Love him or hate him, Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission for 26 years, was a charismatic leader. With his retirement, Californians see the end of involvement of the original activists behind the Coastal Initiative (Prop. 20).

Last week the commission voted unanimously to appoint Dr. Charles Lester as the new executive director. Lester has great credentials — a Ph.D. in jurisprudence and social policy from UC Berkeley is among his several degrees. What his mettle will prove to be remains to be seen. As a coastal activist, I join fellow activists in wishing him the best and thanking him for having the courage to take the job on. That is a test in itself.

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” Peter said many times. “The coast is never saved. It’s always being saved.”

Lester enters at a difficult time. Although Californians still overwhelmingly poll in favor of coastal protection, the process of fighting for the coast has become more difficult and more expensive. The commission meets in a different city each month — from one end of California to the other. If one is lucky, one’s issue comes up at a meeting held within a couple of hours driving time. Otherwise, it becomes economically prohibitive to pay the expenses of having more than one or two local activists go and appear before the commission to make a presentation that may carry weight. An odd provision of the Coastal Act allows applicants to control the location of hearings. It is therefore most egregious when a local agency, for example, as happened with the City of Port Hueneme, acts to move hearings to Eureka so its own citizens had little opportunity to be heard.

Raising the money and enthusiasm for these fights would be easier if coastal activists generally still believed in the commission’s ability to fully consider the position of average Joes and Josephines on coastal issues. Many coastal activists I talk to feel the commission has morphed into a bureaucracy that places little value on interacting with the common man (or woman), and instead now places more value on its relationship with other agencies, i.e. cities and counties, or developers.

So who will show up to defend Dr. Lester and the commission when the next attack against it occurs? There will be some diehards, but like all mortals, they do eventually die. New blood is needed.

For that reason, it is important to instill in the many people who rely on beach access for recreation and personal restoration that beach access is not free. Like our many personal freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, it depends on vigilance and the willingness and ability of some to stand up against challenges, big and small. Whether it’s a famous music mogul who wants to renege on coastal access provision that was the basis for approval of his beach house expansion permit, an oil company that wants to institute slant drilling, or a developer who wants to turn biologically sensitive coastal property into condominiums or a golf course, there must be those who are willing and able to stand before the commission and defend the rights of ordinary Californians and wildlife. It takes time, energy and funding to be a coastal activist.

And like everything else in this economy, raising funds for coastal protection is now tougher. Those who can afford to fund these efforts are helping to preserve nothing less than the geographical soul of California. Those who can’t afford to donate would do well to remember to check the coastal protection stance of would-be assemblypersons and state senators and “Vote the Coast!” They might also consider volunteering with coastal groups.

Otherwise, at some point in the future, the pronouncement will be made that the Prop. 20 phenomenon has now faded into myth, a California expression of Camelot that existed for one brief shining moment.

For those interested in better understanding the importance of Prop. 20 and the Coastal Act —one of the strongest pieces of environmental legislation in the world — our recent exclusive video interview with Peter Douglas can be accessed on our website, www.earthalert.org.

Bridgers has been an environmental activist for 30 years, became a founder of Earth Alert, a media-oriented 501(c)3 in 1984, and has been deeply involved in issues including marine mammals, coastal issues, recycling and solar energy, among others. Contact her at info@earthalert.org or (805) 487 2999.

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