By Chris Rurik and Helen Helfand
The first of Oregon’s five newly designated marine reserves we encounter as we cycle south from the Washington border does not yet exist, except on planning maps. The Cape Falcon Marine Reserve is slated to come into being on the first day of 2016.
We try to survey the site from a pullout high on Highway 101. The two-lane route has left the ocean’s side to surmount the two rocky promontories off of which the reserve will lie, Cape Falcon and Neahkahnie Mountain, and after winding twice upward through a Sitka spruce forest, it briefly touches the cliff edge. The pullout gives us an immeasurable view over the Pacific Ocean, matte blue in the late afternoon. Far below, the rollers look deceptively gentle as they come to break on the mountain’s trunk. The mountainside blocks the view to the north. To the south a sandy beach arcing into the distance divides ocean from forest. On its margin the town of Manzanita is tucked into the greenery.
From this perch, it is impossible without local knowledge or a map to tell where the reserve will be. After all, marine reserves are invisible from above. The ocean stretches opaque, hiding the habitat to be protected. After the reserve’s official implementation, the vista will remain unchanged.
Oregon’s other four marine reserves, scattered farther south, are already in place. The reserves prohibit all forms of extraction and interference, including fishing. It is a momentous time for the Oregon coastline, for these are the state’s first fully protected undersea areas, and it has taken Oregonians 12 years of wrangling to figure out how many there should be, where they should go, how big they should be, what the impact might be on local communities, and how they should be managed. Every voice up and down an opinionated coastline had a chance to speak out, making the process generally untidy and sometimes downright vitriolic.
But at least people had a say. With shudders, Oregonians tell stories of how California’s marine reserves were imposed by environmentalists who cared little about the impact on local communities, who heedlessly disrupted tribal ways of life and ran whole fishing towns out of business. Accurate or not, the stories prove to Oregonians that even a convoluted process is better than a decree imposed by outsiders, that conservation in the 21st century should be democratic and championed by locals.
It is much easier said than done, but it has been done. Of the many ideas proposed, debated, studied, scrapped, and modified over the last decade, these five reserves now result.
We have set out to explore them and their neighboring towns. On our bikes, exposed to every eddy of ocean air, we want to get a sense of the feel and sentiment of these places as they transition to new protection. We will seek out the vistas encompassed in their boundaries, the habits of unusual species, the fluctuations of ecosystems, the cadence of local rhetoric, the aftertaste of controversy, and the expectations people have for the future.
Oregon has a history of conservation for the public good. On land, Neahkahnie Mountain lies within Oswald West State Park, named for the 1910s governor who produced a 66-word piece of legislation that designated the state’s entire Pacific coastline up to the high tide line as a public highway. West’s sweeping bill came from a knowledge that Oregon’s natural assets presented boundless opportunity but also attracted countless opportunists. Prior to his election, he had recovered unlawfully claimed land for the state as a land fraud agent. In his bill he wrote, “No local self interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people.”
The beach provided by far the easiest passage along the coast well into the 20th century, and one could find horses, mule carts, wagons, stagecoaches, even automobiles using the hard-packed wet sand to travel. West claimed his bill was inspired by a journey he had taken as a young man with a mail train that wound along the beach from Canon Beach to Nehalem and delivered letters to the homesteaders in between.
Neahkahnie Mountain stood as a barricade on that route. For decades its sheer cliffs, composed of a fractured melange of basalt, shale, and sandstone, forced travelers to take a steep, fearsome Indian trail that tiptoed across an unstable slope of thinly grassed landslide detritus just above a 500-foot vertical drop-off.
This geological monolith, terror of early travelers, provides some of the undersea habitat to be protected in the latest of Oregon’s efforts at protecting a public resource, the Cape Falcon Marine Reserve.
Highway 101 replaced beach travel long ago. Still, West’s legislation remains one of Oregon’s greatest legacies, for the beaches are still open to all. They function as gathering places, and Oregonians take full advantage of them. The ocean is a magnet that orients the state westward.
We find a strong taste of that elemental attraction in Manzanita. The town’s main street rolls downhill, straight to the beach. It is lined with coffee shops, gift stores, cafes, markets, real estate offices, and ice cream parlors. An unassuming plaza springs to life for a few hours at lunch and dinner with a sausage stand and live folk music. People of all ages stroll along with a dusting of sand on their ankles, their days planned around long spells on the beach. Most are visitors or owners of second homes.
Developers laid out Manzanita in the 1910s as a tourist town. It remains true to its roots. The census counts just 600 residents with an average age of 60 but leaves out all of those who live and work in the populous Willamette Valley corridor yet call Manzanita their true home. As we pass through the weekly farmers’ market, we are absorbed into the town’s open, friendly, attentive demeanor. Folks mill about, admiring the local produce and chatting with friends. The town has Portland’s family vibe in miniature, safe and slightly cosmopolitan. People come here year after year because living oceanside in a small town feels more like home than where they normally live.
While in town, we ask a variety of people about the Cape Falcon Marine Reserve. To our surprise, many are completely unaware, and no one knows anything specific. Some locals tell us that they half-followed the process through newspaper articles. The amiable retirees volunteering at the visitors center cannot answer our general questions or say how we can visit the reserve: from their room full of pamphlets, they point us vaguely toward the Internet for more information. Outside the public library, we meet a lively author who splits her time between Portland and Manzanita and writes acclaimed immersive nonfiction. Her response to our inquiry is to ask if we have read a recent book about Atlantic Ocean fish by a New York author.
We hoped for local knowledge about the reserve, but our survey yields only dilute comments on conservation in general.
Why? Here, we realize, the marine reserve does not stand to affect the way in which people interact with the ocean. Apart from the occasional recreational fisherman, Manzanita is a hub for family reunions, sunbathing, kite-surfing, summer reading, ice cream, and play — none of which affects the ocean resources that marine reserves are designed to protect. For the retirees and visitors from inland who predominate here, the ocean is calm and immutable. It represents an end to the anxieties of everyday life, a playground, a soothing scenic infinity. They have little reason to pay attention to the marine reserve.
Each day in Manzanita ends with an unspoken community ritual. As the light grows long and orange and the sun begins its final descent to the horizon, people instinctively move toward the beach. They build bonfires and throw footballs. A happy congregation loosely spreads across the sand. The colors suffuse the landscape, softening the world as they watch. This is what they come here for.
Finally we track down the one man who does care. Brian Schulz lives six miles up the Nehalem River, where he runs an off-the-grid homestead and teaches kayak-building classes in a barn-turned-workshop. Over the course of a week, participants in his classes create skin-on-frame kayaks based on Eskimo design.
Schulz tells us that he has spent more time than anyone within the future boundaries of the Cape Falcon Marine Reserve, though he ruefully admits that in the last year shoulder injuries have restricted him to kayaking in calmer areas. He is the first person we have met who can describe the reserve from water level.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful place,” he says. “From a sea kayaking point of view, it definitely takes a pretty aggressive skill set to be able to explore places like this, but it’s stunning if you can get there.” From water level, the variegated cliffs of Neahkahnie Mountain stretch hundreds of vertical feet overhead, cracked and dense, creating a seascape of big waves breaking around bare rocks and hidden coves. There are arches and tiny beaches inaccessible from land. It is his personal playground for exploration and fishing.
Considering the mass of rock overhanging this stretch of ocean, one might think that there would be a rich mess of rocky habitat underwater. But Schulz explains that the cliff terminates 30 feet underwater, giving way to sandy bottom. There are a number of pocket-like reefs in the expanse of sand, especially off Cape Falcon, but their total exposure keeps them mostly empty of fish. “For the majority of the reserve,” he says, “the ocean waves come in every winter and just rip the entire web of life off of those cliffs.” He mentions two reefs just outside the reserve’s boundaries, known to fishermen as the Dinner Hole and Castle Rock, that are more sheltered and more highly productive.
Schulz fishes all of these areas and participated fully in the reserve’s community designation process. He is disappointed with the result. In the meetings he spoke out for a larger reserve that would encompass more fish habitat, and he makes it clear to us that his rationale for a bigger reserve came not from an idealistic conservationist mentality but from the simple fact that he wants fish to be abundant so that he can continue to catch fish in the future. Others in the meetings, especially charter fishermen based in towns furthers south, argued against boundaries that would exclude them from productive reefs and thus hurt their business. The boundaries were redrawn many times.
In Schulz’s opinion, compromise crippled the reserve; the community process took a good idea and whittled it down into something too small to be effective. He believes that if conservation holds the ideal of pleasing all parties, it will move too haltingly.
“The environment ticks along so much faster than that,” he says. “You’ve got to be willing to be aggressive.”
We leave pleasant Manzanita and cycle south. It seems that though the nascent reserves are supposed to represent a collective decision by the state’s people, they are hardly firm entities. In a rugged underwater environment like that off Cape Falcon, seldom visited by anyone, clarity is rare.
We refrain from drawing conclusions until we see more. We expect that each community will have its own dynamic, its own relationship with the ocean. We expect to hear from many more people who care.