Event Recap: Matt Love on Tom McCall, the Oregon Coast, and Our Continuing Fight

We were pleased to go to Lincoln City August 8 to hear from Matt Love, an author, educator, and passionate defender of the Oregon Coast. Love gave us a clear message about our duties as Oregonians to keep protecting the Coast.

This is the centennial of Oregon’s public beaches and also of the birth of Governor Tom McCall, who like Governor Oswald West before him made beach protection a key priority. It is also the 40th anniversary of Oregon land use planning, with its multiple Coastal goals, as we’ve been pleased to celebrate this year.

But when Matt Love spoke to our McCall Society Speaker Series audience of over 50 people, he made sure to make his message extend well beyond commemoration and self-congratulation. Despite the wonderful things we celebrate about the Coast—in fact, because of them, Love said—we need to commit to doing even more to ensure that the Coast remains healthy, beautiful, and accessible for generations to come.

Love knows the Coast well—even intimately. It is a key part of his life and his identity. After growing up in Oregon City and living in the Portland area, he moved to the Coast in 1997 to become caretaker of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge. He has now written or edited numerous books about the Oregon Coast’s character and past, from a history of the filming of Sometimes a Great Notion to a chronicle of coastal land use battles, to his most recent book, an extended meditation on one of the Coast’s most ubiquitous features—the rain. Love told our audience that he is sure to visit the beach—“for free,” he noted—at least once every day.

Learn more about Matt’s books and his publishing company, Nestucca Spit Press.

It was in his days at Nestucca Bay, Love told us, that he realized the Oregon Coast isn’t just beautiful, but also fragile. He learned about plans to reroute Highway 101 down the spit in the 1960s, how state leaders like Bob Straub and a concerted citizen-led effort defeated this potentially devastating proposal.

“My question became: ‘why do we do it differently here?’” Love said. “And it got more inspiring the deeper I dug.”

Love spent much of the evening in Lincoln City sharing some of the treasures he has dug up, focusing on the work Tom McCall did to protect the coast’s “wet sands” for public enjoyment—bucking his own party and much of the state’s business community to protect what Oswald West once called “the great birthright of our people.” McCall resorted to astounding but effective public relations strategies like flying to the beach on a helicopter to “survey” the tide lines, and challenging a beachside motel owner to debate him directly about the 1967 Beach Bill. Ultimately, his bill passed the Oregon House 57 to 3, and the Senate unanimously, and the Coast remains accessible to all Oregonians and millions of annual visitors.

As Love described, this was par for the course for McCall, who also took bold and controversial actions to prevent an anti-Vietnam War riot in Portland (with the famous Vortex I rock festival at Milo McIver State Park near Estacada); to cut back on energy use and littering in Oregon; to support the nation’s first dedicated set-aside for funding bicycle projects at the state level; and of course, to pass Senate Bill 100, creating Oregon’s pioneering land use planning program.

But even as he praised McCall’s vision and pluck, Love expressed concern that the McCall flame is dying, even on the Coast.

“I don’t go to the beach to get angry. I go there to let go,” Love said. But recent developments at a favorite beach near his home in Newport’s South Beach neighborhood have riled him. In particular, Love said, the issue of riprap—concrete and rock pilings to shield structures from waves—is emerging as the Coast’s next great battle.

Love displayed pictures of a modest house on the coast, sold a few years ago. Where once the riprap had sat well back from the beach, Love showed how the current owners have built new riprap far onto what should be considered a public beach. He said this was happening up and down the Coast, with little preventive action from communities or the state. He urged attendees to take action on this and other issues that will directly affect accessibility and health on the Coast.

Most of all, Love said, it is urgent that we continue to make people aware—especially young people and those new to Oregon—of the unique policies and personalities that have protected the Oregon Coast for our enjoyment. “In Oregon the only time you have to learn Oregon history is fifth grade,” said Love, who teaches journalism at Newport High School. “I try to get my students down to the beach as much as possible,” to show them firsthand why Oregon is unique, Love said.

We also heard from Cameron La Follette, land use director of Oregon Coast Alliance (ORCA), 1000 Friends’ coastal affiliate.

 “Things move on the Coast—the ocean, the land, the wind, and our communities. But people often don’t even think about it,” La Follette said. From community UGB expansions, to resort proposals, to failing sewer and wastewater systems, land use is a key indicator of whether the Coast can remain healthy and beautiful, she said.

 She urged attendees to watch closely the land use and transportation planning in their communities, beginning at the very early stages, and to keep ORCA and 1000 Friends informed on what is seen, heard, and proposed.

Visit ORCA’s website.

“It is always too late when the bulldozers have already started,” she said, remarking that through “knowing-the-land activism,” local people can defend the places they hold most dear from destruction.

Later, Matt Love argued that much of Tom McCall’s work remains undone—and even that which was accomplished remains unstable. “I always believe we can do better,” Love said. “There are a lot of things that McCall didn’t do that still need to be done.”

As our guests headed out into a beautiful evening, many expressed their commitment to doing their part to ensure that such things do, indeed, get done.

We held this event as part of Celebrate the Shore, a summerlong series of events and activities to recognize 100 years of Oregon's public beaches. Celebrate the Shore is organized by Oregon State Parks. To learn more, visit celebratetheshore.org.

Join us for our next McCall Society Speaker Series event, October 16 with Portland State University President Wim Wiewel in Portland.