Perspective: Coastal challengesThe Sea Wanted to Take This California Lighthouse. Now, It’s Part of a Conflict Between a Town and Two Tribes

Published 2 December 2019

For decades, the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse stood like atop the coastal bluff overlooking the rocky outcrops of Trinidad Bay in northern California. But then, climate change began to take its toll: “the ground began to crumble. Rain moved the earth. The bluff cracked, a sidewalk warped, and thus ended the charmed life of the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse, which suddenly threatened to slide into the Pacific,” Hailey Branson-Potts writes.

For decades, the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse stood like atop the coastal bluff overlooking the rocky outcrops of Trinidad Bay in northern California. The picturesque lighthouse, with its cherry-red roof and bright white walls, was so much a part of the life of the tiny town of Trinidad – population 360 — that its image is included in the city’s logo.

But then, Hailey Branson-Potts writes in the Los Angeles Times, “the ground began to crumble. Rain moved the earth. The bluff cracked, a sidewalk warped, and thus ended the charmed life of the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse, which suddenly threatened to slide into the Pacific.”

She writes:

What followed was a drama in this Humboldt County hamlet, population 360, involving two Native American tribes, a women’s civic club and existential questions about California’s storied coastline and the forces of climate change.

In its own humble way, the lighthouse — which was moved, at least temporarily, to a harbor parking lot — stands as a harbinger of conflicts to come in the Golden State, where coastal land is being lost to a rising and warming ocean and eroding coastal cliffs are increasingly likely to fail. Seaside communities hoping to save their infrastructure have been left to debate options such as building sea walls, adding sand to disappearing beaches or opting for managed retreat — pushing buildings back from the water’s edge.

“The coast in California is falling apart,” said Jennifer Savage, policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal protection group. “It’s flooding. I think we will see more structures being relocated from dangerous locations because we will see more dangerous locations up and down the coast.”

Here in Trinidad, hard feelings linger over the lighthouse move.

The Memorial Lighthouse was built in 1949, a concrete replica of the still-functioning Trinidad Head Lighthouse that has stood on a nearby rock promontory since 1871.

If the geological problems undermining the lighthouse were not enough, members of the Yurok Indian tribe claim that the lighthouse was built on sacred Indian graveyard. Members of the tribe say that now that the lighthouse has been removed, it should never be returned to the site.

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