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Northern California's Lost Coast Finds Itself Mired in Controversy : Environmentalists, Off-Roaders Tangle at 'End of the World'

September 28, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

HONEYDEW, Calif. — There's a beach 70 miles south of Eureka, a place not well known even to people who live nearby, that could be the most inspiring vantage for sea-watching on the entire coast.

At this point, midway on an uninhabited 23-mile stretch of shoreline, civilization is more than a day's walk away in any direction. The Pacific Coast Highway, which clings to the shoreline as snugly as plastic wrap along much of the rest of the coast, detours inland here in deference to the King Mountain Range.

At the sea-watcher's back rise steep, tangled peaks as high as 4,087 feet. They have discouraged settlers over the years at the same time they have sheltered bobcat, black bear, elk, deer and spotted owl.

An Unfettered Ocean

Looking west, the ocean appears more unfettered than when seen from a Malibu restaurant window. Gale winds, lashing rain and immense storm waves are not unusual here.

"You can get down on that beach, especially on a foggy, dreary day, and it's like being at the end of the world," said John Lloyd of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). "You can be as alone out there as you'd ever want to be. You just can't find a coastline like that anywhere."

By car about a 600-mile trip north from Los Angeles, it is the longest primitive stretch of shoreline in the state. Without roads, it has been essentially lost to human traffic and has come to be known as the Lost Coast.

Wilderness Road

But to the chagrin of the hikers, backpackers and environmentalists who wish to preserve the region, there is a road--albeit a rough one--into the very heart of the wilderness. On some days, the beach's isolation is broken by the whine of motorcycles, jeeps and all-terrain vehicles which either sneak in along the beach or dodge a locked gate on the Smith-Etter Road and wind 16 miles down the dirt road to the beach. Although off-road vehicles are outlawed on all but three miles of the shore, enforcement is difficult in an area as remote as this.

Ban on Development

The Smith-Etter Road has become the focus of a larger controversy over management of the region: Will the Lost Coast be designated wilderness, with logging and off-road vehicle use outlawed (although grazing would be allowed to continue)? Or will none or only a portion of the area be made wilderness, an option which environmentalists fear would allow off-road vehicle use to continue unchecked?

Because the King Range was designated a National Conservation Area in 1974, there can be no residential or commercial development of the mountains or shore. At issue, then, is the purity of the area. If the wilderness advocates have their way, the Lost Coast will always have the feeling of a place time and progress has bypassed.

Protection of the Lost Coast is the top priority for the Wilderness Society in the state of California, according to regional director Patty Schifferle who called the area "the crown jewel of BLM's proposed wilderness areas." Sierra Club representative Sally Kabisch added: "We're fighting very hard to keep the Lost Coast protected until such a time as we can get (declared) wilderness there."

In a report now in the draft stage, the BLM is recommending that 31,640 acres--out of a total 54,000 acres of public land in the King Range--be made wilderness. Other groups are filing their own recommendations, ranging from the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors' 14,000 acres to a number of environmental groups who would like to see the entire region designated wilderness.

An Excellent Chance

Lloyd said he's not expecting a final determination on the area's wilderness status from Congress for three to five years. Involved parties agree that at least some of the area stands an excellent chance to be deemed wilderness because of its unique properties. As Jim Eaton of the California Wilderness Coalition said: "We do not have a lot of wilderness coastline in California. There's nowhere else the public can see a stretch of wild beach like this."

In addition to their recommendation for 31,640 acres of wilderness, the BLM has filed a transportation plan that would open the Smith-Etter Road to within a one-quarter mile of the beach, where they plan to construct a primitive parking area. Five environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, have filed their opposition to the plan with the Interior Board of Land Appeals. The California Coastal Commission has also found the transportation plan inconsistent with their management policies.

Rancher Mary Etter views efforts to close the Smith-Etter road as an attempt to take something away that rightfully belongs to her family. Her great-grandfather began ranching here in the 1880s. The controversial road, now almost entirely on BLM land, was built in 1959 by Etter's father and another local rancher. Etter owns 104 acres of grazing land within the King Range, and a two-bedroom cabin on the beach just south of the Smith-Etter road.

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