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By Fred Swegles
If President Nixon hadn’t bought an oceanfront home on the southern tip of San Clemente in 1969, California might now be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the nation’s first state park dedicated to surfing: “Trestles State Park.”
Fifty years ago this week, San Clemente newspaper readers were greeted by a stunning headline.
In early 1969, the story said, Camp Pendleton and California’s parks department had been in the final stages of completing a deal to transfer 160 acres of Marine Corps land known for producing the best waves on the West Coast.
But when Nixon selected a secluded home on a bluff overlooking Trestles Beach as home for his Western White House, the Navy Department “refused to sign over the proposed park land to the state,” the Jan. 6, 1970 edition of the Daily Sun-Post article said.
Not Nixon’s Choice
There was no intent by Nixon to block the transfer, White House Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler told the newspaper. Presidential security made the decision that a public park 100 yards from the Western White House “would cause a serious security problem,” Ziegler said.
Trestles State Park would have occupied a mile of coast bordering San Clemente. The plan was to preserve a San Mateo Creek lagoon and wetland, while providing 200 campsites and 1,800 parking spaces for day use. State Parks Director William Penn Mott “vowed to go to Washington later this month to fight for the park,” the article said.
The White House press secretary “held out hope that an alternate park site could be developed on the Camp Pendleton coast,” the story said.
This was the first of many news stories about the aborted Trestles State Park and its aftermath, generating some of the biggest San Clemente headlines of 1970.
Nixon Orders a Park
The next headline, on Jan. 19, 1970, proclaimed “New State Park Okayed by Nixon.” Reporter Craig Van Note wrote of the president’s announcement that a 160-acre stretch of beach south of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station would replace Trestles State Park.
The new site couldn’t remotely compare to Trestles for surf qualify, state officials admitted, but it would open up new public coastline and provide critically needed campsites atop the bluffs.
“The Camp Pendleton property will be swapped straight across for state lands in Northern California,” the article stated.
State officials had hoped to open a rudimentary park that June 15, only to see the land transfer fizzle.
“High level officers are against turning over any of the vast military base for public use because it would set a precedent and launch more public demand for unused portions of the camp,” a May 15 article declared.
Mott remained optimistic. “It seems to take an awful long time to get these things negotiated,” he said. He disclosed that it took seven years to negotiate a land transfer for Trestles, and it had been on the verge of reality when Nixon moved in next door.
A subsequent article said that negotiations broke down, as the Marines would offer only a lease that would expire when Nixon left office—seven years maximum—or shorter, if the base wanted to revoke it.
State officials rejected that, saying it wouldn’t be worth the expense of developing the park.
In fact, the state wanted to expand the then-proposed 1.5 miles of beachfront to 4.5 miles, making room for 2,000 campsites atop the coastal bluffs.
The state was facing a deficiency of 3,000 campsites in Southern California, officials said. San Onofre’s two closest parks, San Clemente and Doheny, had to turn away 60,000 campers the prior year, the state reported.
Under White House pressure, Camp Pendleton offered a 25-year lease.
“Nixon Enters Fight Over Beach Park,” the next headline announced. Van Note reported that California Gov. Ronald Reagan and U.S. Sen. George Murphy had dined with Nixon in San Clemente. The story said the state was prepared to push for all the land south of the nuclear plant to the Interstate-5 Freeway’s scenic lookout—“land almost totally unused by the Marines because of the high bluffs, deep canyons and proximity to the freeway.”
The State Wins
On Sept. 17, a banner headline proclaimed “State Wins On Marine Beach.” It said that the Marines, under Congressional pressure, had tersely agreed to open up 3.5 miles of coast, expected to accommodate 1,000 campsites, from the nuclear plant to within a mile of the freeway lookout point.
“San Onofre State Park will be the largest beach camping park in the nation,” the article said. Discussions to consummate a 25-year lease would begin immediately.
That wasn’t to be the end of it. A 50-year lease would be finalized on Aug. 31, 1971. The state reports that the park, which now includes Trestles and a campground and trails inland of I-5, attracts nearly 2.5 million visitors per year. The lease, now covering some 2,000 acres, expires in 2021.
State and federal officials are discussing what comes after that. There have been no public announcements.
Contacted recently, San Onofre Parks Foundation’s Steve Long, who retired in 2008 after 30 years as a state parks lifeguard and administrator in San Clemente, said he was aware of a plan for a Trestles State Park. But he hadn’t heard how it ended.
He said he’d heard that “the Marines were saying, ‘Wait a second, we’re in the thick of the Vietnam War,’ ” so they didn’t want to discuss it.
Long was intrigued by the series of 1970 news articles, which can be found on microfilm at the San Clemente Library. He suggested the San Onofre foundation add them to its archives.
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with nearly five decades of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org