end real estate and vacation homes reflect the steep social costs associated with preservation.

Big Sur, like any landscape, is not static; shifting economic realities and perceptions of nature’s worth can alter the place. Ansel Adams acknowledged this in 1980 when he unsuccessfully campaigned for a federal seashore. However, if the integrity of Big Sur’s Coastal Commission-approved land use plan is maintained, including the protection of Highway 1 as a two-lane road, minimal change will come to the built environment. But it is not so much the physical boundaries (though these are formidable) that prevent overdevelopment in Big Sur, as the social boundaries erected to preserve something unique along the California coast. Considerable momentum backs the commitment to Big Sur’s wild and storied land, and the status of both of these elements will continue to reveal a good deal about Californians’ relationship to their beloved coast.


Shelley Alden Brooks teaches Twentieth-Century U.S., California, and Environmental History at the University of California, Davis. She also works for the California History-Social Science Project and serves on the statewide Environmental Literacy Steering Committee.


Southern California’s Coast: Past and Future

by Keith Heyer Meldahl

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California Coast” by Kārlis Dambrāns is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Walk on a Southern California beach, and a sense of permanence may come to mind. The sand scrunches predictably underfoot, the coastal bluffs loom seemingly unchanged, and the sea brushes the shore with its same ageless rhythm. Yet the scene can quickly change. Waves from a single storm may erase that beach. Portions of the bluff may collapse without warning. A large earthquake might elevate the coast several feet in an instant. And if we flip back through just the last few million years, the coastal scene, far from appearing stable, looks like frenetic animation. The sea bobs up and down, earthquakes crackle without letup, tsunamis wash ashore, and islands lurch up from the sea.

Does it matter to know these things? I think yes. Probing Southern California’s geologic past can inform decisions we make today. The past tells us that earthquakes and tsunamis will strike the coast again, and although we cannot predict when or where, we can prepare. It also tells us that Southern California’s beaches are in constant flux, with sand arriving and leaving in vast quantities every year. But river dams and seawalls have choked off sand arrivals to the beaches, so now more sand leaves than arrives. Shrunken beaches give coastal bluffs less protection from wave attack. Today, miles of rock and concrete armor much of Southern California’s coast, but these only postpone the sea’s advance. And what of the sea itself? Here too, the past is clear. In recent geologic time, the sea has risen and fallen hundreds of feet as polar ice sheets have come and gone. By happenstance, much of human history has unfolded during a time of unusually stable sea level. That is changing. We presently face a probable sea rise of two to six feet over the next century.

These developments—shrinking beaches and rising seas—point to a looming coastal erosion crisis for Southern California. How will we handle it? Perhaps through a combination of managed retreat and beach replenishment (importing sand to depleted beaches). But the scale of such replenishment will necessarily be enormous. We will need to import enough sand onto our beaches to make up for ongoing losses from dams and seawalls and to keep up with the rising sea. I’m reminded of Alice in Wonderland, where the Red Queen explains to Alice, “You see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

Keith Heyer Meldahl is Professor of Geology and Oceanography at Mira Costa College and the author of Surf, Sand, and Stone: How Waves, Earthquakes, and Other Forces Shape the Southern California Coast (UC Press, 2015).

 


Fat Innkeeper Worms and Flying Fish

11301.160 While planning a trip to the Lost Coast, I’ve been depending heavily on the California Coastal Commission guides to the coast (more on that in a future post).

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times posted a very amusing and informative review of the Southern California guide. It’s worth a read, especially for locals. My favorite quote: “Even if you hear reports of a fat innkeeper worm taking advantage of his coastal location, there’s no point in calling the Better Business Bureau.”