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For the birds


Public access to all of Oregon's coastal beaches isn't just enshrined in state law. It's also critical to the economies of Oregon's coastal towns, and part of the state's identity as a wide-open, egalitarian and outdoor-centered place.

That's why the state Department of Parks and Recreation should expect to get an earful of squawks, screeches and caws from Oregon residents over plans to restrict beach access to protect the western snowy plover.

The endangered bird may need more help. But the state should focus on voluntary efforts and habitat restoration before it swings the hammer and forbids people to fly kites, run their dogs, build campfires and otherwise enjoy their beaches.

The 6-inch-tall plover has been protected under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1993. The state's intent is to build a habitat conservation plan for the plover, in part to prevent federal authorities from stepping in with more cumbersome mandates.

The state is acting responsibly. But the strict limits on people won't fly.

Under the plan, state authorities would limit use of 57 out of 230 miles of sandy Oregon beaches from March to September, to protect nesting habitats. That's up from about 18 miles of beaches with some restrictions last year. Some of the newly targeted beaches are remote, but some are in popular locations such as the Necanicum Spit on the edge of Gearhart and the Nehalem, Bayocean, Netarts and Nestucca spits in Tillamook County.

Proposed rules include: No dogs. No camping. No driving. No kite flying. No bicycling. No walking or horseback riding, except on wet sand. Hand holding and castle building aren't covered, but might as well be.

We encourage the parks department to make most restrictions on human behavior voluntary, adding more signs to educate the public about critical habitats. Most people would avoid the sensitive dunes and stick to the wet sand, for example, if they knew their actions would help threatened birds.

We also encourage the state to focus on habitat restoration. Controlling the spread of the European beachgrass, for example, has helped the plover multiply in California. So have projects to counteract erosion and limit predators. Those projects can be costly, as the state notes. But wildlife groups and volunteers can help contain costs.

Finally, we urge the state to consider the progress made already. A parks and recreation update published late last year says 2003 "proved to be one of the most successful breeding seasons in a number of years." The goal is 250 adult birds in Oregon and Washington; this year Oregon produced at least 59 fledglings, nearly double the number in each of the previous two years.

The public can send comments until March 19 to the Parks and Recreation Department at OSMP.HCP@state.or.us, or to Kathy Schutt at 725 Summer Street NE, Suite C, Salem, OR 97301-1271. Public meetings will be held March 16 in Pacific City and March 17 in Tillamook.

The state seems open to changes. As parks Director Mike Carrier told The Oregonian last week, "Our intent is to lay out what we think would be an optimum strategy for the plover and test that against the public's need to continue recreating and what's practical."

Oregon should be able to protect the plover while keeping its beaches open. And ideally, the coast will maintain its wild, unfettered feel, with a minimum of roped-off areas and laws to break.


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