Another 4th of July has come and gone. It happens every year yet not a thing has been put in place by Pacific County government to mitigate the impact felt on the peninsula when thousands and thousands of people come to shoot legal and illegal fireworks on the peninsula, leaving us with astronomical amounts of garbage, increased danger of wild and neighborhood fires and damage to our environment. To be fair, many are respectful of our homes, but more than enough appear to not give care at all. The refusal of our county government to make the changes needed regarding this annual onslaught can no longer be tolerated.
In 2015, the enormous aftermath of unrelenting “celebrations” left one person dead and 37 tons of trash. Per a story in the Chinook Observer, Washington State Department of Transportation estimated over 100,000 people traveled to the peninsula’s beaches. Hundreds were camping illegally and without sanitation. The tons of trash were collected and disposed of by the diligent work of 700 volunteers via Grass Roots Garbage Gang. You can track the increase of garbage and volunteers since 2002 by going to their website, www.ourbeach.org and clicking on the Garbage by Numbers page.
What isn’t listed is the cost to dump the garbage and to provide the trash bags handed out to cars entering the beach. Or the cost to pay overtime of law enforcement, fire, parks and other agencies during the eight days currently allowed by our county to discharge fireworks. Washington State Parks has paid the dump fees for the beaches bordering unincorporated areas (the majority) of the peninsula over the last several years. Donations have covered the bags. The City of Long Beach takes care of their costs and Pacific County? 2020 is the first time I was aware of any dumpsters (two, I believe) placed on the unincorporated approaches by the county. Commissioner Lisa Olsen made that happen.
On July 18, 2021, GRGG posted this year’s totals — 40 tons! Even when keeping in mind that the totals are for three days (July 4, 5 and 6) which is different from other years, and that they include Long Beach dumpsters along with the unincorporated beach approach dumpsters, the number is staggering.
I love legal fireworks. I don’t want a ban. I want a reduction of days they can be discharged — my preference would be one, the day of the holiday. I want all agencies and jurisdictions to work together to manage this continually growing chaos. I want them to find a cost efficient solution. A reduction makes sense — limited resources would not have to be spread so thin, opening the way for better enforcement over a shorter amount of time. It’s time to end the lame excuses from county as to why we can’t improve the situation. It’s time for action.
Brief history of ‘Better Plan’
Every year at this time, the efforts of the group Not a Ban a Better Plan are criticized. This small group of organizers worked steadily from 2015 to early 2019 to make a change. Nonetheless, it did not happen. Here’s a short history of the group. When names are mentioned, it is because it is important to the narrative of what happened. It is also important to know we were a group of documentors. Emails, correspondence, meeting notes, everything has been saved. The following is not from memory, it can be backed up.
On July 14, 2015, the first public town hall was held. I know because I organized it. Although groups from previous years had been stonewalled in their attempts to improve the situation, the devastation on the beaches of 2015 spurred me to act. Representatives from the jurisdictions and agencies with the ability to make a change or improve the situation were invited. A followup meeting was held Aug. 6. Both were standing room only. Between the two meeting dates, attendance included all three commissioners (Frank Wolfe, Steve Rogers and Ayers were in office at that time) the CDC director, the Sheriff’s Department, Fire District #1, Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Patrol, the City of Long Beach including their Police Department, and Washington State Parks. Then-state Sen. Dean Takko asked to speak at the Aug. 6 meeting.
In response to the town hall invitation, State Parks SW Region Manager Ryan Layton wrote, “It is Washington State Parks’ position that the holiday activities have grown to a proportion that is well above manageable levels on the Long Beach [peninsula] section of the Seashore Conservation Area. We would like to work with the communities and local jurisdictions to organize some change in the Holiday activities.” That was very encouraging and they were true to their word.
A partnership was formed with these agencies and Not a Ban a Better Plan. The mission was to manage the holiday better. Multiple meetings were held from 2015 to 2018. State Parks really stepped up to the challenge by committing five years of extra effort to improve the situation. That would bring us to 2020, the next time the holiday fell on a weekend. Knowing the procedure to amend the Washington State Fireworks statute would take well over a year, the five-year commitment seemed reasonable.
State Parks gave full access to their communication department to Not a Ban a Better Plan. Working with then-Communications Director Virginia Painter, the Beach Friendly 4th and Neighborhood Friendly campaigns were developed. Educational materials helped the public understand what the rules were. In 2017 alone, 17,000 of these flyers were distributed on the peninsula via work by the Visitors Bureau, the Ocean Park Area Chamber and the Not a Ban steering committee. This made an impact on behavior.
By bringing additional park rangers to the beach in 2016 (17 rangers) and 2017 (24 rangers), the illegal camping situation was reduced to zero and kept there until this year. This was a team effort by State Parks, the Sheriff’s Department (then-Sheriff Scott Johnson deputized all rangers) and Fish and Wildlife. Fire District #1 was present on the beach and at approaches and they remain an integral part to this day. Although county commissioners were present at these meetings, very little help was offered.
Reduction plan advances…
Meanwhile, the steering committee, led by Magen Michaud, met every week to plan, coordinate efforts with agencies and work towards a three-day reduction. Five people did the majority of this organizational work. It looked like things were progressing towards a reduction. The group sent surveys to the public in 2015 and 2017. The 2018 survey was the last one sent from Not a Ban. The following is from Magen’s brief synopsis of those results:
1. We did a survey in 2015 to gauge the community feeling of the 2015 July 4th experience and their main concerns. There were 359 respondents. 75% identified as permanent residents. 76% said they were unsatisfied with 4th of July experience.
2. We did the next survey in 2017 with questions drilling down into possible solutions and identifying their zip code. We got 596 respondents and 74% identified as permanent residents. 80% wanted a reduction in the legal discharge days (ranging from a total ban to just eliminating July 5th). 23% of the respondents wanted a total ban with just city-sponsored shows allowed.
3. We did another survey in 2018 with members of the visitor bureau. This was in response to the county commissioners saying a change would hurt local businesses. That had 109 respondents with 77% identifying as local business owners. 71% wanted a reduction in legal discharge.
…And then dies
But then, in 2017, just as we thought it was really going to happen — boom. Magen’s letter to the membership describes what stopped the work:
“The 2017 survey was in response to the local jurisdiction’s reluctance to respond to a previous survey and numerous town hall meetings. Preliminary contacts with the Pacific County Commissioners and the Long Beach City Council in 2016 led us to believe they would respond to the citizens’ requests and start the process of considering a reduction. We were discussing a possible launch of the public process with the County Commissioners. They were not willing to move forward unless all jurisdictions agreed; we also believed that all jurisdictions on the Peninsula need the same regulations. Long Beach Council was contacted preparatory to beginning the public process in early 2017. However, they said there was no Council consensus and, therefore, they were not going to pursue a change. This ended the effort because of Pacific County’s stipulation.”
It is important to note that Mayor Jerry Phillips had previously been in favor of a reduction to three days. He had been actively engaged in meetings since 2015. The abrupt change of a lack of consensus on the city council was a complete surprise to Not a Ban. However, during a follow up meeting with Mayor Phillips and City Administrator Dave Glasson, Long Beach suggested that a meeting initiated by the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), that included leadership from Long Beach, Ilwaco, the county, as well as the cities of South Bend and Raymond, State Parks and Not a Ban would be appropriate to discuss the next steps. Magen immediately sent an email to the BOCC with their suggestion. Time was of the essence.
The only reply came from Commissioner Wolfe. He said that he did not think it would be productive as he had no indication Long Beach would be interested. He also made it clear he was speaking for himself and not the BOCC. His response was confusing because it had been Long Beach who made the suggestion to meet.
A second request was made to have “one meeting to discuss all aspects,” but once again only Commissioner Wolfe replied, saying, “In summation, with the present situation, I see no need for a meeting between Long Beach, Ilwaco and County officials regarding this matter at this time.” The other commissioners did not respond and that was that.
The Not a Ban a Better Plan group continued to work through 2018 but by 2019 they disbanded. It was not from lack of desire and work that nothing happened. They had brought all the players to the table, had found agreement on many issues, seen positive changes take place, but the BOCC’s refusal to take action sunk the ship.
As I write this column, I received a message from Magen saying the Long Beach City Council was meeting tonight (July 19, 2021). Looks like discussion of a fireworks reduction to three days was on the agenda. Good for them. It still leaves the fate of the unincorporated area of the peninsula — all the beach approaches other than Bolstad and Sid Snyder and all the neighborhoods other than Long Beach and Ilwaco — in the hands of the BOCC. Maybe this time they will take the initiative.
The ball is in the county’s court, but I am not holding my breath.