The Beach Beautification Project: How Adopt-a-Beach Began

December, 2015

The following was sent to us in part as an ode to Sid Dominitz for the Oct/Nov issue of EcoNews, published here in the interest of providing a more detailed history of the origins of what has now become the Adopt-a-Beach and Coastal Cleanup Day programs, and a glimpse of early environmentalism on the North Coast.

To explain my part in the Adopt-a-Beach Program, believed to be the genesis of the largest single day volunteer effort in the United States, it’s necessary to understand that I am of Humboldt County. Although born and raised in Eureka, I’ve lived these past 35 years elsewhere, from Seattle to Madison, Wisconsin, and back to California—Salinas, then Alaska, back to Davis, Santa Cruz, and these past 25 years in Chico. Yet if asked where’s home, I say Humboldt County.

I hunted, fished, and played ball, worked in two lumber mills, the Public Guardian’s Office, Humboldt State University Foundation, and the Public Health Department. I also worked in the hills, Panther Gap to be specific, in the early days of the green trade.

Those were merely jobs to me; another place, the Northcoast Environmental Center, germinated a seed planted long before and changed my perception of my place in the world.
In part it began in biology class circa 1968, when a College of the Redwoods instructor mentioned the word “environmentalism,” explaining it would be a significant scientific field in the future and would increase awareness of natural systems and human influence on them. Although not a particularly astute student I nevertheless made note, and shortly after had occasion to mull the concept of human influence on wild places, albeit in a seemingly trifling manner.

At seventeen years old with no place to get drunk, four friends and I parked on a dirt road beyond Cutten. As usual, we threw our beer empty bottles on the roadside, sometimes breaking them, sometimes not. The rest of the garbage went the same way. Then an older close friend decided he’d seen enough to “kick the ass of the next guy who littered.” The thought startled me; I wasn’t particularly worried about the ass-kicking but it was the notion—the first time a peer was concerned with litter. And he was (is) a friend whose words are worthy of consideration. But really, who cared if you threw your shit around?

That I remember that moment indicates the idea had some impact on me. Little by little, I became aware of litter. The stuff was, in those days, everywhere, and until then I’d hardly noticed. These days it’s difficult to imagine oblivion when confronted by the crap people leave lying about. It disgusts most of us. When one visits places in other countries (the Yucatan Peninsula comes to mind) one is overwhelmed by the volume of litter, but in the ‘60s, despite national “litterbug” campaigns, to a teenager the stuff seemed a natural part of the landscape. It was essentially so ubiquitous as to be a natural and eventual component of human presence.

Ignorance aside, I did stop throwing around beer bottles and most other trash, though as a teen I smoked and littered a box-worth of Marlboro filters every day. Cigarette filters weren’t considered litter yet.

With time came inevitable wisdom, possibly, and I began to loathe the garbage and environmental degradation I was seeing. In-your-face piles of broken bottles and garbage left at beach accesses. Old appliances. Mattresses. Probably, individually, people were tossing less litter than in previous decades, but Humboldt County’s beauty attracted a population influx that increased litter—becoming an impediment to enjoyment. Humboldt County, my home, ws getting ruined.

At that point I was living in a friend’s house at Manila (which is where the rich people would live if it were any place other than Humboldt County), and dodging broken bottles and trash in my bare feet as I ran four or five miles on the beach every morning before work. I began a slow burn. My girlfriend and I began carrying away beach litter we encountered, and it felt good to make an effort, though a small one. I became obsessed, like the boy in John Updike’s “A&P.” It’s fatal when you take a moral stand because it’s impossible to retreat from it.

By 1977, I’d decided to propose a grant to clean Humboldt’s beaches. Now the idea seems absurd to think of finding funding to clean beaches, but sometimes youthful enthusiasm prevails. My girlfriend, now wife, Dr. Ann Morrissey, had experience as a grant writer, laying out the financial component of the grant for what can be considered a shoestring budget. Working together, we finished the application in one evening: I composing, she budgeting.

The Beach Beautification Project proposal was conjured on a ‘50s-era manual Tower President typewriter with a worn-out ribbon. Still have it and haven’t used it since.
I had approached Northercoast Environmental Center director Tim McKay with the concept of a grant-funded beach cleaning project. Tim was skeptical about success but said the Center would sponsor the project if I could find funding.

The plan was to have a three person crew scour the entirety of Humboldt County’s accessible beaches. I wrote the grant with the intention of community outreach locating beach cleaning volunteers among juvenile offenders, schools, civic groups, and whomever we could convince. At the time there was no plan for the Adopt-a-Beach project to continue past grant funding, two years.

Director McKay was surprised when the grant was accepted for $29,000, but I knew we would be successful. Judy (cannot recall her last name) would be crew leader while Sid Dominitz (recently deceased) and I were crew. We “rented” my ‘53 Chevy truck for mileageand filled it with gunny sacks. There was little planning other than to “do it.”

Arriving at Dominitz’ Trinidad house that first morning, I honked the horn several times and Sid, coffee cup in hand, casually wandered out the door. Annoyed with the honking, he asked, “What is this, high school?” That set the tone for mornings we cleaned north of Arcata and stopped to pick up Sid. Seemed like he was always having a smoke or sitting on the john when we got there. He had perfect timing.

Also comes to mind the morning when our crew had grown by several guys and Sid came outside with boxing gloves. Asked if anyone wanted to spar. I was game and went at it with Sid. He cleaned my clock. Seems Sid had Golden Glove experience as a youth in New York City. Pretty funny though I was furious at the time.Working side by side, I wound up loving the guy. His New York humor was cynical and infectious; he was clever and quick-witted company on even bitter cold and rainy mornings.

In time our crew grew by a few more CETA workers. Unfortunately for them, the new guys rode in the back of my truck (under my homemade hippie canopy without windows). Winter was miserable back there and the way home smelled of garbage.

We had occasional juvenile offenders working short-term and were supplemented by two work-release crew from San Quentin prison. One asked me my angle for working so hard without pay equal to the effort, not understanding why we would clean up just because it was right. We also worked with several schools, girl and boy scouts, and groups beyond my recall. A girl scout council sent me a certificate for Environmentalist of the Year—an honor remains dear to me.

The crew started at Prairie Creek and worked south each day at every accessible Humboldt County beach, to Shelter Cove. One lucky day: I found twenty bucks, a pair of newer tennis shoes my size, and a fishing pole along the sanded logs.

Of course most of what we recovered was plastic, glass, and tires. And as mentioned, diapers. Lots of disposable dirty diapers, particularly along the Clam Beach frontal road. We wondered what kind of scumbag leaves his child’s messy diapers to spoil the beach experience for others.

At the end of every day we sorted, recycling what we could at the Arcata Recycling Center, recorded our tally of total weight and recyclables (over 25% for the year and a half I worked at NEC) and odd finds. The bulk went to the dump. I still possess the Czech fisherman’s hat I wore for weeks. We did a weekly dead bird count for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory as part of the effort and a dead marine mammal count for the Marine Mammal Center. We found and photographed a dead western grebe with its neck in a plastic six-pack band. Nice shot for the Econews front page.

Fridays we did presentations for schools and civic clubs to solicit volunteers for beach cleaning events. I opened the presentations with background and discoveries, but Sid shined at convincing groups to take up arms against littered beaches. We discovered even stridently conservative groups opposed to gratuitous government spending shared our enthusiasm for clean shores, especially when they learned how fugal our efforts.

We had taken over 21 tons of waste material and garbage (and accursed abandoned tires—toted over sand for several miles off Humboldt County beaches, all lugged on our backs to our parked truck. I never could ignore a beached tire though my erstwhile crew occasionally did). We were aware dirty beaches attracted more filth, and clean beaches stayed that way considerably longer. We knew the beaches would quickly revert to pre-cleanup messes.

About this time I was leaving the crew to heading east with my girlfriend. With a half-year left before the grant would expire, Tim and Sid came up with the Adopt-a-Beach concept to keep the cleanup going. I was initially skeptical, but we  commenced outreach while I was still working with the crew. I believe Sid volunteered to take on College Cove. Shortly after, I was gone.

Sid took over as crew leader and gamely the remaining crew loaded trash bags into the trunk of his old Plymouth, a vehicle roughly as dependable as my Chevy pickup. He and Tim worked their magic which, as mentioned, became an NEC legacy: the largest single-day volunteer effort in the United States and probably the world.

Ann and I are proud to have written the original grant and I’m proud to have worked it. I cared a great deal for Tim and Sid and I have enormous admiration for both. Our love for Humboldt County is unabated, of course, and my appreciation for the Northcoast Environmental Center is undiminished. It’s encouraging to see how far a bit of youthful idealism can go toward making the world a little better.