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Survival Race: California Beach Turns To Wild West Chaos

At the super-remote southern end of the Lost Coast, the Signon Wilderness, California campsite can only be accessed via a steep, one-lane dirt road. According to recent visitors, the place is popular with weekend warriors who come in expensive SUVs and light bonfires, set off fireworks, arrange multi-day raves, and camp on the beach - all of which are illegal. Author of the publication San francisco gate I personally went to this beach and saw what kind of picture was there.

Photo: Shutterstock

“To find out how crazy the events are, I went with my partner and my dog ​​for the weekend to Usal Beach. However, I was not quite ready for what I got into on that foggy August afternoon when I turned onto Usal Road. A few minutes later, the Jeep Wrangler turned a corner and rushed towards me, swerved and crashed into the side of my Kia Niro, ripping off part of the bumper. This is bad, I thought, ”the author writes.

This remote outpost in California's most pristine coastal wilderness has a long history of illegal events as well as remarkable periods of relative calm. Due to the very uneven terrain, the builders of Highway 1 bypassed the Lost Coast, and the developers largely ignored it. As a result, much of the unspoiled region attracts avid tourists from all over the world. In quieter times, families, tribal members and fishermen considered Usal Beach their spiritual home.

Talking to locals, campers, campers, a California parks official, and a former ranger, it became clear that the lack of staff in California's parks was creating serious problems. The agency is aware of the situation and is working to bring the bandit back under control. But what is needed for this?

“In the park service, this was what we call 'public access,'” says John Jennings, a retired ranger and the first person to ever patrol Usal Beach. He still lives close to the wilderness, volunteering for non-profit outdoor groups. He has seen it all there since 1986, when Usal Beach was added to the state park.

Prior to that, he says, "for many, many years, they allowed virtually unlimited free camping."

By "them" he means the logging company Georgia-Pacific Lumber Corporation. Environmentalists filed a lawsuit against the company in the 1980s for trying to cut down the remains of the redwoods. Instead of fighting, the company sold its land to Trust for Public Land.

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Of course, this was not always the case. The park is named after the Signone people who have lived here in villages for thousands of years, hunted and fished for food in the hills, and fished in streams and the sea. In the mid-1800s, European settlers drove them out, and logging soon began. The woodland changed hands many times in the 1900s, and at some point, Usal Beach turned into a business city with a sawmill and a hotel.

However, by the time Jennings began patrolling in the 1980s, people believed they could do whatever they wanted there. He regularly had to call in reinforcements to enforce the new park rules that prohibited camping and driving on the beach, but reinforcements did not always show up on time. He called these incidents "colorful".

Visitors rode off-road, on sand, made illegal fires and did not clean up after themselves, to the detriment of vulnerable habitats and risking public safety. “You can't have people shooting at targets in one camp and a family with small children running in another,” Jennings said. "Such things are incompatible."

Eventually, a second Seasonal Ranger, operating from June to September, was stationed nearby in what is now the Standish Hickey Recreation Area. Although that ranger lived an hour's drive from the hotel, he made the 22-mile journey every day to patrol the beach.

When Jennings retired in 2002, he said, there were six Rangers on staff working in the Redwoods area. With sufficient personnel, Jennings and the other Rangers were able to manage Usal Beach. Fifteen or 15 campgrounds have been set up, he said, each with a picnic table and bonfire, as well as half a dozen toilets.

“It wasn't like the Wild West before. It was more like a family camping and hiking trail, ”he explains.

But even in those days there were problems. Jennings recalls that there were large logs along the road - de facto barriers - but some of Usal's visitors were still illegally driving to the beach. “The Rangers will sooner or later catch up with these people and issue them a fine,” he is convinced.

But most of the visitors came to see the elk, which walked in large numbers on the beach. They came to surf along the coast.

Today, seven sector parks are served by three rangers. These include places like Richardson Grove Park and Humboldt Redwoods Park, which are almost two hours from Usal Beach. California State Parks spokesperson Adelina Yee said the reason the rangers have not increased is due to the difficulty of recruiting and retaining staff in remote areas of Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

According to the owners of the Sinkyone Wilderness camp, these areas have become increasingly attractive to visitors from places like the Bay Area lately. Some visitors host large unauthorized activities and camp in large numbers on the beach, which can lead to sanitation and fire hazards.

“People put sand in their fires to put them out, but they will stay hot for days and you can accidentally step on them and get terrible burns, especially children,” Jennings says. - This is most likely on a sandy beach, where there may not even be a ring of fire; they just make a small hole in the sand and light a huge fire. "

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“When I got back to Usal Road after 10 minutes of my hike, I was nervous about meeting a member of the crowd who had just crashed into my car. But as soon as the man got out of his jeep, he excused himself by showing his ID and insurance card and helped me secure my bumper with zip ties. The trunk did not close, but the trip could be continued, ”the author writes.

“I was driving slowly, very slowly - over the hills, holding the steering wheel and honking as I approached blind turns. When I finally got to the sign for the Peter Douglas Trail, it was a big relief, the author continues. - At the end of the trail, I saw Usal Beach for the first time. Dozens of tents and cars have already arrived for the weekend. Continuing on our way, we reached a dry stream bed, where thousands of salmon once swam in clear water. "

“Off-roading on the beach and in the creek bed is becoming a big problem,” says Carla Thomas of the Humboldt Redwoods Interpretative Association, a partner organization that receives grants and donations to fill funding gaps for park systems. "Silt clogs the gills of coho salmon and other fish and they die." She noticed that driving on the beach reduced the survival rate of fish eggs in the next season.

Thomas tries to maintain a positive attitude, stressing that a new camp program is under consideration and many people who care about the site are trying to keep it.

“Regular visitors voluntarily clean up trash and encourage safer visitor behavior,” she explains.

While Carla agrees with Jennings that staff shortages after the 2008 recession are causing problems, she notes that Redwoods North Coast District Superintendent Victor Bjelajak helped the park gain more infrastructure and human resources.

California's parks budget for permanent staff in the sector, Yee said, is $ 395 for the current fiscal year, a slight improvement from $ 708 last year. But for the 364-090 fiscal year, the district spent about $ 2007 on permanent and seasonal staff in the sector. Last year, $ 2008 was allocated for seasonal personnel, Yee added, and this figure is still being refined this year. There are plans to hire additional officers in Redwoods County, add regulatory and explanatory signs, and rehabilitate 849 campgrounds, she said.

Yee said, like many parks, visits to Usala increased during the pandemic, and warnings and fines were issued to those who broke the laws. In 2021, five fines were issued: one for an unregistered vehicle, one for driving a vehicle in an unidentified location, and three for violations involving passengers in the back of pickups.

During popular visits such as the XNUMXth of July weekend, Yee explains, patrols are intensified, and law enforcement and rangers from other areas can also respond if necessary. In addition, the agency is analyzing social media for illegal activities planned on Usal Beach.

“Although Yee says that the security staff in the parks“ regularly patrol Usal Beach, ”what I’ve seen so far, and of course the rest of my overnight trip, suggests otherwise,” the author notes. “When we arrived at the campground, which was tucked away in a forested area off the beach, the only campground was recently vacated. We were lucky as there are no reservations and no fees on the beach. There is an annoying reason for this, Jennings said.

In the days when he was a ranger, there was a so-called iron ranger in the tent camp on Usal Beach - a piggy bank for collecting information and contributions from campers. “But at the moment, no one is paying,” he says. "The Iron Ranger doesn't exist anymore, he was stolen."

The parks system doesn't have the funds to place another one because there is a chance someone will steal it again, Jennings said. “You are dealing with a rather tough group and it will take a tremendous amount of effort to get it in order,” he says.

“As we approached our camp, we noticed that the previous inhabitants had left a couple of large bags of garbage in the bushes. In the meantime, a couple of ATVs (which are prohibited) and trucks loaded with firewood (which are also prohibited) have passed by. There was a pit bull near our camp, so I quickly shoved my little dog back into the car. Elsewhere in the camp, an American flag was raised and a large fire burned, which is also prohibited. "

“On the way to the beach, we stopped at one of the toilets and found a sign inside:“ Our septic pumping system has been out of service for a long time during repairs due to debris in the pit, ”the message said. "We apologize and we are very sorry for the current situation."

“There were families on the beach flying kites and fishing together. The young men claimed that they were part of a group that drove off-road in cheap old cars and collected trash. One car got stuck, and several people had to dig it up and push it, - the author says. “Meanwhile, in a nearby camp, sandbags were being filled for a scene to be used later. According to one Instagram user, this kind of beach raves and dancing is to be expected as "there is definitely a party atmosphere here."

“The DJ came out with all his equipment and played all night, I think until about three o'clock, - wrote the author. - When we returned to our camp, loud music and sounds (also prohibited) of fireworks or perhaps gunfire continued for many hours until late at night. I was able to sleep for only two hours. The next morning, there was dead silence in the tent camp as we loaded our belongings along with other people's garbage into the car. On the way to the exit, we saw a deer and a fawn nibbling on dusty foliage. I thought that despite the way people treated Usal, not all is lost. The place is still beautiful. And everyone we met was certainly happy. "

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Some beach goers expressed hope, others fear that the "peaceful" scenario in Usala is unlikely to last long. One fisherman said he has been fishing for decades, but recently reckless driving made him nervous about his children.

“In the end, someone will be killed here,” said the fisherman. "And they will close it."

In fact, in 2002, a few years before the staff shortage began, one person had already died on Usal Beach. Still, the shrine of 18-year-old Catherine Rose Martinez, located at the entrance to the beach and consisting of beer cans, a wooden cross, a statue of Buddha, a broken clock and other miscellaneous items, seems eerily appropriate.

“Katherine accidentally fell out of the back of a pickup truck and was killed while partying with many young friends and family near this place,” reads the inscription at the monument. - We ask you to be very careful here so that nothing tragic will ever happen again on this beach. Move slowly and please provide help to all who need it. "

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