“I like to say San Onofre is the most visited park in the world because everybody on I-5 is passing through it, if we can collect a dime from each one of them we’d have a greater solution.” - Steve Long
Live from the grounds of the Ohana Festival, Jake Howard, writer and journalist for The Momentum, had the pleasure of sitting for an interview with Founder and Advisor for the San Onofre Parks Foundation, Steve Long.
About Steve Long
Steve Long has been one of the main contributors to the preservation, restoration and future of San Onofre Park and Beach in Southern California. Long is a retired State Park Chief Lifeguard for San Onofre, San Clemente and Doheny State Parks. He had a 34 year long career working for state parks starting at Huntington Beach, but his passion for surfing brought him down to South Orange County in 1978.
During the last four years of his successful career, Long served as Superintendent for the beaches of San Onofre, San Clemente and Doheny. During his last year working, Long was asked by the community to create a non-profit organization supporting educational programs, specifically at San Onofre and San Clemente. He identified key stakeholders and individuals that would treasure these lands and keep them sustainable. Eventually, this endeavor led to a position targeting resources to preserve these natural lands through the non-profit known today as San Onofre Parks Foundation.
Jake Howard: What is the mission of the Foundation?
“Our mission is to support education and interpretation programs within state parks. The first thing that gets cut in the budget is the programs. People come to the park for recreation and the enjoyment of the natural resource, but they also come to know what the story is. Every place has a story and a sense of place. And unfortunately, when budgets are tight, the first thing that gets tightened up are the programs. So all up and down the state, non-profits have come into existence to support state parks in that mission. And we provide resources to actually hire people. We put educational panels in the park. We operate a visitor center. We do a lecture series. We bring school kids into the park, inner city kids to the park. And then we're also a voice for the community, an advocate for the future of the parks, and in particular, San Onofre, which has been threatened in many, many ways. We are the voice for the community when it comes to hopefully influencing what happens into the future.”
Jake Howard: Before we talk about the future [of] Sano [San Onofre], let's talk about the past and for people that may not understand what it is and why it's so special, especially in the surf world.
“There's a rich history within California. Between 9,000 to 12,000 years ago, the Acjachemen Nation were the natives that inhabited the lands of the San Mateo Valley along the coast. Fresh water and watersheds were plentiful, along with an abundant amount of fish and game. Then Western Civilization arrived, pushing the Natives off their land and turning time into the Mission period.”
The Acjachemen (Juaneño) are ancestral stewards and original occupants of Panhe– or land that spans Camp Pendleton Marine Base, San Onofre State Beach, and much of San Clemente. Both the landscape and water of Panhe served Acjachemen heritage as sacred sites. Peoples from the Acjachemen Nation have occupied this territory for thousands of years prior to the invasion of Spaniards and the establishment of “Missions”– including the Mission of San Juan Capistrano. Rebecca Robles, descendant of the Achjachemen, notes the name Juaeño was used by those who were “ministered” by padres during the Mission Period. The history of the Acjachemen is important to understand why the protection of this land is so important and how it plays a role in the modern development of state run parks and beaches.
Fast Forward– Don Juan Forster, an English-born rancher and early landholder, purchased the mission at San Juan Capistrano when it was desecularized. By 1846, Forster acquired an area of land called the Santa Margarita y Las Flores–which is known today as Camp Pendleton.
To Long's account, Forster created a “community” within San Onofre called Forster City. He proposed a deal to those living across the seas in Norway and England that land would be given to those who worked for him on the land for five years. Five years following his bid, drought hit the community causing their downfall. Upon Forster's death in 1882, the family sold the land to the affluent James Flood.
“The Rancho Period in San Onofre was part of the largest ranch or land holding in all of California, extended from the base of Saddleback, CA all the way to Oceanside, CA. And, it was variously controlled by some pretty significant people–James Flood–who was one of the wealthiest men in the world. His fortune came from the Comstock Lode, [he] had purchased the land from the previous owner and it was [used for] running cattle and prosperous for growing crops.”
By the 1920’s the Village of San Onofre was established and equipped with a railroad system, fresh markets, shops and other small businesses.
“The first accounts of surfing along the Pacific coast took place in Newport Beach and parts of Palos Verdes, now known as Corona Del Mar. The harbor of Newport Beach was eventually dredged out and the waves disappeared, leaving the surfers to travel south, where they found San Onofre. In 1925 San Onofre became a popular surfing spot for locals of Southern California. Many ended up renting tents and living on the beach, adapting a bohemian lifestyle leading up until World War II when access to beaches and surf were off limits. As the war commenced, the Navy needed a holding and training base near the coastline. They made an agreement with the Rancho area of San Onofre that they would hold the land until the war had ended–coming to learn that even after the war, they still needed the base. Purchasing the land for 4.2 million dollars for 200 square miles of the land, the Navy still holds that land today.”
In 1952, a community of surfers, businesses, residents and other citizens created the San Onofre Surfing Club that up until 1971, only gave members beach access. Nixon and his family came to visit the famous beach and in that same year of 1971, San Onofre became a “state park” under Presidential decree. Becoming one of the top 10 most visited beaches, San Onofre became a place for people all over the world to come to and see the beauty it had to offer.
The surf and waves are so magnificent and part of that has to do with the creation and settling of the rock forms. The rock formations that jet out of the bluffs are made up of cobblestone, which in how it is formed and rested, does not move as much as other rock deposits. Cobblestone is not malleable to water, in turn giving way for significant wave breaks.
Jake Howard: It's complicated because you have [the] military putting the environment kind of aside just getting in the middle of the Navy Department of the Navy, you have the Southern California Edison, State of California groups like the San Onofre Parks Foundation. You have a lot, it’s a lot of competing interests there. A lot of people at the table.
“San Onofre Surf Beach is adjacent to a nuclear waste repository that has an indefinite clock tick in on it. The Trestles area is a natural wetland, you cannot build on that either. Then you go to the inland portion of San Onofre which is crisscrossed with the utility lines, and it is primarily up and down steep, steep contours, so it's not easily buildable whether or not the Marines would allow access to build into the valley. That's all an archeological site as well. Native Americans lived in the San Mateo Valley, so there are all of these things that kind of bring the value down and at some point, hopefully will come up with a solution there. There'll have to be some type of monetary exchange, and we're hoping that we'll come up with a good compromise. The Marines actually really like having the state park as a buffer between their training and all of Orange County at the county line. I call it the edge of civilization”
The lease for San Onofre expired in 2021 and the San Onofre Parks Foundation is currently establishing a three year extension. The lease renewal task force has been actively engaged and performing state and federal government duties to bring a voice for the community. The new long term lease will address issues such as erosion to the beaches and the sand, the preservation of the land and the possibility of the transportation of the nuclear waste sitting adjacent to the park. The magnitude of each issue and the competing interests of stakeholders will determine the time spent on establishing a proper and productive plan.
Sea levels have risen and erosion has started to delete the beaches of wide spreads of sand. Over 100 parking spots at San Onofre have been washed over and lost. This affects not only San Onofre but all the beaches in the Capistrano bay area.
Jake Howard: It's such a special place. And I think everybody identifies that from you guys at the Parks Foundation to the state parks, the Marines and everybody. It's a very powerful place in a lot of ways.
“They call it the Yosemite of surfing and people from all over the world come..so again, the cooperative effort, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, California State Parks, [are] being good stewards and recognizing the story, the deep story and recognizing the first people. One of [the] suggestions was a recent round table talking about concepts for future use. And the Native American community says, give it back to the first people or at a minimum let's build a world class visitor center museum that can acknowledge [Native Americans]. Let's celebrate that. So, I'm really pleased to see here at the Ohana Festival that they opened with that nice ceremony.”
The San Onofre Parks Foundation works actively to preserve and protect the parks and beaches of San Onofre - and with working alongside other organizations or individuals to combat erosion and other obstacles the park may face.
The land of San Onofre has a strong, rich history that the community should be made aware of. This allows people to understand the severity of the issues it faces today and may inspire them to get involved to help.
The first step in appreciating the land, beaches and oceans, is first acknowledging the people that inhabited the land before it was settled on and having conversations like this one will enhance overall understanding and education.