For many years, the residents of Fort Bragg, like those of many coastal communities, tossed their trash over the headlands. There was a designated and accepted dumping spot, and the garbage just sort of accumulated there. Eventually, someone decided that this wasn’t a terribly bright idea, and a more sustainable method of waste disposal was developed, but the garbage was left behind, creating Glass Beach.
Glass Beach is often touted as a uniquely Fort Bragg thing, but it’s really not. In fact, pretty much all coastal communities have a beach covered in old garbage. As the name suggests, Glass Beach has a lot of sea glass, old glass which has been smoothed out by the ocean. And, at one point, it was pretty neat. There was a thick layer of glass instead of sand, and it was fun to wander around and look at. And, yes, some people undoubtedly took a bit of glass away with them when they came, but the beach wasn’t well known, and glass rolled in from the ocean, so it evened out.
But then, Glass Beach started getting publicized and popularized. And now, the sea glass is rapidly dwindling. In fact, I went to take pictures, and I realized that Glass Beach looks pretty much like a beach again, with small chunks of material here and there which might be glass, or might be pebbles, at least from a distance. Rusting relics can be seen embedded in the rocks which surround the beach, which is rather fascinating, but I find it interesting that a generation of tourists has basically managed to accomplish an environmental cleanup all on their own, while destroying a site of historical interest.
I’ve heard people argue that since Glass Beach wasn’t meant to be covered in glass naturally, the tourists are doing a service. And, like I said, they basically stripped the site of all movable former garbage, which is a sense of environmental cleanup. But it’s also a destruction of history and heritage, and not long from now, people will be wondering why it’s called “Glass Beach” when there’s no glass. And as long as the former garbage wasn’t harmful, which I don’t believe it was (discarded containers of paint and solvents and stuff were way more of an issue, and tourists definitely weren’t cleaning that up), I kind of wish that it had been left in place.
What happened to Glass Beach kind of exemplifies everything that is wrong with tourism. Tourists discover a place which is different or unique or interesting, they tell everyone about it, and they destroy it. Sometimes literally, as with Glass Beach, and sometimes figuratively, by sucking the soul out of something so completely that there’s nothing left.
I don’t think there’s much that could have been done to protect Glass Beach. People want souveneirs wherever they go, and short of checking people’s pockets on their way out, people couldn’t keep tourists from stripping the beach of everything movable. But perhaps there could have been a sign, gently pointing out that garbage is not a renewable resource in this case, and that by leaving things in situ, people could have ensured that future generations would have enjoyed them.