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IN 1975, GERALD FORD was president, America had just pulled its forces out of Vietnam, Patty Hearst was still on the run with the SLA, and Bay Guardian publisher Bruce B. Brugmann hired a struggling 25-year-old freelance writer to pen a guide to about a dozen local nude beaches.

After a quarter of a century and more than a thousand interviews with beachgoers, what began as a onetime effort has exploded into what nude beach expert Dr. Leisure , a.k.a. Dr. George Harker, calls "the most complete listing" in California. Harker adds, "[Other] states would do well to model their guides after that of the Bay Guardian."

What's new under the sun? Where should we begin? This year we swell to 133 beaches in northern California, up five from last season, plus 52 others elsewhere in the Golden State (for the latter, see Southern California Beaches).

Over the last year problems have erupted at a half dozen nude beaches, including some of the most popular ones. At Devil's Slide, near Pacifica, the state has yanked the lease of popular San Francisco developer Carl Ernst, who has provided a safe, immaculate environment for visitors for 18 years.

A dispute arose when Ernst, who had been operating the site on a monthly basis and was the successful bidder for a new, long-term contract, voiced objections to what he calls "Gestapo-like" new terms. The new lease, he says, would require him to staff the beach 365 days a year, even during winter storms or when the highway was closed. "It's not economically feasible," Ernst fumes. "Even worse, it mentions a restaurant but doesn't say anything about the property being clothing-optional. I just wanted the wording changed."

According to Ernst, the state reacted by nixing the bid. The Bay Guardian has learned that a new bid will be advertised around November.

But the state has a different story about the lease. "If it's up in the air, it's by Mr. Ernst's choice," says Department of State Parks director John "Rusty" Areias, whom we interviewed in May. "He talked of reopening the contract, which I find quite surprising and ironic." As for why Ernst balked, Areias says, "It's unbeknownst to me." He denies knowledge of details of the case, saying only that he has caught some of them in passing from parks staff.

Ernst, though, charges that Areias told him in a meeting in Sacramento in May that he wants to award the lease to a buddy. Areias "had been in the room about ten seconds," Ernst says, "when he said, 'Oh yeah, I know all about your deal. A good friend of mine wants to bid on that.' " According to Kenneth B. Jones, a spokesperson for Areias, the comment was "meant as a joke." In a June 3 statement, Jones wrote, "At California State Parks, we carefully follow all statutes and regulations to guarantee fairness and equity when we prepare [requests for proposals], evaluate proposals and bidder, and select our park concessionaires. You can rest assured that this practice will apply in the Gray Whale Cove contract process."

Will Devil's Slide remain a nude beach? Answers Areias: "I have not heard that would change."

Meanwhile, the state and the Packard Foundation are buying up properties around Santa Cruz's Red, White, and Blue Beach. New rules have been slapped on long-term proprietor Ralph Edwards as well, causing him to fear being pushed out. He wonders if the state wants to eventually turn Red, White, and Blue into a state park, where nudity might be banned.

But Areias doesn't sound like he wants to denude any private operations of their nudity. "The present state parks arrangements with those concessionaires ... give people who choose to frequent those [nude] beaches an option they would not have otherwise," he says. "I think that's worked out quite well. It also protects the public that might be threatened by that type of operation and that type of beach."

"We're here to serve all the people of California," added Areias, who was named parks chief by Governor Gray Davis in February. He left the door open to considering the requests of nude beach activists for more tolerance and increased land use. "As public demands change, we will adapt with them," he told the Bay Guardian.

However, Areias brushed aside questions on possible nude use in part of the as yet undeveloped Fort Ord Dunes Recreation Area, which will become a state park in September. "We'll be developing a general plan for that area," he says. "When we do, we will be making a determination as to how to best utilize that particular stretch of Monterey Bay."

Growing tension on the sand is also being felt north of San Francisco. Last summer rangers cited two people and warned others for engaging in sex at Dogtown's Hagmier Pond, warned "a lot" of people for being naked or topless near the parking lot of Point Reyes's Limantour Beach, and fielded complaints about the deterioration of another Point Reyes jewel, Mount Vision Pond.

Other problem areas include San Francisco's Lands End and the Marin Headlands' Black Sand, where trails could stay shut for several years; Sonoma County's Meeker Falls, which is reportedly for sale; and in the southern half of the state, Saline Valley, near Death Valley, where campers are now being kicked out after 30 days.

Luckily, there's also some great news to report. Pebble Beach may be known for its stunning golf courses, breathtaking views, and scenic 17 Mile Drive, but it also has a secret new attraction: a nude beach right below the cliffs of the Pebble Beach Golf Course! We're the first to offer directions to it.

In addition to providing news on two more nude beaches in Big Sur and -- thanks to Tahoe Area Naturists (TAN) leader North Swanson -- a sixth site in Lake Tahoe, we've uncovered a facility that Bay Area users can BART to that offers separate clothing-optional and swimsuit-required swim areas. It's Oakland's prestigious Oakland Athletic Club.

Finally, we even have some happy trails for you. With a new beach path and aptly named Grand Staircase, Marin's Red Rock reigns as the year's most improved nude beach. The trails to the nude beaches in Tahoe and along Santa Cruz's San Lorenzo River have been improved, and access to Redding's Brandy Creek and San Diego's Black's Beach is also easier now.

Want to help our nude beaches? You can support making part of Fort Ord clothing-optional by writing to John Areias, Director, Department of State Parks, P.O. Box 942896, Sacramento, CA 94296. Mount Vision Pond may be saved if enough people e-mail Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Don Neubacher at [email protected]. The Bay Area Naturists (see "Addresses for the Undressed") needs volunteers for its yearly cleanup of Bonny Doon, near Santa Cruz, Sept. 18. Another good event is National Nude Weekend, July 10-11, when everyone is invited to visit a nude beach.

Please send your suggestions, including new beach discoveries or better directions (especially highway milepost numbers), to Gary Hanauer at [email protected] or via snail mail c/o Bay Guardian, 520 Hampshire St., San Francisco, CA 94110.