Déjà-vu in the Dunes

 Tracks from illegal ORV use crisscross the “Super Bowl” site in the dunes near the City of Eureka’s Samoa Airport property. Photo: J. Kalt.

Tracks from illegal ORV use crisscross the “Super Bowl” site in the dunes near the City of Eureka’s Samoa Airport property. Photo: J. Kalt.

Humboldt has a Beach and Dune Management Plan … Remember?

Humboldt County’s land use policies have faced some radical challenges lately, with many contentious meetings. But some policies have changed because they’ve been quietly ignored or forgotten.

The recent proposal for a motocross riding park on the North Spit, on Eureka’s airport property in Fairhaven, shows how easily environmental history gets lost.

Until the late 1980s, Humboldt Bay’s dunes and beaches were essentially an industrial sacrifice zone, and a popular site for dating, drinking, and
especially driving. Dune buggies and off road vehicles had grown from a casual weekend activity to a national recreation priority by then. Local buggy clubs, augmented by riders from Redding, owned a few acres of dunes property, and they were welcomed by some land owners as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—but they essentially considered the entire North and South Spits their riding area. They often referred to “the right to ride.”

The result: beachgoers confronted by squads of OHV’s (off-highway vehicles); sun bathers alert to approaching motorcycles; and rare coastal forests, wildlife habitat, and native dune plants cut up into unsustainable islands—with residents and property owners helpless to stop it. A Humboldt County “policy” of no riding above the wave slope was never meant to be enforced. In 1989, the County partnered with the state OHV Commission to develop a plan making the North Spit, including private property, into a recreational riding area.

This proposal drew angry reaction from the public, and the County finally agreed to accept a planning grant from the state Coastal Conservancy to ensure the input of beach and dunes users, environmentalists, and local communities. But then the Supervisors appointed a committee of half riders and their supporters, and half the rest of the public. After two years of meetings, the Beach and Dunes Advisory Committee came up with a compromise that allowed riding to continue.

In response, the Humboldt Coastal Coalition was created to provide a public forum outside of government agencies. Through outreach and canvassing—tabling at the mall and at grocery stores—they confirmed that the public wanted their beaches back. They wanted snowy plovers to have nesting sites. They demanded better management of beaches and dunes, from Table Bluff to Little River.

HCC was joined by other community groups—the California Native Plant Society, Audubon, Sierra Club, Friends of the Dunes, Manila Community Services District, and the Fairhaven Neighborhood Association. When the compromised plan was finally turned down by the Planning Commission, after many hours of testimony, a junior high auditorium was required to accommodate the crowd of hundreds of people.

The Supervisors eventually approved a much stronger Beach and Dunes Management Plan, with off-road vehicles confined to the BLM property at the end of the North Spit (including a motocross site). But from the beginning, enforcement was sporadic. Signs failed to appear where they were needed, trespassing continued, and the new plan and its ordinance remained another “policy” of looking the other way. Members of the Coastal Coalition again realized that action had to come from outside County government.

Humboldt Beach and Dune Stewards was a citizen-based monitoring agency. At some physical risk, volunteer rangers observed and reported violations of the new ordinance. When this again resulted in half-hearted enforcement, the Stewards secured funding for beach patrols through the state Coastal Conservancy, the OHV Commission, and the BLM. Finally patrols began, citations were issued, and a state environmental lawyer brought charges.

Despite strong initial resistance, these programs proved highly effective and popular. A few officials, and public servants like the late Deputy Mike Stone, earned high praise for their dedication and service. Citizen rangers formed a rare alliance with county officials, and public enjoyment of our beaches and dunes finally again became the norm.

But the peace was temporary. When the Coastal Coalition disbanded and citizen patrols ended, public amnesia quickly set in. By 1996, a “Skypark” plan proposed to turn Eureka’s airport property into a 3-ring circus of OHV riding, dunes hiking, and—yes—a motocross! There was no provision for enforcement, and Fairhaven residents feared the return of noise and trespassing. Environmentalists pointed out that protected plants would be destroyed, and some people remembered that there was, in fact, a Beach and Dunes Management Plan. After a crowded and angry meeting in Eureka’s City Hall, public memory briefly returned. Skypark flew off into the sunset.

But now here we are again. The Eureka City Council has already approved the motocross idea—apparently unaware of the Beach and Dunes Ordinance, its history, and its place in our Coastal Plan (see sidebar).

Before the déjà vu wears off, community and environmental groups need to sit down with Eureka and County officials and revisit this memory, and find better ways to keep our hard-won environmental legacy alive.

Jerry Martien is a local poet and activist who lived in Manila for many years.


Motorcross Track Proposed at Samoa Airport in Fairhaven

Jennifer Kalt

On October 15, the Eureka City Council voted unanimously to work with motocross enthusiasts to develop a half-mile long track for off-road motorcycle racing on the City’s Samoa Airport property in Fairhaven (adjacent to the Samoa Drag Strip and the Humboldt Bay Social Club). The proposal calls for 13 weekend-long events from July to December, as well as riding classes and practice days.

The proposal would be in conflict with the Beach and Dunes Management Plan and County regulations. Since 1994, the Humboldt County Code has prohibited vehicles on beaches and dunes except on the BLM Riding Area and a nearby stretch of waveslope at the southern end of the North Spit (see map).

There are a few exceptions for driving street-legal vehicles in other areas, including commercial fishermen and people with disabilities. And the County Code provides an exception for the Planning Director to waive the prohibition if there is a reasonable need and the vehicle use “will be conducted in a manner and location that will minimize adverse impacts to coastal resources.”

Whether the County opts to approve this project by waiving the prohibition or by revising the County Code and associated ordinances, the project will require a County Coastal Development Permit, which can be appealed to the Coastal Commission. Humboldt Baykeeper, the NEC, the California Native Plant Society, and the Redwood Region Audubon Society will all be following this proposal closely—stay tuned for updates!