A FOND FAREWELL

posted by / News / August 19, 2004

Chris Evans is serious about one thing: protecting the ocean. Beyond that, the 49-year-old Executive Director of the Surfrider Foundation is nothing like the stereotypical self-important environmentalist. He doesn’t scare you with stories of an apocalyptic future where beaches become ashtrays and lineups look like cesspools. He discusses the threats calmly — jokes about a day when there will be fewer useable beaches than he has hairs on his shiny head — then strongly encourages surfers to fight the power, employing a humorous charisma that screams the old adage: activism can be fun. Yeah, it’s a bad clich, but it works. In his five-year tenure, Evans has helped take the Surfrider Foundation from a quaint, cottage industry eco-group to a national lawmaker, helping introduce groundbreaking legislation like the now BEACH (Beaches Environmental Assessment and Clean Health Act) Bill, which mandates water testing across the country. Needless to say, we were sad to learn that Evans will soon be leaving his Surfider position to return to his former law career, taking a spot with the Orange County Superior Court. But rather than brag about his green pedigree as head of the world’s 20-year-old leader in surf activism, Evans defers credit to the members and volunteers, confident that his successor will be even more fit for the job. And in this case — like all things Surfrider — he’s not joking.

SURFING: It’s been rumored you’re the funniest executive director ever — is that true?
Well, I think Pierce Flynn is pretty funny, but I think I’m a little funnier than what Tom Pratte was like.

Seriously, it’s hard to believe it’s been five years already. Is Surfrider ready to go on without you?
Oh yeah. This place is rock solid. One of the hallmarks of grassroots work is you have to plan your own obsolescence from the time you walk in the door. I did that mainly by working on this national staff of18 people, that’s just improved, and improved and improved so that we’re producing better product — in many ways — than we have in 20 years and that is going to continue to roll on. I stand on the shoulders of those people. They set the stage for my success and I hope I’ve set the stage for the success of the next person that comes in here. I’m not one of those persons who believes that new blood has to constantly circulate but if it does circulate you can make some hay out of it. And when they replace me, we’re going to replace me with a bigger and better and skill set than I had. Surfrider does a first class job of national recruiting that will shake the trees and rake the beaches so we look every possible candidate.

Well you came from well outside the surf industry. You were — what? — lead District Attorney for Orange County?
I was one of the lead DA’s. I was the senior assistant DA in charge of major offenses which is many units in the office. But I was also an incredible surfer when I got here. Most people would observe I’m really an unbelievable talent…no, not really.

[laughs] Is that the goal is to find people on the outside with various skills and bring them into the environmental world?
Yeah it is. In my opinion — and by the way, the ideal person for this job changes depending on who you talk to — I think a consensus is, one: someone who surfs or appreciates and is deeply engrained in surf culture. Two: has heavy management experience. Three: has a sense of stoke for the environmental challenges that face surfing and the coast, because it’s one and the same. And four: has the passion to do something about it. Because I can tell you this after five years: it’s a lot of work. And I’ve had hard jobs all my life. And then five would be being able to constantly juggle multiple projects all around the country — as well as chainsaws and large pieces of furniture.

What are you most proud of in terms of achievements over the past five years?
Well there’s two categories here: one is the achievements that people will see and those are our environmental victories from the passage of the Beach Bill in 2000 to the creation of the world’s first marine protected area on a famous wave — which is in Rincon, Puerto Rico — to probably 150 key regional environmental victories around the country. That’s what the public sees. What the public won’t see, and what I’m equally proud of — if not more — I’ve really worked hard and our staff has worked hard to change the culture of the Surfrider Foundation to be more professional. And what I mean by that is to bring in a set of core values and beliefs to our work so we are able to work in a more meaningful or effective way. And that’s what any business has to do to get bigger than a lemonade stand and survive. And Surfrider has done it. And those are institutional changes that will serve us for a long time. We’ve added 15 chapters since I’ve been here and thousands of members and more staff and we’ve taken on more capacity for more mission, and that’s what it’s about. We need to be bigger and more effective than we are now and we still need to grow, but the tools are in place.

Well, we always talk about that first interview for ESM when I was sort of a prick. But I’ve definitely seen less of Southern California-centric approach in the past five years. And I remember one of the big issues then was when someone called up and they didn’t have a chapter in place, the standard reply from Nationals was, “I can’t do nothing for you, man.” That seems to have changed to where you’ll recommend nearby chapters and other possible solutions.
Thank god you’re saying that, that makes me feel good. And I can tell you that we did do that in my tenure here. And Chad Nelsen, outgoing Environmental Director, and Ed Mazzarella our decade-long chapter developer here have been instrumental in this place. Ed Mazzarella is one of maybe five people in the United States that do his work, that are main point people for environmental groups. And we’re lucky we have him in surfing. We’re damn lucky we have him in surfing.

So what about the next five years? What are Surfrider’s goals, it’s challenges and what can we do to help?
Surfrider’s number one goal is to build membership, and it’s important for people to know why, and it’s this: we are only effective with numbers. When we’re standing up in a city council or a state legislature or standing up at the Congress of the United States, we’re only important or relevant because of one thing: number of chapters and number of members. And that is job one here and will always be job one here. We need to be {{{Sierra}}} Club; we need to be {{{600}}},000 members. No, strike that. They’re 600,000 members. We need to be {{{100}}},000 members. We’re almost 40,000 members now. So here’s what the average surfer can do: they can just join. They have no idea how important that single solitary act of stewardship of their sport is if they just join. It’s an incredibly powerful act.

Job two, and it’s part of job one, is working on the environmental issues. And we do that here nationally by providing support to the chapters, which we’re now providing in unprecedented levels. Our next individual internal goal is we need to put regional staff on the East Coast of the US. We have this great chapter network and no employees, all volunteers. We’ll probably be announcing it in October but we think we’ll have our first East Coast regional coordinator on the ground next year.

And what are the challenges for the next five years, environmentally and for Surfrider?
They are, number one, water quality issues and what we are doing is more of the same: public awareness, public policy work, citizen water testing to keep the word spread, and then, finally, working up stream to find a source of problems. The other area is the protection of surf spots; that is just gonna get harder. And what our last strategic plan told us to do is work on ways to stop fighting reactive battles. When we’re about to lose a place or we’re losing places, we spend a lot of money to fight a reactive, losing battle. So that’s why I’m so excited about this thing in Rincon, Puerto Rico; it’s the archetype for creating a park over the wave. Why shouldn’t these waves have parks?! Every other form of recreation has a park. And that’s why they exist. Our national park system is the crown jewel of the bloody democracy and we need national parks or marine protected areas or something over every decent wave in this country.

And that’s at Tres Palmas?
Yeah. We have a paper park there. It took us two years to get that through the commonwealth legislature. And now we’re in the process, working with the {{{Ford}}} foundation, of developing a management plan to make it a real park. But to destroy that wave through bad development you have to go through a nightmare of federal bureaucracy now because of what we did. We need that over every wave. This is what we learned from Pratte’s Reef and realizing essentially what a failure making the wave was at this point — and I would call that a temporary interesting failure that we’re studying — but what we learned from that process is that natural breaking waves are extremely finite. And that’s why we have to put this in perpetuity protection over the damn things. And there you go! If there’s two things that Surfrider can do in the next five years — or the next 20 years — that’s enough. That’ll insure our kids can surf clean waves.

You just brought up an interesting point considering the upcoming election. I don’t want to turn this into a political discussion, but it seems like the current administration isn’t necessarily interested in protecting national parks. In November, how does the conscious environmentalist vote?
Well, let me say it this way, if you’re an environmentalist, and you look at these candidates’ records, it will be an easy decision. The current administration — just objectively — has done an astonishingly bad job of stewardship so far. Now, there’s a lot of issues to vote on, so when people ask me that question I don’t’ say, “You ought to vote for Kerry.” What I say is if the environment is a key issue for you — if it’sthe key issue for you — you have an easy choice to make. Because these candidates are alpha and omega. They are day and night.

Wow. Nice use of Greek. No wonder they made you a judge. Is that the best way to describe it?
It’s a type of judge in the superior court. In California the Superior courts have been combined with municipal courts and the commissioner is the bottom rung on the judges’ food chain. And it’s good, honest, judicial heavy lifting. And I’m looking forward to chopping a lot of wood in the Orange County Superior Court in California.

You know, we’ve obviously joked around a lot here. But one of the cooler things you’ve done is bring a sense of levity to the position. You’re serious about the issues but you don’t take yourself seriously. Hopefully, that doesn’t go anywhere.
Well, two things: I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to take a spot at our national board level. . Once you join Surfrider foundation at this level, you just don’t’ leave. I intend to stay near the helm of the thing. And two: Surfrider has never screwed up a hire of executive director. Every executive director we’ve had has been the right person for the right season. That’s going to roll on. We have an unbelievably talented board of directors and our organization understands our niche, understands our mission, understands our core, and you will that see in this hire. Period. Matt Walker

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