Celebrating 40 Years of California Coastal Protection this Oceans Day

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This past Oceans Day, as conservationists, fishermen, scientists and beachgoers gathered in Sacramento on Monday on behalf of our coasts and marine life, we have special reason to celebrate California’s leadership in coastal and ocean protection. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the California Coastal Program which has protected our Golden State’s 1,100 miles of beautiful, winding coastline for four decades and for generations to come.

Anyone who has wiggled their toes in the sugar-soft sand of California’s beaches or listened in awe to the waves crashing against our sheer cliffs knows what a special place the California coast is. But with an exploding population and increasing demands on our oceans and coastline, it’s thanks to the bold, determined leadership of the California Coastal Commission that we continue to enjoy the beauty and resources of our coast and ocean.

As longtime Commission director Peter Douglas, has said so well: “It’s the public access that hasn’t been lost… It’s the wetlands that weren’t filled. It’s the scenic vistas that weren’t destroyed. It’s what we don’t see that’s our major accomplishment.”  

Forty years ago, in November 1972, California voters approved, by a 10 point margin, Proposition 20, establishing the California Coastal Commission and setting the standard for coastal protection leadership for the country. Since Prop 20 passed, California’s population has doubled to 38 million—yet the Coastal Commission has carefully steered development and protected fragile coastal areas for all Californians.  

Working with cities and counties, fishermen, conservationists, and developers, the Commission has worked to safeguard our coastline against oil spills, preserve critical wetlands and other sensitive habitats, and ensure that everyone—not just those with beachfront property—can get to the beach and feel the ocean spray on their face and the cool waves against their feet.

Everyone has their own story, but here are just a few of the coastal protection milestones that have made California a national leader in coastal and ocean policy:

  • Protecting Our Beaches from Irresponsible Development: In 2008, the Commission rejected a 6-lane toll road that would have cut straight through San Onofre State Beach. In addition to closing 60% of the park and restricting public access, the project would have devastated wildlife habitat for several threatened and endangered species and polluted one of the last unspoiled watersheds in the region.
  • Stopping Destructive Offshore Oil Drilling: The Coastal Commission has been a steadfast defender of California’s vibrant coastal environment and its coastal economy based on tourism and fishing.  Since oil drilling off the northern coast was first proposed by the Carter Administration in the late 1970’s, the Commission has been a national leader in the fight to direct drilling away from environmentally sensitive areas like the California coast.
  • Protecting Coastal Agriculture and Rural Landscapes: In March 2000, the Commission ensured protection of Marin County open space and continuation of agricultural use on the Giacomini Ranch on the east shore of Tomales Bay by facilitating the transfer of development rights to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.  And in San Mateo County the Commission protected scenic view sheds and habitat for endangered species, by reducing the size of several large homes proposed for the area, screening them from public view, and rerouting access roads to avoid habitat of red-legged frogs and other wildlife.  The Big Sur coastal plan is a national model.
  • Saving and Restoring the Last Coastal Wetlands: The Coastal Program led to one of the largest salt marsh restoration projects in state history at Bolsa Chica in Orange County. In 2000, the Commission directed development to the upper half (“upper bench”) of the Bolsa Chica mesa to protect the lower half (“lower bench”) as valuable habitat. In San Diego County the Aqua Hedionda Lagoon Preserve and preservation of expanded upland open space/habitat preserve in connection with Carlsbad LCP are major accomplishments amendment for the Kelly Ranch Master Plan area.
  • Preserving Historic Coastal Architecture: In 2000 the Commission protected the watershed adjacent to Crystal Cove in Orange County from runoff and in 2003, they approved plans to restore the Crystal Cove District and the renovation of historic beachfront cottages. The cottages were preserved in their rustic state and are now available to the public for affordable overnight vacations (cottages also generate money for our State Park system).  
  • Marine Life Protection Act: In 1999, the legislature passed, with Commission support, this landmark law to create a network of underwater parks off California’s coast. The ocean version of our National Parks, marine protected areas allow fish, coral reefs, kelp forests, and other ocean life to thrive with minimal disturbance. Research has shown time and again that protected ocean areas harbor more and bigger fish, healthier habitat, and more diverse ocean life (and many fishermen and conservationists agree). Science-based marine refuges are now in place in three of four coastal regions, with the fourth not far behind.

These milestones have also helped inspire other conservation efforts in California such as the ban on shark fin trade. The state took a strong step toward protecting sharks and our oceans in October 2011 with a new law that bans the sale and trade of shark fins. Tens of millions of sharks are killed every year just for their fins, and with California being one of the largest markets for shark fins outside of Asia, our state’s action is essential to ensure that these beautiful apex predators aren’t lost forever.

While these are just a few examples of California’s nation-leading efforts to protect our coast and ocean, the reality is simple—without California’s Coastal Program, our coast would look and feel vastly different.

This Oceans Day, as we work with state leaders  in Sacramento to ensure that our marine ecosystems, ocean economy, and fragile coastline are safeguarded in future years, we celebrate and salute the ongoing leadership of California’s Coastal Program. Our State’s determination to defend our precious coast, wetlands, and marine areas while guiding safe development sets a strong example for other states and nations as we strive together to protect our ocean resources for generations to come.

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Ann Notthoff is Natural Resources Defense Council’s California advocacy director. She coordinates statewide campaigns and represents NRDC in the state capitol on a wide range of issues including global warming, water policy and coast and ocean protection. This article originally appeared on the NRDC’s staff blog.

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