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.

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.”

Beaches and Parks in Southern California

Beaches and Parks in Southern California The California Coastal Commission was created by the voters of California, who adopted an initiative measure in 1972 that formed the Commission and gave it broad powers to plan and protect the coast. Later, the California Coastal Act of 1976 established the Commission as a permanent state agency with a mission to protect, maintain, and enhance the quality of the coastal environment. One of the Commission’s principal goals is to maintain public access and public recreational opportunities along the coast, in a manner consistent with environmental preservation.

UC Press has published numerous books written by the California Coastal Commission, which include: California Coastal Access Guide, Sixth Edition (September 2003), Experience the California Coast: A Guide to Beaches and Parks in Northern California (November 2005), Beaches and Parks from Monterey to Ventura (April 2007), and most recently, Beaches and Parks in Southern California (May 2009).

By: Steve Scholl, Editor of the “Experience the California Coast” guidebook series

How do I get to the beach? In Southern California, it’s not always obvious. Goal #1, then, for Beaches and Parks in Southern California: provide a complete guide, with detailed topographic maps, to every beach, coastal access path, shoreline natural area, beach campground, aquarium, and nature center that we know about. If we missed a coastal access site that is open to the public, let us know at and we’ll put it in the next edition.

What can I do, once I get there? Goal #2: describe where you can see a whale, launch a boat or a surfboard, find a wildflower in season, ride a bike along the sandy shore, or go for a run with your favorite four-footed friend. Also: list key site characteristics, including wheelchair accessibility, food and drink for sale, parking free or fee, and whether dog-friendly or not.

What is there to learn about the California coast? Goal #3: provide an introduction to the restless geology of the Southland and its earthquakes, oil deposits, and moving mountain ranges. Describe some key natural communities of plants and animals found even in populous coastal Orange County, or around the peaceful lagoons of San Diego County, or among the rugged peaks that lie west of downtown Los Angeles, or perhaps only on the Southern Channel Islands. For good measure, include a peek at some of Southern California’s outsized personalities of the past:

* George Freeth, the hero of Venice and Redondo, who a century ago invented the profession of lifeguard (as well as some lifesaving tools still in use);
* Marion Davies, glamour puss and ultra-hostess, who entertained during Hollywood’s golden age at her private compound on Santa Monica Beach (now you can visit the place too);
* Horticulturalist Kate Sessions, the “Mother of Balboa Park,” known (then) for her sensible shoes and salty vocabulary and (now) for her magnificent contribution to San Diego’s palmy appearance; and
* Henry Huntington, whose electric rail system brought the people of Los Angeles and Orange County to the beach before the auto age (oh yes, he also married America’s wealthiest woman, who happened to be his uncle’s widow).

Over 450 beaches, parks, and recreation sites in three counties; 352 pages; all-new color maps and color photos throughout. And if your destination lies farther north, see the Coastal Commission’s companion guides in the Experience the California Coast series or the California Coastal Access Guide.