Line in the Sand

Squeezed by new development on Galveston's west end, fishermen are trying to hang on to an honored Texas tradition: driving on the beach

For a lot of people, it's a rite of passage on the way to becoming a true Texan.

Kirk Schwartzenburg is 32 now, a salesman for an environmental services firm, but like a lot of people his age, he remembers back in the late 1980s driving with a bunch of buddies down the empty beaches of Galveston's west end. Maybe the Cure was on the cassette player, maybe Townes Van Zandt; but even with the typical high schooler's bombed-out rat trap of a car, cruising down the windswept shore, the Gulf of Mexico on your side, a beer in your hands, you felt pretty damn free.

The whole stretch wasn't open -- every so often cars would be blocked off by a beachfront subdivision -- but you could go for miles and miles.

Preliminary plans would limit beach driving to the western tip of Galveston Island, shown here in an aerial photo (the gulf is to the left).
Courtesy of Ted Eubanks
Preliminary plans would limit beach driving to the western tip of Galveston Island, shown here in an aerial photo (the gulf is to the left).
The beach fight has made a political activist out of fisherman Tim Lopas.
Daniel Kramer
The beach fight has made a political activist out of fisherman Tim Lopas.

Even the cops were mellow. "I would imagine they knew that not everyone was old enough [to drink], but unless you were really making an ass out of yourself, they left you alone," Schwartzenburg says.

Andrew Johnson, 67, remembers further back, when he could ride unimpeded all the way from the end of the seawall to San Luis Pass, about 20 miles away. "There'd be beer joints on the beach, there'd be parties," he says. "When I was in high school, there'd be these black, segregated clubs down by the beach. They'd let you in if you sat on the side. We just used to love to drive there and listen, the bands were so good."

Especially visitors from out of state -- whether from a landlocked piece of the Midwest or the white-sand beaches of either coast -- would head down to Galveston for the slightly rebellious thrill of driving on the sandy beach beyond the seawall.

You could've been from Minnesota or New Jersey; at that point, Willie Nelson couldn't feel any more Texan than you did. You were Jack Nicholson or Shirley MacLaine, yahooing gleefully in a surf-splashing Corvette in Terms of Endearment.

But nothing good lasts forever. Development came to the west end of Galveston -- despite the fact that the unprotected land sits millimeters above sea level. And it was no longer possible to drive the 20 miles or so down to San Luis Pass.

Subdivisions blocked vehicular beach traffic by putting bollards, or posts, across the sand. It was legal, as long as there were other types of public beach access, but sometimes that alternative access was provided and sometimes it wasn't.

Beer-sipping proto-rebels never really organized to fight the closings, but fishermen grumbled and complained. Shore areas on which they could drive their trucks, loaded with equipment and ready to chase fish, grew smaller and smaller.

Finally, there were only 3.2 miles left, the last patch of land on Galveston where you could truly indulge in the time-honored rite of passage.

Now -- driven either by greedy developers (according to fishermen), or by ecological and safety concerns (according to property owners) -- that last stretch is on the verge of being closed to cars and trucks.

This time the fishermen are fighting.

There's not a lot of middle ground in the debate: "We want this area open and we want it open forever," says fisherman Tim Lopas.

"I would get every car off the beach, period," says ecologist Ted Eubanks.

The fishermen see it as a class war against wealthy beachfront homeowners trying to shut out the public, like so many Malibu millionaires putting up fences. The property owners view it as a fight to save natural beauty from drunken interlopers who crush sand dunes and smash birds with their four-wheelers.

With the last 3.2 miles of the island at stake -- "It's their Alamo," one observer says of the fishermen -- the previously piecemeal fight is coming to a bitter and clear climax.

Tim Lopas came late to the sport of fishing. His mom, a doctor, raised him in a single-parent household. "I didn't spend a whole lot of time outdoors," he says.

Neighbors used to take him sailing occasionally, and when he was 21 they introduced him to fishing. "I had a blast -- I've been hooked ever since. Probably why I'm so addicted to it is that I didn't get a lot of it in my childhood," he says. Two or three times a week he heads to Galveston to wade-fish in the bay or surf-fish by San Luis Pass. The pass is a haven for speckled trout, redfish and flounder.

If the 35-year-old Lopas was a late bloomer as a fisherman, he was even slower to begin his new career as a political activist; as with fishing, though, he's taken to it with a vengeance.

He's not a screamer -- as director of guest services for the swanky Houstonian Hotel, he's learned that quiet accommodation often works best. But for about a year, since he first got serious about fighting the effort to ban vehicles from the pass, he's been spending two or three hours every day trading e-mails, writing letters, making calls and trying to get the word out to other anglers.

He's a smooth and effective advocate; his rhetoric doesn't seem as harsh as it is when he delivers it with his open-faced, eager, friendly style.

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