The case for letting us camp in Malibu

The Malibu City Council's vote this week to ban camping on many public lands is unlikely to prevent any future fires. It is, as far as I know, the first official measure (since the fires, of course) that the city has taken to prevent future fires. It is as predictable as it is...well, choose your own adjective here.

The L.A. Times reported last week that 3% of all wildfires in all of California are caused by campfires. Lightning has ignited more fires than camping. As Malibu councilmember and former mayor Ken Kearsley said, "There is not one scintilla of evidence...that camping is going to start more fires....Legal campsites, supervised, it doesn't happen"--and then he voted for the ban. The leading cause of fires, rather, is the use of power tools and equipment. The second is vehicles. The primary causes of fires, in other words, are the activities associated with people's normal and everyday use of these canyons.

The camping ban calls to mind two recent confrontations I have had about Malibu--the first on Broad Beach in August, when the L.A. Urban Rangers led our "safaris" to the Malibu public beaches, and the second when I was in North Carolina just after the October fires.

In North Carolina, my east-coast friends demanded to know why we in southern California allow the "rich people in Malibu" to continue to live in places where fires are inevitable. Never mind that more than a dozen other fires blazed across the region: I replied to my friends that perhaps they were reading a tad too much Mike Davis, and that a fire in Malibu is not necessarily a morality play about the foibles of rich people. Fires will happen in these canyons. People will live in the canyons. (And as the L.A. Times also just reported, not everyone in Malibu is all that rich--which is true, even if the accompanying photo of the woman with the Range Rover didn't really make the case.)

The question is less whether we should live in the canyons but how. And as Davis has indeed taught us, an important allied question is who benefits from living there and who then pays for the predictable fires. If we as the public give the thumbs up to development in these canyons, and that development requires a measure of wealth to enjoy, and the larger public pays the bulk of the costs to protect these homes from fires... Well, it would be nice at least if these lucky homeowners didn't proceed to restrict access to the adjacent public lands--and to use the fires we pay for as an excuse to do so. It would be wonderful if, instead of rushing to ban camping, the Malibu City Council would seriously tackle the extent of development, as well as the regulation of safer ways to build and to landscape, in these places where fires are going to happen.

In the first confrontation, in August in Malibu, a Broad Beach homeowner--who turned out to be a long-time and deservedly well-respected advocate for coastal protection--drove her Range Rover (I think it was) down to the L.A. Urban Rangers registration table to lecture us on the environmental dangers of public access to the beaches. I have received e-mails to the same effect, and have heard many other beachfront homeowners make that same argument.

Now clearly, public visitation is hardly zero-impact...but neither is the dense coastal development on Broad Beach. The greatest source of environmental change and damage to the Malibu coast is clearly the close proximity of development. I don't think people shouldn't live right on the beaches--just as I don't think people shouldn't be allowed to live in the canyons--though it should be done as sustainably as possible, ideally without endless challenges to Coastal Commission regulations. But when owners of sizable houses 100 feet from the tide line warn that allowing beachcombers other than themselves on the public beaches will destroy the environment...and they do it on on a beach where the notorious efforts just a few summers ago to re-engineer the tide line created extensive environmental damage...and they live in a city that is notorious for its stormwater runoff, and has been found to have hundreds and hundreds of illegal drainage pipes, and that not coincidentally has some of the state's dirtiest beaches.... Well, that is a bit myopic. And it reminds me of how the new camping ban in Malibu places the blame on public access to public lands, rather than concentrates on making one's own efforts to live in one's own city more sustainable.

The problem isn't that people live 100 feet from the tide line--or in canyons that will burn. The problem is that you have to do it as wisely as possible. And if you blame outsiders for the environmental problems for which you are in large part responsible, and you then use that as an excuse to restrict public access to the gorgeous public lands you are fortunate and affluent enough to live next to....

And if you then also treat these public lands as if they are yours alone to use and regulate.... Well, in that case, the dirty beaches and the fires in Malibu can become a morality play about the foibles of.... Well, you know.

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