Sand Lake, Oregon’s most untouched estuary. Soon to be a golf course?

By Paul Koberstein

About 5 miles north of Pacific City, the tiny Sand Lake estuary has somehow been spared the development that has been transforming the rest of the Coast’s tidal lands for 150 years.

Other than a farm that operated beyond the south shore and a few homes in upland areas, the estuary has changed little. But change is afoot, as is evident from the numerous signs posted in the area urging people to “Save Old Beltz Farm.” A proposed golf course has been stirring heated opposition in the nearby Tierra del Mar and Netarts communities, as well in other places on the Coast and in the Willamette Valley.

Kathi Myron, who grew up in Tierra Del Mar, knows the location around Sand Lake estuary of most of the tiny orchids that sprout blue blossoms in the summer. “My dad first took us fishing at Sand Lake when I was 2 years old,” she says, referring to herself and her brother.  “The aura around Tierra Del Mar from Sand Lake to Pacific City is in my blood, a part of me I cannot escape,” she wrote in an essay about the estuary. “The ambience here has grounded me; given those of us who know this place sustenance, a sense of belonging to something bigger, something profound.”

The wild and almost untouched acreage surrounding the proposed golf course has been a part of this to our extended families.

“If you’ve known a place like this, you understand what I mean, and you would know the environment here is incompatible with the planned development. This is not about prohibiting further improvements, this is about saving an area so rare, it still boasts of marshes, sand dunes, bird habitats, and as sentimental as it may sound, the tranquility of Eden.”

The estuary is a rearing area for native coho and chum salmon, as well as steelhead and cutthroat trout. Many species use the estuary for foraging, roosting and nesting, including the threatened western snowy plover. Other species that make a home in the estuary include bald and golden eagles, great blue herons, egrets, songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl, beavers. otters, deer, elk and black bear.

The golf course would be built next to the estuary on Sand Lake Spit, a prime habitat for the snowy plover. Sand Lake estuary is the last of its kind in Oregon — a fully-functioning, undeveloped tidal and dune ecosystem.  Two years ago, Seattle developer John Fought announced plans to build on the south part of the estuary, just north of Tierra Del Mar.

His plan called for a 16 included a sandy spit between the estuary and the Pacific Ocean. His project was backed by two executives of Nokia Corporation, a Finnish cell phone company “It’s the largest block of undeveloped shoreline left in private ownership on the entire Oregon Coast,” says Dan Serres, an activist who grew up nearby. He is director of Flow — Friends of Living Oregon Waters — a conservation group based in Grants Pass.

The developers said their private course would attract as many as 30,000 golfers a year who would mostly fly in and stay overnight in a modest-sized clubhouse — paying membership dues of $100,000 for the experience. Fought and company trumpeted their assertion that the golf course, named Pacific Gailes, would be friendly to the environment. They said they intended to seek certification from “Audubon International,” which would “independently confirm” that it had complied with national environmental standards for golf course management.

What the developers failed to mention is that Audubon International is hardly independent but is in fact pure greenwashing. It is a front for the United States Golf Association, an industry group that promotes the development of golf courses. Despite the similarities in name, there is no connection whatsoever between Audubon International and the National Audubon Society.

“Audubon does not certify golf courses, or any other development, as being environmentally sound,” says John Flicker, president of the much larger National Audubon Society, founded in 1905. “Indeed, Audubon more often opposes such development. Audubon also owns and manages many Sanctuaries around the country. Audubon Sanctuaries are natural places protected from development, not places certified for development.”

Other backers of Audubon International include four golf course superintendents’ associations, golf courses and a lawn mower manufacturer. For a fee, Audubon International designates golf courses as Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries. Similar certifications are available from Audubon International to developers of cemeteries, municipal parks, campgrounds, resorts, stores, industrial facilities, marinas, residential communities, and preparatory schools. The developers proposed to fill 7 acres of wetlands.

They also would chop down another 84 acres of bottomland hardwoods next to the estuary.  Sand Lake has seen less development than any other estuary on the Coast.

This amount of wetlands loss would nearly equal all of Sand Lake’s wetlands loss since 1870. “There is no oceanfront site left on the Oregon Coast that can accommodate a development like this and avoid wetland fills of unacceptable magnitude, and the developers know it,” according to the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, a legal advocacy group based in Portland.

The Sand Lake golf project has evolved in recent months. John Fought apparently has dropped out of the picture, but property owner Frank Bastasch of a Los Angeles suburb continues to show interest.  In June 2005 Bastasch and a consultant met with Tillamook County planning officials to discuss potential changes to the proposal. Bastasch, designer of the Eagle Creek Golf Course near Estacada, Ore., inquired whether the county would allow a hotel, timeshare condos and a restaurant in addition to a golf course at the site, according to Lisa Phipps, a county planner who also attended the meeting.

Bastasch did not return a reporter’s phone calls.

The Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department has attempted to purchase the site, but negotiations stalled because of the high asking price. Allison Asbjornsen, of Netarts and a member of a citizen group, the Sand Lake Task Force, that is fighting the golf course, has closely tracked the proposal.

“The owner simply wants more money than the appraisal justifies. These sites are incredibly valuable, and few very are available,” she says. “It’s an area of great beauty, and it’s close to Portland.”

If the project is built, significant impacts on local drinking water supplies are likely, says Linda Steiner of Tierra del Mar, directly to the south of Sand Lake. The Sand Lake golf course would use up to 450,000 gallons of water per day for summer irrigation.

The runoff, filled with pesticides and fertilizers, would leach through the dunes into the wetlands, marshes and estuary, she says. Tierra Del Mar hardly has enough water to meet its own needs — and sometimes it runs short. The community was without water for six hours over the Fourth of July weekend in 2005.

“We solely depend on the Beltz Creek for water to our community as do Sand Lake property owners, and I don’t think the development would have any rights to the water we are supplied from this creek,” Steiner says.

Developers of the nearby Nantucket Shores gated community, who support the golf course proposal, have offered to sell water to Tierra Del Mar residents as an enticement for them to drop their opposition, she says.

Tierra Del Mar’s water supply has been threatened before. In the late 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service proposed a massive clearcut in the watershed that supplies their water.  The endangered marbled murrelet stopped the timber sale, Steiner says.

“I personally spearheaded the appeals, went out with the marbled murrelet crews in surveying the proposed clearcut area and did see murrelets flying into the watershed and landing in trees.” Today, the watershed that supplies Tierra Del Mar’s drinking water — the watershed just east of Sand Lake Estuary — is the only unlogged watershed on the Hebo Ranger District on the Siuslaw National Forest 4

About 10 miles north of Sand Lake, on the outskirts of Oceanside, the cliffs are crumbling beneath a massive condo development known as “The Capes.”

Intense winter storms swept away much of a sandy hillside during the late 1990s. Built in 1992, the condos were marketed as a “new Salishan,” a reference to an exclusive beachside golf resort south of Lincoln City.

Today The Capes are stuck in a slow-motion disaster, awaiting an eventual collapse. It serves as a curiosity as well as a warning to anyone thinking of building close to shore.

None of the 130 townhouses have fallen to the sea as of yet, but geologists say it’s just a matter of time. One of the buyers was Mark Hatfield, the former Oregon senator.

The landslide under The Capes was first noticed in 1997 by local home owners. The slide began after winter El Nino-related storms wiped out the toe of dune, making it unstable. A small slope failure on the seaward side of a steep hill indicated that minor but steady movement was accelerating.  

A stairway to the beach was damaged and had to be removed. Ground cracks opened, and lawns dropped 18 inches in January 1998. They fell another 5 feet a few weeks later, and fresh slumping was visible from the beach. The main area that’s been moving is about 900 feet long and 500 feet wide. It is currently endangering 10 houses, with 10 more at risk in the near future.  Many people saw it coming.

“It was built on a dune,” says Phillip Johnson of Oregon Shores’ Coastwatch program.  Oregon Shores, which fought Tillamook County’s issuance of a building permit for The Capes, contends that local governments are not considering landslide and erosion hazards when approving developments like this one.

The group says the county allowed the developer to build much too close to the edge of the cliff.  The state of Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development says the collapse at The Capes could have been easily prevented, if only the planners and developers had consulted existing geologic studies.

The landslide is an old structure of sand lying over muddy debris. A high modern dune that had supported the toe of the landslide gave way, triggering the collapse. When the hill beneath the condos at The Capes crumbles, it won’t be the first time the forces of sea, wind and rain destroyed beachfront property on the Oregon Coast. Far from it.

In the early 20th Century, a small town on Bay Ocean Spit in Tillamook Bay grew to become a popular tourist resort. Today nothing remains but sand and brush. The ocean took it out. It’s hard to find even the foundation of the hotel that once stood there.

In 1942, a development at an area known as “Jumpoff Joe” in Newport crashed down the cliff overlooking Nye Beach. More than a dozen homes were lost. In 1982, a condo development was built on the remaining bluff. Before the construction was finished, the cliff began to collapse under the foundations.  

At Falcon Cove south of Cannon Beach, several streets of homes have fallen off the cliff and others are teetering on the brink. Potential disaster lurks along rivers as well. For example, in Pacific City along the Nestucca River, buildings are hanging over the water. Back in Pacific City, by July 2005 the Cape Kiwanda dunes had been graded and appear ready for construction.

Besides adding a new façade to a famous view, the proposed condos may also be in harm’s way. Roger Hart, a consulting geologist for Oregon Shores, contends they sand dune is not stable.  The developer, Nestucca Ridge Development, claims the dune is stable. Like its ill-fated decision in The Capes, Tillamook County sided once again with the developer.  Oregon Shores’ Coastal Law Project is battling developments in Brookings, where hillsides north of town formerly owned by U.S. Borax is targeted for a massive residential development; and in Coos Bay, where a controversial development is planned adjacent to the South Slough National Estuarine Reserve.

 Oregon Shores is also proposing a law that would require sellers to warn buyers of real estate hazards before they make their purchase. Over the next 50 years, on shorelines across the United States, erosion may claim one out of four houses within 500 feet of the ocean, according to a 2000 study by the Heinz Foundation.

Roughly 1,500 homes and the land on which they are built will be lost to erosion each year, on average. Some of those mostly likely will be in Oregon. It’s not just homes that are vulnerable.

At Beverly Beach State Park south of Lincoln City, highway engineers worry that U.S. 101 will collapse into the surf. They proposed installing riprap to prevent erosion under the highway. However, after Oregon Shores, a conservation group, protested, the Oregon Department of Transportation decided to move the highway further away from the ocean.

The Oregon Coast around Newport is particularly vulnerable to landslides. Over time, researchers have determined bluffs recede by on average 6 inches per year and as much as 18 inches. Protective shoreline structures, known as riprap, revetments, seawalls, and bulkheads can fend off ocean waves, stabilize cliffs, and retain the shoreland, and even prevent a house from falling into the sea.

But there’s a high price: they literally can destroy a beach. They lock up sand behind a wall or rocks, blocking a source of new sand for the beach. They also deflect wave action, causing further loss of sand. To protect Oregon’s beaches, state law bans riprap, seawalls and other beachfront structures in front of homes that were built after Jan. 1, 1977.  

However, according to Dr. James Good of Oregon State University says property owners are pressuring local governments for exemptions to this law.  As director of the Marine Resource Management Program in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, he conducted a study in 1990 that found that half of Lincoln City’s beach, or littoral cell, was protected by riprap.

“By 2030 the entire cell will be riprapped,” he says. “Is the Oregon Plan working?” Engelmeyer is asked? “Yes and no,” he says. “When you consider we have 80 watershed groups working to improve habitat for our salmon, this is a significant local effort. But if our larger industrial players, agriculture and timber, do not step to the plate and truly improve water quality n our streams, long term recovery of our coho salmon will not be realized.” are not stepping up to the plate, and dealing with water quality in our streams.  

Hoffman says the state appears determined to rely once again on hatcheries to bail out the salmon. Hatcheries may boost production for a while, but they are considered a threat to wild runs. By their sheer numbers, hatchery can outcompete their wild compadres for food. But hatchery fish have been proven to be less physically fit than wild fish, and interbreeding can increase the chances for extinction. Large hatchery production has deluded politicians into thinking it is not important to protect habitat.  

If we can produce all the fish we want with hatcheries, then farmers, timber companies and industrial polluters won’t have to worry about their impacts on He found that in the year following every winter with major El Nino-related storms, there has been “a big uptick in the miles of shore protection put in on the Coast.”

“All of a sudden they are in crisis and the owner asks the local government for a protection structure,” he says. Eventually the entire Coast could be opened up to riprapping, “undermining or eliminating the 1977 law.

When he was governor, John Kitzhaber held the line against exemptions to the anti-riprap law. He especially angered residents of The Capes, who salmon habitat. But, as numerous scientific studies have shown, hatcheries are not capable of sustaining the salmon over the long run.

Relying on hatcheries is a sure recipe for failure. complained that Tillamook County approved their construction based on assurances from a geologist that they were in no danger. Interestingly, riprap has been legally installed in front of Kitzhaber’s Neskowin home. The work was legal because the home was built before 1977.

Good says he doubts the ban on riprap will survive forever. “As soon as we get a new governor, a majority in the two houses in the legislature who are more private property rights oriented, I think that’s gone. The consequence would open the entire Coast to riprapping.” Everybody, it seems, wants their place next to the ocean. They should know that if terra firma isn’t firm enough, they shouldn’t be building there.

Paul Koberstein