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How do you close a beach?


I’m standing on a beach smack dab in the middle of California. The breeze coming off the jetty is getting violent, and it’s really cold. Through the fog, I can only see a couple hundred feet of gray ocean. This is where I meet Mike French.

He’s standing on a windy bluff away from the water – reading the low waves and the bored surfers for signs of a good set. He’s a local.

French comes to the beach to read the waves several times throughout the week. “And it’s only good enough to go in once or twice a week, particularly at this time of year,” says French.

We watch the surfers bob for a bit. I ask him what makes this state park so special for him.  He launches into this whole deal about the sand bars and the swells and the jetty’s paddling channel; how, in the winter, the coldness from the north bumps the waves to just the right height and form.

“And you can ride it without just getting foam,” French explains, pointing to a surfer coming in hot. “Exactly like that. You know, it’s a great spot for many reasons.”

A great spot for surfers. A great spot for bird watchers and the otter photographers that show up every year. A great spot for fishermen on the jetty, hoping to catch some luck.

This is Moss Landing State Beach. And in a year, it’ll still be here – but Californians won’t. The state is closing the park due to budget cuts, which is news to French.

He thought about it for a second, then says something interesting. “Now, when you say, ‘closing the beach,’ does that mean they’re going to wall it off so there would be no access? Or there’s just going to be no maintenance?” French asks.

I was wondering the same thing.

How do you close a beach?

Park Ranger Dana Jones manages all the state parks on the central coast, from Henry Coe, down to Julia Pfeiffer Burns, and over to San Juan Bautista.

Jones has to close four parks in her area. That’s close to 140 square miles of chaparral, beach, and forest – the equivalent of three San Franciscos put together.

I ask her what “closed” really means. What she said surprises me.

“We’re not really sure what closed means,” Jones admits. “My thought is that, probably after the summer’s over, we’ll start looking at how we’re going to make the transition, make the closures.”

Jones has never had to make such drastic cuts. But this year, it was necessary. Moss Landing looked so modest. So I asked what sort of money the state put into it.

“We have a contract with a vendor, who provides the outhouses for us. So that’s a cost there. We have trashcans out there,” Jones explains.

Just like the surfer detailed what makes Moss Landing so perfect, the ranger launches into the fine print of what it really takes to keep the place together: the cost of the ranger patrol, the cost of the lifeguards – seasonal and non-seasonal – and “the cost to remove the sand that blows across the road from the beach at least five times a year,” says Jones. “Then there’s the cost of erasing vandalism, of fixing the fences, of keeping the endangered snowy plover alive in the dunes.”

There’s more. “And then we have resources,” Jones continues, “because at Moss Landing State Beach we have a number of endangered species, both animals and plants. So we have what we call Natural Resources Crew.”

Jones goes on and on. But what I really get out of her speech is that this beach – this mile of sand they’re closing by July, 2012 – costs a lot to her, to the state, and to us. But what happens when we shut them down? Jones has been looking to another state that recently shut down some parks: Minnesota.

“They’re seeing just huge vandalism issues: people are going into the closed parks and spray painting everything and tearing things apart. We’re hoping our park visitors will be a lot nicer. We have to have some optimism on that,” says Jones.

Predicting the future

Back on the beach, Mike French offers his prediction of the future: “Surfers will get out here and surf – I can guarantee that’s going to happen. The ramifications of closing the park? I don’t know yet. Maybe there won’t be trashcans, there won’t be port-a-potties. People won’t be able to come out here and watch the otters from this side.”

But French is confident the surfers will be here long after it closes.

I say goodbye and leave the cold, foggy beach behind. I look back and Mike French is still standing there, watching the ocean. After the out-of-towners pack up their picnics, after Ranger Jones padlocks the gate, after the sand blows over the road and the ice plants stake their new claim over the forgotten concrete – after it all, he’ll probably still be out there.

This story originally aired on August 4, 2011.