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San O, a Cornerstone of California Surf Culture, Deserves to Be Protected

By Jake Howard

While surfers of every walk of life revel daily in the timeless bohemian surf vibes at San Onofre, the winds of change are swirling. Or maybe they’re not. It all just depends how things shake out in the not-too-distant future.

Looming on the horizon is the end of California’s 50-year lease of San Onofre from the U.S. Department of the Navy. The lease, which was signed in 1971, was officially set to expire this month, but an anticipated three-year extension now being negotiated would extend the lease until August 2024.

The stakes are pretty clear. The powers that be in the U.S. government could decide to renew the lease for another 50 years (or any other number of years) and our surf life as we know it would continue uninterrupted. Or they could redefine the nature of the agreement, meaning that either part or all of the land in the San Onofre State Park would go back to the military.

The area that’s currently being leased is some of Southern California’s most pristine and prized surfing grounds. It stretches from San Mateo Point (Cotton’s) all the way through Trail 6 at the Bluffs Campground. It also comprises nearly 2,000 acres of land, including camping facilities.

Historically speaking, folks have been surfing at San Onofre for nearly a century now, but it wasn’t until 1952 that the Marine Corps allowed the formation of the San Onofre Surf Club, granting access to the beach to the club’s initial 400 members.

By the early ’70s, San O was a vital part of the California State Parks system and continues to be one of the most popular parks in the state to this day.

One of the wild cards in all of this is that the lease for the State Park in 2024 would be up for renewal not long after the lease for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). Because they share the same general area, it’s believed that the Navy’s decision to support a lease extension at San Onofre might factor into what’s happening with the nuclear plant.

“Surfrider believes a lease extension will provide the Department of the Navy, which owns the Camp Pendleton property, with a path towards planning for a long-term lease renewal of San Onofre,” said Surfrider’s Stefanie Sekich-Quinn.

“The timing of the park lease extension would coincide with the decommissioning and dismantlement of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station,” she continued. “In 2024, an easement between Camp Pendleton and SONGS’ operators is set to expire. Surfrider believes a park lease extension will provide the DON with additional time to collectively analyze the issues regarding the park and SONGS leases.”

According to Southern California Edison, the lease for the property is set to expire in May 2023.

Needless to say, it’s complicated. But what isn’t complicated is that for 50 years now, the surf community and Department of the Navy have been outstanding partners at San Onofre, and it would be a beautiful thing to see that relationship continue for another 50 years.

As mentioned, San Onofre is one of the most popular locations in the State Park system and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world every year. And for the Navy, having the park located where it is, not only provides military personnel with a picturesque spot to relax with friends and family, it also offers a unique buffer between Camp Pendleton and the general public.

And San Onofre isn’t just another surf spot on the California coast. Its deep, rich history predates any European activity in the area.

Eight thousand years ago, the village of Panhe was a sacred ceremonial cultural and burial site for the Acjachemen people. It wasn’t surfed for the first time until the mid-1930s.

Quickly becoming an early epicenter for California beach culture, it’s long been one of the main gathering points for surfers on the West Coast.

It’s hard to imagine the California and local surf scenes without San Onofre.

Jake Howard is local surfer and freelance writer who lives in San Clemente. A former editor at Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and ESPN, today he writes for a number of publications, including Picket Fence Media, Surfline and the World Surf League. He also works with philanthropic organizations such as the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center and the Positive Vibe Warriors Foundation.

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