Oregon Coast Beaches

Posted by The Oregon Coast / May 1, 2014

Oregon Coast beaches

Yours, mine and ours

By Matt Love

Rights-Free-All forever, please credit: Christian Heeb.

One spring, not long after my 33rd birthday, I realized that I craved a total revolution of mind, body and spirit. On a whim, I accepted a teaching job at a small rural school on the Oregon Coast. I moved west, to the ocean, needing to believe something transformative might happen.

Something did. I met the beach, we fell in love, and it has since become the greatest relationship of my life. I found myself going to the beach with my three big dogs at all hours, in all weather, and reveling in the freedom of this privilege. Strange, wonderful things unfolded there, and I heard the “old sound of the ocean,” as the poet Robinson Jeffers called it. In hearing the old, I began feeling something new: a passion for living,
caring and creating that I never knew existed within me.

One day as I rambled down my favorite beach, Nestucca Spit in Pacific City, I wondered, “Why are Oregon’s beaches public and free to use, unlike most of the inhabited coastal places I’ve visited around the world?” My curiosity piqued, I started investigating the largely undocumented story of Oregon’s publicly owned beaches. What an inspiring story it is.

In 1912, Oregon Gov. Oswald West rode a horse on a mail trail over Arch Cape and Neahkahnie Mountain on the North Coast. He later claimed the experience inspired him “to [come] up with a bright idea … so I drafted a simple short bill.”

The bill, a mere 66 words long, became law in 1913 and declared that the wet-sands areas of the beaches were “a public highway and shall forever remain open as such to the public.”

West’s visionary law inaugurated a unique relationship between the citizens of Oregon and its ocean beaches — 363 miles of publicly owned shore. This ideal remained unassailable until 1966, when a motel owner ran some picnickers off the beach, claiming they were trespassing on his property. The event touched off the epic 1967 legislative battle over the control of the dry-sands areas of the beaches.

Legislation eventually passed because of overwhelming public outcry and a unified stance from the state’s highest elected officials. Gov. Tom McCall signed the landmark, bipartisan Beach Bill into law in 1967 and reaffirmed the state’s sacrosanct notion of publicly owned beaches. It placed all the dry-sands areas up to the native vegetation line in the public trust and zoned it as a recreational space. The statute empowered Oregon “to forever preserve … ocean beaches of the state … so that the public may have the free and uninterrupted use thereof.”

“To forever preserve … the free and uninterrupted use thereof” is as close to Oregon scripture as it gets for me, and it’s no hyperbole to say that I derive almost 100 percent of my spiritual and creative life from my daily connection with Oregon’s beaches. Had I not had free access to the beaches, nothing of consequence would have happened in my life. No books written. No understanding of the universe. No grasp of my role in it. No appreciation of the diversity of the Coast’s official color — gray. A boring love life.

In my 14 years at the Oregon Coast, I estimate that I’ve rambled these sands close to 10,000 times. Really, it’s impossible to describe all the magic that’s occurred here. I’ve run into coyotes, prophets, a mermaid and a sea god’s sculptures. I’ve inhaled salty fog and hurdled beached kelp. I’ve learned the definition of beauty and met the hardest of hard-core Oregonians walking in slanted rain. I also found myself.

Oregon’s beaches can help you find yourself, too. It all depends on what you seek: privacy, creativity, recreation, solace, escape, family time, contemplation, redemption, simplicity, connection or maybe just a little rainy fun. Perhaps you are looking for the unknown and hope something unexpected will unfold. Oregon’s beaches offer that as well, especially in the winter. Really, anything is possible because guaranteed access makes it so.

I’ve never paid a cent to use this great birthright. Neither will you at most beaches along the Oregon Coast — as it should be forever, lest we lose our way in Oregon and become like people everywhere else.

Matt Love lives on the Oregon Coast and is the author and editor of seven books about Oregon, including his recent title, “Love & the Green Lady,” about the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport.

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