Storm over North Coast rights
Of all the storms to roil this wild North Coast, few have lasted as long as the human uproar over the presence of Redwood National Park, created in 1968 to preserve the world’s last and largest stand of towering coastal redwood trees.
The 131,000-acre park has never been popular with many rural residents of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, who believe the federal buyout of timber company land put them out of work and crippled struggling communities. Over the years, residents say, strict park polices have continually restricted traditional activities, such as surf fishing and wood gathering.
Now local residents have struck back. A bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) assures a handful of commercial fishermen here the right to drive trucks on beaches in the park -- the first time federal legislation has allowed off-road vehicle use in a national park in the lower 48 states.
The law, signed by President Bush in October, reverses a park policy that was phasing out the activity. Now 17 fishermen have permits to drive on the beach, and the legislation bars more than that number from being issued.
The controversial provision was a last-minute addition to Thompson’s Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Wilderness Act, which set aside 273,000 acres of Northern California as wilderness. Thompson said the provision, inserted by outgoing Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), was part of compromises necessary to get a wilderness bill through the Republican-controlled Congress.
But although the bill affords the highest level of protection for federal land in five Northern California counties, officials say the fishing provision could set a troubling precedent at Redwood National Park, as well as at the three state parks that are co-managed by the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
The issue is a flashpoint in a region where many people harbor deep distrust of the federal government.
When the park service closed Freshwater Spit in 2003, a wide spot on Highway 101 being used as a camping site for recreational vehicles in the park, there were organized protests with pickets marching along the highway. After death threats were made against park rangers and a pipe bomb was found in an outhouse, officials called in a park service SWAT team to restore order.
Residents of towns near the parks in rural Humboldt and Del Norte counties complain that the tourism boom promised by the National Park Service never materialized.
In part because of its remoteness, visitation at Redwood last year was 394,000, making it one of California’s least visited national parks. Yosemite, the most visited, had 3.3 million visitors in 2005.
For most of the last century, fishermen have driven onto beaches, moved up and down the wet sand to find fish and fill their nets, and then loaded their catches of smelt onto their truck beds.
To Gene Logan, a fisherman in Orick, the park service has dismantled this town’s traditional way of life, first by eliminating logging and later by phasing out fishing permits.
“I’ve been out there fishing since I was a kid and went with my dad,” said Logan, 35. “We have bent over backward trying to connect with the park. They are ruthless. Park rangers hassle us, treat us like we are bad guys. They keep taking and taking. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you see the way you are treated.”
But state and federal park officials say they have only been following the law in phasing out trucks on the beach. And now they say they are unsure how this new law squares with existing regulations. The wording is vague, park officials say, and the provision applies to only two of the three beaches that surf fishermen use.
Also, because the beaches specified in Section 10 of the bill are in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park -- state property within the national park -- the federal law has the unusual effect of legislating use of state land.
“Section 10 provides very little clarity. It could have given us more direction,” said Rick Nolan, Redwood’s chief of interpretation for the National Park Service. “But that’s part of our political world. Riders get attached to things. Do they always turn into the best legislation? Maybe not.”
Andy Ringgold, a former Redwood National Park superintendent, was more blunt. “The text of Section 10 is just garbage; it’s horrible,” he said. Ringgold established the program to phase out vehicles on the beaches. He retired in 2003. “The first thing that strikes you is that the secretary of the Interior has no jurisdiction over state beaches. That’s for starters.”
Thompson, who says he has long championed the rights of fishermen in the area, said that when Pombo -- the outgoing chairman of the House Resources Committee -- insisted on the open beach amendment there were vigorous negotiations and some trade-offs. But he added: “In the end, we came up with a darn good bill.”
Both state and national park officials say their respective agencies have yet to determine how to proceed or how the law may affect a park that cost taxpayers $1 billion to acquire.
“We are between a rock and hard place,” said Bruce Lynn, superintendent for Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods state parks. “This was rushed in rather quickly without a lot of thought and attention. We really have to think, ‘Is this something we want to abide by?’ ”
Before Thompson’s bill passed, officials were reducing the traffic through a permit system designed to phase out beach access through attrition. Park officials estimated there were about 100 fishermen on the beaches before implementation of the permit system in 2000. Only 17 have applied for permit renewals this year, and locals say only six or seven make a living from the work. The season begins in April.
The commercial catch also is declining. According to the California Department of Fish and Game, 574,000 pounds of night smelt were landed at the Redwood beaches in 2000, compared with 168,614 pounds last year. Park service records estimate the total annual commercial value of the recent catch at $71,000.
But, even as they acknowledge the dwindling catch, locals say they are fighting for a right that has been theirs since before the state parks were established in the 1920s. And, they say, they are making a stand against federal bullying and endless regulations.
“I’m out there making an honest living with honest sweat running down my nose,” said fisherman Norm Carr, who helped organize the Save Orick Committee. Carr said he is fed up with park service rules that don’t seem to make sense. “I’m tired of it.”
Ed Salsedo, a fisherman who has organized local opposition to various park initiatives, said he and a group of friends foiled the national and state parks’ effort to close the beaches. “They thought we were dumb fishermen,” Salsedo said, adding that he contacted Pombo’s office asking the congressman to intercede on the fishermen’s behalf.
Officials acknowledge that by removing the trucks, they are hamstringing fishermen, but they say beach traffic is incompatible with the language in the stated purpose of the park: to celebrate the wild and unspoiled coastal landscape. Lynn and other park officials say visitors have complained about vehicles on the beach.
Park officials also point out they have a legal obligation to protect nesting Western snowy plovers, a threatened species. Trucks can be hazardous to the plover nests, which the golf ball-sized bird often site in ruts left by tires.
Yet officials acknowledge that there is no evidence that surf fishermen have ever harmed the birds or other wildlife.
“We don’t have any good data that we have collected from those beaches that show that vehicle use specifically has been damaging to these beaches. And we have never collected any data that shows there’s any harm to critters out there,” said Terry Hofstra, chief of resources at Redwood National Park.