Pioneer In Paradise
Pivotal coastal environmentalist Margaret Wentworth Owings writes a book detailing the early victories of the local environmental movement
Thursday, November 19, 1998
Saving Carmel Beach
A group of so-called "little people" band together to preserve a time-honored stretch of sand.
It was in 1952, when we were living in the Carmel Highlands and I drove past the San Jose Creek Beach where the monastery stands, that I was suddenly shocked to see tall, yellow machinery excavating the beach. One look and I sped to the Forge in the Forest, where the blacksmith Francis Whitaker--a man of no uncertain opinions--was pounding red-hot iron. I gave him my news. He cooled his fire and strode to his truck. "Get in," he said, and we speedily reached the beach and were striding toward these monstrosities. "What are you doing?" he shouted at the workmen, who suddenly looked very small and frightened. "A big steel company''s gonna buy this beach, and we''re measuring the sand." Francis turned to me and shouted to them, "Stop what you''re doing"--we''ll buy it first." And thus, we purchased one mile of beach, including the Carmel River mouth and wetlands, for the California state parks.
Shall we measure time with the passage of tides? How many have come? And how many will come, rolling onto these shores, streaming over these rocks, rising and falling with the moon''s course? You and I, standing on this Pacific coast beach, might well feel insignificant as we pause to consider this passage of time. Rachel Carson, in her book The Sea Around Us, observes, "man often forgets the true nature of his planet and the long vistas of its history, in which the existence of the race of men has occupied a mere moment of time."
Yet during that brief period, man has managed to possess and destroy much of the earth''s surface, including a large part of the limited line of coast lands. He rarely approaches a cove and beach, a cliff and inlet, with reverence for preservation. Instead, this comparatively rare area appears a fresh challenge to his ingenious ways.
"No scenic and recreational resource in the United States is more sorely in need of preservation," stated Newton Drury, chief of the Division of Beaches and Parks in California. "There is only so much of it, and there never will be more." California tends to neglect her responsibility to the nation, seeming to forget that her coast is the nation''s coast, her beaches are not alone for the residents of her state, but for the people of Iowa and Kansas, the people of Wyoming and Arkansas, the people on the plains and in the mountains, as well as people from other lands.
Aside from the scientists'' serious concern over the destruction of the balanced ecology of plant and animal life along this western edge of the continent, it seems hardly necessary to remind ourselves that the beauty alone should be cherished as a heritage for future generations. Possessed alone by the eye that sees it, whether it be today or two generations hence, it must be left in its natural state, promised an undisturbed permanence.
Instead, it is gradually being seized and shut off from the public view--the rocky cliffs blasted for roads, the sands trucked away, a restaurant perched on a ledge, a subdivision staked out over salt marshes, a "keep out" sign along the beaches, all records of blind self-seeking, with no mind to the future.
But in Carmel''s dooryard, lying quietly in sun and fog, stretched a mile of beaches and rocks long taken for granted as a birthright by the children who played there, by the artists and writers stirred by its beauty, and by thousands of visitors who returned yearly because of it. Always a focus of poetic expression, this particular coastline radiates an undeniable air of enchantment. Now this, too, was jeopardized.
The river mouth, in the words of Robinson Jeffers, "where the Carmel River leans upon its sandbar in love with the waves," is the heart of the area, and from it the beaches fan north to Stewart Point and south close to the border of that rare headland, Point Lobos State Reserve, a state park jealously preserved in its natural condition by constant vigilance.
Behind the beaches, the Santa Lucia mountains quickly rise as background and drop their folds into the redwood canyons. One of these deep canyon streams flows into the sea over the San Jose Creek Beach at the southern end of the mile stretch.
All along this curve, large rolling breakers pile onto the sands with a powerful roar because of the precipitous shelving off of the land into immediate deep waters. Always within sight and sound of the waves, sand verbena and beach asters, with their pale foliage and lavender rays, bridge the line between salty sands and rocky soil.
Tide rocks and worn boulders break the regularity of the beaches and hold in their hollows and crevices the jewel-like sea gardens, those tiny balanced worlds of hermit crab and purple sea urchin. The blossom-shaped anemone, the pink abalone and the scarlet starfish cling to the rock walls, partially hidden by the sunset-colored seaweeds and presenting a dream world to the eye of the artist, to the curiosity of the child, or simply to you and me as we walk, free to explore and enjoy.
Sand dunes, dramatically cut through by the mouth of the Carmel River in the rainy season, separate the beach from the lagoon, where a fast vanishing type of habitat for land, shore and marsh birds holds the interest of ornithologists. The best-known visitors are perhaps the pelicans, flying in single file, flapping their broad wings slowly, and gliding to a splashing stop onto the waters of the marsh. Here they feed during the day, returning at night to their roost on Point Lobos, one of their northernmost nesting spots on the Pacific coast. Unless this feeding ground is preserved, it will undoubtedly be destroyed, and the ducks and loons, the grebes and rails, the rare white-tailed kite and the transient emperor goose will all simply disappear.
You and I might watch with interest what happened in Carmel when the town perceived that these beaches and the lagoon were actually endangered. "Carmel Copes with Threat of ''Improvement," ran the editorials in the local news. San Francisco papers smiled sympathetically at the furor. "The sinister shadow of progress falls across Carmel''s southern exposure," chuckled the reporters. "They want the land so they can leave it be."
Some said acquisition of the property would be a move toward socialism, a move against free enterprise; others, to the contrary, felt the owners should donate the land as a public duty. Some believed that the natural scientists would prevent the people from using the area for recreation, while others groaned over the recreational crowds that would litter the beaches.
But a small group of Carmel people turned their backs on the idle chatter and prepared for action. They organized as the Point Lobos League and met at the Forge in the Forest, where the village smith stopped his hammering on the anvil, and mapped out a plan.
"The state is interested in those communities that show initiative in their own projects," he explained. "The county will match all public subscriptions we can raise, and the state will match the total of private and county funds."
Within a few months, the Point Lobos League had become a nonprofit corporation with an aim "to preserve natural scenic and recreational areas for the use and enjoyment of the people." Pamphlets were printed and distributed, donation boxes appeared and schoolchildren''s posters filled the shop windows.
"This is a drive by the little people," whispered one ex-college president to his retired banker friend in a back row at a meeting in the grammar school. "But," he added, "they are the people who get things done. Watch them."
The Carmel Art Association and Carmel Crafts Guild immediately expressed their enthusiasm as a body by heroically donating 122 paintings, sculptures and handicrafts to a benefit that netted $3,300. The Carmel Audubon Society, with its special interest in wild bird life of the lagoon, donated $1,000 from the proceeds of its yearly lecture series. A Christmas card was designed featuring a Point Lobos cove, and this sold out immediately, with all profits going to the drive.
An "auction of surplus treasures" was dreamed up to include the housewife and the antique collector as both donor and purchaser. "We are asking you (with a gentle curtsey)," ran the announcement, "to donate a surplus treasure, a choice object you can just (but barely) part with. All of these we shall entertainingly auction off on a gala day! And we promise dividends for your gifts, oh yes! A mile-long stretch of undisturbed beach permanently yours. A quiet lagoon filled with ducks, loons and herons, preserved as a bird sanctuary."
The result was an additional $3,000.
By this time, the campaign had spread far from town, and the Sierra Club, the Izaak Walton League and the Save the Redwoods League were but a few of the established organizations that offered their support.
A number of months passed, and the "little people" placed $15,000 with the state''s contingency fund. To this, the county contributed $25,000 and, with the state''s matching money, brought the total to $80,000.
But beaches were by no means won. Negotiations were carried on by the state with the owners. More money was needed, but the sinister shadow of progress had momentarily been checked, and in its place a different, heartwarming form of progress had been awakened. A new respect, you and I might say, for time and tides.
Lady Bird and the Scenic Road
Hazards on the road to dedicating Highway 1.
The day in 1966 when Lady Bird Johnson stepped off a plane in Monterey was a day filled with astonishment. She was to be driven down the coast to speak beside Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur at the dedication of California''s first scenic road.
Before the dedication, a bronze plaque was to be inset and framed in a weathered rock beside the bridge. The rock itself had been waiting beside the road at Grimes Creek some 20 miles south from Bixby. Its shape was not particularly arresting, but the surface was covered with moss and orange and celadon clouds of lichens. Minute ferns and miner''s lettuce filled cracks with indented shadows. It was, in short, a stunning background for a plaque.
We set a day for the California Department of Transportation to move the rock up to Bixby Creek. It was not easy to move it all, much less with the care necessary not to hurt the rock''s surface. Gordon Newell, our stonemason and sculptor, arrived with the bronze plaque that would be inset in the rock, forever commemorating this moment. The next morning, Lady Bird would arrive. Nat and I drove up to see that everything was in shape, but to our horror the rock and plaque had been vandalized with brilliant purple paint. I let out a scream!
Workmen arrived with a sanding machine and toiled steadily until the First Lady''s limousine drew up. The rock was ground to a pure white, and white dust had settled on the ground all around it.
By that time, some 150 people had arrived, but something else seemed to have gone terribly wrong. Lady Bird''s bodyguards rushed in on a man with a heavy black cloth over his head and what appeared to be the muzzle of a gun focused in Lady Bird''s direction. The guards were quick to jump on the man and pull off the black cloth. It turned out to be Ansel Adams with his camera, trying to photograph the event.
The purple paint that had marred the rock and plaque expressed violent anger at the Vietnam War. Although I, too, was an opponent of that tragic war, the dedication that day related to quite a different kind of battle. Led by Senator Fred Farr, we had fought to defeat the legislative vote to build a four-lane freeway down the Big Sur coast, a construction project that would have blown up the mountains and filled the canyons. In return, we were giving a gift to the people, young and old, knapsack or bicycle, hikers or cars. We were giving these people California''s first scenic road.
A Meaningful Sound
Commemorating three decades of saving the sea otters.
Sitting here above the sea, I am often swept up by the roar of explosive power, mounting with the cadence of sea lions, the drumming elephant seals and the wild cries from the circling gulls. But at this quiet moment, when the sea lies calm, I sense only a broad current of sound--without definition--until my ears are pricked by the quick tap-tapping of a sea otter. Resting in a kelp bed of glassy fronds that encircle its small body, it cracks a clutch of mussels against a stone tool on its chest. A fragment of wind, flung up from the ocean, brings this meaningful sound to my ears.
I say "meaningful" because this sharp, brittle pounding has signaled the presence of the smallest of sea mammals along the California coast for millions of years. This is an ancient ritual, this cracking of shells to dislodge their edible occupants. And for millions of years, a population balance and abundance of both otters and their shellfish prey were maintained in a fluctuating natural equilibrium.
But that natural balance of marine life drastically changed when white men began to slaughter the otters for their fur. In 1741, the otters were first observed by Europeans on Bering''s ill-fated Russian voyage. The swarming of fur hunters to collect their skins began a 170-year epoch of cruel greed. Sailing down the Alaskan coast to California, joined by American ships and Spanish galleons, they relentlessly pursued the last of the visible otters. In 1911, the International Fur Seal Treaty brought this period of decimation to a close, but by then the tap-tapping of the otters no longer rose from California''s coastal bays and wave-slapped beaches.
Indeed, it was nothing short of a miracle--and a closely guarded secret shared by only a few--that a few otters had survived, hidden in kelp beds off remote and rugged shores. It was not until 1938, 60 years ago, when California''s human population had shifted from native and pioneer stock to 6,056,000 people, that Howard Granville Sharpe suddenly realized that a group of sea otters was rafting together at the mouth of Bixby Canyon on the Big Sur coast. A renewed radiance of life had reappeared in our nearshore waters.
But it was not long before commercial abalone divers began to castigate these rare mammals as "destroyers" and sought measures to diminish their numbers. The otters desperately needed friends to speak on their behalf. And so, in 1968, 30 years ago, Friends of the Sea Otter was organized to stand firmly behind a sound conservation program for the southern sea otter.
I tend to think that Friends of the Sea Otter finds its symbol in the wave which lifts and falls, gathering momentum despite crosscurrents, despite human intrusions of toxic wastes and sewage poured into nearshore waters, despite oil spillage from increasing tanker traffic hugging the coast. Yes, everything is transient where the sea meets the shore.
We, in our struggle to guard the California sea otter, move toward our goal like the wave, startled by the moralities from shootings, saddened by otter drownings in gill and trammel nets set in less than 20 fathoms of water, resentful of oil spills and plastic perils. And then come the heavy storms that threaten death unless there is human intervention and rescue.
The door is ever flung open to receive the unexpected--tides ebb and flow, mixing fact with idealism, science with emotional response. Thus, our growing knowledge engenders growing concern.
As George Schaller describes it: "We seek the moral values in what we do; an obligation to fight for preservation, to struggle to the best of our ability to assure ourselves, as well as the million private lives, a future."
On our 30th anniversary, we grapple with threats from vessel traffic, entrapment, oil spills and coastal pollution. California''s human population is currently estimated at 33,252,000--that''s millions of people on a collision course with 2,100 otters. We have learned that if we are to preserve a healthy population of these small animals, if the tap-tapping of the sea otter is to remain an inspiring motif along our shores, it will demand more foresight. It will require vision.
Owings and Redford
Two with a passion for saving wildlife.
It was in August, 1985, that I received a phone call from a man with a special voice who said right away, "I''m so glad to reach you. I''ve been wanting to talk to you for two years." I had no idea who he was, so I waited. "This is Robert Redford," he said.
He went on to say that he had been putting out environmental brush fires since 1971, and he wanted to see some culmination to it. Although I had never met him, I had read from time to time that he was trying to keep uranium from being mined on the border of Zion National Park, and that he was also trying to block the construction of an enormous road near where he was building his place at Sundance. But the people in Utah turned against him, sending threatening notes to his wife and children and burning him in effigy. So he closed the door on that particular chapter and started what he called a resource management institute, including representatives from both sides of an issue. He invited me to attend the next meeting, and I agreed.
Previously, I had heard him speak on television, talking about the condor. I had thought, at the time, he had handled it just perfectly, and so I took this opportunity to tell him so. And I remembered when, in 1970, a government-mandated program in Alaska involved shooting wolf packs from planes or catching them by traps, it was Robert Redford who narrated a public service announcement on PBS--accompanied by a film of wolves.
Redford''s commanding voice spoke these words: "We know he lives because we hear the howl. But today, that howl is heard less and less. Soon, he will have no territories to return to. Soon, his kind will disappear. And the splendid creature, this living machine that has triumphed for ten thousand millennia, will follow other species into the absolute, irreversible, emptiness of extinction."
We rediscovered this tape 20 years later, when faced with a renewed wolf crisis in Alaska. The tape helped raise funds to halt the misconceptions presented by Alaskan government leaders attempting to convince their voters that these magnificent animals had to be eliminated.
In October 1985, I directed Robert''s attention to one of my chief concerns: As you must have heard, Governor Deukmejian vetoed the mountain lion bill, and although it was already dismembered and drained of every protective measure for the lion because of the governor''s amendments (directed by the NRA), we still were anxious to have it pass because it would leave us a small toehold. Mountain lions will be on the trophy list by the first of the year.
Meanwhile, the California Department of Fish and Game was carrying out an "experimental research study" to exterminate every lion within a 250-mile range of the North Fork of the Kings River over a four-year period. The reason, mind you, was to see if the lion was the cause of the deer decline.
But why am I writing you, Robert? Because I sense you would have a strong response to this form of wildlife destruction. We want to reach the public with full impact, and I must confess, I flashed on a vision of your face on a 60-second vignette for television, with a few chosen words from you to accompany a wild lion climbing a tree. We have the films and are lining up space on television, but we need you! It''s not a ''brush fire''--but the survival of our greatest symbol of wilderness in California.
Redford wrote back, "I have finished the filming of The Milagro Beanfield War and am editing the film here at Sundance. It was a beautiful agony, making the film. I''m both glad and sorry it is over. I look forward to telling you about it. I hope to see you soon. I will plan to drop by sometime within the month and see if birds still sing at your porch."
Redford had come to our house several times during the filming, telling me about how he had made a star of our 1952 Chevy truck from our ranch in New Mexico. It had a bullet hole through the windshield, and the window-wipers rarely worked. Its only modification for the film was the purchase of new tires so that the film audience could hear crunching over gravel. "It''s as important to the movie as any of the actors," announced Redford.
I felt flattered--Robert could always make a high art of a compliment. One day, he brought actress Sonia Braga to the house. They arrived with baskets of food and then ran down the surfers'' path to the beach. When they returned, I was given seven white stones to be arranged on our dining table, four from Robert and three from Sonia. Robert arranged them himself with a sprig of paintbrush.
Sharing Life with the Stegners
A Pulitzer Prize-winning author lends his efforts to save the mountain lion.
It was in the early 1960s when Nat and I first crossed paths with Wallace and Mary Stegner. "A common interest in environmental issues threw the four of us together," Wally would later write.
We had heard Wally speak several times at Sierra Club conferences, and I was particularly moved by his childhood memories of a settlement out on the flat prairies of Saskatchewan, in Canada.
We actually met Wally and Mary one afternoon at Ansel Adams'' house in the Carmel Highlands, in a room filled with talented people--fingers playing the grand piano, photographs by Ansel lining the walls, articulating the gleaming rock and shadows of Half Dome. Virginia Adams, with a smile of welcome on her face, was seated quietly beside a large window facing a rocky slope dense with succulents, bits of paintbrush and sprawling ceonothus. Ansel was standing under the big drum over the fireplace, and yes, there they were, the Stegners, "the inseparable two." We were caught by something in them, felt a kinship, and urged them to come down for a visit to Wild Bird. "Come for dinner and the night," we said, and they did.
The Stegners themselves lived in Los Altos, where Wally was close to Stanford and his literary classes, and not far from San Francisco or the airport from which they were constantly flying for lectures or to visit with his publishers, or sometimes just looking for a new place to live.
As time passed we found ourselves spending more time with them, traveling with the National Parks Advisory Committee, based in Washington, D.C., but covering a broad scope of old parks or potential parks with a talented group of conservationists, including Sigurd Olson (Wilderness Society), Marian Heiskell >(New York Times), Lawrence Rockefeller (philanthropist), Durward Allen (wolf expert), Loren Eiseley (writer), Mel Grosvenor >(National Geographic), and others. The group was always refreshing, but deep and sometimes very funny. Would that we could have enjoyed more of the Stegners'' moments...
Early in the 1980s, the Mountain Lion Foundation sought to hold a large and popular auction in San Francisco to raise funds for its work. I telephoned Wally, who had just returned from a trip to the East Coast, but he was terribly ill, and had taken to his bed with a temperature of 102. Still, I couldn''t give up on my request, which was that he write a page about the California mountain lion. I told him it would be read aloud, as a centerpiece, during the auction, and then would be auctioned off itself.
Feebly, Wally replied, "Margaret, I can''t do it. It''s hard for me to even think, let alone remind you of how little I know about the cougar."
I hurriedly sent him a factual article, knowing full well he could turn facts into magic. Too weak to refuse, he finally agreed.
When the auction took place, Wally had no way to send his article to San Francisco, so he came himself, feeling, of course, quite miserable.
I called Wally the morning after the auction to let him know his magnificent article was the best piece of writing he''d ever done, and the impact of his words was far greater than he could know. I also suggested that perhaps he should write more often when he had a temperature of 102!
Memo to the Mountain Lion. By Wallace Stegner
Once, in every corner of this continent, your passing could prickle the stillness and bring every living thing to the alert. But even then you were more felt than seen. You were an immanence, a presence, a crying in the night, pug tracks in the dust of a trail. Solitary and shy, you lived beyond, always beyond. Your comings and goings defined the boundaries of the unpeopled. If seen at all, you were only a tawny glimpse flowing toward disappearance among the trees or along the ridge of your wilderness.
But hunters, with their dogs and guns, knew how to find you. Folklore made you dangerous, your occasional killing of a calf put a price on your head. Never mind that you preferred deer, that your killing of livestock was trivial by comparison with our own dogs. You were wild, and thus an enemy. You were rare, and elusive, and elegant, and thus a trophy to be prized. Under many names, as panther, catamount, puma, cougar, mountain lion, you were hunted to death through all the East and Midwest. The last catamount in Vermont was shot more than a hundred yeas ago. You persist in the Everglades only because a national park official quietly released a pair of you to restore the life-balance of that fecund swamp.
In the mountain and plateau West, a remnant population of you persists, in the pockets of wild country off the edges of settlement and too rough for off-road vehicles. If you kill a calf or a sheep, the permit hunters still exact a more-than-eye-for-an-eye vengeance, but in California, at least, a moratorium on ordinary hunting has let your numbers stabilize. The Fish and Game people say there are 2,400 of you in California. A better guess might be 1,000. But a remnant. There is a chance you may survive.
You had better. If we lift the moratorium that has helped to save you, we are insane. Visiting Africa, 20th-century Americans are struck by how poor we have become, how poor we have made ourselves, how much pleasure and instruction we have deprived ourselves of, by our furious destruction of other species.
Controls we may need, what is called game-management we may need, for we have engrossed the earth and must now play God to the other species. But deliberate war on any species, especially a species of such evolved beauty and precise function, diminishes, endangers and brutalizes us. If we cannot live in harmony with other forms of life, if we cannot control our hostility toward the earth and its creatures, how shall we ever learn to control our hostility toward each other?
Margaret Owings signs copies of her book on Dec. 4 at 5:30pm, at the Thunderbird Bookshop. 624-1803.