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Green Light – Coastal Sage: Peter Douglas and Ocean Stewardship

Hello readers!  I’m back and so is “Green Light.”  My column has not appeared for the past several months.  Luckily, the Indy has seen fit to grant me a hiatus this past spring in order that I could travel to Japan with my family and then on returning finish my textbook, “Pacific Eldorado: A History of Greater California” (Wiley Blackwell Publishing, 2013).  Four years of work came to an end in late May when I sent the completed 400-page manuscript to my publisher in Boston.

Friends and neighbors have been asking me, what now?  The answer is that at heart I’m a writer, and as such I’m thinking seriously about doing my next book on Peter Douglas, the recently deceased executive director of the California Coastal Commission.  Why? Because for four decades he devoted himself to protecting the glimmering ribbon of shoreline that I and other Lagunans love and want to preserve for our next generations.  A lawyer, he co-authored Prop. n 20 in 1972, which created the California Coastal Commission, and in 1976 co-drafted the California Coastal Act, which made the commission a permanent body.  The commission’s purpose has been to “protect, conserve, restore, and enhance environmental and human-based resources of the California coast and ocean for environmentally sustainable and prudent use by current and future generations.”

I never met Peter Douglas, though I wish I had. He died of cancer at age 69 on April 1 of this year, and so I’m acquainting myself with his thinking and legacy by reading his speeches and the numerous memorial comments made by his friends and foes alike.  A next step in this prospective book project is for me to meet and talk with those who knew Douglas; if that includes any of you, please contact me through the office of the Indy.

Meanwhile, my preliminary excursion into these Douglas materials tells me several things about the man.  First, from childhood he had an abiding passion for the sea and all of its life forms, as well as the rocks and coves and sands that are an integral part of marine habitats.  As a boy whose Jewish family had lived among the horrors of Nazi Germany, he voyaged to America in 1950 with his mother and sister.  Looking back on the Atlantic crossing he recalled the “mountainous seas” and spotting “my first whale and giant manta.”  Thus began his lifelong reverence for waterscapes.

Second, he was indeed a sage.  Once he wisely stated that “the most significant accomplishments in coastal management are things one cannot see—the wetlands not filled, the public access not lost, scenic vistas not spoiled, the subdivisions not approved, the offshore oil drilling that is not happening.”  A fierce advocate for the coast, still he realized the importance of civility in policy debates: “I’ve been reminded that the people [developers, for example] we deal with [on the Coastal Commission] are humans too, and deserve to be treated as such: with respect and compassion. . . . I have learned that all make mistakes, especially me.”

The achievements of this sage and ocean steward, often shod in Birkenstock sandals and sporting his signature bolo ties, were summarized by Sarah Christie, the commission’s legislative liaison since 1999:  “The Hearst Ranch would be a golf resort, Monterey Bay would be lined with luxury condominiums instead of a public boardwalk, there would be no public access to any of Malibu’s beaches, the cottages at Crystal Cove would have been demolished and San Onofre State Park would have been paved over for a toll road,” she said. “The list goes on and on.”

Peter Douglas was known and loved in Laguna.  Environmentalist Penny Elia was a personal friend of his.  Bluebelt organizer Jinger Wallace told me that he “was a voice of reason, uplifting and inspiring.”  That voice speaks to many of us.

Tom Osborne, a retired Santa Ana College history professor and recipient of the city’s Environmental Award, has written three books and specializes in California and Pacific maritime history.

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