This tourist village perched on a rugged stretch of California coast is known for its mellow attitude and abundant wildlife. But a decision to ban the town's July 4 fireworks sent sparks flying long before Independence Day.
The California Coastal Commission issued the ban because of concerns that noise from the fireworks could scare seabirds off their nests, causing them to abandon their young.
"Fireworks are fun to go to, but I'm not comfortable with that when I know that it's disturbing birds in the middle of nesting," said Diane Hichwa, who lives near Gualala and belongs to the Madrone Audubon Society.
But organizers of the fireworks festival insist the environmental concerns raised over their 15-minute show are exaggerated. None of the birds are endangered.
"We don't believe that we're harming the birds," said Sid Waterman, a Gualala businessman. "There's 192 people that got very upset about the fact that they thought we were disturbing the birds ... They said their voice was the majority. Well, I'd like to dispute that."
Gualala (pronounced wa-LA-la) was founded 150 years ago at the point where the Gualala River drains into the Pacific.
The community about 100 miles north of San Francisco was originally a lumber town but turned to tourism in recent decades, drawing visitors charmed by its scenery and wildlife, which includes river otter, osprey and herons. Whales can be glimpsed making their way south in the winter and swimming north in the spring.
Business owners who organized the fireworks got the idea after watching people drive through town to go to another show some miles up the coast.
They held two events, in 2006 and 2007, after obtaining a permit from fire officials and hiring a company to launch the fireworks from private land.
After the first show, some residents complained to the coastal commission that the fireworks had disturbed birds nesting on an island a little more than a mile from the display.
The commission sent organizers a letter in 2007, warning them that the fireworks show required a permit because it was considered a development. But the group stopped short of banning the fireworks.
Commission staff say they gave festival organizers ample warning that they needed to apply for a permit this year.
"They chose not to do that. We're not singling them out," said Nancy Cave, the commission's supervisor for the enforcement program in Northern California.
Festival organizers said other fireworks organizers are not required to apply for a permit and they should not have to, either. But Cave said the commission has required permits for fireworks displays in the past.
A study monitoring the bird population on the island found a higher-than-usual number of nests were abandoned around the time of the 2007 display, according to the commission. Opponents say that indicates the fireworks are a bad idea.
The birds that nest on the island are not endangered, but fireworks opponents say the area is a sensitive habitat that must be preserved. The seabirds in question include two species of cormorants, as well as pigeon guillemots and black oyster catchers. It was Brandt's cormorants that were observed abandoning their nests after last year's fireworks, according to the study.
Festival organizers believe the study was biased and unreliable.
In June, the coastal commission issued an order to stop the fireworks. Festival backers fought the order in court but were unsuccessful.
Paul Beard, an attorney who represented festival organizers, said the commission's designation of the fireworks display as a development could mean even the most mundane beach activities will require a commission permit.
Cave disagreed, comparing the fireworks with a beach volleyball tournament, which she said would also be considered development. "It's a temporary development, but we do have a right to regulate it," she said.