We’re standing on a promontory north of the seaside village of Jenner. Below us, we see where the Russian River meets the Pacific, the sweep of beach that leads to the monolith that is Goat Rock, the craggy shoreline beyond. On one of those perfect Sonoma County mornings, there cannot be many places on earth more beautiful than this.
President Donald Trump wants to drill for oil here.
Generations of Californians, Democrats and Republicans, have dedicated themselves to the protection of this coastline, and now an unpopular president would give it all away.
In January, the president announced he would open most U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas leases. It should be noted that the administration soon made an exception for Florida. Trump’s friend, the Republican governor Rick Scott, hopes to be elected to the U.S. Senate later this year, and offshore oil exploration isn’t popular in Florida either.
Also, Florida is not California. If we have learned anything about the president during his first year in office, it is that he is willing to support policies that disadvantage the states where he is least popular.
On this morning, we’re standing on a headland that has its own story. In the late 1960s, developers wanted to turn the lower Russian River into a massive gravel dredging operation and begin a residential and commercial development that could have involved as many as 8,000 acres.
But local opponents weren’t going to be deterred, and so the proposals died. “Years of county and state hearings ended with the defeat of the developers …” Elinor Twohy wrote in her history of Jenner.
This overlook is now part of the 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands Preserve, a spectacular sanctuary that is expected to open to visitors later this year. The consortium of landowners, conservation organizations and government agencies that assembled this $36 million acquisition was providing its own testimony to California’s commitment to coastal protection.
Jenner’s development controversy came along about the time that Californians were coming to understand their coastline needed protection from uncontrolled development.
Opponents had beaten back a proposal for a nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay, and then came proposals for over-sized subdivisions at Sea Ranch and elsewhere — some of which were designed to deny public access to the coast.
There also was a devastating spill from an offshore oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel. An estimated 3 millions gallons of crude oil escaped in the 1969 accident. Beaches were covered with sludge. Dead fish and wildlife washed ashore. Birds, coated with an oily muck and unable to fly, were left to die.
Three years later, California voters — fed up with the inaction of the state Legislature — approved a coastal protection initiative that forever changed the rules for development along more than a thousand miles of coastline.
We can imagine what the Sonoma County coastline would be like today if Californians continued to believe that commercial exploitation was all that mattered. There could be a nuclear power plant (likely abandoned by now) casting its shadow across Bodega Bay. There could be gravel mining in Jenner and subdivisions here, there and everywhere.
The old and now discredited argument says that the U.S. needs to risk its coastal waters in the name of becoming energy independent.