A diverse group of beach users, local residents and business owners
has invoked an 1866 law in an effort to reverse the

National Park
recent closing of roads to and across a highly popular beach in northern California.

“This is one of the most truly grass-roots efforts I’ve seen recently,” says Don Amador of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an Idaho-based, nonprofit advocacy organization that seeks to ensure public access to public lands. As the organization’s western representative, he has been working with local activists since early August.

“It’s not just off-road recreationists or timber people, it’s the community itself — fishermen, local business owners and residents who are standing together to fight back against the Park Service,” he said.

For as long as anyone can remember, people have been camping on the beach at Freshwater Spit near the town of Orick, 47 miles north of Eureka. Besides being free, it was one of the few places along the coast on Highway 101 where people could pitch a tent or park an RV overnight, and virtually the last beach in the state where driving vehicles on the sand was permitted. This made it an especially popular spot with sport and commercial fishermen and other recreationists.

Location of Orick, Calif.

But as far as the National Park Service is concerned, those days are over.

Freshwater Spit and neighboring Hidden Beach have been part of Redwood National Park for nearly 20 years. Combined, they represent about four miles of the 50-mile stretch of coastline within the Redwood National and State Parks unit. On July 17, following the dictates laid down in a new

General Management Plan,
the National Park Service, installed iron gates to close the vehicle access roads to the popular area — three on Freshwater Spit, a fourth on the road to Hidden Beach. The next item on the agenda is to eliminate all overnight camping. Beginning Oct. 1, the Park Service will charge a fee for the privilege of using the beach as a campground, and after April 1, 2003, only day-use will be permitted.

The action outraged local residents who have been battling the Park Service over the management plan from its inception, foreseeing even before its release increased restrictions on access to public land.

The community of Orick — two and a half miles inland from the coast — depends today on tourists and fishermen to add fuel to the local economy. But when Congress created the park in 1968, Orick was a bustling timber town, with several sawmills and enough work to support over 3,500 residents. The Park Service’s swift acquisition of large tracts of forestland and its ban on tree cutting within the expanding park’s boundaries almost destroyed the local timber industry. All but one of the mills closed, and there is no logging on public land. The population dwindled to 350.

A newly installed government gate blocks beach access in Northern California.

“If they close off the beach, it will hurt us even more,” explained Ed Salsedo, 56, who owns the Lumber Jack Saloon in Orick and is founder and president of the Save Orick Committee. “This is a major area for surf fishing. If fishermen can’t take vehicles on the beach, they’ll have to transport their gear back and forth from a parking area. They’ll stop coming here,” he said.

Don Amador agrees: “I think the people of Orick have a legitimate complaint with the closure aspects of the Park Service’s new General Management Plan. The Park Service admits in the plan that the direct and indirect economic effects at the regional level are generally valid. They acknowledge that at the local level, such as for Orick, the loss of total economic activity could be a detriment to the town’s economy, and they go on to admit that because of the loss of motorized vehicle access that commercial beach fishing will cease.”

To reverse the road closure, the Save Orick Committee and its allies — with assistance from Amador and the Blue Ribbon Coalition — are laying the groundwork for possible legal action, using the Mining Act of 1866 as a basis for their claims.

Representatives of several groups — including the Orick Chamber of Commerce, the California Beach Fishermen’s Association, the Blue Ribbon Coalition and the Save Orick Committee — met yesterday at Freshwater Spit to sign an assertion of right-of-way to the beach. An estimated 200 people came to the noon event, double Don Amador’s most optimistic projections.

The signed document was later presented to park superintendent Andrew Ringgold at National Park Service headquarters in Crescent City.

“We’re asserting that the roads they’ve closed should be open as RS 2477 right-of-ways,” said Salsedo. “They’ve been right-of-ways for 50 years or more, long before the Park Service acquired the land.”

RS (Revised Statutes) 2477 was a section in the U.S. Code that first appeared in the Mining Act of 1866 and until 1976, governed right-of-way policy on federal land. As interpreted by the courts, under RS 2477, existing right-of-ways were to be honored on land acquired by the federal government. The section was repealed in 1976 by the

Land Policy and Management Act,
but a section in the new act stated explicitly that “Nothing in this sub-chapter shall have the effect of terminating any right-of-way or right-of-use heretofore issued, granted, or permitted.”

According to Salsedo, “Before it was a national park, Freshwater Spit was a county park, and Humboldt County granted it to the National Park Service in 1982. The deed says it would be kept as a county park with existing uses. Those existing uses included use of the beach and vehicular access onto the beach. There was also a provision that if it wasn’t kept open for those purposes, it would revert to the county. That’s why we’re asserting an RS 2477 claim — we have documented evidence that these are historic roads.”

The assertion itself describes the action as a “wrongful closure of valid RS 2477 rights-of way,” and “beyond the authority of the NPS.”

Robert Martin, chief ranger of Redwood National and State Parks, said he was not sufficiently familiar with RS 2477 to comment on the merits of the assertion, but argued that the road closings and abolition of overnight camping are necessary to protect the environment and the scenic value of the area and are within the scope of Park Service policy.

Martin said a “blanket regulation” prohibits any off-road vehicle use in a national park unit. However, in this case the Service has decided to allow vehicle access to commercial fishermen who have a commercial fishing license between 1996 and 1999, the years the General Management Plan was in process. However, this is not a permanent policy. Vehicle access for commercial fishermen will be permitted only for five years.

The situation is complicated by the fact that a road along Freshwater Spit is owned by the California Department of Transportation, which leases it to the Park Service.

“The conditions and terms of the lease are that the Park Service will manage the area in accordance with national park policies and regulations and public safety,” Martin said. “The NPS has a proprietary interest in the land, and with that the Federal Code of Regulations is enforceable and the regulations that apply throughout the National Park Service are applicable here.”

“There are two issues we’re looking at: the ORV (off-road vehicle) closure and overnight camping,” he said. “The beach is still accessible to the public, but because of myriad reasons — including resource damage and public safety — we’re closing the beaches to ORVs.”

Martin said the Park Service is also making a permit and a key available to people with “permanent mobility impairment” for the purpose of sport fishing — “folks that can’t walk out across the sand and have to have a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to the water.”

“We’ve tried to make some accommodation for commercial fishermen and mobility-impaired folks for sport fishing, where technically, if taken to task, we probably wouldn’t be able to do even what we’re doing,” he said.

As for overnight camping, “there’s a lot of things at play here,” he said. “During the summer, about three-quarters of the spit is lined with large RVs. So there’s concern that one of the first premier beaches that you see coming south into California is just wall-to-wall with RVs.”

Martin added that there was also a concern about public safety problem and a problem with “gray water” disposal. “People are just dumping there,” he said.

Martin said the Park Service hopes that people in the Orick Valley will set up campgrounds to provide much needed facilities, which will be even more in demand when the ban on overnight beach camping goes into effect.

“We surveyed folks here a few years back, and over 70 percent said they would stay in and around the Orick area if there were camping facilities, and they would use Freshwater Spit as a day-use area,” he said. “We’re hoping there will be some entrepreneurs that could get some things going. Then folks would stay, and hopefully even more supplies and materials would be purchased from the merchants in town.”

Martin said eventually the spit would be turned into a “really quality day-use area, with nice parking areas, a boardwalk, interpretive areas and places where people can get out of the sun.”

However, Ed Salsedo dismisses the possibility that construction of private camping facilities would be allowed in the valley.

“I’d go with that idea [of private campgrounds] if it could happen,” he said. “I’d back off this beach-camping issue. But we’re a little valley, five miles long, two and a half miles wide, and the county has put a moratorium on building in this area because of the ground water. We don’t have a sewer system; we have septic tanks.

“I’ve talked to the county supervisors,” he continued. “I’ve told them that if they can show us a place in the valley that would be a good spot for a campground and guarantee us the permits, I’ll buy the argument. But they know they can’t guarantee us that. They know it can’t be done in this valley. As far as campgrounds and RV parks being created in Orick, it would be almost impossible to do.”

Salsedo said the Park Service’s decision to issue a key and permit to physically challenged people was recent.

Under the assertion presented yesterday, the Park Service has 14 days to review the document and reopen the closed gates on the asserted RS 2477 right-of-ways.

And if it doesn’t remove the gates?

“We’ll probably file a lawsuit, depending on their answer to the assertion; then we’ll take it from there,” Salsedo said. “Anyhow, we’re not going to give up. We’ll keep at it until we get to the courts.”

Related stories:

Shovel Brigade heads east

Disabled unwelcome on California beaches

‘Eco-terrorists’ strike web site

Related columns:

Gloria doesn’t get it: the tug-of-war for land

Crisis in the wilderness

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.