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Coastal Trails in California and Massachusetts

The California Coastal Trail

By Richard Nichols, Coastwalk

Map of PennsylvaniaPeople constantly pose for photographs on the California coast. At point Lobos, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Venice Beach Boardwalk, the Lost Coast, on hundreds of beaches, overlooks, parks, and piers they stand against dramatic backdrops, smiling for the picture that will prove. "I was here".

This year Coastwalk, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to promoting the California Coastal Trail by conducting coastal walks, also posed for pictures in all 15 coastal countries. The photos show groups of hikers--children with parents, seniors, teenagers, couples and singles--gathered around posters bearing the Coastal Access logo (bare footprints and a wave) and the words "California Coastal Trail." In a modest but meaningful "Name It and Proclaim It" ceremony, each group of Coastwalkers had just proclaimed a stretch of trail they had hiked to be a segment of the California Coastal Trail, which one day will extend along the state's entire 1,100-mile coast. By their ceremony, Coastwalkers called attention to some segments of this grand trail that already exist: the Kortum Trail at Sonoma Coast State Beach, the Atkinson Bluff Trail at Ano Nuevo State Reserve in San Mateo County, the GGNRA Coastal Trail in San Francisco, and miles of public beach in San Diego.

The California Coastal Trail is part reality, part dream. It is envisioned as a continuous trail system linking coastal recreation sites in 15 counties and including the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego; connecting parks and beaches, bicycle routes, hostels, and the state trails network. The Coastal Trail exists in the Resources Code and the California Coastal Plan and is identified in the statewide trails plan; it is part of the Joint Access Program of the State Coastal Conservancy and the California Coastal Commission. More than 700 miles are already in place, including existing trails, miles of beaches, boardwalks, streets, and roads. The rest is on paper, awaiting funds and opportunity.

One major component missing in this picture is an overall plan to identify the various trail segments by placing the California Coastal Trail sign at trailheads, with directive signs on roads. It was to call attention to this need that Coastwalk staged the "Name It and Proclaim It" events this year. Though numerous "Coastal Access" signs have been installed along the coast, they do not differentiate between simple beach access and trails.

Imagine driving on the Golden Gate Bridge and seeing the Coastal Trail sign at each end, or driving on Highway 1 and seeing directions posted to a trailhead. You might turn off, start to walk following further signs, and eventually arrive at a sign pointing to a stretch of beautiful coastline. Long stretches of trail already provide great opportunities to make multi-day jaunts, staying at campgrounds, inns, and youth hostels. And many sections of trail exist for day hikes.

The Coastal Trail, with its tremendous diversity, may be the most interesting trail in the world. It runs for miles along the beaches of Del Norte County, passes along the edge of the Lost Coast wilderness in Mendocino County, along the bluff tops of Marin County and San Francisco, through Monterey, along bustling Venice Beach, and eventually, to the Tijuana River National Estuarine Reserve and Borderfield State Park. Thousands of people use parts of the Coastal Trail--hiking, strolling, riding, skating, running, for transportation, for fun, for contemplation, for nature study. But most of them do not know it exists: they do not realize that they are on a trail system that one day will reach all the way from Oregon to Mexico.

On Coastwalk 1994, 400 people enjoyed over 650 miles of the Coastal Trail. They were led and fed by Coastwalk volunteers, informed by experts about everything from the mating habits of sea lions to the doghole ports of the northern coast, from the role of the Coastal Conservancy in coastal preservation to the development proposals to build golf courses and mansions on scenic bluffs. At the end of each day's hiking, they found camping gear and a hearty meal awaiting them. These hikers spent from four to six days in each county getting to know one another and the unique coastal environment. Since the first Coastwalk, in 1983, many participants have come back year after year, discovering a new piece of coastline and trail each time. Maree Fink from Timber Cove, who is in her 70's, has participated on almost every walk since that first one.

Each year, Coastwalk has covered more ground than the year before. Each year it has advanced the cause the Coastal Trail in various ways, especially by calling attention to gaps in coastal access and to the need for public action to fill those gaps. Next year, we hope to hike the entire Coastal Trail.

Introducing the Massachusetts "Sea Path"

Map of PennsylvaniaWe need your help and ideas. A program is being developed to address a long-standing problem: the lack of available coastline in Massachusetts open for walking or hiking beside the sea. This article provides an overview, plus a request for your input to guide and shape our progress.

What is a "Sea Path?"

Sea Paths will be stretches of beach, and sand, and rocks within the intertidal zone--the wet area between high and low tide -- where people wil be able to walk freely beside the ocean. Sea Paths will function as trails, rather than public beaches -- they will not allow swimming, sunbathing, etc. They will be marked, but not "developed" in any way.

Imagine for a moment the enjoyment of walking, strolling, or hiking along the coast in this state. Imagine the waves rolling in, the smell of salt in the air, the cries of seagulls and other birds. These wonderful places are crucial to our coastal communities' heritage and identity--and a day of walking along the coast can make your spirits soar.

Why Do We Need "Sea Paths?"

Limited Supply of Accessible Coastline: Residents of many coastal and inland communities face barriers to experiencing the richness and beauty of our shoreline. The Sea Path program can help provide these opportunities. Although access to the coast means different things to different people -- e.g., ease of transportation, facilities, water and beach quality -- a major aspect is the sheer availability of shoreline open to public use. According to the Department of Environmental Management's (DEM) 1990 Massachusetts Coastal Land Inventory, only about 33 miles (27%) of the approximately 1342 miles of coastline are publicly owned. A few communities have a large amount of publicly-owned shorefront, but many have very little. Additionally, a substantial portion of the theoretically "accessible" coastline is not walkable due to terrain, environmental concerns, and other reasons. Only 187 of the 363 publicly-owned miles of coastline are beaches -- 111 miles of which are "inaccessible".

Voice of the Public: What do people think about the accessibility of the coast? Opinions vary considerably depending upon people's interest and geographical location. However, one indication is the 1988 State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan's finding that 42% of people in the Northeastern region of the state -- the area with the highest rate of beach visitation in the state -- were dissatisfied with their access to the coast. Furthermore, in a 1991 survey of Coastlines, newsletter readers, the most important issue identified by the MA Coastal Zone Mgt. Office was the need to "open up" the coastline for walkers. The accessibility of the coast cannot be determined by statistics alone, but people are clearly thwarted in their desire to walk beside the sea in Massachusetts.

Out of Balance: Public & Private Ownership: A primary source of the problem is the atpical lack of balance between public and private ownership along the Massachusettes coast. In most coastal states, the upper dry sand area of beaches is generally owned by private landowners. However, in most states it is also the general rule that the area between high and low tide is publicly owned. Not here. In 1947, the Massachusetts colonial government gave away most of the public interest in the intertidal zone by extending private property ownership to the low tide line. To this day, public access to the intertidal zone remains narrowly restricted to fishing, fowling (bird-hunting) and navigation.

MA, ME, DE, PA, and VA currently lie in the distinct minority on this issue. In all other coastal states --NY, RI, NJ, MD, NC, SC, GA, AL, MS, LA, AK, TX, OR, CA, WA, FL, and HI (with NH & CT in the middle) -- the public generally has full use of the intertidal zone.

In 1991 the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law (Ch. 176, Sect. 4, of MA Acts of 1991) directing the state's DEM to acquire intertidal trail easements from coastal landowners. "Trail easements" are permanent agreements, "running with the land" regardless of future changes in ownership, that allow public passage along a specific corridor. The Sea Path program is the result of this law.

How is the Program Going to Work?

The program is designed to function as a catalyst for a community-centered planning process. The full-time coordinator will work with local "working groups" in several towns at once. All those interested-- landowners, town officials, nonprofits, residents, beach users, teachers, students, and others -- will be included from the very beginning in a process unique to each community. All will assist in determining appropriate sites. In general, it is anticipated that Sea Paths will e initially established next to existing public access points; later, they may extend long-distance coastal paths. DEM plans to work in partnership with local groups to acquire trail easements.

All participants will assist in defining the needs to be addressed in order to make each Sea Path a success. It is anticipated that a coastal program will be developed along with each Sea Path. A new source of funding to support related projects is DEM's Greenways & Trails Small Grants Program, which has a special focus this year on "public coastal access" initiatives. Grants of several thousand dollars will be available to communities and organizations for research & planning, physical maintenance, and public education initiatives.

What Will Be the Benefits of Creating Sea Paths?

  • Sea Paths will increase the opportunity for people to enrich their lives by walking along the sea. "We [all] need the sea. We need a place to stand and watch and listen -- to feel the pulse-beat of the world as the surf rolls in." (D. Brower, "Public Beaches: An Owner's Manual," p.112, State of CA.)
  • Working together to organize, establish, and maintain a community path can foster greater civic pride, community identity, and sense of place.
  • In addition to the physical joy of walking, walking is universally recognized as one of the most effective means of improving one's health.
  • Many aspects of the marine and coastal environment are threatened today. Walking along the shore is one of the best ways to develop a personal connection with these crucial resources. United with a sense of stewardship, this can foster greater appreciation and respect for the coast and ocean plus support for restoration and preservation efforts.

How Can People Get Involved?

There are many ways -- big and small -- to get involved in the Sea Path Program. What do you think of the Sea Path idea and program described in this article? PLEASE send in the postcard enclosed with this newsletter, and/or call the Sea Path Coordinator with your questions and ideas!

For more information: GEORDIE VINING, SEA PATH COORDINATOR, DEM, 100 CAMBRIDGE ST., RM 1404, BOSTON, 02202; TEL: (617) 727-3160 x528; FAX: (617) 727-2630.

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