By Serge Dedina
Special to the OC Voice
“Abuelita,” the eager grom asked his gray-haired grandmother as they saw around the campfire at San Mateo Campground after a long day surfing a late-season southern hemi at Uppers. “Tell me again about how you saved Trestles. Tell me about Big Wednesday.”
The abuelita smiled. She could still see the thousands of people at Wyland Hall. Still feel the tug of the hand of her youngest daughter as they watched the crowd with awe. She could still hear the excited voices and screams of joy as the Coastal Commissioners overwhelmingly voted to protect San Onofre State Beach Park and Trestles. It was one of the best days of her long and joy-filled life.
In the annals of surfing history, there has never been another day quite like Feb. 6, 2008. That is the day when more than 3,000 surfing pioneers, media celebrities, politicians, bureaucrats, biologists, bird-lovers, Native Americans, surf-moms, grommets, pro-surfers, surf industry CEOs and abuelitas from East L.A. Came together at Wyland Hall at the Del Mar Fairgrounds to stop what Mark Massara, the Sierra Club’s Coastal Program Director, calls “the devil child of all coastal development projects.”
Massara was referring to the plan by the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) to build a toll road that he said, “would have destroyed San Onofre State Park, Trestles, Native American sacred sites, a public campground, a wildlife conservation refuge, an entire watershed, creek, wetlands and a dozen endangered species.”
The decisive rejection on Feb. 6 by the California Coastal Commission (8-2) of the proposed 241 toll road was one of the most significant events in the history of the California environmental movement. The more than 3,000 people who assembled to defend Trestles made up the largest crowd in the history of Coastal Commission hearings.
During what the media called the “Woodstock of the surf movement,” you could feel, “the energy in the air-a booming resonance of civic duty,” said Stefanie Sekich, Surfrieder’s Save Trestles Campaign Coordinator. “Seeing thousands of people come together in an orderly, positive fashion made me feel hopeful for the future.”
At 11:20 p.m., when the Costal Commissioners voted to stop the toll road, it was “a cathartic moment of validation,” wrote Surfrider’s Matt McCain.
Although the Save Trestles battle is not over, it’s critical to learn from the victory in Del Mar to help preserve other endangered waves in California and throughout the world.
Surfers Can’t Fight Alone
While the Surfrider Foundation did a brilliant job of mobilizing the masses and creating the coolest marketing campaign in the history of the environmental movement (kudos to Surfrider’s CEO Jim Moriarty, and to Matt McClain, its marketing and communications director), the Save Trestles coalition included the best and the brightest of California’s environmental community-most of whom can’t tell a left from a right, a mushburger from a barrel, or a beachbreak from a reef.
The Sierra Club, through the Friends of the Foothills alliance, used the best tactics of grassroots organizing and direct mail to get the public to take action and organize key advocacy trips to Sacramento for grassroots campaigners (including myself). The Natural Resources Defense Council, Endangered Habitats League, San Onofre Foundation, WILDCOAST, California Coastal Protection Network, California State Parks Foundation, The City Project and a host of other organizations and consultants also provided the political, legal and organizing savvy to help convince the Coastal Commission to derail the toll road. This was as sophisticated environmental coalition and campaign I have seen.
The biggest lesson from Del Mar is that surfers cannot fight coastal battles on their own. To save other endangered waves we have to build strong teams that include birdwatchers, biologists and lawyers. We have to connect endangered waves to the communities who cherish the watersheds that gave them life. Most importantly, we have to do what Surfrider’s McClain calls “building our army one person at a time.”
Pro Surfing is About Leadership
With the exception of mountain climbing and river kayaking, there is no other professional sport as dependent on natural ecosystems as surfing. No reef, no Pipe. No shoreline, no J-Bay. No watershed, no Trestles. Which means that more than any other groups of professional athletes, surfers have an obligation to defend the surf breaks that make their livelihoods possible from being destroyed.
During the Save Trestles Campaign, a large groups of surfing professionals for the first time in such a big way, stepped up to the plate and defended a surf spot from development. Pat O’Connell was the first on board from the beginning, lending his time and cheerful personality to the cause. Taylor Knox also helped Surfrider lobby hard for Trestles in the early going.
As I walked into the Del Mar “pit” just outside Wyland Hall on Big Wednesday, I felt like I was at the ASR or the Waterman’s Ball. Greg and Rusty Long walked up with their dad Steve, the San Onofre State Park Superintendent and founder of the San Onofre Foundation. The Hobgood brothers signed autographs for eager groms. P.T. Wandered in and out of the crowd. Evan Slater surveyed the scene. Surfing pioneers Mickey Munoz and Woody Eckstrom wandered around greeting longtime friends and fans alike. Inside the arena, surfing statesmen Shaun Thompson planted himself directly in front of the Commission it did the right thing.
While the graceful athletic surfing of Rusty, Greg, Damien, C.J. Pat, Taylor, Shaun and their colleagues inspires me, I am even more thrilled by their noble act of leadership. With more groms than ever dreaming of life in the pro surfing fast lane, those in the WCT and those retired from it need to mentor future pros in the art of giving back to our sport.
Localism is Dead
I was a little worried when I was first invited to be part of the Save Trestles Coalition. I imagined that the hard core Uppers and Lowers crews might not be too happy about an I.B. Local speaking out publicly about preserving their treasured spot. Instead the opposite was true.
The toll road threat created a steadfast community of longtime locals and California surfers alike who recognize what a special place Trestles is whether they surf it everyday or just a few times a year like I do. More important, when I walk down that trail with my two groms during what for them are epic surf pilgrimages (my youngest son Daniel celebrated his tenth birthday this past January with a trip to Uppers with his older brother and two best friends), I see more smiles, talk more story and watch more wildlife than at any other spot I surf in Southern California.
On any given day in San Onofre State Beach Park you can talk quad design with Chinese-American surfers from Irvine, admire the grace of local multi-cultural cross-country high school running teams traversing the park’s trails, marvel at the prowess of some of the world’s best Chicano surfers, and listen to conversations “in about four different languages” according to pat Zabrocki.
At the commission hearing, Los Angeles civil rights and environmental attorney Robert Garcia and Acjachemen activist Rebecca Robles and other Native American leaders provided a moving and passionate defense of San Onofre as a critical site for providing access to open space and recreational resources for underserved communities. The San Mateo Creek watershed is actually Panhe, a key Acjachemen religious, historical and ceremonial site.
The involvement of Chicano, African American, Asian-Pacific Islander and Native American organizations in the Save Trestles movement only underscores the need for the surf industry and surfers to expand our efforts to reach out to underserved communities and people of color. This is not just an issue of tactics and strategy, but a moral and ethical imperative that will help us reclaim the heart and soul of surfing.
The Surfing Industry-Presente!
The multi-billion dollar surf industry is relatively young and just starting to flex its political muscles (please note that WILDCOAST receives financial support from a number of companies and the SIMA Environmental Fund). The surf industry was an active participant in the Save Trestles campaign and was out in full-force in Del Mar.
The surf industry made its presence well known throughout Big Wednesday, from the morning arrival of the logoed-busses and vans, to Rusty and Firewire throwing in product for the lunchtime rally. During the midday break, I greeted a lunch table of surf industry veterans-Paul Naude of Billabong, Sean Smith of SIMA, Dick Baker of OP, Gary Ward of Ocean Minded and Bob Mignogna, a SIMA Environmental Fund board member. Later in the afternoon, Baker spoke to the Commission about the economic value of Trestles and the surfing industry to the economy of California.
The surf media also played a critical role in building up the Save Trestles Movement and keeping people informed about latest developments. Just before the commission hearing, Surfrider posted before-and-after Toll Road images on Surfline and Surffermag.com. They hit the surfing world like a bomb. The visual impact of these devastating photos helped convince the surf community what was at stake and the need to attend the meeting.
Surf industry and media involvement in the Save Trestles campaign is a very positive and welcome sign for the future of the coastal protection movement in California and worldwide.
“The whole Trestles event and hearing made it very clear that the industry as a whole realizes environmental battles are not just about writing a check or getting others involved-although we and others still need to do this. This is a collective effort and everyone needs to get and stay involved,” said SUM Executive Director Sean Smith. “That day was not just about an individual brand or company. We were all there to make sure that Trestles didn’t get plowed over by a toll road.”
Real Surfers Can be Politicians Too
During the afternoon of Big Wednesday, meeting attendees were treated to a political spectacle as hypocritical and fake as an oil lobbyist telling you that electric cars are worth buying.
“The TCA loaded the dais with various Orange County city councilmen and women, most of whom conveniently sit on the TCA board,” said Matt McClaim in a Surfline article. “In a mind-numbing marathon-like drone that could only be compared to a congressional filibuster, the officials spoke…and spoke…and spoke, repeating one another’s tired party line ad nausea. Sitting in the crowd, you could literally see the commissioners’ eyes glazing over.”
Our communities can no longer afford to be represented by blow-dried kooks who call themselves surfers to just impress a few members of the Anaheim Lions Club or Vista Chamber of Commerce. We need real surfers-men and women who live and breathe for the taste of saltwater and the thrill of a new double-overheard northwest swell-to run for office. But they have to be the kind of individuals who understand that being a surfer is first and foremost always about riding and preserving waves.
My first choice for a surfer who needs to run for office is Surfrider activist Brian Alper, the John “die Hard” McClane of the Save Trestles campaign. Brian is a feisty, non-stop, and articulate Trestles defender and ambassador. Unless real surfers like Brian get involved in politics, we’ll continue to risk having poseurs represent us as they do now. Did anyone else notice that south San Diego County Congressperson Susan Davis, a non surfer, heroically defended Trestles, but north San Diego Congressperson Brian Bilbray, a self proclaimed surfer, was a no-show? Being a real surfer means defending your spot against development and ruination-whatever the cost.
Surf free or die.
Serge Dedina is Executive Director of WOLDCOAST at http://www.wildcoast.net. This article was origially published in Surfshot magazine.