Each year, thousands make their way to Cannon Beach to enjoy our pristine beaches for weddings, beach fires, clamming, tide pool exploration, surfing lessons, early morning yoga sessions, and the list goes on. Without thinking of it, countless visitors remove their shoes and walk our sandy shores free from garbage and restricted private zones.
The beaches of our small town are free of restricted areas thanks to the love former Governor Oswald West had of our Oregon coastline. West took office in 1911 and served as the Governor of Oregon until 1915. During West’s term, his priorities included the women’s suffrage movement, abolishing capital punishment, and implementing a new parole system for prisoners. West’s most important and recognizable legacy to Oregon was the bill he established in 1913 that was Oregon’s beach highway law, declaring the entire Pacific coastline to the high tide to be a public highway. The law protected public access and remains in effect today.
West’s love for Oregon’s beaches can be traced directly to his retreat in Cannon Beach. With the whole coast to choose from, the Governor selected, a then, remote wooded section south of Cannon Beach to construct his summer retreat. Cannon Beach has been a destination location for nearly a decade. Many of us could not picture a beach with fences demarcating private land, but there are many places in the world that are.
For decades families enjoyed fires, long walks on the beach, and even the occasional swim, unrestricted. It wasn’t until 1967 that West’s bill came under scrutiny. A loophole had been discovered that sparked a legislative conflict over public access and private land rights. During a highly charged time in Cannon Beach history, Governor Tom McCall flew by helicopter to Cannon Beach in order to address concerns over West’s highway beach law.
In the coming months Cannon Beach and other locations in Oregon will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of McCall’s Beach Bill. The Beach Bill was the product of differing perspectives, the love of our sandy shores, and the vision that McCall had of what Oregon should be. The bill declared all wet sandy lying within sixteen vertical feet of the low tide line to be the property of the state. Moreover, it recognized public easements of all beach areas up to the line of vegetation. The law required that property owners seek state permits for building and other uses of the ocean shore and it declared that the public would have free and uninterrupted use of the beaches. At the bill signing, McCall honored former Governor Oswald West. He quoted West on protecting the state’s beaches: “No local selfish interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people.”
Anyone who has ever planned a large event on the beach knows that you go through Oregon State Parks. While they might manage the beaches, it is the SOLVE program that keeps them free of garbage. It is the Haystack Rock Awareness Program that keeps visitors educated. It isn’t just the laws that keep our beaches so pristine. It is the sense of ownership that one gets from enjoying an area generation after generation. It is the fight of former politicians, local residents, concerned citizens and organizations that continue to keep Oregon’s beaches the most beautiful in the world. It is the love of our beaches that keeps them alive for generations to come.