Oregon Coast Today cover, 10/6/2006Webmaster's note: A very helpful article on CoastWatch appears in the October 6-12, 2006, issue of Oregon Coast Today. The weekly magazine, distributed throughout Lincoln and Tillamook counties, has a well-written two-page spread on CoastWatch, with an excellent perspective on the program's 1993 founding by Phillip Johnson. OCT publishers Niki and Dave Price have generously allowed CoastWatch to post a copy of their article here on the Oregon Shores website.
By NIKI PRICE Oregon Coast TodayDown at Mile 190, Laura Svendsgaard uses a spotting scope and a pair of sturdy boots to monitor a remote mile of coastline below Captain Cook's Point. Up at 247, Jane Boyden paddles her canoe out to the rugged Westwind Spit, where she records her tallies of eagles, seals and wildflowers. In between, at the heavily-populated 244, Carl and Millie Ehrman are on the lookout for rebel riprap, new sources of runoff and changes in the well-loved tidepools in Lincoln City.
They're all members of CoastWatch, a collection of nearly 1,200 volunteers dedicated to monitoring and protecting Oregon's ocean shore. Inspired by citizens' brigades who watch the seas for the approaching enemy in wartime, this 12-year-old program is part of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition.
Carl and Millie Ehrman, enjoying a moment on a Lincoln City beach. OCT photo by Niki Price.The Ehrmans have been part of CoastWatch since 1999. At least once a quarter, usually more frequently, these Lincoln City residents park at the Roads End State Recreation Site and walk south toward Chinook Winds Casino Resort. Using a digital camera and a pad of paper, they record any changes they see in the geology, biology or human topography of their well-traveled mile.
For Millie and Carl, who were raised in Minnesota and spent 14 years in Utah before they retired to the coast in the 1990s, it was just one more way to learn about the natural history of their adopted home. They help visitors spot the spouts during Whale Watch Weeks, collect litter during every SOLV cleanup and spent nine years volunteering at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
"We adopted a mile (through CoastWatch) for the same reason we started volunteering at the aquarium," said Carl. "We came from a western mountain state, in a totally different environment."
"We were as green as the scenery," Millie added. "We found that after taking classes at the aquarium, once you know what you are looking at, that's really just the beginning."
Carl, a former electrical engineer, and Millie, an accountant and office manager, are proof that volunteers bring a variety of pertinent skills to the CoastWatch cause. Together, they compile the quarterly updates submitted by adopters of the 58 miles in Lincoln County, and submit the finished report to the Oregon Shores office in Portland.
Laura Svendsgaard and her husband, Ron Brean, also bring their professional skills to the watch. He spent his career with California State Parks, while she manages park- and conservation-oriented nonprofit groups from her home office. Fulltime Yachats residents since February, they have adopted Mile 190, a largely inaccessible stretch of coast just off Cape Perpetua, and Mile 195, a flat stretch at the north end of Yachats that is an ideal walk for their aging canine companion, Angus.
On their regular walks, they've seen everything from beachcombing river otters to tide pool diving spring breakers. They weighed in during the observation of the off shore "dead zone" that has been making headlines through the summer, cataloging dead crabs, seabirds and other creatures that washed up on the beach.
"It's been a wonderful way for us to not only get introduced to the seasons and its cycles, but to meet other people with shared interests. It motivates us to get out to the beach, and gives us an easy means of learning about the unique nature of this area," Laura said. "I realized a long time ago that the more you understand something, the greater responsibility you feel for nurturing and protecting it. And just with the little observations on my new mile, I really want to know more. My curiosity has been piqued."
Bonfires on the headlandsBut while adopting a mile can be a fun and educational experience for the volunteer, as a whole the CoastWatch brigade has a greater purpose: to sound the alarm against threats to the health and welfare of Oregon's public beaches. It was first envisioned in 1993 by Phillip Johnson, an Oregon Shores board member, after a particularly frustrating board meeting which heard multiple pleas for help from local conservationalists battling shoreline development, all of which came at the 11th hour or entirely too late. Learning belatedly about potential threats to the beach had been a frequent problem for the organization.
To cool off after the meeting, Johnson hiked up to Cascade Head and sat on the grass and let his mind wander.
"It was born in a sarcastic thought. To get advance warning of everything that might threaten the coast, you would really have to have someone standing there, at every mile," he said. "Then the thought sprang into my head: What if we actually did have someone watching over every mile?"
A medieval history major in college, he had read about 10th century outposts who stood guard on the headlands, with bonfires pre-assembled, in order to spread the alarm if Viking ships approached. He wondered: could the Oregon Shores create the same kind of network?
The idea was warmly received at the next board meeting, and Johnson was off and running. He first recruited from within coalition members, but within a few years had widened the program to incorporate non-members, too. It was easy to find adopters for the broad, flat miles that were near population centers, but it took three to four years before the most remote and inaccessible areas found keepers, Johnson said.
Today, Johnson remains CoastWatch director, now as a member of the Oregon Shores staff. He hopes that the Oregon Shores and its CoastWatch volunteers are forming a tradition that endures.
"We're deliberately trying to found an institution here. We hope that people will bond with their mile, and make a point of handing it to someone else, and that it will be passed down through families," Johnson said. "That's our ambition, to become a popular tradition."
Filling in the blanks
Millie Ehrman takes a closer look during one of her walks on behalf of CoastWatch.
Each adoption team is provided with a map and copies of the quarterly observation report, through which they can log the number of vehicles, people and creatures they see. Through this form, they can also record dead wildlife, drift line content (litter, casings, ocean debris, etc.), development impact like steps or drainage pipes, or changes to the beach and shoreline. While it's not a tightly controlled scientific survey, the CoastWatch reports can offer the first warning of widespread problems.
"Anyone new to nature, for the most part, can complete the form. It doesn't require a lot of resource knowledge," Laura said. "And many people just complete the form with just the information that is asked. But, as I read the compilation report, I can see what other people are observing. And as time goes by, I've noticed more and more."
A veteran organizer, she's signed on to be the training coordinator for Lincoln County members of CoastWatch. In the coming year, Laura hopes to bring more educational opportunities to this brigade of coast protectors.
"As volunteers, we all want to be able to give something back. But I think that, more importantly, we have an innate sense of curiosity, a need to learn more," she said. "By having more formal training, we can learn more about the intertidal life, and about the various agencies that have jurisdictional authority and how they work together. Knowing who we can call (when we see a problem) is intrinsic to our ability to be good stewards."