A brief walk in Seaview's dunes reveals two things: why they generate such passionate devotion and why all the fights over them are quite likely to become wasted energy.

This passion is shared by two groups who see themselves as having little in common.

Property owners know what a enchanting place the dunes are. In some cases, families have owned dune property for generations, while others have purchased land there more recently after deliberately searching for homes with a unique link to the ocean. In either case, they have exhibited a commitment to the area by putting their money where their hearts are. Paying premium prices and premium taxes, dune landowners demonstrate a year-in, year-out devotion to the beauty and soulful character of this rare place.

Visitors, coming to Seaview from cities where little natural habitat survives, are enraptured by the dunes. They don't see property lines, they don't see private local stewardship, they don't see agonizing political compromises. They see a magical spot that time seems to have forgotten, a bubble of purity in an American region that is increasingly spoiled by its own popularity. "Don't make the same mistakes made elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest," they sincerely plead.

It isn't just tourists or summer people who feel this strong conservation ethic. Many ordinary residents wish some legal mechanism could preserve the dunes from becoming just one more high-end residential development, while still honoring the private property rights that are so fundamental to American life.

It seems the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was willing to stretch itself considerably in finding a regulatory recipe for dune preservation. Along with Washington State Parks, the corps is to be commended for its idealism, tenacity and forethought. It's too bad, though, that it didn't move things along more quickly.

Although landowners and the Pacific County commissioners are bearing the brunt of criticism by would-be dune conservationists, this irritation is misplaced in this instance. Commissioners extended a permit moratorium longer than most rural leaders would have, finally allowing it to die only after lengthy delays in the formulation of a federally brokered deal and after firm rejection of any such a plan by a majority of landowners.

People have short memories, so it's easy to forget that no less authority than the U.S. Supreme Court specifically ruled who owns Washington coastal dunes in a 1967 decision. Justice Hugo Black wrote that U.S. law is clear: when ocean currents push sediment ashore, creating new land, it becomes the property of the private upland owners. Wishing these dunes were a park won't make it so.

But what the ocean has given, it is now taking away. The erosion that began clawing at Benson Beach in Cape Disappointment State Park nearly a decade ago has galloped north and is gobbling Seaview's primary westward dune. This was predicted by the U.S. Geological Survey and Washington Department of Natural Resources. Go out to the shore and you will see as much as a 10-foot-high vertical escarpment where dunes gently merged with the beach last summer. Even without factoring in rising sea levels, long-term changes in the quantity of sediment carried down the Columbia mean the ocean may swallow up the dunes by mid-century.

Whoever owns accreted land, responsible land-use planners will continue to discourage building on dunes that didn't exist a century ago and which won't exist a century from now. Home developers, buyers, lenders and insurers must all acknowledge this fact and assume all risk and liability if they choose to go ahead with construction. Don't come to taxpayers looking for a fix - you own the land and you own the problem.

Dunes are beautiful but inherently unstable. The ocean itself is telling us that it is time to redirect preservation efforts toward more durable areas.

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