A century-old Victorian style lighthouse still beams like a jewel on a scenic stretch of coastline near Avila Beach, as hardworking volunteers continue a major restoration effort on the venerable and architecturally lauded structure. Yet this Central Coast historical monument, members of the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers point out, remains rarely seen by the public at large.
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
# A rugged 3.7-mile hiking trail leads from Port San Luis to the lighthouse and beyond to Rattlesnake Canyon, offering spectacular bird's-eye views over the coast along the way. To take the hike, though, currently requires signing up for scheduled hikes far in advance with PG&E, undergoing a Homeland Security check at the Diablo Nuclear Power Plant gate, and being accompanied every step of the way by a PG&E-approved docent.
Moves are afoot to change that system, however. The Coastal Commission is asking PG&E to increase public access to the Pecho Coast Trail, and the Lighthouse Keepers would also like to see more visitors.
The lighthouse and its surrounds are owned by a public entity, the Port San Luis Harbor District, which bought the site for $1 from the federal government in 1992 "for public park and public recreation area purposes," according to the deed. Harbor commissioners elected by voters from San Luis Obispo to the southern county line decided at their June 26 meeting that they'd also like to see better public access, with or without docents.
"To be led or not to be led that is the issue," explained harbor facilities manager Steve McGrath.
Nature enthusiasts from the Sierra Club, the local Surfrider Foundation, and Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers joined the Lighthouse Keepers to ask for the harbor commissioners' support for more access than the erratically scheduled, often-cancelled docent-led hikes offered by PG&E.
"We're looking for a little more freedom for qualified hikers," explained Andrew Merriam, president of the Lighthouse Keepers.
"I hiked the trail years ago as a Boy Scout, since it was open till PG&E took over the land," said Lighthouse Keeper Stew Jenkins, a former harbor commissioner. "It's no more rugged than hiking Bishop Peak, which has free access with no sign-in. It presents no more fire danger than Bishop Peak."
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
# Jenkins and others support the idea of hikers signing in and out rather than always being required to be with a docent guide, who explains some of the natural history and the human history along the trail.
"Many people, on the fifth time out to the lighthouse, might not want to hear about the wood rat every time," he noted.
Harbor Commissioner Carolyn Moffatt recently completed PG&E's docent training program, and supported the idea of docent-led hikes.
"The natural resources between the gate and the lighthouse are precious and irreplaceable. The archaeological resources, the lichen, every small detail is precious and irreplaceable. With thousands of people at Avila Beach, I feel unrestricted access on the Pecho Coast Trail would threaten those resources," Moffatt said.
Harbor district board president Jim Blecha agreed, saying, "The resources are too sensitive to allow non-docent access. You're going to find a lot of the resources will go away."
Blecha's wife, Sally Krenn, is the docent trainer for PG&E, which Blecha said "might sound like a conflict
of interest." He noted that he would not recuse himself from voting on the issue because the docent work is "a fairly small part" of his wife's job, and doesn't affect his livelihood.
Harbor commissioners supported the idea of exploring a variety of options for increasing access, including having hikers sign in and out, or the use of global positioning or other software to keep track of hikers. These concepts will be discussed at a meeting planned for July 9 between the Harbor District, PG&E, the Coastal Commission, and the Lighthouse Keepers, during the Coastal Commission's five-day meeting in San Luis Obispo.
A requirement for PG&E to provide more public access to the coast was handed down by the Coastal Commission as part of a coastal development permit for the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant's planned dry cask storage of radioactive waste. Discussions between the Coastal Commission and PG&E have so far focused on the northern end of PG&E land, adjacent to Monta"a de Oro State Park.
As part of the access requirement, PG&E has agreed to open a new trail to what's known as the North Ranch. The "soft date" for that trail's opening is July 13, according to PG&E representative Pat Mullen. Hikers will be asked to sign in and out, with docents along the trail to answer questions but not accompanying the hikers.
"We've never had non-docent-led access. This is the first time. It's very different for us," said Mullen, adding that North Ranch will be a pilot program.
"There are a lot of details, with issues of security, liability, vandalism, fire, and knowing who's on the property," he told the harbor district meeting.
For now, discussions are continuing, and Coastal Commission members plan to take a field trip to the Pecho Coast Trail and the Point San Luis Lighthouse on July 11. As Coastal Commission staffer Linda Locklin said, "We're trying to get away from the need to plan months in advance [for members of the public] to take the hike."
Freelance journalist Kathy Johnston may be reached at email@example.com.