By Chris Rurik and Helen Helfand
High on the shoulder of Cape Perpetua, a worn path leads to an open stone shelter. The shelter clutches to the mountainside like a hawk’s nest. It looks ancient though it’s not a century old; built by the poor but resourceful workingmen of the Civilian Conservation Corps, its simplicity of beam and mortar make it blend with the spectacular setting. Far below, waves crash on basalt outcroppings.
We are here this Friday afternoon on a field trip with two dozen conservationists. We have been invited to join the Surfrider Foundation’s annual conference for Pacific Northwest chapters. Surfrider is a network of environmental activists — not all of them surfers — working to protect the ocean, waves, and beaches. Local Oregon Coast chapters were thoroughly involved in the designation process for the state’s new marine reserves.
Everyone takes this section of the trail slowly and lets conversations drop away — not because it’s treacherous, but because the vista commands our attention. The Oregon coast’s wildest, most elemental stretch topples southward with all the stern beauty of a Robinson Jeffers poem. Sitka spruce and western hemlock cover the steep hillsides. Yellow-green meadows open in pockets. The shoreline is rocky and black. The ocean looks beyond infinite.
We are in a landscape steeped in some of Oregon’s most compelling conservation history and continued innovation. It is the best place on the coast to hear the perspectives of the conservationists who fought so hard for the creation of Oregon’s marine reserves.
From our perch next to the stone shelter, Gus Gates describes the terrain we will traverse: watersheds, wilderness areas, bridges, state parks, salt-spray meadows, old-growth forests. Gates grew up here, and he’s hosting the field trip though he now works as director of Surfrider’s Washington office. A tall, easygoing man with the kind of grin that hints at a daredevil streak, Gates calls this area his centerpoint as a surfer.
He introduces the trip’s guide, Paul Engelmeyer, a grizzled squirrel of a man who doesn’t quite fit with the Surfrider crowd. With his bushy mustache and T-shirt tucked into jeans, Engelmeyer looks more like a product of the forest than the ocean. A veteran of the environmental movement, he manages Audubon Society’s Ten Mile Creek Sanctuary, a pocket of creekside old growth that will be the field trip’s final stop. For decades he has been a voice — literally coming from the wilderness — for bolder conservation measures.
Engelmeyer is animated and raspy as he jumps from story to story. “You don’t even have to be a radical,” he exclaims as he describes how citizens around the Northwest can organize to protect clean rivers. Then he backtracks to correct himself: “My father instilled in me that you should be able to swim in your local river and actually eat the fish out of the local river; now all of a sudden that’s radical if you believe that and if you push for that.”
We drive from site to site, disembarking into beautiful settings to hear Engelmeyer tell tales of conservation struggles past and future. He gestures up into watershed-scale wilderness areas that could have been clearcut. He shows us a creek mouth where he fought against a nuclear plant, then later fought against a vacation resort. He talks about habitat connectivity, ecosystem services, the land-sea connection, the Oregon silverspot butterfly, coho salmon, the new marine reserve, International Bird Areas, and the infamous battles with loggers over spotted owl habitat. He believes in the power of untrammeled nature to redeem man’s folly. The impressive trees overhead echo the portent in his stories, lending significance to his ideal of undamaged ecosystems.
To our surprise, Engelmeyer waits to talk about Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve until our last stop, when we have hiked deep into Ten Mile Creek Sanctuary and are standing next to a crystalline pebbly creek. The ocean is nowhere in sight. He asks the group if it knows the marbled murrelet story. Without waiting for an answer, he points into a massive Sitka spruce and launches into an account.
The marbled murrelet long baffled scientists, who could not figure out where this small black and white seabird — which was mysteriously declining in numbers — made its nest. It spends most of its life offshore, its wings better suited to swimming underwater than flying. Its relatives, such as puffins, all nest in noisy colonies on sea cliffs. Finally, in 1974, a climber thinning tree branches above a California campground made an amazing discovery when he almost stepped on an egg: the marbled murrelet nests on tree limbs, singly, high in old-growth forest.
Engelmeyer himself found the first marbled murrelet nest to be documented in Oregon, then spent five years mapping out more. His love for the eccentric bird comes clear as he describes how it flies like a miniature winged football up to fifty miles inland to nest at an average height of 170 feet off the ground. He points to a particularly thick branch in the Sitka spruce, what he calls a potential nest site. These wide, high landing platforms develop when large trees are damaged and their upper branches have time to fatten and curve toward the sunlight. Such nest sites are rare in immature forest, meaning that marbled murrelets are dependent on old-growth forest.
Once scientists understood the marbled murrelet’s strange nesting strategy, they had an easy explanation for the bird’s decline: logging had decimated old-growth habitat up and down the Pacific Coast. The marbled murrelet’s plight gave impetus to conservationists working to protect old growth forests, and today a patchwork of forest preserves has stabilized the endangered seabird’s population.
But that, according to Engelmeyer, is hardly the end of the story. The marbled murrelet cannot survive on nest sites alone. If its food source of forage fish were to decline — and many stocks have — no amount of old growth would help it. Engelmeyer praises the establishment of Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve as a fundamental step toward healthy populations of forage fish.
Conservationists in this part of Oregon are talking more and more about the land-sea connection. The marbled murrelet, migrating salmon, and cycling nitrogen all move between ecosystems that in the past have been protected separately. By pushing to situate the new marine reserve next to Cape Perpetua’s old-growth wilderness areas, local conservationists have acted on the idea that interconnections are crucial.
Engelmeyer and a handful of others originally brought the idea of marine reserves to Oregon thirty years ago. He recounts the single-minded tenacity it has taken to push against the entrenched fishing industry. Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve clearly makes him proud.
Knowing that few people fished off Cape Perpetua in the first place, we prod him. Is this marine reserve necessary? Why fight so hard against an impact that does not really exist?
“Why can’t we have intergenerational conservation strategies?” he counters. “Why do we have to have a crisis in order to develop this?”
He continues, “This is a precautionary approach. All of the marine reserve process is precautionary and visionary. You’re creating resiliency — that’s what this is really about — and recovery.” He sees intact ecosystems not only as an inherently valuable heritage not to be marred, but as a force to mitigate the future’s unknowns. Intact ecosystems provide humans with benefits — clean water, sustainable wildlife populations, carbon dioxide cycling, mental health — that underpin our resiliency as a species. Just because these benefits are elusively hard to trace is no reason to let them deteriorate.
The marine reserves team at ODFW had told us a similar story: who knows how people might use the ocean in the future. A new fishery? Offshore wave energy? Space pads? Marine reserves will ensure that at least a few intact ecosystems survive.
Arguing for the marine reserves requires a certain amount of faith in the value of intact ecosystems. This visionary justification is at the heart of what angers so many of the marine reserves’ opponents, who summarize the story in this way: outside conservation groups imposed the marine reserves on communities, taking away peoples’ livelihood without a real understanding of the local ocean. In other words, conservationists were unable to definitively prove that marine reserves would be better than no protection at all.
What some call vision, others call lack of understanding.
“We’re struggling with it,” says Engelmeyer. “We’re writing the script. Hopefully we’re doing it for the next generation, because clearly the generation before us didn’t have a handle on it. There was no plan.”
The field trip leaves us craving a glimpse of Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve’s future. Engelmeyer and the Surfrider contingent have such faith in the positive power of an intact ecosystem that they are unbothered by their inability to predict what all of its effects will be. As journalists, we want more. We want to be able to write about the specifics. Instinct sends us cycling after other perspectives.
The town of Yachats has a motto: “Gateway to Cape Perpetua.” Mayor Ron Brean takes us to the Green Salmon, a coffee shop that caffeinates and connects this scenic town. As we wait for our coffee, he scans the room. By the time we find a table, he has invited city council president Greg Scott and head of parks and commons Don Niskanen to join our casual conversation about the marine reserve.
These men are proud of their town. They brag that travel guru Frommer’s recently named Yachats its seventh favorite place in the world. A compact embankment of life, Yachats is walkable and unpretentious. It has other mottos: “Gem of the Oregon Coast,” “Where Nature Happens Every Day,” and, when it’s time for a laugh, “Home of the World’s Largest Ocean.” Its subculture, unique on the Oregon coast, owes its educated, relaxed disposition to an economy without roots in resource extraction and a relative proximity to the state’s two largest universities. There are art shops, accessible coastal trails, and lots of retired professors and librarians.
A handful of Yachats residents were involved in the marine reserve designation process, including Brean. They kept the town aware of its progress. But now that the marine reserve exists, the town has done little to promote it. We are surprised: shouldn’t it be a point of pride for an environmentally aware town like Yachats? “I think over the long haul, it will have an impact,” says Brean. “If you talk to the average tourist today, it probably hasn’t really permeated the consciousness of most of our visitors, but I think over time it will.”
But who will guide visitors to the marine reserve? Who will tell its story and translate its science?
“That’s going to be organic,” says Brean. “It’s going to be somebody who we don’t know about yet, some professor that worked at Oregon State University or at Hatfield Marine Science Center who retires here and is not done. He or she will connect with somebody who is a writer or a filmmaker.” Scott agrees, imagining that at some point a National Geographic underwater photographer will come and open peoples’ eyes.
They give similar answers when we ask about the community’s sense of responsibility. They have faith that they need not force ideas, connections, or peoples’ involvement. “Someone who takes it and interprets it for the community is a natural occurrence,” says Scott.
Like the conservationists, these politicians see the marine reserve as an anchoring point for interconnections. They may be more focused on their town’s residents and visitors than natural ecosystems, but the instinct is the same: Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve is a good thing with a value that will only become clearer as pathways of connection develop over time.
When our coffee cups are empty, we slip out of the Green Salmon’s bustle and into a bright, calm morning. Brean takes us up the street to meet a man whose business is proof that in a tight-knit community, powerful interconnections will develop on their own.
Nathan Bernard’s Yachats Farm Store sells organic groceries, but it does not take long to see it is much more than a market. There are baskets of colorful produce, refrigerators stocked with meat, display cases with scratch-made salads, a bar with house-made kombucha on tap, and a chalkboard menu with six lunches and two sides. The spacious and welcoming building, which was once a bank, has the feel of fine craftsmanship. Bernard did much of the beautiful woodwork himself, salvaging lumber from an old railroad roundhouse and building alder cabinetry. Out back, hammer strokes ring: workers are erecting a sizable brewery.
Bernard wears khakis and has the easy manner of an outdoorsman. He bought a five-acre homestead a few miles up the Alsea River in 1998. He and his wife spent eight years observing the land and designing a permaculture system before building a home. They love wild food, anything from mushrooms to elk, and find the ecosystems here intensely productive. “I honestly am on the edge of a continent intentionally,” he tells us, “because I feel like that’s where the action is. The marginal interface between ecosystems is where the activity is.”
He pours us a sample of blackberry-elderberry kombucha. He opened the store not knowing if there was a market for the things he wanted to sell. He and his wife love fermented foods and had been experimenting with recipes. But did anyone have a taste for sauerkraut and kimchi? Bernard offered them at the store without big expectations and was overwhelmed by the response. People from far away make special trips to get kraut. Locals suddenly keen on its health benefits have added it to their diets and vocabularies. Bernard is working with local cabbage-growers to rapidly increase production.
Bernard conceived of his store as a place to bring the community together around sustainable local food, a place to turn share what he had learned of homesteading, foraging, and fishing. Now, he tells us, “If anything, I’m as actively learning from the community as the community is learning from us. When I picture the role that we play as a business in this community, it is as an intersection point for the parts of the community to come together that may be more on a parallel course. They may have a lot of mutual goals or ambitions or interests or whatever, but there’s not necessarily an intersection point where those things come together. We’re creating a physical space that is connected to a lot of different points in a local food system.”
Looking around with the balanced taste of kombucha on our tongues, we can see the vibrancy of such a physical center point. Customers prize the potatoes they purchase and chat like neighbors with the clerks. The events calendar is filled with classes and concerts. This is the vibrancy of interconnections — a community reaching into the environment around it.
One day, it seems, Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve will be an integral part of the human and natural landscape around it. It is a magnificent area. We linger on Highway 101’s pullouts as we cycle south to gaze over the ocean.
We came here to understand what success would mean for Oregon’s marine reserves, to articulate the attention they will need to boost local communities and benefit surrounding ecosystems. In other words, we wanted to glimpse their brightest future and map a route there.
Those we met around Cape Perpetua have no master map. They cannot predict the future and are hesitant even to speculate. That’s okay. They believe an intact ecosystem is a fundamentally good thing that will make its value known in time. They have great faith that connections want to happen. Knowing that integration takes time, they are patient.
What will this marine reserve look like in eighty years? That will be for this generation’s grandchildren to see.
On this part of the coast, we are surrounded by processes occurring at different speeds. We feel it on our loaded bikes every time an impatient RV charges past. Some people rush, others wait and watch. Fisheries collapse in five years. Rockfish live for a hundred. A tree might grow for 300 years, stand as a snag for another 200, fall into the creek, pulse out to the ocean in decades of floods, become half-buried on the beach, and last another 500, an object that represents a millennium and has traveled from forest to sea.
And the marine reserve? Starting now, it will last indefinitely, an ecosystem left intact to connect with its surroundings in its own ways, at its own pace.