After five weeks and 1,100 miles, a deeper love of the California coast, a greater desire to watch over it

It was late on a chilly night when I descended a winding mountain road to Shelter Cove, one of the few California coastal communities I'd never visited.

I checked into the Inn of the Lost Coast, dropped my bags on the floor of my room and opened the back door to see how close I was to the water.


The essence of the sea drifted up from the base of a cliff and I took in deep drafts of salt air. I kept the door open so I could hear the tide lapping against the rocks, a concert as old as time, and descended into a sleep as deep as the sea.

There is no stage like the one where land meets surf, no drama more mesmerizing.

Photographer Allen Schaben and I traveled 1,100 miles in five weeks, starting at the Oregon border.

As I said a few weeks ago, my crush on the coast began half a century ago with summer vacations in Santa Cruz, and it grew deeper on this trip.

More battles remain

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So, too, did my determination to keep an eye on the public officials whose job is to uphold the protections laid down by the Coastal Act, which turned 40 this year.

The anniversary wasn't the only thing that begged review of a powerful agency with a sacred duty. The clumsy firing of Executive Director Charles Lester in February, by the politically appointed commissioners, was a debacle that demoralized the agency's paid staff and enraged hundreds of people up and down the coast.

Times columnist Steve Lopez arrives at the Mexico border after traveling along the California coast from the Oregon border. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Many of them believed this particular set of commissioners, led by Gov. Jerry Brown's four appointees, was dangerously cozy with developers and their hired guns, and was trying to exert more control over the agency and support construction even when their own staff experts determined that doing so would violate the Coastal Act.

Commissioners carp and crab about such criticism. But commissioners' own shabby behavior — not all of them, but several of them — exposed a sloppy culture of ethical lapses and broken rules.

Thanks to scrutiny by outraged agency watchers and the L.A. Times, investigations are underway and legislative reforms in play.

The fragile, awe-inspiring shoreline and the public deserve better, and you're reminded of that along every mile of the coast. Ordinary people fought in the late '60s and early '70s for conservation of fisheries and estuaries, and for enhanced public access, and the achievements over four decades have been extraordinary.

The agency's delicate duty is to balance private property rights against public interest, and the entrenched bureaucracy — challenged by chronic understaffing — has frustrated many.

Yet, because wise commissioners have managed over the years to push back against nuclear power plants and sprawling developments, Californians can visit rocky shores, pristine beaches and ocean-view bluffs where marine animals, birds and plant life flourish.

More battles remain.

As Coastal Act author Peter Douglas famously said: "The coast is never saved; it's always being saved."


In Half Moon Bay, I  visited a beach that was a popular destination for decades, until a billionaire blocked access.

Farther south, a sand-mining operation is causing an astonishing level of beach erosion.

I toured a dune near Monterey, where a long-frustrated developer vows to begin construction of a 368-unit hotel and residential project this fall, despite fears of harm to nesting birds protected by the Endangered Species Act.

At Hollister Ranch, wealthy landowners including singer Jackson Brown enjoy a slice of California much like what the first Spanish explorers encountered, while security guards keep average Californians from the ranch's wet sand — which is public land.

Miles south, at Huntington Beach, a proposed desalination plant seems to be more of a money-making scheme than a well-conceived response to drought.

The Newport Banning Ranch proposal — by oil companies and their real estate partner — would turn the largest undeveloped, privately owned land on the Southern California coast into a massive residential, hotel and commercial enterprise despite claims of damage to environmentally sensitive habitat.

And in Malibu — and up and down the coast, for that matter — homeowners still find ways to keep the public off public beaches, a reminder that California's leaders, including its coastal commissioners, have a responsibility to keep fighting for the Coastal Act's requirement of enhanced access to low- and middle-income residents.

We all have to keep watching, not just occasionally, but always, and more closely than we have in the past.

News agencies that once regularly covered the Coastal  Commission have been decimated by market forces. But the decline of accountability reporting makes it all the more important for journalists to prioritize what issues need covering.

California's coast is of global interest — if you doubt that, listen to the cacophony of languages spoken at state beaches during the summer. Media worldwide have a stake in watching one of America's most powerful resource protection agencies as it forges a new course.

In the coming months the Coastal Commission will hire a new executive director, choose a new chair and see the appointment of at least two new commissioners.

Where's our state's environmental hero in the midst of this historic change?

Beats me.

For months I've been trying to let readers know what Gov. Jerry Brown thinks of his state's coast and the commission that's supposed to guard it. His spokesman told me again last week that if he becomes available for an interview, they'll let me know.

Brown's non-voting but all-powerful Coastal Commission appointee, Janelle Beland, isn't making herself available, either.

...Commissioners’ own shabby behavior... exposed a sloppy culture of ethical lapses and broken rules.

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What we do know is that Brown proposed the lifting of Coastal Act review for low-income housing along the shore, and that Beland has challenged staff findings that environmentally sensitive habitat at Newport Banning Ranch would be harmed. She also pushed for parking fees along the Sonoma Coast to help bolster state parks revenues, despite claims that such fees will limit access for low-income families in areas where public transit is not an option.

What I take from all of this is that Brown is focused on his legacy tickets:  the bullet train, Delta tunnels, climate change and budget pragmatism. If he gives a fig about the integrity of the Coastal Act he signed into law 40 years ago, it doesn't show.

That's all the more reason for the rest of us to be coastal stewards in the great California tradition begun by the likes of the late Bill Kortum, who warned that we must never back down or give up in the fight for preservation and access. It was an honor to meet in Bodega with Kortum's wife, Lucy, and other pioneers who campaigned in 1972 for Proposition 20, which led four years later to the Coastal Act.

We're blessed in this state. Our coast is a gift, and we share a duty to preserve and nurture it for our grandchildren, to teach them to  do the same,  and to foster appreciation as the Sea Odyssey program does in Santa Cruz, taking low-income inland students on marine-education excursions.


On the last leg of our trip, I stood at the Mexican border with Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, who said California's beaches are our town centers, and what he sees on the faces of people from all walks of life is a sense of freedom and unbridled joy.

"I'm very proud of the fact that California embodies the idea that this is a public resource and every citizen has a right to access our magnificent and beautiful coast," Dedina said. "It's meant for all of us."

My thanks to all the people we met between Oregon and Mexico, at Shelter Cove and the mouth of the Smith River, on the dunes of Humboldt Bay, the wild Gaviota coast and on Southern California's urban beaches — surfers and sand lovers, botanists and biologists, activists and agitators.

Taking in the coast like this, from top to bottom, lifts the spirit and strengthens resolve. I know Allen Schaben feels the same, and if we can swing it, we'll be back. | Follow on Twitter: @LATstevelopez

Weigh in at @JerryBrownGov  #SaveYourCoast and (916) 445-2841 or email