Surfers, Marines in a tussle over Trestles

A disagreement over a well-known slice of the Southern California coast is threatening to drive a wedge between Marines and surfers, groups that had recently set aside differences and become political allies.

At issue is the 2.25-mile stretch of surf and sand known as Trestles, between the San Onofre nuclear plant and the San Diego County-Orange County line. The name comes from two train trestles that parallel the ocean.


To wave riders, Trestles represents seven of the primo surf breaks in the world. To Marines, the middle section of the 2.25 miles is an ideal location to teach grunts how to fight their way from ship to shore and inland.

PHOTOS: A tussle over Trestles

With the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation in the lead, surfers petitioned to have Trestles listed on the National Register of Historic Places, for its role in the rise of “surf culture.” Surfers hope the listing will ensure that nothing will disrupt the site’s isolation and lack of “commercial growth.”

The Marine Corps, which owns the beach and the paths leading to it, opposes having Trestles listed, out of concern that the designation might lead to civilian oversight that crimps training.

The skirmish is not over, but so far the surfers appear to be winning.

Despite opposition from the Marine Corps and the Navy, the State Historical Resources Commission voted unanimously Feb. 8 to forward a recommendation to Washington that Trestles be listed.

The decision now rests with the civilians who run the National Register, which is part of the National Park Service.

The recommendation “does not and will not impose any additional requirements for consultation for military training and operational use,” according to documents supporting the Trestles nomination.

“This is a historic designation, it does not change the use of the property,” said Amy Crain, a state historian.

But military brass and two state senators aren’t buying the assurances that nothing will keep the Marines from using what is called Green Beach for mock assaults, or for other exercises involving heavy vehicles traveling between the beach and the open spaces of Camp Pendleton.

Military officials “believe these assurances to be unenforceable,” Brig. Gen. Vincent Coglianese, commanding general of Camp Pendleton, wrote to the state historic preservation officer before the commission vote.

State Sens. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) and Mark Wyland (R-Escondido), in a joint statement, warned that listing Trestles will “put state bureaucrats and surfers in control of Marine Corps training near Trestles.”

From World War II to 1971, the Marine Corps was in control of the entire 2.25 miles. But after prodding from then-President Nixon, a part-time resident of San Clemente, the military leased the property to the state to establish San Onofre State Beach.

Of course, even before the Trestles breaks — Uppers, Lowers, Middles, Church, the Point, Old Man’s and Dog Patch — were open to the public, intrepid surfers were attracted by the near-perfect waves.

“For well over 25 years, surfers carried on guerrilla warfare with U.S. Marines,” according to a California Department of Parks and Recreation history of the area. “Trespassing surfers were chased, arrested and fined.”

One of those who fondly remember those days is Bruce Johnston, later a member of the Beach Boys singing group.

“We even had to outrun 18-year-old Marines from Oklahoma trying to chase us away,” Johnston wrote in support of listing Trestles as a historic place. "… It was a great experience!”

In 1963, Trestles was mentioned in “Surfin’ USA,” the Beach Boys song that became an anthem for a suddenly surf-obsessed generation. Beach Boy Mike Love has joined Johnston in supporting Trestles as a historic site.

Trestles would be the first surf spot to be listed as such, state officials said. Before its vote, the state commission received more than 1,300 letters about Trestles — 1,235 in support, 112 in opposition, a record for any proposed historic designation.

With the opening of San Onofre beach, relations between surfers and Marines have mellowed. Surfers have enjoyed the breaks and, for the most part, have stayed away from Green Beach, which is posted with “keep out” signs.

The two sides had united in opposition to extending the 241 Toll Road south through Camp Pendleton to Interstate 5. The California Coastal Commission has nixed the extension, but the proposal remains alive for possible reconsideration.

Much of the dispute over Trestles involves whether it can be considered Southern California’s preeminent surf spot — or whether that distinction belongs to Huntington Beach, Santa Cruz or perhaps Blacks Beach in La Jolla.

Trestles “appears to be just one of hundreds of such relative nondescript good surfing beaches around the U.S.” and thus does not qualify for historic status, wrote Donald Schregardus, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy and a federal preservation officer.

The surfers disagree, on grounds that are more aesthetic than legalistic.

“Trestles still rocks in 2013,” Johnston wrote.