Most Californians see their state parks as places of special natural or historic significance. They protect them by law -- forever.
This will change if road builders in Orange County get their way. They have decided that the state park at San Onofre would be better as a toll road. They want to pave it, destroying not only one of the few remaining stretches of Southern California coastal wild land but the fundamental principle of California's state park system: We set aside lands -- ancient redwood groves, wildflower-covered desert buttes, Southern California's iconic beaches -- to protect them, not to warehouse them for later development.
And there's a bonus. They make money! About 80 million visitors from around the world come to explore California's 278 state parks each year, spending $2.6 billion directly and adding $4 billion in indirect contributions, according to park system estimates.
Gov. Ronald Reagan established San Onofre State Beach in 1971 because he knew its value. It has become one of the five most-visited state parks in California, hosting swimmers, campers, kayakers, birders, fishermen, off-duty Marines, bicyclists and sunbathers. Top surfers compete at its world-renowned Trestles surf breaks. The park contains seven archeological sites, including a Juaneno Indian village. Seven threatened or endangered species live within the park, and it protects significant portions of San Mateo Creek, one of the last relatively unspoiled watersheds in Southern California.
None of this seems to interest the road builders (known as the Transportation Corridor Agencies, or TCA). They want to "connect" undeveloped southeastern Orange County to Interstate 5 in northern San Diego County, bisecting San Onofre State Beach from top to bottom with a huge highway. This massive swath of pavement would force the Parks Department to "relinquish" the majority of the inland wilderness, including the popular San Mateo public campground.
The loss of this coastal haven cannot be compensated. There's no land left. And -- here's the kicker -- like any major highway in an unspoiled area, the toll road would attract large-scale development to wild lands; generate contaminated runoff, visual blight and noise; and disrupt the natural flow of the creek that maintains the beach and surf breaks. There is no effective mitigation for such damage.
But there is big money to be made by developers. The road builders do not say that. As always, they say the project is needed to address traffic congestion. But identical claims 10 years ago about the neighboring San Joaquin Hills toll road were wrong. That underused toll road disrupted the tranquillity of the Orange County backcountry. It now faces possible default on its bonds and bankruptcy.
Even so, the TCA has refused to seriously consider alternatives to destroying the San Onofre park. Why? Because it is a single-purpose agency. It exists only to build toll roads in Orange County. Among the feasible alternatives it dismissed, or didn't bother to consider, are strategic double-decking on I-5, adding high-occupancy toll lanes on I-5, using congestion fees to alleviate traffic in peak hours, investing in rapid-transit options and combination solutions such as selectively widening I-5 along with expanding certain arterial routes.
This disregard of reasonable, less harmful alternatives is not only illegal but also plain wrong as a matter of public policy and common sense. If a California state park means anything, we must demand that our elected representatives make a stand at San Onofre. Beyond devastating this rare public coastal land, the toll road would set a dangerous, statewide precedent.
As government budgets shrink and the cost of private land rises, public lands, including state parks, will become the path of least resistance -- the right of way of choice -- for highways or any other infrastructure project that "has to go somewhere." If San Onofre can be taken, so too can other irreplaceable state lands, targeted by shortsighted special interests with too little regard for our natural or cultural heritage.
We agree with Reagan, who said, in establishing the state park at San Onofre, that one of "the greatest legacies we can leave to future generations is the heritage of our land." He went on to say: "But unless we can preserve and protect the unspoiled areas which God has given us, we will have nothing to leave them." His words are as right today as they were 35 years ago. If ever there were a time to act on those words, it is now.