New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s outing on a beach closed to the public is part of a broader debate about who gets to visit America’s beaches. (Andrew Mills/NJ Advance Media via AP)
Andrew W. Kahrl is associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia and author of “The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South.”

While Oregon is celebrating 50 years of public beach access with a party this summer, disgruntled New Jersey residents are still fuming over images of Gov. Chris Christie and his family enjoying the Fourth of July holiday weekend on a beach he had ordered closed to the public.

For many Americans, it is the now-infamous Christie image, rather than the celebratory tone of Oregon, that captures what has become an all-too-familiar scene along the nation’s shorelines in the summer: A select few enjoy spacious, well-manicured beaches all to themselves, while everyone else scrambles to find a place where they can lay down a towel on overcrowded and often poorly maintained public beaches.

Despite being guaranteed by the Public Trust Doctrine, Americans’ right to enjoy their seashores has never been more under threat. From California to New Jersey, private property owners have deployed security measures, and wealthy seaside towns have removed parking spaces and imposed stiff fees to keep the public away from its most prized possession: the beach.

America’s beaches both reflect and magnify the stark racial and class inequalities that plague the nation, as well as the threat climate change poses. Like the carbon emissions that warmed the ocean’s waters, the privatization of America’s shores didn’t just happen. Government policies geared toward fostering coastal development, enhancing the exclusivity of seaside communities and bolstering beachfront property values made it happen. Understanding this history is key to restoring the public’s right to the beach and undoing the damage from decades of overdevelopment.

Access to the nation’s oceanfront beaches has not always been so hotly contested. As late as the 1930s, much of coastal America remained sparsely populated and underdeveloped. The lands that hugged the sea were often cut off from the mainland by intricate waterways. They were routinely subject to violent storms and changed in shape from one season to the next by the ceaseless pounding of waves on their shores.

After World War II, however, federal and state governments invested heavily in coastal development. They built bridges and causeways leading to the sea, extended water and sewer lines to once-isolated areas and bankrolled massive civil engineering projects that promised to hold inherently mercurial beaches in place. As a result, by the late 1950s, formerly isolated coastal counties became summer destinations for hordes of middle-class white families and hot markets for real estate developers.

Coastal counties experienced some of the sharpest rates of growth in the nation, and coastal properties once deemed worthless quickly became highly coveted and expensive. Vacationers and second-home owners came for the beach, and federal, state and local governments worked to ensure that it would be there, looking just as it did in the brochures.

But as private development of beachfront property soared, these same private interests dictated beach access policies. As a result, those who had benefited from government investment in their newly viable properties soon took measures to privatize beaches that had, for centuries, been treated as a common public resource. Beachfront homeowners and resorts hung “no trespassing” signs and built fences that extended out into the waters. Exclusive suburban communities passed ordinances that restricted access to public beaches to local residents only.

In response, citizens’ groups formed across the country to fight for open beach access. They sued these owners and businesses to force them to tear down fences and other barriers that littered the shores. They challenged the constitutionality of bans on nonresidents’ use of public beaches and parks. And they lobbied state governments to pass legislation declaring its coastlines public lands.

In Oregon, those efforts paid off. Public outrage over a resort owner’s attempts to close off a section of the state’s coastline led lawmakers to pass the 1967 Beach Bill, which outlawed fences and other obstructions along beaches and placed strict limits on future coastal development.

Open-beach advocates hoped that success at the state level would help build momentum for national legislation. In 1969, Congress considered a National Open Beaches Act modeled on the laws recently passed by Oregon and Texas. But Texas Sen. Ralph Yarborough’s dire warnings of Americans “becoming a landlocked people, fenced away from our own beautiful shores, unable to exercise the ancient right to enjoy our precious beaches” could not match the intense lobbying campaign by home builders and Realtors, and the bill died in committee.

Opponents argued that by opening beaches to everyone, they would be respected by no one, causing further environmental degradation. But any visitor to Oregon’s coast can attest to just how wrong those predictions were. The state’s beaches are a scenic beauty and a playground for the people, easily accessible and refreshingly lacking in private development.

In fact, Oregon has become the example that proves how public access may be the best way to actually prevent the environmental damage created by decades of heavily developed shorelines.

Dwindling beach access has a profound social cost, creating both fiscal nightmares and injustices that have distorted the priorities of area residents and public officials. In New Jersey, for example, beachfront property owners recently fought to prevent a post-Hurricane Sandy beach repair project because it would require some of them to grant easements across their properties and might obstruct their views of the ocean. Such disregard for the public interest is not merely a symptom of our unequal society. By limiting the number of places where people of different backgrounds interact and are forced, by circumstance, to get along, the de facto privatization of public space witnessed over the past several decades has profoundly contributed to its fracturing.

The environmental consequences are even more pressing. The shape of the shore subtly changes from one season or storm to the next — a fact that government policy and market impulses have ignored or attempted to overcome through engineering, all to make beaches a destination and beachfront property a luxury item. But try as they might, the elite and corporate interests cannot control nature. And their efforts have left our shores battered and scarred. Robbed of their natural defense mechanisms, beaches are now more vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change.

Ultimately, by allowing the few to exclude everyone else from places that belong to us all, we have made the task of rebuilding our society and protecting our environment all the more difficult.

While we cannot simply reverse engineer decades of reckless, profit-driven beach development, we can — and must — take steps to prevent private interests from erecting barriers and influencing lawmakers in the future. That begins with rededicating ourselves to the principle that beaches belong to everyone and can be owned by no one.