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Keeping Ocean Beach burning bright

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(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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Forty years ago, San Franciscans voted to transfer control of Ocean Beach, The City’s primary beach, to the National Park Service to become part of a new Golden Gate National Recreation Area. At the time, NPS staff promised all traditional recreational activities would be preserved.
Turns out they didn’t mean it.

People have enjoyed bonfires on Ocean Beach for generations. It’s a quintessential San Francisco experience — huddling around a roaring fire, looking out at the Pacific Ocean, chatting and laughing with friends and strangers who become friends before the flames become coals.
But those spur-of-the-moment decisions to have a bonfire are about to be lost forever. The NPS has proposed requiring people to get a $35 permit in advance if you want to have a bonfire on Ocean Beach. But don’t even try from November through February, when the days are shortest and the nights coldest. The NPS wants to ban bonfires entirely during those four months.

The permit will allow you to use one of only a dozen fire pits for limited hours, 4-9 p.m., just when it’s getting dark in the summer. Inexplicably, the NPS added a second, earlier timeslot, but who wants a bonfire in the middle of the day?

The NPS says it spends too much time and money cleaning up bonfire trash. As NPS staff said at a community meeting about the permits in September, they’re hoping to cut their overall maintenance costs at Ocean Beach.

People at the meeting opposed the fees, called for more fire pits to handle the high demand and worried that teens won’t be able to have bonfires (permits will require you be 18 or older). None of their concerns are reflected in the NPS plan.

Pleading poverty, the NPS has convinced San Francisco to fork over $185,000 to cover bonfire maintenance costs at Ocean Beach. It’s essentially pay to play — if we want continued recreational access to the beach, we, not the NPS, have to pay to maintain it. So much for protecting recreation.
Given all their money problems, it’s interesting that, somehow, the NPS found $165,000 in their budget to enforce the permits and give people citations for trying to have fun without one. I guess it’s all about priorities.

Last week, the NPS removed all the trash bins at the northern end of Ocean Beach. Staff said they expect people to “pack out” everything they “pack in” at Ocean Beach, just like hikers do on trails in Yellowstone. But it seems the real reason is they just don’t want to empty the bins.
Many are starting to publicly question whether the NPS has the ability to manage an urban recreation area like Ocean Beach. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t manage urban open space the same way you manage a remote wilderness.

A new General Management Plan, released last year, says the NPS will manage nearly all GGNRA land for low visitor use, with controls on access, so visitors can have a “solitary visitor experience” and test their outdoor skills … on popular beaches and open space in dense, urban San Francisco.
That is just absurd. But it helps explain why the NPS wants to turn two-thirds of Ocean Beach into a bird sanctuary and restrict (and, possibly, ultimately ban) bonfires.

Perhaps it is time to give a serious look at taking Ocean Beach and the rest of the GGNRA away from the NPS and giving it to another agency that will manage Ocean Beach and the rest of the GGNRA for recreation, as we were promised 40 years ago.

The period for public comment to the NPS about the bonfire permit program is open until Dec. 4. For more information and to make a comment, click here. Support bonfires on Ocean Beach!

Sally Stephens lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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