While most coastal states struggle over public beach access, a few, like Oregon, have the luxury of building on the legacy of some farsighted leaders and a determined public.
Public access to Oregon's beaches has been a concern and a driving force on public attitudes about coastal protection, said Robert Bailey, Oregon's Ocean Program Administrator. After a quarter century of work in Oregon's coastal arena, Bailey has become fascinated with the historical roots of the state's tradition of public access and coastal management.
Bailey notes that, as always, geography set the stage, and the twin themes were coastal travel and recreation. Rugged, densely forested mountains, cut by innumerable streams, made travel difficult in the early settlement days on the Oregon coast, and estuaries and rivers became water highways between the coast and interior valleys. Travel north or south, however, was confined to certain trails on marine terraces, or, more frequently, on the sandy ocean beaches that lay at the foot of steep coastal cliffs and along spits that formed estuaries.
In the late 1800s, several long stretches of certain beaches were designated by counties as public roads. Old photographs show horse-drawn stages skirting the incoming surf, and beach travel continued well into the age of the automobile. In fact, Bailey notes, cars used the beach in some stretches of the south coast right up to completion of the coastal (non-water) highway in 1932.
By 1890, beaches were popular recreational destinations. Railroads, punched through the mountains to the coast, carried weekend excursions from the populous Willamette Valley to resorts and beaches at Seaside, Newport, and Rockaway. The advent of automobiles and construction of roads to the coast brought even more recreational use.
But, like many states, Oregon had also begun selling public tidelands of estuaries and ocean shore to private owners by the late 1800s. A public furor arose, Bailey said, to such a level that in 1911 Oswald West was elected governor with the promise to halt this practice.
West's promise could be kept only with the consent of the state's lawmakers, many of whom were predisposed to "privatize" these public assets and to do so without antagonizing beachfront landowners.
"West's approach to the 1913 legislature was to capitalize on the need to use the beach for public travel because there was often no other route," Bailey said. "By getting the legislature to declare the ocean shore tideland as a public highway from the Columbia River to California, he was able to halt the sale of tidelands and assure that the public had access along the beach."
That same 1913 legislature also created the State Highway Commission, which began to buy land along state highways for parks and scenic views. The construction of a coastal highway was accompanied by land acquisition for the travelers, land that became state parks, big and small. By 1950 there were 36 state parks along the coast, an average of one every 10 miles. Oregonians and visitors flocked to these parks.
In the early 1960s the State Parks Department began a beach access program to keep pace with demand. Bailey notes that "the 1965 legislature did a smart, and as it turned out, very important thing. It changed the designation of the beaches from a state highway to a state recreation area."
Even so, Bailey said, "most people assumed that 'the beach' meant 'the beach.'"
So it was a rude shock when, in 1966, an astute motel owner put a log barricade on the dry sands above the high tide line and declared the area reserved for motel guests. This act revealed the flimsy and uncertain nature of the public's claim to the ocean beaches.
Governor Tom McCall, the legislature, key citizens, and various committees scrambled to find a solution to a problem 70 years in the making.
The 1967 Oregon legislature put on a show that lasted six months. A so-called Beach Bill, based on the Texas Open Beaches Act, had been crafted, which recognized public easements for use of all parts of the beach between a line of vegetation and the water, despite underlying ownership.
A compromise was reached and the logjam was broken. In July, McCall signed the bill that made law the already existing public rights to the dry sands beach.
But the reality is, Bailey said, that "even with this solid legal base for public access on the beach, we are increasingly concerned that the public can get to the beach. With all the recent development on the coast, there are warnings."
For more information on Oregon's public access program, contact Robert Bailey at 503-731-4065.