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For Cal from Uncle Sam with—well—
Richard W. Johnston
September 13, 1971
The U.S. turns over some land to California, but not with love
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September 13, 1971

For Cal From Uncle Sam With—well—

The U.S. turns over some land to California, but not with love

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Last week, without fanfare, hoo-ha or even the sloshing about of California champagne, a 50-year lease finally went into effect turning over to the state a goodly chunk of land and beachfront belonging to the Marines' Camp Pendleton. This is a little something the President promised California last spring, and the grant includes the famous San Onofre beachfront southeast of his own San Clemente house—an area well known to surfers because of its superb waves and pretty well known to everybody else because of some all-too-colorful skirmishes between surfers and Pendleton's marines, to say nothing of the San Clemente security forces. The transfer of this property follows in the wake of some harsh remarks in Ralph Nader's current report on land abuse in California to the effect that some of Pendleton ought to be handed over to the public; the President might fairly observe that trying to give the 5� miles of beachfront and 2,400 backup acres to the state's parks department has been one whale of an uphill job.

In part the new San Onofre Bluffs State Beach Park is wild as Quetico-Superior, though only a few steps off an asphalt strip where anybody can park a "mobile home," pour a few martinis and then set out to explore. From the San Diego Freeway, where the traffic rockets north or south through the fog at 70 to 100 mph, the brush-covered acres sloping toward the ocean seem nondescript, a seaside wasteland; from the beach below the 200-foot cliffs that terminate the sloping brushland the aspect is formidable and, on a foggy day, almost frightening. The cliffs are vertical; unlike the manicured palisades of Santa Monica, fronting a beach 500 yards wide, the San Onofre cliffs seem almost to lean over the surf and are attainable only by tortuous trails that switch back and forth across the eroded, red-brown turrets. The beach itself is minimal. Its narrow portions at the high-tide mark are only 30 feet from the foot of the cliffs.

On the cliff tops themselves San Onofre wears an often beautiful but almost impenetrable wig. From the highway right-of-way to the very edge of the cliffs and barrancas, the waist-deep tangle of vegetation defies anyone not equipped with a machete. There are five trails to the sea, winding through penstemon, anise, castor bean, holly and sumac—lots of sumac. But the main growth here is sage and chaparral: in the fog and mist the mute colors flaunt a few bright accents, but for the most part they are a soft tartan quilt of green—pale green, black-dark green, half a dozen gradations of grayed-green (the words gorse and heather come to mind)—with an occasional clump of delicate brown. Thrusting up mournfully from this patchwork are the white-with-char remnants of large bushes or small trees, survivors of a long-ago fire that swept the cliffs. At trail entrances, brown and yellow park department signs warn, "Dangerous bluff ...dangerous sinkholes." Oh, yes. And there are rattlesnakes.

Beautiful, primitive, a trifle eerie, a little bit dangerous—is this the formula for a state beach or park? There may be some question, but if so it is not one of those in the minds of the people who have been dragging their feet or squawking all this time about Mr. Nixon's leasing of Camp Pendleton land to the State of California.

Back on March 31 the President announced that he would ask the appropriate Senate and House Committees on Armed Services to review his proposal to turn over the land, and 3� miles of beachfront did in fact become available to the public on a short-term lease. The rest of the deal, however, lurched off to an unpromising start when the House Armed Services Special Subcommittee on Real Estate objected to any transfer. "Well, from what I understand from reading the papers," said an outraged Representative James Byrne (D., Pa.), "why, this is a real giveaway. And I will not vote to turn it over to anybody in the State of California." Representative Samuel Stratton (D., N.Y.) charged that the General Services Administration had recommended that the upland acreage be reserved for private development. Subcommittee Chairman Charles Bennett (D., Fla.) listened to the testimony of Major General George Bowman, commandant of Camp Pendleton, and came to the conclusion that the testimony did not "...indicate that this land is excessed as far as the Marines are concerned. Now, whether the President can make a decision contrary to the evidence of the Marines as Commander in Chief and President, under our statutes, which would override that, I am not sure that he has this kind of power."

Mr. Nixon does have this kind of power, and in July he exercised it, overriding the subcommittee's objections, but eight days later House Armed Services Committee Chairman F. Edward H�bert (D., La.) sneaked into a military construction authorization bill a provision prohibiting the transfer of any more of the beach.

While House committees and subcommittees were thus busily arguing that Mr. Nixon was taking too much away from the Marines, the Los Angeles Times was offering a contrary view. In an editorial the paper huffed, " Camp Pendleton has 17 miles of empty, inviting beachfront going to waste. Of course the beach should be available for maneuvers when needed. The rest of the time, however, the entire 17 miles, not just six, should be firmly in the public domain." Moreover, those Californians who chronically suspect the worst of Mr. Nixon were predicting that substantial parts of the new parkland would find their way into the hands of private developers, some of them Nixon cronies, and conservationists were sniping at the President for having reportedly remarked, during a helicopter tour of the San Onofre Bluffs, "They ought to allow restaurants there because of the magnificent view."

But at least the surfers were applauding the President, right? Not exactly. Some of the nation's most renowned wave riders turned out to view the park proposal with "mixed emotions," primarily because of that unimposing northwest strip of sand and swamp called the Trestles. The surf off the San Onofre Trestles, by common consent of the area's most skillful surfers, is one of the best "breaks" on the Pacific coast, and the beach fronting it has been the scene, for the last two decades, of that other undeclared American war, Marines vs. surfers. This has been fought more or less on a man-to-man guerrilla basis, with the surfers infiltrating Camp Pendleton from U.S. 101 or approaching it by sea from north of San Mateo Point. The Marines used to send jeep patrols into the area at unpredictable times, and surfers whose boards got away from them have seen them confiscated. Once, in 1969, the Marines' frustration at being unable to track the enemy into the sea led to gunfire: Dick Barrymore, a documentary film maker from Dana Point, and Wayne Schafer, a Capistrano Beach real estate broker, spent some anxious moments under their boards. But Barrymore, for one, did not greet the news that the Trestles were to be declared On Limits with any particular enthusiasm. "I think they should start on the other side of the nuclear power plant [an installation smack in the midst of the disputed beachfront] and go for whatever he wants to give away, but leave the entire Trestle and San Onofre area alone. The Trestles is one of the best waves in Southern California. But if you get 20 people taking off on a wave there's very little any one of the 20 can do. If you open the Trestles up and make it a park nobody will be able to surf there because everybody'll be there. Personally, I'd rather take my chances with sneaking in." Wayne Schafer agrees, and speaks with some nostalgia of the bad old days. "We'd park our cars along old 101 and leg it across that riverbed, which was a beautiful strip. There were deer and birds and all kinds of wild creatures and it was always a nice experience. It was pre- Vietnam, you know. They were training the marines, and we'd play hide and seek. And sometimes we would outleg them to the water and sometimes they would cut us off."

It is hard to say what the California Department of Parks and Recreation could work out to preserve, for Barrymore and Schafer, the fun of dodging bullets in the surf, but back in the spring Deputy Director Robert Meyer tried to put some other fears for the area to rest. He declared himself certain that once the package was safely under the jurisdiction of California Parks Director Bill Mott, the chances of developers muscling in on it were nonexistent. "If in fact the statement attributed to the General Services Administration is true, that the upland site could be an ideal subdivision, I feel it shows atrocious judgment," Meyer said. "We are determined to make campsites. We have a shortage of 30,000 campsites in Southern California and this will help alleviate it.

"We will cut some additional trails to the beach, and some areas will have to have guardrails to protect people who are unwilling or unable to protect themselves. And wilderness people may object, but we feel we must widen one of the trails to the beach—probably the southernmost one—to be jeepable in case of an accident at sea level. We expect heavy use, and will provide normal supervision and protection, facilities to cope with trash, lifeguards and so on. But no luxuries."

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