State Parks officials feel for the nearly 100-year-old palms at Refugio State Beach, where waves and wind have badgered the trees to the foot of the sea.
But because relocating the trees or armoring the coastline with boulders would be too expensive — and might not save them anyway — officials are letting Mother Nature take its course.
Recent storms during what’s predicted to be a record El Niño winter season have exposed some of the trees’ roots, alerting visitors to the issues of a sand-starved tide line.
“It’s definitely something that’s on our radar,” said State Park Superintendent Eric Hjelstrom, who has overseen the Santa Barbara County coastline for the past 15 years.
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“It’s one of those things where I don’t know that there’s a happy ending to the story. This is something that’s been going on for decades. The only viable solution is to accept the ocean is eroding our coastline.”
What used to be three neat lines of palm trees planted back in the 1920s at the Pacific Ocean’s edge is down to one, he said, with about 15 palms.
So far this storm season, the park has lost two palm trees to erosion. A third died of natural (internal) causes.
“I think people have a real attachment to the nice, orderly row right along the coast,” Hjelstrom said. “I get that, but Mother Nature doesn’t like straight lines. These waves are moving a lot of earth.”
The state has already investigated getting emergency permits to armor the coastline — involving a host of stage agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers — but Hjelstrom has to weigh the loss of a tree with the cost of a solution that might not yield results.
Adding rocks to bolster the coastline would inevitably cause accelerated erosion somewhere north or south of Refugio, he said.
Moving the palm trees is also risky, since they’re currently protecting the park’s infrastructure.
Hjelstrom found solace in the fact that some 100 of the same exact palm trees have sprouted up throughout the state park.
“We have to kind of let nature do its thing. Palm trees don’t live forever.”
At the same time, Hjelstrom said he wouldn’t count the trees out, either.
“We have pretty tenacious trees,” he said. “You’d be surprised how much they can stand.”