Vol. 7, Issue 25, October 23-November 12, 2009

By Norb Garrett

The Capistrano Dispatch

Group’s latest victory was toll road battle

The ultra modern California Science Center in Los Angeles seemingly is worlds away from the quiet beaches of Malibu, even though the two locations are separated a mere 25 miles as a crow flies. But on Friday evening, October 9, as more than 300 guests, including rock stars and Hollywood types, gathered to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Surfrider Foundation, it was fitting to note the humble roots of an organization that today has global reach, 50,000 members in the United States and notable “victories” such as the Save Trestles anti-tollroad campaign.

“The reason that we came into being 25 years ago is still true today,” said Jim Moriarty, Chief Executive Officer of Surfrider Foundation. “The acknowledgement of tension on the coast—whether its development or something else—and then acting on it, is still the same exact thing we’re doing today. We just do it using a lot of tools that people couldn’t even visualize back then with the Internet.”

The organization’s roots can be traced directly to three surfers who in 1984 sought to challenge a realignment of the outflow from the lagoon at First Point Malibu which would have impacted the surf break. The three surfers organized, outlined a goal and a plan, acted on it and ended up preserving First Point Malibu. From that point on, Surfrider Foundation’s charter and mission—“a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches for all people, through conservation, activism, research and education,”—has helped shape an organization that now has 35 full-time employees headquarted in new offices in San Clemente (it moved to San Clemente from Huntington Beach in 1992) and has touched hundreds of thousands of lives through its many chapters and programs.

“The phrase that makes the most sense to me regarding where Surfrider is today and where we’re going is ‘Wikepedia for the Coast,’” said Moriarty, who has been with Surfrider for over four years and is the foundation’s sixth CEO. “What I mean by that, is Surfrider is grassroots. You know, the 4,000 people that showed up for Trestles—that was crowd-sourced activism. We put this cause out there, people showed up and made their mark. Everything we do all over the world—we’re in 20 countries now and have 73 chapters in the U.S.—we never planted a single one of them. They all sprung up organically.” 

A good example of Surfrider’s grassroots tradition and proof of its chapters-first strategy, can be found here with the South Orange County chapter. Formed three years ago by merging both San Clemente and Dana Point chapters, the South Orange County chapter has more than 2,000 members. The group came together after a failed campaign against the Headlands project in Dana Point, and through the stewardship of its chairman, Rick Erkeneff, has become the second largest chapter in the world behind only San Diego County. Erkeneff, who works alongside his wife Denise, was part of the failed effort against the Headlands, but found involvement in Surfrider is much more than just efforts against single projects.

“I saw that the organization was doing a lot of great things in our own back yard, such as beach cleanups, educational programs and much more,” said Erkeneff, who is a self-described “guy who has his feet in the sand six days a week.” Since recasting the organization under one larger regional umbrella, the group has performed hundreds of beach cleanups and recently kicked off a new Youth Service Program, under Denise Erkeneff’s direction, that is helping form Surfrider clubs on school campuses. That program is starting with local schools including Dana Hills High School, JSerra Catholic High School and schools in San Clemente, Laguna Beach and Mission Viejo which will form the foundation for a network of schools.

“We have been working in various capacities to launch the program to school groups, such as surf teams, community service, environmental groups and clubs,” said Denise Erkeneff. “All in all, we’re in process to launch what we believe will be a more formal network of high school affiliate, official Surfrider Foundation clubs in our region.”

Grassroots efforts such as those undertaken by the South Orange County chapter’s volunteer staff underscore Surfrider’s mission, said Moriarty.

“If you distill Surfrider Foundation down to its very essence, you’d get something pretty close to the entire Erkeneff family—it’s not just Rick, it’s his wife Denise, it’s Lulu—the grom who’s finding her way in beach lifestyle,” said Moriarty, himself a married father of two children. “They represent what we’re about in the sense that if you go to Florida, or Maine or Biarritz, France, and you follow the messaging, what you’ll end up with is someone a lot like the Erkeneffs.”

Moriarty believes that the Erkeneff’s efforts—and those of all of the chapter members and volunteers—is reflected in his “Wikipedia for the Coast,” label. Rather than focus on the technological reference to the catch phrase, Moriarty feels that Surfrider provides a way for people like Rick Erkeneff, a graphic designer by trade, a way to “plug in with his skill set and expertise on behalf of something that’s larger than him, which is our vision.”

Further evidence of Surfrider’s need for grassroots activism is the “Save Trestles” campaign, which sprung up from the direct efforts of surfers Jerry Collamer and Ed Schlegel, who teamed up 11 years ago to form the roots of the opposition to the planned toll road extension near Lower Trestles. The roots of that campaign—Collamer was a former big-city advertising executive who conceived the buzz term “Save Trestles—Stop the Toll Road,”—would eventually become a key program in Surfrider’s efforts.

“At first Surfrider was too distracted by the Headlands project,” said Collamer, who moved to San Clemente 11 years ago from Hermosa Beach but first started coming to San Clemente as an 8-year-old with his family for vacations. “It was pretty much just us and the Sierra Club. Surfrider played a huge part, but it came a little later, and as it turns out, it came just at the right time.”

Save Trestles is just one of many “victories” Surfrider boasts on its Web site. They are too many to list—but range globally. Moriarty admits that the Trestles effort is far from over—and that Surfrider’s team of full-time professionals ranging from legal experts to environmental and communications specialists—is vigilant in their maintenance of oversight.

“About a third of our efforts are top down or policy oriented,” said Moriarty. “We’ve been engaged with the new administration multiple times on alternative energy on coastlines—wave energy projects, tidal energy projects. The balance is focused on grassroots, or bottom up efforts. Our real essence is the grassroots activism. My impression is that Trestles was a metaphor that activism still matters, and still has muscle.”

Bob Hurley, owner of the global surf brand Hurley, said Surfrider has played a key role in helping the lifestyle of surfing grow responsibly. “Surfers have always had a healthy respect for the purity of the ocean,” said Hurley. “Not until Surfrider was able to organize us into a singular voice, were we able to make progress on keeping our water clean.”

As Surfrider continues to grow and evolve while tackling new initiatives both locally and globally, Moriarty feels that its mission will always remain the same.

The core of who we are is the activist, the volunteer,” he said. “The person who has complained about Doheny one too many times and says, ‘OK, I’m going to do a beach cleanup. I’m going to do something.’ Even if it’s not under the Surfrider banner. We don’t exist to grow our brand, we exist for the protection and enjoyment of ocean, waves and beaches.”

Info: www.surfrider.org, www.surfrider.org/southorangecounty

About The Author Capo Dispatch