Planning a camping trip to Big Sur? If you don’t make a reservation at one of the area’s established campgrounds, you could face a hefty fine.
The Monterey County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday issued an emergency executive order quintupling the fine for illegal camping in the Big Sur area from $200 to $1,000 per day, effective immediately.
This fee increase means that penalties for illegal camping now match fines for littering in the area, according to a report by district officials.
Signs alerting visitors to the fines will cost about $6,000 to create and install, county officials said.
“Monterey County has had a camping ban in place from the Carmel River to the San Luis Obispo County line for many years,” said Sarah Hardgrave, chief of staff to Monterey County Supervisor Mary Adams.
This ban includes camping along the scenic 72-mile stretch of Highway 1, which meanders through Big Sur.
It’s also illegal to camp along the first 3.5 miles of a back road maintained by Monterey County, according to Butch Kronlund, executive director of the Community Association of Big Sur.
His group is among organizations that have been collecting data to convince wardens that higher fines for illegal camping are vital to protecting the coast.
Hardgrave said the push to increase the fines “came from law enforcement protecting the Big Sur coast out of concern for public safety and the risk of wildfire.”
“Nearby residents have documented numerous illegal campfires and illegal camping,” she said.
By increasing fines for illegal camping, Monterey County hopes “to strengthen the ban on curbside camping to be more deterrent, since the existing fine (per day) was less than the cost of a campground,” Hardgrave said.
In January, Monterey County officials reported to supervisors that illegal roadside camping in the area “has created an ever-increasing public health and safety concern for the community, particularly regarding campfires, disturbed habitats and litter, and the possibility of forest fires”.
“These risks are currently elevated amid the drought and increased travel due to the lifting of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions,” the report said.
According to Kronlund, 100 to 200 vehicles “use the curb for their campsite” every night, and even more on bank holiday weekends.
“We see visits at the national park level, but we don’t have the infrastructure that national parks have,” Kronlund said. “When people start painting outside the lines and treating this beautiful place like the Wild West, it puts a real strain on that infrastructure.”
Monterey County’s concerns about illegal camping come after years of devastating fires
The 2016 Soberanes fire was started by an illegal campfire. This fire burned a total of 132,127 acres and 57 homes in 82 days, costing $236 million to extinguish.
The fire burned 57 homes and killed a bulldozer driver.
Illegal campfires sparked two wildfires over the weekend of July 23-24, Kronlund said.
Crews from the Big Sur Fire, Cal Fire and the US Forest Service quickly contained the blazes when they were small, said Matt Harris, chief of the Big Sur Volunteer Brigade.
According to Kronlund, Big Sur residents routinely clean up piles of trash and stamp out campfires left by illegal campers.
They are also forced to deal with health hazards. With the exception of facilities at restaurants, state parks, and campgrounds, there are no public restrooms in the area, Kronlund noted.
Some recreational vehicle users dump sewage from their curbside holding tanks, he said
“I live next to the Autobahn,” said Kronlund. “I have people camping outside my driveway every night. It is not okay to use this landscape as a latrine.”
Everyone who lives in the area “is one really lucky son of a gun and we know it,” he added. “We have a responsibility to preserve this incredible resource.”