California’s Coastline Under Attack After Controversial Firing of Leading Figure in Environmental Policy

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California’s Coastline Under Attack After Controversial Firing of Leading Figure in Environmental Policy

Developers gain coastal land control after ousting key California Coastal Act supporter, uncertainty for California beaches ensues

As paddlers, we understand the importance of access to pristine wilderness. Paddling past wind-carved cliffs and long empty beaches gives us a sense of calm that only nature can provide. The prospect of developers gaining and exercising unregulated control of our coast is a frightening prospect for our community.

Yesterday, that threat intensified with the result of a hearing held by the California Coastal Commission in the quintessential surf town of Morro Bay. The commission voted to fire its current executive director, Dr. Charles Lester, a ruling that could indirectly restrict the public’s right to coastal access and allow developers to claim pristine coastal land for their own commercial use and financial gain.

The California Coastal Commission (CCC) is the agency in charge of enforcing the California Coastal Act of 1976, which regulates development along our coveted coastline. Since 1972, the CCC has been successful in defending our shores from the plots of land-snatching, money-hungry developers, ensuring uninterrupted public access to beaches throughout the state.

The CCC’s success has historically depended upon strong leaders who put the public interest before developer interest. Leaders that were invested in preserving California’s coastline for future generations. Dr. Lester—an outspoken environmentalist who was appointed executive director of the commission by unanimous vote in 2011—was that type of a leader.

On the other hand, the seven commissioners who ousted Dr. Lester have a collective history of notoriously poor voting records on coastal conservation issues. The group made vague and unsupported  accusations of inefficiency and lack of communication in Dr. Lester’s leadership. But despite their questionable voting records, like all good politicians, they credited the controversy to their favorite scapegoat: the media.

Several commissioners spent their time at the meeting complaining about media reports rather than presenting cases for the dismissal of Dr. Lester. In an LA Times article, Commissioner Mark Vargas, who voted to remove Lester, claimed the media reports were baseless and damaging to the commission.

“This created an atmosphere of public distrust,” Vargas said. “We need to set the record straight. There was no coup by developer interests.”

Unfortunately, the facts point in a different direction.  Their claims of poor leadership don't reflect the consensus of the majority of CCC members and related interest groups, who assert that the accusations are deceptive and unfounded, proposed by commissioners with ties to developers that were inconvenienced by Dr. Lester's rigid support for the California Coastal Act.

"The commissioners most behind this are the ones with the worst voting records on environmental issues," said Jennifer Savage, California Policy Manager for Surfrider Foundation. "If Dr. Lester is removed, it sends the message that doing your job as a solid professional defender of the Coastal Act is something that can get you fired."

Savage was not Dr. Lester's only supporter.

Environmental groups, state lawmakers, dozens of former commission members and nearly all of Lester's current staffers opposed his termination. The opposition was also reflected through intense media coverage and public condemnation in the form of more than 24,000 letters to the CCC in support of Dr. Lester. In short, now that he is removed from power, environmental advocates fear there will be little left to protect California's virgin coastline from the ecologically destructive endeavors of eager, self-interested developers.

"It would essentially be regulatory capture, where an agency is taken over by the people it is supposed to regulate," Savage said. "If that happens, not only will the coast look a lot different but the public will lose their right to access."

Of course, if the public loses access, paddlers lose access, too.

"Every recreational user gets to go to the beach because of the Coastal Act," Savage said. "But if no one is enforcing this in a real and practical way, we could de facto lose access even if it still remains legal."

Not surprisingly, this is not the first time that developer interests have attempted to oust an Executive Director of the CCC. In 1996, there was an attempt to fire Executive Director Peter Douglas, also a rigid environmentalist, but the plan was thwarted by a public outcry very similar to what's happening today.

Unfortunately, this time the commissioners decided the public’s will was not their first priority. Despite nearly 10 hours of public testimony and thousands of letters in support of Dr. Lester, the seven commissioners—comprising the minimum majority for 12-member board—decided their undisclosed interests with wealthy developers took precedence over public opinion.

Now it’s time to let them know they were wrong.

So, what can we—the paddlers, patrons and patriots of our state’s most prized geographical possessions—do to combat this encroachment of our rights to access our beloved coastline?

Make noise. Get involved proactively and take action. Call the governor's office, track down elected officials and contact them to voice your concern, or send an email to the commission criticizing their decision.

Whether you are a die-hard paddler or just a casual beach goer, California's beaches are for everyone. It's our responsibility to make sure it stays that way.

We found the most extensive and useful resource for getting involved at ActCoastal.org. We recommend taking a tour of the site and exploring alternate media coverage to educate yourself more about this pressing issue.

And as always, stay tuned to supthemag.com for real-time updates, critical analysis as it pertains to the paddling community, and in-depth coverage.

Inspired? Visit the new Environmental page in our Features section, which highlights environmental initiatives, profiles paddling activists and informs readers about issues effecting the delicate waterways we cherish as home.