California’s Lost Coast: Worthy of Wilderness Protection

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

The rugged and remote Lost Coast offers North America’s largest span of pristine beach and shoreline on the Pacific Coast outside of Alaska and Canada. Public lands here include 60,000-acre King Range National Conservation Area and 7400-acre Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, together stretching 40 miles along the coast. If you study the maps however, you’ll see that the true geographic province of the Lost Coast extends another 24 miles north to Centerville Beach, held primarily in private ranch lands, and 16 miles farther south to Hardy Creek, mostly private timber lands. Altogether California’s Lost Coast sprawls a phenomenal 80 miles along the shore of the nation’s most populous state!

The federal government first recognized the area’s remarkable scenic and biological values in 1929 when it withdrew public domain lands here from sale. Congress created the King Range Conservation Area in 1970. When I first visited the Lost Coast in the 1970s, plans were already afoot to protect much of the King Range as designated wilderness. Unfortunately, the King Range remains unprotected more than twenty years later.

Meanwhile during the 1970s, California State Parks began protecting the southern Lost Coast. In what was then called the Bear Harbor Project, the state acquired the remote Stewart Ranch in Mendocino County’s northwesternmost corner. They changed the name to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park when the park was officially established in 1977. recognizing and striving to protect its essential wilderness values.

The park’s southern neighbor, Georgia-Pacific Corporation, saw the Lost Coast in a different light. Several thousand acres of the company’s coastal lands still held virgin forests of massive redwoods, firs and spruces in 1979. These forests had survived because they were remote, even though sawmills had operated within 5 miles of them, at Usal around 1900 and Wheeler in the 1950s. G-P quietly began cutting these giants in 1980.

Not until autumn 1983 did word spread around the north coast of the last immense virgin trees around Usal falling to the chainsaws. Then about 200 action-oriented environmentalists moved to stop the cutting along Wheeler Road. They came to the Lost Coast under cover of darkness. When the loggers came to work at dawn, they found people blocking their way to the standing giants. After many showdowns and the death of many more giants, a court injunction halted logging. The last groves, most notably the Sally Bell Grove, were finally saved when the Trust for Public Land purchased the surrounding lands. Of the 7100 acres bought by TPL, Sinkyone State Park gained 3000, extending it south to Usal. In 1996 the other 4000 acres became Sinkyone Intertribal Park, where, in the nation’s first intertribal park, major plant and watershed restoration are occurring.

While this controversy raged around the Lost Coast’s southern end, the Bureau of Land Management, manager of the King Range, has slowly added to public lands there. Congress has already established 4000-acre Chemise Mountain Primitive Area just north of the Sinkyone. BLM proposes a 37,000-acre King Range Wilderness Area, while wilderness advocates support a larger one. One former stumbling block to wilderness designation was removed when BLM reversed their long-standing policy of allowing off-road vehicles on 3½ miles of beach at the King Range’s southern end. Happily BLM closed that area to vehicles in 1998, bringing a big chunk of the Lost Coast closer to becoming the King Range Wilderness Area.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume One: Oregon to Monterey (2nd Edition) by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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