Time to Get Serious, Says Surfrider’s New CEO

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By Rita Robinson | LB Indy

Chad Nelsen, the new chief executive officer of the Surfrider Foundation.
Chad Nelsen, the new chief executive officer of the Surfrider Foundation.

Chad Nelsen, the new chief executive officer of the Surfrider Foundation, says it’s time for his team of ocean-protection advocates to pull up those board shorts and lead changes rather than wait to react when problems arise.

“It’s really important to go from being reactive, which is stopping bad projects, to being proactive and preventing those things from happening in the first place,” said Nelsen, who lives in Laguna Beach and was promoted after 17 years as Surfrider’s environmental director. “That requires planning, restoration and protection.”

The day before Nelsen’s appointment last week, Surfrider won a years-long legal battle suing Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla for blocking access to a well-established beach path across his 53 acres of property to Martin’s Beach south of Half-Moon Bay.

The court decision by San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Barbara J. Mallach requires Khosla to get a permit from the California Coastal Commission, which opens the issue to public scrutiny. The court declined, however, to fine Khosla for every day he blocked access, as Surfrider requested.

Aside from the occasional beach access problem, Nelsen will direct Surfrider’s priorities to preparing for global warming and melting polar ice caps, which cause ocean waters to expand and rise. “Those two things are going to raise sea levels anywhere from a foot-and-a-half to six feet in the next 80 years,” he said.

There’s no question that heat-trapping carbon, largely unregulated from power plants, is causing ocean acidification and global warming, says Francesca Koe, a spokeswoman in San Francisco for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “In terms of being the lifeblood source of our planet for producing food and filtering the air we breathe and the water we drink, there could be no more important priority than addressing the effects of climate change and carbon pollution on our oceans,” Koe said.

The public wrongly believes there is dissent among scientists over global warming while actually 97 percent agree, said Nelsen, citing thinkprogress.org.

It’s time for scientists to start blogging to inform the public of their positions on climate change, said University of Michigan history Prof. Juan Cole. “There is enormous thirst among the public for this information, and publishing only in technical refereed journals is guaranteed to quarantine the information away from the general public,” Cole writes in his blog, “Informed Comment.”

For Nelsen, 44, Surfrider’s two-fold mission of raising awareness about the coastal consequences of climate change as well as finding solutions is personal as well as professional. He has 13-year-old twin sons at Thurston Middle School.

“For them and their kids, we’re going to have to come up with some plans,” he said, citing, for example, the difficulty of protecting homes and businesses in Laguna that are nearly on the sand as well as a downtown prone to flooding. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room.”

Nelsen lists possible solutions that admittedly are not ideal: beach-destroying sea walls, expensive sand-filling and pushing back development. “We’re going to have to make some really tough choices on what combination of those three things we want to do,” Nelsen said.

Growing up in Laguna Beach, Nelsen graduated from the high school in 1988 and spent the next 10 years getting degrees from Brown and Duke universities on the East Coast and working in various other states. He was hired by Surfrider in 1998 after earning a doctorate in environmental science and engineering from ULCA.

His doctorate program emphasized coastal recreational and resource economics. “I spent a lot of time on the interface between environmental protection, coastal recreation and the economics of our coast,” he said.

With a lifetime of on-the-water experience and 17 years building in-house environmental expertise at Surfrider in San Clemente, Nelsen got his feet wet overseeing environmental issues such as cleaner ocean water, beach access and coastal protection. He also managed the grassroots organization’s 85 chapters across the country, and plans on strengthening staff and financial support to chapters on the East Coast.

In 2012, Surfrider received $6.7 million in contributions and grants, according to its IRS filing. Standout contributors, said Nelsen, are the Marisla Foundation of Laguna Beach, which donates to environmental causes, ocean protection and humanitarian projects. The Packard and Moore foundations are also top donors, he said. Membership, up 30 percent since 2000 to 50,000, is another source of revenue.

“We’re going to spend 2015 telling a more compelling story about just what heroes our activists are to encourage people to donate to support them,” he said. “It’s the people who show up at the City Council meetings with their blood, sweat and tears that ultimately and often make a huge difference.”

Outgoing chief executive Jim Moriarty, a lifelong surfer from Solana Beach and technology innovator, said he planned on staying for five years with the organization and remained for more than nine. “I’m a firm believer in change,” he said. “It’s one thing to say you believe in change and it’s another to actually change. Part of what change represents is in yourself. It’s really good for businesses to reinvent themselves and have fresh leadership as often as possible. Chad’s a real proponent of bringing the organization up to 2014.”

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