Dave Helvarg is the author of a number of books, the most recent The Golden Shore: California's Love Affair with the Sea, a fascinating account of Helvarg's travels from one end of California's coast to the other, with a focus on how crucial the health and welfare of California's coast is to not only Californians but the rest of the country and the world. Some readers will remember Helvarg from his work on KQED's documentary film by Steve Talbot called Who Bombed Judi Bari. There's a chapter in Golden Shore devoted to redwood country, which is where we began our conversation.
HELVARG: I was just up in Mendocino for a weekend. I was struck by how few log trucks I saw, and amazed at how fast the area has gone from logging to marijuana. It's a great irony of geography that there are 2.5 million people in five Northcoast counties — Sonoma, Marin, Mendo, Humboldt, Del Norte, but in Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte less than a million, but all five of the lightly populated counties in one congressional district. North of Santa Rosa, it's always been a kind of frontier; the Gold Rush, timber, farming, fishing. Not until the 1920s was there a road up through Mendocino County to Humboldt County. And it's always been resource dependent, a rainforest with cold, wet and foggy wet weather much of the year. The transformations of the Northcoast have come fast; the transformations up and down the coast of California have been fast. Considering that California is the most populous state in the nation yet there are so few people on the North Coast. You can't really count the Bay Area as part of NorCal. Nobody cares what happens north of Golden Gate Bridge except the people who live there. The biggest coastal city from SF to Portland is Eureka with maybe 28,000 people. And Arcata. That whole area of Humboldt County is about 70,000 people if you push it. Pot became an industry that supplanted timber, so in a way north of Sonoma County is still a rural ag economy, as is Sonoma County if you count grapes.
AVA: Back to the landers began a major transformation of forgotten NorCal.
HELVARG: But just before the back to the landers came the second home developments. Developers had lots of Shelter Cove-like visions, and at Shelter Cove itself we have 4500 lots on slopes with mudslides every winter. The vision was something like Sea Ranch replicated 25 times up the coast. More than 20 ranches had been bought up, and as it was we got Irish Beach some inland second home developments.
AVA: They didn't consider distances did they? That's why coastal development sort of petered out at Sea Ranch, right?
HELVARG: Sea Ranch inspired the Coastal Act initiative. But the plan was much more grandiose. It was to widen Route 1 to four lanes, put lateral roads connecting to 101 every 20 miles all the way up the coast. And powering the whole thing would be a string of nukes with dams on all the rivers. The Marin supervisors were excited about the creation of Point Reyes as a national park the area would draw 150,000 people into the gateway communities where they would build shopping malls and sewage plants.
AVA: You point out how crazy it could have gotten. But the hustlers like the ones who built at Shelter Cove didn't really understand how far off the beaten path it was.
HELVARG: They understood that but they would sell it anyway, and they would just treat it like swampland in Florida. They had DC-3s flying in buyers from Los Angeles because they did not want the buyers to see the 12 hour road trek that getting to Shelter Cover requires from LA. In 1971, one of those planes crashed on takeoff and one of the potential buyers was killed along with the crew. That kind of put the squelch on coast development and also helped inspire the Coastal Commission. Now Shelter Cove is a beautiful, funky little backwater, so it didn't turn out all bad. As an aside here, nobody knows that just north of Crescent City at Lake Earl there's the largest coastal estuary south of Alaska. That was another place where developers planned to put in 5000 units right on top of the estuary. And they didn't include plans for sewer lines or anything in the way of basic infrastructure, but they were selling 5000 units up there. To them, this kind of progress was God. The harbormaster at Crescent City, by the way, told me that when you get north of Cape Mendocino, it's not Northern California, it's Baja Oregon.
AVA: What do you think of the Coastal Commission's present functioning? It seems like the Coastal Act is being chipped away at in Mendocino County. People wind up building these ghastly ocean view homes out of all proportion to human need and their natural surroundings. How do they do it?
HELVARG: It's the constant pressure. Peter Douglas, who just died, got our Benchley award. (Helvarg is a principal organizer of the Blue Frontier Campaign, which presents an annual recognition of people struggling "to protect our ocean, our coasts and the communities that depend on them.") He said the Coast is never saved, it's always being saved. He set up a system that is hard for any governor to kill off. Pete Wilson certainly tried. But it has been chipped away at, as you say, over the years. The Coastal Commission has one third fewer staff today than they had in 1980. They've gone from 240 to 180 people. They don't have full-time people in Mendocino or Humboldt out on the ground to make sure that people don't break the law. Peter Douglas said that although California desired the best coastal protection in the world, you set up a regulatory agency and it's captured by the people being regulated within seven years. But the Coastal Commission has done a lot better over the 30-plus years of its existence. How has it done it? Peter said it was transparency. The public comes to us and demands that we do these things and with fewer resources we are still constantly pushed by the public to do the right thing. And there were two parts to the Coastal initiative; one was to protect the coast from unsound development but the more important priority was public access.
AVA: Public access was a huge issue at Sea Ranch.
HELVARG: People wanted to retain access and Sea Ranch wanted to prevent public access. Peter's [Douglas] boss back then went up there with him right after Peter got out of law school and they looked at all these beautiful houses and beautiful ocean views. But you couldn't see the ocean unless you owned one of the houses. Still today the Coastal Commission does not have the resources they deserve and they don't have the reach that they need up into the watersheds and out offshore. But California as a whole is still the best model for ocean protection, for coastline protection. But we are not near where we need to be. But we are the best model out there. Without the Coastal Commission it would all be Sea Ranch north and nukes and everything else. PG&E, you will recall, planned to build an atomic park on Bodega Head. The next nuke power plant up the coast was going to be at Point Arena. And then one in Humboldt.
AVA: They did the one in Humboldt near Eureka.
HELVARG: They will be decommissioning that for the rest of our lifetimes. We had eight active reactors. Now we are down to two. So, as a society in California, we chose not to do any more oil and gas development, and not to go nuke. I did a piece recently in the LA Times castigating California for not being in the lead on offshore clean energy. Floating, wind, wave and tidal energy. Maine has just launched a wind turbine for deep water. They did it with a combination of university research and development and federal money, the kind of thing California used to be famous for.
AVA: Like Gavin Newsom wanted near the Golden Gate?
HELVARG: I think Newsom wanted some kind of tidal energy system. Maine's is actually more practical because it's wind energy. I think California is exploring that now. Part of it is the legacy of the famous Santa Barbara oil spill. People just don't want any offshore development. Part of it is that PG&E screwed up, Surprise, surprise. They took $6 million in state money to look at wave energy in Mendocino and Humboldt. Then they spent all the money without putting anything in the water. And when they ran out of our money they walked away saying that the technology was not assured yet. So the Department of Energy is hesitant to give any more money to California because they got burned by PG&E. In my last interview with Peter Douglas he said we will now be discussing Green energy, desalinization, climate adaptation. These are things that will be fought for the rest of this century not, hopefully, more crazy development schemes. But everybody wants an exception. Everybody wants to build a their own ocean view mansion such as the ones you mentioned along Mendocino County's shoreline.
AVA: The economy going permanently in the tank might stop a lot of the chipping away at the Coastal Act.
HELVARG: I was pretty impressed recently driving up to Fort Bragg and seeing how little it has changed. Didn't they abandon the timber mill about 20 years ago? There's still nothing there but a fence line.
AVA: The Koch Bros bought G-P. They're the owners now. Incidentally, we have an advertiser selling iodine tablets ahead of the Fukushima disaster.
HELVARG: All bullshit. Fukushima is still way below the levels of nuclear testing we had in the 60s and 70s. There are so many reasons not to eat tuna — mercury levels, it's an endangered species to name two. Radiation scares people, but it's acidification of the seas that should scare us, carbon, not uranium.
AVA: Many people commenting on technical issues flunked high school chemistry and physics. In Mendo, the tinfoil hat people stopped eating fish the day after Fukushima.
HELVARG: They can eat the native fish, the ones not out in the ocean. Sardines are coming back. Stripers, oysters. There's still a small sardine industry. Over the last few years there have been comebacks in herring and sardines in Monterey. I was just down there. There must have been 50 young male otters near Moss Landing. When you see a large number of otters hanging out — I have a chapter in the book called Return of the Beast. If you make right choices like banning gill nets and you shrink the bottom-trawling fleet and have federal acts like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the state laws like the White Shark Protection Act, things start coming back. There is such a resilient ocean between the California current and the upwellings. So things can come back incredibly fast. We did a pretty effective job of wiping out the first otters, then the whales, and we went after the elephant seals for oil. And yet the otters are coming back, as are the California sea lions. There's a beach down near Hearst Castle where the first returned elephant seals holed up. It was 1992 we saw the first breeding pair. Last year 17,000 returned.
AVA: Your opinion of the commercial oyster inholding at Drakes Bay in Marin?
HELVARG: Purdue, the guy who bought it, knew that it was set to revert to a park, a wilderness designation in 2014. The guy had a contract, and he recognized — he tried to game the system and get it on his side. The plan was always to phase out that inholding and return Drakes Bay to designated wilderness. So to me it's not like growing oysters as part of the slow food movement. He tried to weasel out on an issue that shouldn't have been — so we will get Hog Island oysters instead of Drakes Bay oysters. The fact is that it is national park land and look who his friends were in the end? The Pacific Legal Foundation. When I was down in San Diego talking about my book, the first question was about the children's pool, which is where these harbor seals have hauled up in this little cove where children swim in La Jolla. That's been a ten-year battle. If the basis of your battle is kids versus harbor seals you're in pretty good shape. This original Drake's Bay plan was to sell off half of what was to become a Point Reyes National Seashore set aside for development for 50,000 housing units in there. The estuary plan included a hotel, a heliport, a marina, and a canal out to the ocean. In Bolinas! At the estuary there. Progress was stopped. What you have now is seals on the mud flats and egrets nesting in the trees and open space for everyone to enjoy.
AVA: You just have to marvel at the mentality that could envision 50,000 housing units at Bolinas as a good thing.
HELVARG: Californians have always had this sense of entitlement for the beach and the ocean. We all think it belongs to us. That's why there are so many different interests in recreation and surfing and the Navy ports and the fishermen. You don't have any single industry or special interest dominating the coast. The coastal ocean is in decline but not as bad as places like Louisiana where oil and gas rules, or in England where the politicians think they own the coast. There is no cod on Cape Cod anymore. Even Florida, which you might think would be more like us, the modern history really started with all the real estate scams in the 1920s literally selling swamp land that became the soul of the real estate industry. Whereas the blue interests set the tone here. We have these long drawn out fights like the last decade fighting over the marine protected areas, the MLPA fights. But in the end we have come to something like the Coastal Commission which is — the MLPAs are pretty much like putting our world-class state park system into the water column. That's my prediction. I just bought a T-shirt at the Fort Bragg recreational fishing store. The guy was snarling about the protected areas. But 10 years from now all these people who are angry are going to say, oh yes — I was part of that, I was involved in it. The Channel Islands have been protected for seven years and we have already seen this incredible comeback in the Channel Islands protected areas. I was just diving down in Mexico and there is a 25 square mile reserve started by the local fishermen. A family I know there, 30 years ago they were a fishing family, but they were running out of fish and they had to go up the Pacific Coast to catch lobster. A university professor came down from La Paz and showed them the deteriorated condition of the reef and made a map and got the fisherman and his family some snorkels to see the reef. Raul, one of the brothers, was the first one certified as a diver. And now the whole family makes more money on diving and kayaking and Coast tourism than they ever made from fishing. And since they have protected the area, they have seen in 10 years a 450% increase in the number and size of fish. This place is the most spectacular that's been recorded on the West Coast. We will see a doubling in 10 years, I predict. At least.
AVA: Indians are still gill netting on the Klamath and here in Mendocino County on the Garcia.
HELVARG: It has some effect. They have fish managers in the tribes but it's still… I think what everybody is hoping for is that there will be an agreement to take down the dams and that will open up a lot more area for the fish and fish habitat and grow the fish population back up on the Klamath. Salmon are a huge issue. If we do this new peripheral canal — it's already hard for the fish and the salmon in the Delta and we still have dams — it will be very bad for the fish. We are the most populous state in the nation, but the fact that I can go out this weekend and maybe catch a salmon, even a hatchery salmon, is pretty impressive. On the other hand, it's nowhere near what the Europeans have been able to maintain. Buy, read the book, the Age of Sail, where a Spanish explorer comes in to the Monterey Bay and starts complaining about the stench of all the whales. Even by the 1830s Richard Henry Dana is complaining on the first day about not finding any whales, but then on the third day they were bored with all the whales.
AVA: Big River at Mendocino looks to be in far better shape now that it's part of the state-protected system. It's tidal quite a ways up, five or six miles, easy up and back if you go with the flow.
HELVARG: I'll put Big River on my do list for the next time I'm up there. Nice thing about writing this book is there are so many things I haven't done that I want to go back to. Point Sur Lighthouse back in Monterey where you come out of Big Sur, for instance. The first time I saw it while working on the book it was like this play model town on top of this giant rock, this volcanic uprising. On weekends, people can climb up the rock and tour the lighthouse. This was where that dirigible went down in the 1930s in a storm. Later in the 1990s, David Packard sent one of his research vessels with a remote operating vehicle and they found the dirigible on the bottom of the ocean. It was like a floating aircraft carrier. It had a hook. It would drop biplanes. They would fly off the dirigible. They would fly back and hook up to the dirigible in the air. You have sunken treasure, Spanish galleons up and down the coast. We have an incredible maritime history.
AVA: You've got to see the middens on the Lost Coast. They're huge, and they're a huge lesson in historical perspective considering that it took the Indians thousands of years to amass them, and that history for us on this part of the coast only started about 400 years ago.
HELVARG: There's one not far my house in Richmond at Emeryville; it was about 60 feet high and 300 feet long, but in the 1900s it was covered with an amusement park. Then it was an industrial zone and then a Superfund site. We are not too respectful of local history. Last weekend my friend and I went in some tandem kayaks down to our swamp and there was a little midden there. We pulled a bunch of Styrofoam floats out of it. That's the only way you can get there, kayaks. We are still dumping plastic off our shores. And we still over-fish in many places. The ocean is becoming warmer and more acidic so there is less dissolved oxygen. There are great wildlife migrations as deepwater fish populations come to the surface at night. And they are vulnerable to night predators. Some of them are being pushed up closer to the surface where there is more oxygen. The Monterey Bay scientists and researchers say that there is an expanding low oxygen zone that stresses the fish. John McCosker is one of the shark scientists. His quote is that the return of the white shark is the sign of a healthy ecosystem, but it's a problem for "recreational water users." (Laughs) It's kind of like a quote I used to attribute to Edward Abbey, we don't know for sure it's from him, but there is a great quote which says if there is not something bigger and meaner than you out there it's not really wilderness. I interviewed one of the guys who got chomped down at Marina Beach near San Simeon; his doctors say he is the luckiest unlucky guy. He got bit on the arm and a leg and the neck about 1/4 inch from his carotid artery. Four years earlier his buddy got bit on the same beach. It's hard to consider surfers as a species of marine mammal. I have a whole chapter on surfing. Jack London introduced it to California. I surfed for nine years back in my younger days. There wasn't much surfing on the East Coast when I grew up. Years later, I talked with the brothers who took some insulation out of the back of a refrigerator and made the first neoprene wetsuit. Northern California had to wait for the technology for wetsuits so that you could actually get in the water and start surfing and paddling. There was always a handful of surfers in Santa Cruz.
AVA: Now they surf out of Fort Bragg. And there's this great surf spot on Lost Coast. I thought I was hallucinating when, a few years ago, I was slogging down the beach at Lost Coast with friends, and here comes this kid from the Shelter Cove end with a surf board on his back! He was about 10 miles out from Shelter Cove. There's an intriguing house out there right on the beach, an in-holding, that is of course rumored to be dope-connected. There isn't much in Humboldt County that isn't rumored to be dope-connected anymore.
HELVARG: "Diesel pot growers." In the 90s we were talking about the hipnecks. Long hair and the fondness for pot, but otherwise they had the consumer culture and all the "cool" attitudes and muscles that go with it. In Garberville there were all these beautiful young girls with dreadlocks. 25 years later it's a very different drug scene. In 25 years we'll be reading books about how Humboldt has become the Napa Valley of marijuana. But where there are hard drugs there are hard people. And bad feelings. Homeless people come up from the city thinking they can get jobs as garden tenders or trimmers. Not happening. In Humboldt County I saw a truck with a bumper sticker that said, 'Save Humboldt — keep pot illegal.' That's a comment on the current state of the economy. I don't know many people my age who even smoke dope. A doctor told me that one of the signs of aging is that you go from recreational drugs to medicinal drugs. So now I'm drinking and taking aspirin. Baby aspirin. My nephew's generation all smoke pot. I'm surprised. When I was around 20 and realized that we were not going to have a revolution in this country, at least we will get the 18-year-olds to vote and get marijuana legalized. And here we are 20 years later… In the last chapter of the book called Rising Tides, I write about how not all that long ago the Farallon Islands were part of San Francisco's land mass. Everything changes. And changes fast, even geologically. But everything seems to start in California. The barbecue model where postwar California started barbecuing in backyards? 20 years later every other American was barbecuing. In May we organized our sport and blue fishing summit and gave out awards. There were meetings with Senators, Congresspeople and long discussions of Marine protection legislation. The next day there was sort of an evaluation meeting. I liked it all, but I said what we were doing here is practicing on how to build a constituency for that glorious day when we have a functioning government to actually get something done. ¥¥