Rockets' Red Glare Fuels Beach War


This is a perfect slice of California. Just one back road winds to a sandy beach, dotted with driftwood and protected by bluffs. The waves are big, the marine life plentiful and there are miles of undeveloped coast.

Many surfers consider the Santa Barbara County stretch a favorite spot. Families come to camp. Researchers and fishermen comb the teeming waters where Northern and Southern California collide.

But this vision of a long-gone era sits in a space-age debris zone.

When the neighboring Vandenberg Air Force Base launches rockets such as the Titan II, Jalama Beach County Park is evacuated just in case there's a wayward bang.

The military, the county and beach-goers have long battled over access to this tranquil beach, a war that has flared anew in recent months as the Air Force has increased launches from the base.

When a launch is pending, everyone has to pack up, including the vacationers who often spend hours waiting in line for one of the 110 campsites that don't accept reservations.

Sheriff's deputies cruise the park to clear out visitors and a military policeman guards the lone access road, making sure no one slips back in. Sometimes surfers refuse to leave the water and a helicopter buzzes them, a voice shouting over a bullhorn: "You're subject to arrest for trespassing!"

Base officials say the disruptions are unavoidable.

"There's definitely a trend. We're stepping up our launches," said Lt. Tom Knowles, a Vandenberg spokesman.

"We're putting satellites into space that touch every American life. It's important people balance the good we do with the few negatives."

Everything from pagers to weather forecasting equipment to gadgets that give motorists directions on the road requires a satellite in orbit. Rockets from the coastal base can carry satellites into a polar orbit without crossing population centers--except, that is, for tiny Jalama Beach.

Don Eittreim, who owns Jalama's general store, a weathered wooden shack that sells such varied items as fishing worms, burgers and gourmet asparagus salsa, used to close during launches without much complaint.

"We thought we were doing our duty as good citizens. But now they're closing us down more often and I don't see why we should suffer just because our next-door neighbor is in the rocket business," he said.

His son Steve, who manages the store, has written letters to a senator and congresswoman and filed five claims totaling $2,888 for loss of business. The military rejected the claims.

"The amount of money wasn't even close to what we really lose; it was just for direct losses like perishables," Steve Eittreim said. "I call to ask them why we're rejected and they just mail me more forms to fill out in triplicate.

"When they close us down on the weekend it just kills us. I have employees who live paycheck to paycheck."

Even when launches are postponed, he said, the campground and store lose business because visitors make other plans. That's what happened with a customer who ordered 40 barbecue dinners for a family reunion and then canceled because a launch was scheduled. The launch was later delayed, but the woman didn't re-book.

"I can guarantee you that whatever obstacles she was willing to deal with in planning a family reunion, a missile just wasn't one of them," Steve Eittreim said.

Just south of Jalama Beach is the 25,000-acre Cojo-Jalama Ranch. Because the ranch is private property, the military notifies residents of possible danger but cannot evacuate them. "We just tell them thanks for the tip, but they can mosey along now," said one ranch hand.

But during a launch, no extra hands or vehicles are allowed on the ranch. That can wreak havoc when it is in the middle of shipping 1,200 calves, said Brad Lundberg, ranch manager for 27 years.

"It's maddening," he said. "They look at it like they're the federal government and they're protecting this country, and I'll admit that makes for a pretty good argument. But now they're stepping up the commercial launches. When it gets commercial, they don't have the defense-of-our-country defense. It's just one business infringing on another."

Rocket launches are unpredictable; they can be weeks or months apart. The beach has been closed for portions of several days in a row when a launch has been delayed over and over because of weather concerns.

In exchange for the right to close the campground, Vandenberg foots the water bill for Jalama Beach, supplying the campground with 35,000 gallons of water a year.

"People get kicked out of here and it's a frustrating experience, but the Air Force base scratches our back. They're our main water source," said park manager Clay Garland. "Even though the base is a pain, they're also the reason we're so remote. I think it's a great trade-off.

"We have evacuations, but we also have wild plants, cougars, bears, fox and mountain lions."

The rocket launches can create spectacular sunsets, turning the sky over the ocean red and orange and making the light shine butter-gold.

That's about the time Garland starts thinking about the history of Jalama Beach.

"We sit right on Chumash tribal lands," he said. "The people who once lived here made plank canoes out of redwood and traveled the ocean. Now in a pretty short period of time we've gone to watching rockets carry satellites into space.

"There's something about this place that makes you feel like a very small speck in an amazing universe."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World