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Remembering Peter Douglas, California's Coastal Hero

Conservationists remember the life and legacy of the former executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

On the day I heard Peter Douglas, the 26-year executive director of the California Coastal Commission, , I spent the morning surfing Upper Trestles.

On my dawn patrol down the trail that meanders along San Mateo Creek, I scanned for wildlife, and smiled when I came upon the sandy beach that delivers surfers into the cobblestone reef and waves at Upper Trestles, a masterpiece of natural engineering.

The surf was firing and the small crowd was friendly.

California bliss.

It was fortuitous that I happened to be at Trestles that morning because if Peter had not lived and dreamed of a coastline in California that belonged to us all, there just might not be a San Mateo Creek or surf at Trestles.

"Peter Douglas is to the California Coast what John Muir was to the Sierra Nevadas,” said Surfrider Foundation CEO Jim Moriarty.

The watershed and wetlands of lower San Mateo Creek, part of a California State Park, would have been destroyed by a toll road.

Trestles as we know it would be gone.

The architect of Proposition 20, the citizen’s referendum that established the Coastal Commission, Peter was also one of the principal authors of the Coastal Act, arguably the greatest single piece of legislation worldwide that provides a blueprint for conserving and safeguarding our greatest public trust.

“Peter was one of the most humble, effective ocean heroes of all time,” said Wallace “J.” Nichols, the marine biologist with whom I co-founded WiLDCOAST.

Without Peter, not only would we not have many of our most treasured public beaches, but in many cases, we would not have access to much of our coastline.

“In the summer of 2003 our family trekked the entire coast of California,” said Nichols. “The enduring beauty of that mega-transect, owes so much to the battles fought and won by Peter Douglas. His legacy provides unmeasurable emotional and cognitive benefits to the world each day through the beauty of our protected coast and ocean.”

Besides the fact that Peter was a force of nature, he was a dedicated public servant who took his mission to safeguard our coast for all very seriously despite the political fallout it caused him.

One of his many strengths was his capacity to treat people with respect and to make the commission meetings, known for their length and ability to test the patience of anyone, more humane.

"Peter Douglas always made it a priority for he and the Coastal Commission staff to listen to and respond to Surfrider members and local stakeholders,” said Pierce Flynn, former executive director of the Surfrider Foundation. “This ‘local listening’ was a key to Douglas’ and the Coastal Commission's successes.”

As a first generation American raised on the public beaches of California, who proudly worked as a California Ocean Lifeguard, I thank Peter and the Coastal Commission every time I surf and enjoy the beach with my family.

What really motivated Peter was his absolute joy in the coast and ocean and his belief that everyone has a right to share in the richness of our coastal heritage.

“We had a late afternoon tour that extended into the early evening at South San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge with Peter,” said Andy Yuen, project leader
 for the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“We were standing on the Refuge levees with the soft sunset glow reflecting off the ponds and San Diego Bay, birds wheeling overhead, and you could tell that Peter was completely jazzed that this special piece of San Diego Bay was conserved for wildlife.”

The California coastline is where we get to experience the joy of nature and the roar of the surf. It's where we share in the laughter of our children as they build their first sandcastle and play in the waves. And where we spend hours around campfires telling stories and singing songs with our friends and family.

In California, the coast is our life. And our life is the coast.

We can thank Peter Douglas for that.

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of "Wild Sea" and "Saving the Gray Whale." Serge received the California Coastal Commission’s “Coastal Hero” award in 2009.

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