State of the Beach/State Reports/WA/Beach Access

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The provision of public access to rivers, lakes, and saltwater is provided by a variety of public agencies including local government park and recreation agencies, public port districts, National Park Service, National Forest Service, Washington Park and Recreation Commission, and the state departments of Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources.

Washington’s Shoreline Management Act (SMA) was adopted by the public in a 1972 referendum “to prevent the inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state’s shorelines.” The SMA has three broad policies, focusing on encouraging water-dependent uses, protecting shoreline natural resources, and promoting public access. The public access policy states that:

“The public’s opportunity to enjoy the physical and aesthetic qualities of natural shorelines of the state shall be preserved to the greatest extent feasible consistent with the overall best interest of the state and the people generally."

“Alterations of the natural condition of the shorelines of the state, in those limited instances when authorized, shall be given priority for…development that will provide an opportunity for substantial numbers of the people to enjoy the shorelines of the state.”

Cities and Counties in Washington State are required to develop Shoreline Master Programs (SMPs) that regulate development within areas near marine and freshwater shorelines. These SMPs must contain “a public access element making provisions for public access to publicly owned areas.” The WCZMP addresses public access through the local government public access plans required for SMPs, by developing and providing easily accessible information on existing public access to shoreline planners and the public. The Coastal Program also works with state agencies, local governments, and nonprofits to increase public access through land acquisition'

The 2006 Assessment also indicates that there have been no recent changes to public access statutes and that funding for land acquisition has been flat or diminished. The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) is now attempting to capture public shoreline acquisitions made by individual jurisdictions; some major segments of public shoreline have been created in the last 3 years (e.g. Lily Point, WA).

Other laws and regulations which guide public coastal access in Washington include the Seashore Conservation Act (RCW 79A.05.600) which established a Seashore Conservation Area and the Aquatic Lands Act (RCW 79.105).

The Aquatic Lands Act outlines policies to be implemented by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in managing Washington’s state-owned public lands. This law states that: “The manager of state-owned aquatic lands shall strive to provide a balance of public benefits for all citizens of the state. The public benefits provided by state-owned aquatic lands are varied and include encouraging direct public use and access.” A policy of selling publicly owned tidelands or Shorelands was reversed in the 1970s. Currently, DNR leases publicly-owned tidelands for uses consistent with the priorities set forth in the Aquatic Lands Act, and uses some of the revenue generated from these leases to provide public access to state-owned aquatic lands.

The property boundary between public and private land at the coast in Washington is highly variable depending on: (1) whether the uplands property was first patented before or after statehood, (2) whether or not the coastal property owner has surrendered accretionary rights to the state, and (3) whether Puget Sound tidelands were purchased from the state or not.[1]

In most instances the law states that owners of waterfront property also own the tidelands to the low tide mark bordering their property. Many property owners choose to enforce the law through signage or harassment to keep the public from walking the beaches.

As mentioned above, Washington has a Seashore Conservation Area which extends along most of Washington’s outer coastline, excluding Indian Reservation and National Park lands, and which is dedicated primarily to public recreation:

"Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 79A.05.600:
The beaches bounding the Pacific Ocean from the Straits of Juan de Fuca to Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia River constitute some of the last unspoiled seashore remaining in the United States. They provide the public with almost unlimited opportunities for recreational activities, like swimming, surfing and hiking; for outdoor sports, like hunting, fishing, clamming, and boating; for the observation of nature as it existed for hundreds of years before the arrival of white men; and for relaxation away from the pressures and tensions of modern life. In past years, these recreational activities have been enjoyed by countless Washington citizens, as well as by tourists from other states and countries. The number of people wishing to participate in such recreational activities grows annually. This increasing public pressure makes it necessary that the state dedicate the use of the ocean beaches to public recreation and to provide certain recreational and sanitary facilities. Non-recreational use of the beach must be strictly limited. Even recreational uses must be regulated in order that Washington's unrivaled seashore may be saved for our children in much the same form as we know it today.

RCW 79A.05.605:
There is established for the recreational use and enjoyment of the public the Washington State Seashore Conservation Area. It shall include all lands now or hereafter under state ownership or control lying between Cape Disappointment and Leadbetter Point; between Toke Point and the South jetty on Point Chehalis; and between Damon Point and the Makah Indian Reservation and occupying the area between the line of ordinary high tide and the line of extreme low tide, as these lines now are or may hereafter be located, and, where applicable, between the Seashore Conservation Line, as established by survey of the Washington state parks and recreation commission and the line of extreme low tide, as these lines now are or may hereafter be located; and shall also include all state-owned nontrust accreted lands along the ocean: PROVIDED, That no such conservation area shall include any lands within the established boundaries of any Indian reservation.”

Site Inventory

A 1985 inventory of Washington’s 2,200 miles of inland marine shoreline found that only about 19 percent of the shore was publicly owned and only about half that was accessible from the uplands. The trend towards extensive private ownership of tidelands and shorelands began after statehood in 1889 and ended in the early 1970s.

A new Washington Coastal Atlas is now available which replaces, in part, the old 1970s Coastal Zone Atlas of Washington, but provides expanded coverage of the Pacific Ocean coast, as well as new features such as:

  • Aerial vertical photography: 1940s coverage of selected areas, and 1991-97 coverage of all of western Washington
  • Coastal aerial oblique photos from Ecology's 1976-77, 1992-97, and 2000-02 series.
  • A new series of photos were taken in 2006 and are now available.
  • Mapping of wetlands, drift cells, slope stability, various regulated features, and other items, and background imagery such as nautical charts, USGS topo maps, plus historic estuary mapping.

Just go here and follow the instructions.

Ecology has now incorporated additional public access information into the Washington Coastal Atlas. A searchable Web tool based on the recently completed public access database allows the public, local governments, state agencies and other interested users to search for access maps and descriptions of publicly accessible shorelines throughout Washington.

The public access Web tool incorporates and expands on the now out of print guidebook to public beach access in Washington that includes Puget Sound and the Pacific Coast. The Shoreline Public Access Handbook is out of print but is available in virtually every public library in Washington. The reference is: Scott, J.W., Reuling, M.A., and Bales, D. 1986. Washington Public Shore Guide: Marine Waters. University of Washington Press. Numerous commercial publications are also available.

The Department of Ecology’s Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication, and Health (BEACH) Program completed a Washington Marine Shoreline Access Project, which was then incorporated into Washington's Coastal Atlas. This is a GIS project that identifies the ownership, location and length of all public marine shoreline in the state of Washington. In addition, the database combines information from the Department of Natural Resource’s ShoreZone Inventory project, answering in-depth spatial questions about the distribution of biological communities, geological features, and anthropogenic development amongst public and private shoreline. The database is now available to the public on the Department of Ecology’s GIS data download Web page.

Washington Department of Ecology provided this information regarding beach access:

Washington State Marine Shoreline Public Access Summary

General Shoreline Public Access Miles1 % of Total WA Marine Shoreline (3067 miles2) # of Individual Public Access Sites1
Total Marine Shoreline Public Access 1136 37 1233
Access by Personal Watercraft Only 294 10 223
State Parks 157 5 105
Tribes 80 3 35

Shoreline Public Access by Region Miles1 % of Total WA Marine Shoreline (3067 miles2) # of Individual Public Access Sites1
Puget Sound 612 20 921
Outer Coast 368 12 158
Strait of Juan de Fuca 113 4 71
Hood Canal 43 1 81

1 = WA Department of Ecology Marine Shoreline Access Project, 2008. GIS layer and metadata are available here.

2 = PNW Hydrology Framework (from ShoreZone data), 2005. Mapped at 1:24,000. Note: The finer the resolution (e.g. 1:24,000 scale vs. 1:25,000 scale) the longer the same line appears, there is no "correct" shoreline length.

Source: Washington State Department of Ecology, 2009

The 2006 Assessment indicated that extensive private ownership of tidelands and shorelands began immediately after statehood. By 1979, only 39% of Washington's tidelands and 70% of the shorelands remained in public ownership. Based on a 1985 survey, the public had real access to only about 10% of the inland marine waters of Puget Sound. According to this 1985 survey, there were 748 public access points. These included 575 beaches and 192 scenic vistas. The updated public access GIS database information presented above indicates that there are approximately 50% more access points (1113) than reported in the 1985 survey.

As mentioned in the policies section above, the Dept. of Ecology is attempting to capture all publicly available shoreline. New public access sites are added to Ecology’s inventory as information becomes available. The Lily Point area of Point Roberts is a good example of a significant reach of shoreline (1.34 km) that was recently acquired by Whatcom County Parks. A GIS version of the inventory is publicly available at Ecology’s Website and Ecology is currently developing a Web-based beach public access search tool to increase availability of this info.

Ecology's Puget Sound Shorelines Web page lets you virtually "explore" the Puget Sound, including beach access, recreation, geology, history, etc.

The extent to which beach access information (signs, maps, guides) is readily available to the public varies regionally and by local jurisdiction. Some areas have very well developed Web and/or hardcopy beach access guides (e.g. Island County’s Getting to the Water’s Edge.

Washington State Parks has a site with an interactive map that lets you zoom in on your area of interest and locate state parks. The site provides basic descriptions of the parks, including parking, beach access, camping restrictions, etc. Also see their information on Water and Beach Activities.

Many of the county parks and recreation agencies provide web-based information on access to coastal lands:

Also see:

Beach Attendance Records

Washington boasts one of the largest and busiest state park systems in the United States. It ranks sixth among all 50 states in number of areas managed, fourth in day-use attendance and eighth in number of overnight visitors served. At the same time, due to budget constraints, it ranks 47th in state dollars spent per park visitor — 78 cents in Washington compared to a nationwide average of $1.96.

Washington has 125 developed parks with 46 million annual visitors. Surfrider could not locate any data regarding attendance at the 40 marine parks or overall beach attendance. Attendance data may be available upon request from State Parks.

The 2006 Assessment reports the results of a 1996 opinion survey, which indicates that 80% of Washington residents go to the shoreline (lakes, rivers, bays - including Puget Sound - and the ocean) at least several times a year. Among these, only 13% make ocean beaches their first choice.

Economic Evaluation of Beaches

An economic evaluation of beaches has apparently not been performed in Washington. The state Office of Trade and Economic Development periodically surveys tourism spending patterns. The Washington Parks and Recreation Commission periodically contracts for a survey of "Economic Impacts of Visitors to Washington State Parks." The data are broken out by county, but not to specific coastal facilities. Of the statewide tourism economic impact, 61% occurs in coastal counties but this is not necessarily reflective of the coastal state parks, especially in the urban Puget Sound counties.[2]

NOAA's Office for Coastal Management (OCM) has written a discussion of the recreational value of beaches, in the context of beach fill projects. In 2009 OCM released Introduction to Economics for Coastal Managers, a basic introduction to economic ideas and methods that can be applied to coastal resource management. The economic concepts provided in this introduction are illustrated through several case studies. Other OCM/Digital Coast publications can be found here.

The following two websites provide information on the economic value of coasts and the ocean throughout the country.

The National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP) provides a full range of the most current economic and socio-economic information available on changes and trends along the U.S. coast and in coastal waters. You can download data on jobs and GDP associated with specific types of coastal activities for each coastal state. You also can download data on commercial fishing and landings. The NOEP made public their fully updated Non-Market Valuation website in September 2008. The largest database in the world of studies documenting the environmental and recreational values of ocean resources, the website now includes 1) an updated methodologies section, 2) frequently asked questions, 3) examples of how Non-Market valuation influences public policy, and 4) an expanded table summarizing valuation estimates from across the United States. In 2014 NOEP released an updated State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2014, which points out that there is an imbalance between the economic importance of coasts and coastal oceans and the federal support for stewardship of these resources. According to the report, coastal states supply over 81 percent of American jobs and contribute $13 trillion to the economy, or 84 percent of GDP. More on this here. The National Ocean Economics Program previously released State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2009, which presents time-series data compiled over the past 10 years that track economic activities, demographics, natural resource production, non-market values, and federal expenditures in the U.S. coastal zone on land and water. The report states that coastal states account for more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy. The most recent report released by NOEP is the State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2016. The Center for the Blue Economy (CBE) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey now houses the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP).

The website of Restore America's Estuaries has a report The Economic and Market Value of Coasts and Estuaries: What's At Stake?. According to the report, U.S. coasts and estuaries that have been protected and managed in a sustainable way are worth billions. Beaches, coastal communities, ports, and fragile bays are economic engines that drive and support large sectors of the national economy. The report focuses on aspects of coasts and estuaries that are most dependent on ecologically healthy conditions. The authors also examined a growing body of research that reveals the economic consequences of environmental change in coastal and estuary ecosystems.

A report A Review and Summary of Human Use Mapping in the Marine and Coastal Zone was published in December 2010. This report was prepared by ERG for NOAA's Coastal Services Center. The report evaluated different methods and approaches to measure human uses of the coastal and marine environment. The uses were divided into 1) military and industrial uses, 2) consumptive uses (e.g., fishing) and 3) non-consumptive activities (e.g., swimming, surfing, kayaking).

The economic value of beaches can increase or decrease due to a number of factors, including beach width; the presence or absence of amenities such as parking, restrooms or lifeguard services; the suitability of the beach for activities such as surfing or swimming; and the presence or absence of pollution and beach litter. In June 2014 NOAA published an infographic on the high cost of marine debris based on the report Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California, which was prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc. for NOAA's Marine Debris Division. It found that having debris on the beach and good water quality are the leading factors in deciding which beach residents visit. Reducing marine debris by even 25 percent at beaches in and near Orange County, California, could save residents approximately $32 million during the summer by not having to travel long distances to other beaches. Beach characteristics were collected for 31 popular Southern California public beaches from San Onofre Beach to Zuma Beach. Orange County residents were also surveyed on their recreation habits, including how many day trips they took to the beach from June - August 2013, where they went, how much it cost them, and which beach characteristics are important to them. The results provided in an estimate if how much Orange County residents would potentially benefit, including how often they visit beaches and how much they would save in travel costs, over a summer season by reducing marine debris at some or all of these 31 beaches. The study focused on Orange County because of the number and variety of beaches, their importance to permanent residents, ease of access, and likelihood that marine debris would be present. Researchers believe that, given the results, the study could be modified for assessing similar coastal communities in the United States.

For additional general discussion of the economic impacts of beaches, please see the article Economic Impact of Beaches.

Perception of Supply and Demand

The 2006 Assessment and Strategy reports the results of a 1996 opinion survey. When asked if public access to shorelines in Washington was adequate, 63% felt there was "enough" and 37% "not enough." The same document suggests that inadequate funding is a major impediment to the acquisition of new sites and the maintenance of existing sites. The limited amount of large, undeveloped open space available for land acquisition is also noted as an impediment. It also notes that the frequency of the abandonment to adjacent private property owners by local government appears to have increased, resulting in a loss of public access. It concludes that "The relative amount and quality of public access in Washington state is not keeping pace with population growth or the desires of some user groups," and gives public access a medium priority.

Ecology indicates that although coastal access and parking are sufficient to meet current average demand, they are not adequate to meet either current peak demand or projected demand in ten years.[3]

Two opinion surveys that focus on the Puget Sound area have been conducted. The Puget Sound Shoreline Strategy report assesses the amount of public shoreline in Puget Sound and provides an overview of significant trends impacting the public enjoyment of this resource. The other survey was by the Puget Sound Partnership.

Public Education Program

The 2006 Assessment indicates that funding for public education and outreach has been flat or diminished.

Contact Info

Jessica Archer
Washington State BEACH Coordinator
Washington State Department of Ecology

Brian Lynn, Section Manager
Coastal and Shorelands Section
Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program
Washington Department of Ecology

Kathy Taylor

Shoreline Public Access


  1. Doug Canning, WDOE. Surfrider 2003 State of the Beach survey response.
  2. Doug Canning, WDOE. Surfrider 2003 State of the Beach survey response.
  3. Doug Canning, WDOE. Surfrider 2003 State of the Beach survey response.

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