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California and the Pacific: A Love Story

February 26, 2013 1:06 p.m.


David Helvarg, author, The Golden Shore and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign.

Related Story: California and the Pacific: A Love Story


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: What would California be without the Pacific ocean? Does it also shape our collective view of the world? David Helvarg writes the ocean's gift to California is a part of the belief that change is the only assistant. His new book talks about our state's ongoing love affair with the sea. Thank you so much for coming in.

HELVARG: Thank you for having me on.

ST. JOHN: The name of the book is the golden shore. It's your belief that Californians have a different relationship with their coastline than people in other states. Is there a difference between the way that we look at the ocean and the shoreline than say people on the east coast like New England?

HELVARG: I think there are a number of ways that it's different here. And part of it is just this sense of entitlement that most Californians have to the beach and the ocean. I think it's tremendously accessible, but also it's part of our history that we're a late maritime frontier. We didn't overbuild the coast to the extend that it was in the east. And during the American revolution, there were less than 500 Europeans living here, Spanish, and I think for the locals, they weren't such welcomed guests. But we really had these booms with the gold rush and World War II. And until then, we had this incredible coastline that was undeveloped, and we have these tremendous resources offshore. So even though we wiped out a lot of our wildlife, it came back because we have the California current, one of the world's great upwelling zones that brings up the plankton every season that acts as the Pasteurland for this feeing frenzy, and we made smart decisions late in our history in the 1960s and 70s to protect the coastline, to use science to determine how to restore the wildlife. Policies, national policies like the Marine mammal protection act and local acts like the white shark protection act. One of the reading California shark scientists says to me that the return of the white shark is a good sign for the ecosystem and problematic for recreational water users.

ST. JOHN: Yes! How much do you think we owe to the California coastal commission for the preservation of this coastline that we have?

HELVARG: I think it was a tremendous moment. I think the coastal act is for California what the clean air and clean water act are for the nation. And it was a decision that was popular. The state house was not able to pass the act. And so in 1972, it was taken to the initiative route. And this was three years after the Santa Barbara oil spill.


HELVARG: Which was really the image of these oilbergs defined with the burning river in Ohio defined the growth of environmental awareness in this nation. Californians voted overwhelmingly to protect a protection which essentially stopped bad development plans that were then put up and down the coast and gave public access to the shore, which was one of the key provisions of the act. You only protect what you love, and Californians have that access to 1,100-mile was spectacular coastline from the southern where the wide beaches and relatively calm waters and 100 million beach visits a year just in LA County. And then you get north of point conception, and it turns into the north Pacific, it's wild and untamed, and you get north of -- up to the golden gate, our coastal counties have 25 million people from the golden gate to the Oregon border, less than one million. So we still have is some of the most spectacular, the largest unroaded wilderness north of Alaska. And we're the most populous state, the world's 8th largest economy, and yet we really have become a model. How to live well with the ocean, and developed an understanding that healthy ocean and clean waters actually enhance our economy and way of being.

ST. JOHN: I love the way your book tells these stories up and down the coast. And one you mentioned San Diego's Donna Frye who was on our City Council for many years and the role that she played in water cleanliness in the ocean. How important do you think her contribution was to clean water in California?

HELVARG: I think it's a typical California story in that her husband Skip Frye is kind of with his egg-shaped boards that he shaped and a famed soul surfer of the 1960s, and in the 1990, he was getting sick all the time after his sessions. And Donna said, why are they, the healthiest people I know getting sick all the time? She traced it down to stormwater runoff and became a campaigner for clean water. And I'm hoping she'll be there tonight. She's still one of my local heroes because this is how people come to it out of their sense of -- you know, you go in the ocean to get your stoke, and when surfers were starting to get sick, they got organized. So you have don Athe Surfrider foundation, which has got all these chapters up and down the coast, really resonant with the first surfing clubs that formed in the 1930s. There's this great continuity in California between the land and the Pacific, the largest body of water on the planet.

ST. JOHN: Right. Well, you yourself were a surfer, right? How do you think the surfing culture has really affected that relationship with the ocean in California?

HELVARG: I think it's tremendously important that recreation water users, surfers and kayakers are a significant political force in the state along with fishermen, along with the ports and tourism. And why it works in California, you have this democracy of interest where things fail on the coast is where you have a single industry or special interest dominating. So with the fishermen dominating in New England, you've seen the serial collapse and overfishing collapse of that resource. In Louisiana and the gulf where the oil and gas dominates, I was down there during the BM oil spill, and before that, I saw the storm impacts from the loss of wetlands linked to the industry and the cancer alley in the lower part of Mississippi where the refineries are. In California, no industry determines how we use our oceans. And we have these very contentious battles that can go on for years, but the endpoints tend to be good really because you have all the stakeholders passionately engaged.

ST. JOHN: Yes.

HELVARG: And even the Navy when I went out here, on one of the amphibious assault vessels they have, the Navy calls it the prius of warships. It burns 1/3 the fuel of other ships, war fighting ships of its class. And the captain explained to me, of course it was going to be based in San Diego because the Navy understands, this is the environmental state. And if the Navy is going to transition, the secretary of Navy wants to, he wants them 50% fossil free by 2020. So an ambitious goal driven in part by where you are. Vand enberg airforce base takes up 35 miles of our coastline, and it's where we file the satellites out toward Antarctica. But the airforce has a group with the coastal commission not to be firing rockets during seal pupping season on the channel islands. So I love that mix of environmentalist and militarism that helps define the state.

ST. JOHN: Okay. The military is moving 60% of its assets to the west coast, so there is more activity in San Diego and up and down our coast than ever before. How do you see that affecting our coastal waters?

HELVARG: Well, there are all these challenges, but as I say in the book, the Navy has not been defined by California as California has been defined by the Navy from -- we talk about Fremont and the sort of ragged band of mercenaries who raised the bear flag over California and then took general Vallejo's wine cellar and got drunk. But it was really the Navy that came in, and the Navy and marines that seized California. San Pedro was a major port, and there was competition between San Pedro and San Diego until World War II. And World War II redefined the state again. Two million people went to the Pacific out of here, and we built -- ironically they thought of Northern California as army country and Southern California as Navy, but we actually built up the ships up in Northern California and all the aircraft down here for what was then the army/air corp. So I think the Navy's and California's history is converging around issues like marine spatial planning, marine protection, how we work and operate in our offshore waters.

ST. JOHN: Difficult to be doing exercises when you have marine mammals swimming around underneath.

HELVARG: And to do shipping we've got the two largest ports in America in L.A./long beach, and yet the issue of ship strikes and sonar have become very real in California because Californians want the economic activity but they want it done in the right way so that we protect our fellow Californians with fins and flukes.

ST. JOHN: We have to talk about some of the research done at the Scripps institution of oceanography. Can you tell us about the significance of what goes on there?

HELVARG: Oh, sure. This is about a chapter called currents of discovery, and even though Stanford got sort of a boost up with Hopkins marine lab, a few years later the Scripps family met up with Bill Ritter who was a zoologist from Harvard who wanted to get a lab going, and they got one going here in San Diego that became really a world center of our understanding, which is still growing, it's still minimal. Our understanding of this 71% of the planet that's 96% of its living habitat. And bill Ritter really talked about life sciences and developed the biological perspective, change in World War II where Scripps became a center of oceanography so we could understand the sonars and the understanding of wave trains for amphibious landings. And in the cold war, Scripps was a center of deep ocean science that helped us chase Soviet submarines. Today it's gone back to a broader perspective of of the impact of ocean environments. And Scripps has become a leader on a number of fronts butch there's also month ray, which is a submarine canyon deeper than the grand canyon, and that sort of attracts scientists like chum attracts sharks. So Scripps is sort of the old -- it used to be the twin Vaticans of oceanography were Scripps and woodshole in Massachusetts. Now we also have Monterey and in hum bolt the Trinity labs

ST. JOHN: I wanted to ask you about something that is perhaps more of a threat to the ocean. The two nuclear power plants we have right on the edge of the ocean, and there's some talk about doing seismic studies to see if they're prepared. I actually saw an otter being pulled out by the fisheries to check on the population because they might beasced by these seismic studies. Is that something that you're concerned about at all?

HELVARG: Well, it's interesting because we have two here in San Diego that are shut down for now.

ST. JOHN: Right. San Onofre.

HELVARG: San Onofre and --

ST. JOHN: Diablo canyon.

HELVARG: It was interesting to me that it wasn't the 14 geologists on the payroll of PG& E that found there was an additional faultline offshore, it was the science for the geological survey. And since that finding, they want to do more science to understand the threat from that fault line to the lab, especially in the wake of what happened in Japan. They wanted to do some very strong sonar testing, and the public in the area didn't like it because we have had two of the most spectacular whale seasons in the last two years. And the coastal commission said, yeah, this needs to be investigated but you're going to have to find a less invase you have way to do it. I think over time, we may see like with the humbolt bay reactor, we may see our other nukes decommission said. In the '60s and '70s the plan was to develop the whole coastline along the line was Orange County, and PG& E projected having 20 nuclear power plants in Malibu.

ST. JOHN: When was that?

HELVARG: That was in the '60s. If you go up to Bodega Bay, there's a big hole in Bodega Head where they had already dug the foundation for what they were going to call an atomic park. Of course the San Andreas fault was right there, and also to the north where they planned another. I think if we're not going to have nukes in California, and we really have determined as a society in California that we're not going to do more offshore oil drilling, then we're going to have to open up to the new technologies for tidal and wind and wave energy. And in the urban coastline here, this is maybe a good area to get the state to open up to new ocean-based kinetic energy systems that can help us into the future.

ST. JOHN: Okay, very interesting history! If you would like to learn more about what David is writing about our coastline, the book is called the golden shore, California's love affair with the sea. Thank you so much for coming in.

HELVARG: Thank you. I'll be at Scripps this evening at 6:30.