CRYSTAL COVE STATE PARK — The bicyclist first noticed a peculiar problem two years ago as he commuted past one of Orange County's most spectacular sweeps of ocean.
His view of the Pacific was shrinking day by day, inch by inch, as leafy shrubs sprang up along more than two miles of highway. A form of saltbush called Atriplex lentiformis was taking over the roadside and soaring as much as eight feet into the air.
Dale Ghere fought back. No ordinary bicyclist, he is a high school biology teacher who knows his Atriplex and thinks it has no business being planted between Coast Highway and the sea.
"Instead of looking at the ocean," he said, "you're looking at straggly plants."
So began the saga of how one man has gone up against powerful entities like the state parks system, Orange County and Caltrans. He questions why on earth they would sow countless seeds of Atriplex when a native plant guidebook reveals it can grow to a height of 10 feet. And he has recruited some of his Corona del Mar High School students to help clear some of the plants, with parks officials' approval.
Still, the problem remains unsolved. Although some saltbush have been felled, many more flourish like a California version of the quick-growing Southern vine kudzu.
Disputes proliferate in California over ocean viewing rights of private homeowners, pitting neighbor against neighbor over sun decks, balustrades and second-story additions. The view Ghere is defending is over public land--the spacious bluff tops of Crystal Cove State Park. Viewers are members of the public traveling along a public road. And on the opposite side is not a balcony-building homeowner but a humble plant with a remarkable ability to grow.
"It's just the wrong plant in the wrong place," said Laguna Beach resident Ghere, who moved to Orange County in 1960 to become a lifeguard because he so loved the ocean and the blue view.
Others argue that saltbush is exactly the right plant--hardy, tolerant of salty soils and environmentally correct. Unlike the creeping ice plant that flanks so many highways, saltbush is a bona fide California native.
Saltbush was growing at Crystal Cove long before work began on the project to widen Coast Highway, which sparked the controversy. That county project widened Coast Highway to six lanes for more than two miles between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, near where the Irvine Co.'s Newport Coast development is now rising.
The project's 1993 start was delayed several months when the California gnatcatcher was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The rare songbird is found in the park's coastal sage scrub habitat, so road builders agreed to add native plants along the roadside.
A so-called seed palette was chosen, with sage-scrub species such as California buckwheat, coast goldenbush, coyote brush, California sagebrush, the yellow-flowering California encelia--and the saltbush.
The county, state parks officials, Caltrans, the Irvine Co. and consultants were all involved in plant discussions, planners recall.
"Everyone was working together," said David Marshall, manager of the construction division of the county's Public Facilities and Resources Department, who remembers people agreeing on the plant choice.
One project consultant, restoration ecologist Bill O'Connell, bristles at Ghere's charge that saltbush was the wrong plant.
"My guess is he doesn't realize the amount of salinity in the soil out there," said O'Donnell, a biologist at LSA Associates in Irvine, an environmental consulting firm.
Other plants have struggled to take root in the salty soil, but saltbush is unusually tolerant, making it a good choice, O'Connell said.
"That's why that species was included. And it was included in a very minor amount," he said, noting that more saltbush is being added within the park "because it's the only thing we can get to grow."
O'Connell said another consultant drew up the seed list but that he agreed to it. Preserving native habitat for the gnatcatcher was also kept in mind, he said.
Even with the saltbush, the Crystal Cove view has not changed much, O'Connell said. During construction, nonnative plants such as tree tobacco, castor bean and big eucalyptus trees were removed, he said.
Seeding was done at the project's close, and Ghere remembers first seeing foot-tall saltbush in early 1996. He complained to state parks officials.
"I said, do you know what you're growing?" he recalled. The response: "Who are you? Where are you coming from? This thing was done by professionals."
The saltbush kept growing, bunching up in some areas to form a thick hedge. Ghere kept talking to the state Department of Parks and Recreation, Caltrans and the county.
Finally, he recruited students at the high school where he has taught since 1969 for a saltbush-clearing project. They fought to clear some of the tangled, woody plant just a year ago. The parks department followed with a crew that cut down much of the roadside plant.