A coalition of recreation groups has filed a lawsuit to protest the
Bureau of Land Management’s closing of Black Sands Beach to motorized
vehicles, claiming the move discriminates against the disabled.
The beach is a 3.5-mile stretch of coastline 45 miles south of Eureka
in northern California.
Black Sands Beach
Of California’s entire 1,100 miles of coastline, mechanized
transportation is now permitted on only one three-mile-long beach in a
state recreation area near the city of Pismo Beach and on a few miles
owned by logging companies that allow trespassing.
“With the closing of Black Sands Beach, as far as publicly owned
right-of-ways, we’re down to .03 or .06 percent of the coastline,” James
Bramham told WorldNetDaily. Bramham, past president of the California
Association of Four-Wheel Vehicle Clubs, recently completed a three-year
term as a member of the state Commission on OHV (off-highway vehicle)
Often forgotten in the discussion has been the impact limiting beach
access has had on the lives of those who are physically challenged.
“The area near Pismo Beach is now the only place in California where
you can drive a van down on the beach and unload a person in a
wheelchair, so they can actually put their toes in the water,” said
That is why for Robert Gamsby, 61, of Redding, Calif., the BLM’s
action of last July was especially egregious.
Like many Americans, Gamsby, who owns a sales and service shop for
gas-powered equipment, is a four-wheel vehicle enthusiast. Any day or
weekend that he can take time away from his business, he and his wife
Sandy are ready to jump in their camper and head for the backcountry.
They also have a sports utility vehicle, so sometimes their now-adult
children and grandchildren go with them. Black Sands Beach was a
favorite camping and fishing destination for them, as it was for hikers
and other OHV users.
The off-road vehicle community and others who favor a multiple-use
policy for public lands had watched with increased alarm as the
But Gamsby has a particular reason for concern. Forty years ago, he nearly lost his right leg in an industrial accident. Skilled surgery saved it but his walking ability is severely impaired and he needs special custom-made boots or a leg brace just to walk short distances on a smooth surface. Walking on uneven ground or a beach is out of the question. A four-wheel drive, all-terrain vehicle is a necessity for him to access and enjoy the off-the-beaten-track places he and his wife love.
“Now that it’s closed, I can’t go on the beach at all,” he says. “My wife and grandkids won’t go because I can’t. They’re not going to go to the beach and look at me sitting up there in the parking lot.”
Black Sands Beach is actually a small segment of a 27-mile shoreline known as the Lost Coast that runs from Shelter Cove on the south to the Mattole River on the north. Now part of the King Range National Conservation Area, between 1860 and 1920 the Lost Coast was a primary travel route for the ranching families and their communities and was historically open to vehicles. But, in 1974, four years after Congress established the conservation area by
legislation, the BLM — the agency that manages the area — banned motorized vehicles from the Lost Coast, except Black Sands Beach.
|King Range National Conservation Area|
In July 1999, in the face of massive and sustained opposition from local residents and the recreation community, the BLM posted signs that the popular 3.5-mile strip was off-limits to everyone but hikers and those able to walk on the sand. BLM said the ban was necessary, not because OHVs were destroying the environment, but because — in its view — vehicles are not “compatible” with the management plan of 1974, which called for eventual reversion of the area to “primitive, backcountry use.”
Gamsby, who had been fighting to stop the closure, was angry, though he believes he and other OHV users are partly responsible for not confronting the situation 25 years ago.
“There’s 23 miles of the beach we can’t go on, and three-and-a-half miles we could,” he explained. “We didn’t fight when they [the BLM] said they were going to close-off that 23 miles back in ’74 — that was okay. At least we still had Black Sands. I could go fishing. I could take my wife and family. I had three-and-a-half miles of beach to go on. Two years ago, they decided to close that down and though we were able to keep it open for a while, they eventually did what they wanted.”
Never particularly interested in politics, Gamsby said the bureau’s decision to ban vehicles from Black Sands Beach changed him. Today, he is an outspoken critic of the administration’s policy of closing roads in national forests and on other public lands.
Besides participating at public hearings dealing with road closings, Gamsby is a plaintiff in a historically significant lawsuit brought by a coalition of off-road vehicle users, surfers and other recreationists who are challenging BLM’s beach closing in federal court. The plaintiffs view the action as historic.
“This is one of the first times that a national multiple-use organization has joined forces in California with state and local recreation interests to ‘just say no’ to more land closures by the federal government,” says Don Amador, western representative for the
Blue Ribbon Coalition, an Idaho-based nonprofit advocacy organization with approximately 600,000 members nationwide that seeks to keep public lands widely accessible to the public.
Other plaintiffs include Friends of Black Sands Beach, a Shelter Cove group comprised of local residents, businesses and families; the
California Association of 4-Wheel Drive Clubs. and the
Lost Coast 4X4s.
Filed last month in federal court, the suit contends that in closing off the beach, the bureau violated several important federal laws, specifically:
- The 1973
Rehabilitation Act, which precludes discrimination by a federal agency against an individual suffering a disability by preventing a disabled individual from participation in a legal activity;
- The 1976
Federal Land Policy and Management Act which requires an agency to provide for legitimate public uses of the area, including motorized access;
- The 1969
National Environmental Policy Act, by not developing an Environmental Impact Statement and ignoring alternatives to vehicle banning; and
- The Act of 1866 (RS 2477), by restricting or eliminating existing rights-of-way along or adjacent to the wave slope at Black Sands Beach.
Dennis Porter of Redding, one of two attorneys for the plaintiffs, discussed the case with WorldNetDaily.
“We hit them with a couple of non-traditional allegations,” he explained. “One is the charge that they’re discriminating against a disabled person. The BLM has effectively told everyone with a physical disability that they’re excluded from a public beach. For some people, the only way they can get out there is with a motorized vehicle. They’ve been excluded. That’s the bottom line.”
“We also filed under NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act),” Porter continued. “BLM had done an environmental assessment and we are saying that’s totally inadequate. It was a substantial ‘taking’ that they were doing and that requires a full environmental impact statement, an EIS, not just an EA. We’re also saying that they should have considered other alternatives — there were plenty offered by the public. But they considered only two: no action and closing the beach.”
According to the complaint, “numerous viable alternatives” were offered, such as limiting OHV use to straight-line access or establishing a non-motorized trail above the wave slope. The BLM gave little or no consideration to these and other suggestions.
Porter said that the suit is unique, in part because there was no allegation of a specific environmental problem, like an endangered species. BLM based its decision not on science, but on essentially aesthetic considerations.
“A lot of times you have to fight about endangered species,” said Porter, “but, in this case, the BLM claimed the hikers didn’t want to see vehicles on the beach.”
Dan Averill, assistant field manager for BLM’s Arcata Resource Area, could not comment extensively on the case because of the litigation but paraphrased the 28-page Decision Record, which is a public document. His remarks essentially corroborated Porter’s observations.
“It [the decision to close the beach] was based on consistent management of the West Slope of the King Range for primitive values,” he explained. “That was our main thrust, but there were other reasons, like not being able to enforce the closure at Gitchell Creek very effectively because it’s three-and-a-half miles up in a remote area. That was one of the decision-making items that we used. But the main thing was to provide a consistent management approach to the whole West Slope, which is not totally roadless, but has fairly small roads and a lot of them have been put to bed or decommissioned over the years. So it’s pretty primitive. In fact, it’s the largest stretch of un-roaded coastline in the lower 48 states. That’s the kind of managing we’ve been working towards since 1974 and we felt that at this time we’d get that consistent approach to management on the West Slope.”
Averill clarified the term “user conflicts,” as used in the Decision Record. He said it did not refer to threatening behavior or endangerment.
“The conflicts we were referring to were not about being run over by OHVs,” he said. “The conflict was in the use of the area for primitive values, about a conflict with a non-primitive, motorized use. We were not referring to actual physical conflicts. When we refer to ‘user conflict’, in this case, we’re referring to ‘use conflict’ — a backpacking use versus an OHV use.”
Averill suggested that when discussing the two uses, a better word than “conflict” would be “incompatibility.”
Incompatibility or conflict, he said, occurs “when you’re hiking 24 miles in a primitive area and, in the last three miles — which is still the same area, the same primitive-type setting — you encounter a non-compatible use, like someone in an ATV in that same area. You lose a solitude that you’ve had for 24 miles. You’re still walking with a backpack. Once you get to the parking area, you expect to run into vehicles and when you get back to everyday life, but not on a secluded part of the beach,” he said.
Meanwhile, the road closings continue quietly, without fanfare. Over Memorial Day weekend, Gamsby and his wife were driving in their pickup behind Shasta Dam.
“We were told the road that goes from the boat ramp to the lower part of Shasta Dam would be closed-off totally except for walking and bicycles,” Gamsby recalled. “The officer told us this would last time we’d be allowed on that road.”
“I stood by and let [the closure of Black Sands Beach] happen, like everybody else, figuring somebody would take care of it,” he said, “but nothing happened. It wasn’t taken care of — so I’m starting to scream now.”