Twenty thousand times. That’s a conservative estimate of how many walks, romps, runs and meanderings I’ve taken down Oregon’s socialist ocean beaches in 20 years of living on the Oregon Coast.
I have never paid a cent for this privilege and that fact always amazes me. How did Oregon establish its unique legacy of publicly owned beaches and guaranteed free access for everyone? Over the years, I’ve thought about this a lot and believe it’s the single most inspiring Oregon story of all time and I never tire of telling it.
The story began in 1913, when Oregon Governor Oswald West signed a law declaring the wet sand areas of the state’s ocean beaches a public highway and thus in the public trust forever. He later wrote: “No local selfish interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people.” West defined Oregon’s “great birthright” as our publicly-owned beaches. I agree.
Five decades later, the looming threat of privatization of the dry sand areas of the beaches imperiled The Great Birthright’s legacy. In response to public outcry, a bipartisan Oregon legislature passed the Beach Bill that protected the public’s right to use the dry sand areas where Oregonians had done so for time immemorial. Governor Tom McCall signed into law the Beach Bill in 1967 and cemented Oregon’s special relationship with its ocean beaches.
If West, McCall and company hadn’t saved the beaches, well, where would be as a state? Where would I be as a person?
In 1997 I fled Portland and moved to the Oregon Coast to reinvent myself in a last ditch effort to become a writer. Not long thereafter, I discovered the awesome legacy established by West and the Beach Bill (never taught to me in school). The discovery quickly became the most potent force in my creative life and I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words extolling what the legacy has meant to me and hundreds of thousands of Oregonians. I’ll never stop writing about it. Here I am again!
I am not alone in my passion for our beaches. Virtually every Oregonian has a special and longstanding connection with their free ocean beaches, one that is dramatically different from residents of other coastal states. I’ve heard or observed hundreds of incredible beach-themed stories from a teenage Steve Prefontaine training in the dunes around Coos Bay to a woman throwing her wedding ring in the Pacific City surf to meeting what I think was a mermaid sunning herself in some South Beach riprap to building 17 driftwood forts with schoolchildren in three hours. And of course, all my adventures with the dogs. These have been the best moments of my life and I hope to have 20,000 more before I walk into the ocean to end my sentient life and return to the beginning of all things. A kind of a welcome-home party. That won’t cost a cent, either.
This Friday, July 7, 2017, Oregon will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beach Bill, arguably the most important piece of legislation in state history. If Oregon’s beaches mean anything to you, find some creative or banal way to mark this event. That might call for playing hooky from work or some other responsibility and driving to the beach. Do it. Concoct a lie.
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