By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
San Onofre State Park Beach must be one of the most unprepossessing spots along the Southern California coast. Dusky, scrubby, narrow, it is a low-lying wetlands that runs along San Mateo Creek, a mostly hidden, sandy-bottomed stream that spills into a lagoon near the top of a three-mile-long beach beneath the Surfliner railroad tracks, and extends from the southern border of San Clemente to within paddling-out distance of the concrete containment domes of Southern California Edison’s albatross, the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. The L-shaped park, with its upstream camping and downstream beach, is the last stop between Orange and San Diego counties, just above the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton. If you are hiking from the San Mateo campgrounds, inland about a mile and a half, to the San Onofre beach, you’ve got to cross under the towering span of Interstate 5 as it stretches across the creek and obliterates the pingpong calls of wrentits foraging the coastal sage and the thunder of the nearby surf pounding the shoreline. An open space, a pause, a vestigial void in the sprawl that is binding Los Angeles to San Diego: What better parcel to splice into a proposed four-lane toll road that would complete the lattice of pay-by-the-mile, ’burb-to-’burb roads that are the handiwork of Orange County’s relentless developers — public and private?
Add San Onofre State Beach Park to the list of most endangered places in Southern California, along with the Dana Point Headlands, whose 121 acres have been slated for development, and the Los Padres National Forest, which may soon be opened for oil exploration, endangering the California condor habitat. A little farther afield is the Sequoia National Monument, where the clear-cutting of giant redwoods will soon be permitted by the Bush administration under the guise of reducing the risk of fire.
At San Onofre, the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA), a quasi-public government body, wants to extend the existing 241 Toll Road, which connects the east county cities of Rancho Santa Margarita and Mission Viejo — formerly backcountry, now stucco hillsides — to Irvine. The pavement presently dead-ends at Oso Parkway, in the middle of Chiquita Canyon, an upland valley covered in coastal sage scrub. The 16.5-mile, $900 million addition would slice through Rancho Mission Viejo, the last unspoiled, but unprotected, 23,000 acres of rolling hills that once made up the 100,000-acre rancho assembled in the 1860s by Pio Pico. The project is undergoing environmental review, and has been snared in a funding shortfall, but if all goes according to plan, the road will open in four years.
Like its sister San Joaquin Hills Toll Road — the 16-mile debacle made possible by the Clinton administration, which sacrificed the habitat of the endangered gnatcatcher to the pecuniary interests of the Irvine Ranch company — the Foothill South will transform the landscape through which it passes. In the hills behind San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, the owners of Rancho Mission Viejo want to build 14,000 new homes and 5 million square feet of commercial space, all leveraged on the prospect of the toll road. Fees levied against the development will make the private freeway possible; the freeway will make the private development possible. Without one, there cannot be the other.
To get at that swath of old California, the TCA plans to cut straight up the middle of San Onofre State Beach Park — right next to the last undammed, free-running coastal creek in Southern California. The new road would pass through a riparian habitat whose willows and sage and mariposa lily are a vital sanctuary to threatened and endangered species, among them the Pacific pocket mouse, the least Bell’s vireo, the California gnatcatcher, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, the California redlegged toad, the Arroyo Southwestern toad and the tidewater goby. It would bisect a wildlife corridor of grasslands and thistle used by mountain lions and bobcats, and slice into the nesting grounds for Cooper’s hawks, burrowing owls and garter snakes. It would come within 50 yards of the campground. Its flyover interchange would tower three stories above the beach. And its cement pilings would be sunk right into ponds and an estuary alive with steelhead trout, of which fewer than 500 survive in the world — a species long ago written off as extinct anywhere south of Malibu Creek.
Perhaps it is the deceptively prosaic quality, the tangle of willows, the dry, waxy leaves of the sage, the clandestine wildlife, that make San Onofre easy to overlook — to write off as empty — in no small way because we have so thoroughly domesticated ourselves that we can only conceive of wildness in the extreme, as towering redwoods, insurmountable granite rocks, white-water rapids. Nature is often misunderstood as a realm completely outside ourselves, and barely subject to human whim. But San Onofre is much more akin to our own, familiar back yard, a patch of green as dry as a Santa Ana and a lick of beach as plain as fog, studded with surfers and dotted with 276 campgrounds. This is a wilderness not readily apparent to the naked eye — neither outsize nor lustrous — and inhabited by humans, which may explain why San Onofre has been targeted by the road builders.