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Line drawn in the sand between beach access and protection

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If city leaders stand for unlimited dog access on San Francisco beaches, they should also look for other ways to limit threats facing our coasts. (Courtesy photo)
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Despite stormy weather last Thursday afternoon, Crissy Field beach wasn’t empty. A determined man jogged across the wet sand. A pack of dachshunds in yellow and red raincoats waddled through ponds. A woman stood still, looking across the Bay.

Even on such a soggy, San Francisco day, people still enjoy city beaches. It’s incredible that 19th-century legislators had the foresight to preserve coastal areas as a public right in the California Constitution. For more than 40 years, the California Coastal Act has further protected “maximum access” to the coast “for all the people.”

But maximum access comes with challenges, such as habitat destruction and litter. How should San Francisco leaders and agencies strike the delicate balance between ensuring our beaches welcome everyone today and remain a treasure for everyone tomorrow?

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I posed this question to the panel of experts who had gathered inside the warm, dry Crissy Field Center that afternoon to discuss ways to increase access to the California coast. Jon Christensen, an adjunct assistant professor at UCLA’s Institute on the Environment and Sustainability, didn’t have an easy answer. But he did have some data.

Christensen found the condition of the ocean and beaches is personally important to 90 percent of Californians. Another survey of people at Southern California beaches found people want clean sand and water. Christensen said he’d be surprised if Northern Californians didn’t feel the same.

I’d be surprised, too. Who wants a dirty beach? The overwhelming importance of the condition of California’s ocean and beaches should factor in heavily when officials weigh questions of access. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.

The contentious debate over dog access is a prime example. To preserve coastal habitat, the National Park Service has tried to restrict dogs on certain San Francisco beaches. In response, the Board of Supervisors has repeatedly condemned these efforts, even passing resolutions, despite having no legal authority over the matter. The ongoing controversy has done nothing to preserve the condition of California’s coast.

I’m not debating our four-legged friends’ right to freely roam city beaches (at this time). But if city leaders stand for unlimited dog access, they should look for other ways to limit threats facing our coasts. Protecting clean sand and water deserve just as much — if not more — attention.

Kicking butts off the beach is one idea. According to Kera Abraham-Panni of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, toxic cigarette filters are consistently one of the top plastic items littered on beaches. (They are also ubiquitous in smoke-free city parks.) While The City has reduced other types of plastic pollution, filters remain a serious problem. The National Park Service also hasn’t done enough to curb butts.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” Abraham-Panni admitted to me. “But filters are harmful to wildlife and a human health hazard, so that definitely needs to be weighed against the right of people to smoke on beaches.”

I don’t have a solution either, but officials can’t shy away from difficult tasks. Weighing habitat protection against dog access didn’t prevent them from jumping into that controversy. At the very least, supervisors should consider expanding the filter-recycling program that the Surfrider Foundation and the Department of Environment helped start at San Francisco State University last year.

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Speaking of access and protection, San Francisco techies participated in guerilla efforts to resist the Trump administration last Saturday.

Volunteers at DataRescue SF harvested approximately 100 critical environmental datasets and worked to archive more than 8,000 NASA and Department of Energy websites before science skeptics in Washington, D.C., hit delete. Local scientists, students and activists organized the event with the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative’s help.

“Since the election, I’ve been looking for ways to help fight where I can use my technical skills,” volunteer Mike Ottum told me. “Just doing something makes me feel a little less out of control.”

Viva La Résistance!

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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