It shouldn’t be that tough, right?
My first beach 2010 experience up in the PNW was during a minus-point-one low tide. That foggy Seattle morning, I ventured from a public beach into the way-out low tide. Normally, I wouldn’t go that far since I’m hesitant to mess with fragile sea things under my boots. But around Puget Sound, there are some rocky passageways between ponds and barnacles that allow for a bit of careful tide-pooling. I was told by a real estate agent friend that I could wander below beachfront property — if I was a certain distance below the high tide line. I didn’t see any private property signs, so I tip-toed out, checking underfoot. I wanted to have a Pacific Northwest tidal experience.
Well, here’s something you don’t want to have at the crack of dawn — standing at water’s edge, with fog thick as lobster bisque, and visibility at 11 inches. You don’t want to feel hot breath on the back of your neck. And you don’t want to be pawed unexpectedly from out of that murk.
“You realize you’re on private property,” he said, hand on my shoulder.
“Actually, no, I didn’t realize. I’m sorry. I didn’t see a sign.”
“We own the beach out to the water.”
“Even at super-low tide?”
“Even at low, low tide.”
“I was told I could meander into the intertidal spaces.”
“No that’s not true. We own the tidelands to low tide. You’re trespassing.”
“I came for the waters.”
“The waters? What waters? …”
“I was misinformed.”
I apologized to the homeowner and, tail tucked, I made my way back to the one sliver of public shoreline and watched crows scuffle over real estate on a driftwood log. Apparently, corvids have the same public commons issues we do.
I don’t mean to be an ignoramus of a guest in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest. Seattle does a lot of things beautifully, as far as I can see. Coffee houses? Unbelievable. The trees, the charm, the genuine community of neighborhoods tucked in among waterways, Craftsman homes and bike paths is like a dream. I love that Ivars on the waterfront encourages people to be kind to gulls — even if Ivars does discriminate against pigeons — and even if city gulls are heading for high cholesterol counts.
With the private tidelands . . . I just didn’t know. I was misinformed. Coming from a state where public shoreline access is enshrined in the Constitution, I’ve been disheartened at times, over the small patches of shoreline allocated to the public and to public resources and wildlife. I can’t imagine a more captivating shoreline to meander with my camera than the one around Puget Sound. It’s a drop-to-your-knees-and-give-thanks type of stunning. But I’ve learned that meanding the splendor of the Sound is curtailed a bit by private property notices and water access. You can be on the water, in front of private property, at any tide, as long as you’re in a boat (e.g. kayak). Set foot on the property and it’s another matter altogether.
Private Tidelands and Public Shoreline Access on Puget Sound
My understanding, from initial readings, is that the Supreme Court in the State of Washington has not yet taken up the issue of pedestrian, public passage over tidelands, even as California and Oregon both allow it. When I asked around, some local friends believed you could walk 60 . . . or even 30 feet below high tide. Others said the public trust affords free shoreline access, in spite of posted warnings.
According to an attorney I spoke with, the amount of beach ownership can further depend on arcane, grandfathered clauses, the date of purchase, and the nature of the property, making standard assessments difficult. So, vague misunderstandings ensue, even in the face of bold signage. There is, in fact, public access when passing on the water.
If you’re a Washingtonian and have some insight or opinions on the issue of tidelands, shorelines and public access, I’d love to hear from you. Does private ownership of tidelands bother you, or is it just what you’ve grown accustomed to around Puget Sound?
For now, I’m honing up on my Washington resident requirements and drinking way too much coffee as I navigate the nuances of our relocation.
Restoring Puget Sound and Habitat
I don’t have to tell Washingtonians this . . . that the Puget Trough is a treasure unlike any other, an estuarine system with tendrils that feed and fuel the aquatic life around the Sound. As an outsider, the splendor of these waterways is overwhelming — admired even before you arrive on Seattle turf. According to the Puget Sound Shoreline Alliance, what we see today is, sadly, just a fraction of the original habitat. About 75 percent of the original marshes have been destroyed. And just 10 percent of the Sound’s shores are open to the public.
The loss of wetlands habitat is something I know well. San Francisco Bay lost 90 percent of its original marshes since the Gold Rush days of developmental fervor. As a result, wetlands restoration around the Bay is a critical and fast-growing endeavor. Swaths of reclaimed land and parks encircle the Bay. Many of the restored and protected marshes are a combination of public trails and protected habitat for resident and migrating species — and they’re my favorite locations to grab images of birds on digital.
The Alliance for Puget Sound Shorelines is working toward similar ends in the Seattle area and beyond — to, in their words, “protect and restore Washington’s remarkable inland sea.”
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