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Coastal folks like birds, not surprises

Sunday, July 25, 2004
Susan Nielsen


People in this Oregon coastal town aren't as mad as they were five months ago, when the state proposed tight restrictions on their beloved beach to protect a bird that doesn't even live there.

Now that the state has backed off, tail between its legs, people in Gearhart are mostly bemused and irritated by the fresh memories of these unenforceable rules, and they wonder what the state might spring on them next.

Bird-loving bureaucrats should take note: People seem more upset about feeling jerked around by outsiders than they do about the rules themselves.

In February, state officials announced a plan that would place a quarter of Oregon's public beaches under restrictions to protect the western snowy plover, a shorebird protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The rules at some beaches were innocuous, such as limits on camping. But at other beaches, the proposed rules were ridiculously strict. No dogs, not even on leashes. No walking on the dry sand. And in one Taliban-worthy flourish, no kite-flying.

People in Gearhart looked at the state's plans and saw, to their horror, their favorite beach on the list: a haven on the south edge of town that people and birds enjoy for its shelter from the wind and waves. State maps call it the Necanicum Spit. The locals call it Little Beach on one side and Big Beach on the other.

No one has spotted a western snowy plover there for more than two years.

People up and down the Oregon coast who live near the targeted beaches voiced their anger this spring during crowded public meetings and in petitions crammed with names. Now, just as abruptly, state officials say they'll probably relax most of the proposed limits on recreation.


"Everything is in flux," said Michelle Michaud of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. She said the rules must be blessed by a steering committee, the parks commission and the feds.

You can't blame people in Gearhart for feeling whipsawed and wary.

"I think the state overreacted," said Dennis McNally, Gearhart city administrator. He said the state came in "under the radar" with the first set of rules, then didn't bother to tell coastal communities about the second set. "I had to find out about it in the newspaper," he said.

John Allen, co-owner of a local bakery, said the town itself is a fragile ecosystem, trying to boost tourism while staying small and unspoiled. Having the state come in and make big parts of the beach off-limits isn't useful, he said.

"This is just a typical government response to a perceived problem," Allen said, on a quick break from serving lattes to out-of-towners.

A block away, gift-shop employee Dianne Widdop echoed this frustration. She said she wished the state would work with her town, not just march in with outdated maps and give orders. And as a city council member, she scoffed at the idea of issuing citations for so many normal beach activities. What should we do, she wondered, put half the town in jail?

State officials say communicating with the whole coast isn't easy, but they're trying.

"The problem is, until we come up with a plan, people won't come (to our meetings)," Michaud said. "And then when we do come up with a plan for people to respond to, they go ballistic."

Michaud said the state didn't mean to surprise people about the second set of rules, but word leaked out while agencies were changing their plover plan to reflect public concerns.

"I guess we could've sent out a press release to let people know there might be changes," but that raises the risk of sending mixed signals, she said.

McNally, the city administrator, keeps photographs in his office of the plover that nested near Gearhart in the spring of 2002. The city flagged the area, asked people to control their dogs and hung disposable leashes nearby.

But one day the nest was just a pile of feathers, he said. Between the skunks, bald eagles and other predators, the plovers face tough odds, even with people trying to save them.

Today, Gearhart remains in limbo. The feds may delist the coastal plover, if they decide it's the same species as the plentiful inland plover. The rules may toughen, if Oregon's population of about 100 adult coastal plovers drops.

Either way, people on the coast want to avoid a spotted owl-type crisis. They want to protect habitat and attract birds without driving away people. They want a useful role other than hollering in meetings. They want to be asked, not just told, what to do.

Fewer surprises and bird-brained rules would be awfully nice, too.

Associate editor Susan Nielsen: 503-221-8153; susannielsen@news.oregonian.com

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