As I prepared to write this third installment of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative series, I decided to take a twilight walk along the ocean for inspiration.
Instead I found apparent abalone poachers at Jughandle, two big country boys working with duffel bags at dusk on July 30. My dogs had alerted and pulled me by their leashes to the spot where a lookout dude was hunkered. The meeting was uncomfortable, both of us being both scary and surprised.
He said they were doing "underwater photography."
What better time for that than after sunset? I left quickly, all ocean poetry having been yanked from my heart.
I rushed home to call the toll free, "24-hour" Department of Fish and Game line set up to report poaching.
The line was turned off and non-functional, transferring me into dead-end voicemails. I kept at it for 15 minutes and tried a law enforcement number also on the site. No luck.
I knew Fish and Game enforcement was yet another casualty of the no-new taxes driven state budget, but I did not know the tip line was a casualty.
I realized I should have called the sheriff's department or local wardens like Eric Bloom or Terry Hodges, who give out their numbers for just such a situation. Then I realized I had found my muse for the story, after all.
This third article explores why many locals have reacted to the privatization of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative (MLPAI) ocean preservation process as if they were dealing with poachers, not preservationists.
MLPAI's private funding has been a major issue among highly critical locals, from fishermen to seaweed harvesters to members of Fort Bragg's Ocean Protection Coalition.
MLPAI backers appear baffled by why this would be such an issue and even more perplexed as to why an area with a seaweed green voting record would be so suspicious and resistant of large funds dedicated to environmental preservation.
Ken Wiseman, MLPAI executive director, said the private money driving the mandatory process doesn't buy anything more than implementation of a 1999 law the state couldn't afford to implement on its own.
"There is an issue that has come up that somebody is buying a result here," said Wiseman.
"I am paid for by the foundation. I have never had any foundation person call me up and say, I want this result.' The five foundations want a process, they put up $20 million to create a process," Wiseman said.
More than a dozen well-dressed foundation-paid folks from an array of non-profits have arrived from Sacramento, Los Angeles and the Bay Area in recent weeks, willing to explain to anyone who would listen how the pre-conceived process will work. The 18-month MLPAI process has just gotten started in the area that runs from north of Point Arena to the Oregon border.
Like I felt when I collided with the burly dudes, many locals obviously feel passionately possessive of the ocean and are suspicious of outsiders who come to ask for input when they have already mostly made up their mind.
"This feels like a really top down process," said Jim Martin, West Coast regional director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance
"They appear to have their minds made up and we are just there to move a few lines around," he said.
Coast ocean activists are accustomed to uniting to battle outsiders who come with claims to the ocean, such as oil companies given leases in the 1980s or the wave energy leases awarded behind closed doors to private companies. In that case, the federal government never told any local governments there was even a wave energy process before awarding the exclusive claims.
Martin has led opposition to the MLPAI in its current form. But like many locals, he thinks protected ideas are a good idea. The ocean is more important than political divisions to Mendocino Coast residents, he says.
"The difference here is that people really have a connection with nature that isn't true in big cities. Conservation groups locally know that we can get food from the ocean without disrespecting it," he said.
Some elaborate conspiracies have been passed around about the big private foundations that are paying for the MLPAI process. Martin finds some of these claims interesting but says the real energy comes from a local dislike for the power of outside money.
"There are some real questions about this private money ... It's the undue influence that really upsets people, the ability of the money to dominate local interests and overpower local input," he said.
Martin, who has been involved in the process in other areas, confesses to feeling overmatched when sitting across the table with attorneys, scientists and trained spokespersons, all paid to be there.
He said locals who make their living from the ocean, such as party boat captains, marine business owners and commercial fishermen, have a very difficult time attending meetings for free to argue with people being paid to be there.
The MLPAI, the Ocean Conservancy and the survey firm Ecotrust are among those to employ representatives, and all are new to the ocean issue on the Mendocino Coast. None participated in the recent wave energy or oil drilling matters. In fact, neither of those activities would be impacted if new protected areas were established.
"When some of the local conservationists learned the MLPAI doesn't really apply to huge ocean-industrial projects like wave energy, they decided they couldn't support it," said Martin.
Follow the money
So, who is behind MLPAI?
I learned that the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation (RLFF), a rather secretive money trust, is the key force. The RLFF has been a major player in creating new parks, easements and other nature deals and ballot initiatives but never brags about it.
RLFF has never been the main feature of a news article, as far as I could find and as far as Amy Thoma of Wilson-Miller Communications knows. Emails this reporter sent to the RLFF requesting an interview with one or more key RLFF personnel were forwarded to her public relations firm.
"RLFF has no role in the policy-making aspect of the MLPA. The private contributions to this state effort and the roles of (state agencies) and the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation are defined in a memorandum of understanding that separates the source of the funds from the rulemaking process," Thoma said.
The memorandum of understanding between RLFF and state agencies was created during former governor Gray Davis' administration when it was clear the state had no money to implement the Marine Life Protection Act of 1999 and needed private help.
The website at www.resourceslegacyfund.org has lots of general information, including basic biographies of RLFF board members and Executive Director Michael R. Eaton. All have experience with major corporations, law firms, and banks and also with public-private nature partnerships. The website has tax returns and financial statements too, but does not describe a central vision, provide details of how decisions are made, or boast the accomplishments of the $81 million fund.
The RLFF website says this low profile is intentional.
"They say they take the low profile so their funders can get all the credit. But in this case the Packard Foundation has been taking a pretty big hit," said Martin.
Thoma said all the funders are charitable foundations.
Fish and Game Commissioner Michael Sutton has been challenged over alleged conflicts of interest regarding the Marine Life Protection Act because of his ties to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where he works, and the Packard Foundation, where he once was an officer. The Packard Foundation is one of the major contributors to the RLFF.
After two failures by the state, the RLFF took over the fund-raising process for implementing the Marine Life Protection Act. The foundations helped create the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, a privately-funded organization that is now implementing that state law locally.
But what could possibly be wrong with private foundations dedicated to ocean preservation doing ocean preservation?
Martin says privatized conservation works too much like a big corporation, with less interest in long term impacts than in achieving a goal.
"They are all from big industry and this process is basically producing and selling a product, in this case, the marine protected areas. It costs very little and is easy to sell, with just a little fear and doom and gloom," said Martin.
Martin said fishermen don't always like the fishing closures that have been so common in the past few years. But in those cases, science has been presented and the entire decision debated by panelists composed of peers and government officials.
With the MLPAI, fishermen feel like they are up against a marketing, rather than scientific, machine.
Fort Bragg City Council members mentioned that the MLPAI has sent as many public relations people as scientists to town to introduce the process.
Last week, Martin told the council that his dealings with the MLPAI in other regions has felt more like negotiating a real estate deal than finding the best solution possible for the ocean.
"This has become a process of horse trading where one side feels it has won if it gains more territory. We don't see it that way," Martin told the council.
The City Council was unanimously critical of the science and private funding behind the MLPAI process and has formally asked the state to postpone the process.
Thirteen other agencies, including all three involved counties, all the harbor districts and other cities and Indian tribes, also were critical of the MLPAI and wrote a letter to the state asking that the entire matter be delayed.
The local agencies, supported by state Sen. Pat Wiggins, are demanding a deeper look into the economic impacts of removing huge fishing areas from the local economy.
Mayor Doug Hammerstrom hoped for a day when the marine center Fort Bragg hopes will blossom at the old Georgia Pacific mill site could lead the scientific studies needed to properly preserve the ocean.
The next affiliate I looked into was the Ocean Conservancy. Jennifer Savage, who works for that organization, contacted me and offered to help contact experts and answer questions about the MLPAI.
But after the article was released, she got into a local crossfire about just who she represented, as I identified her by the generic moniker "spokeswoman."
Just what is the relationship between the Ocean Conservancy and the MLPAI? Who funds who?
"Ocean Conservancy supported the original adoption of the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999 and has been involved in each phase of the MLPA Initiative effort to date," Savage said. "Our staff has served on the Regional Stakeholder Groups and the organization strongly believes that community involvement is vital to the process. So, as someone who cares deeply about both the ocean and the community I live in, I happily opted to assist them with MLPA efforts on the North Coast."
I never found out whether the Ocean Conservancy is paid for that help or if the MLPAI funds the OC, which has been around since 1972.
The Ocean Conservancy has one local involvement, as a sponsor of the world's largest annual volunteer event — the International Coastal Cleanup, run locally by the Mendocino Land Trust.
A flow chart of just the official MLPAI organizations accompanies this story. In next week's installment, we will look at the budget and the flow of money and provide a flow chart for the funding organizations.
Another big issue is that the MLPAI is creating new underwater preserves at a time when the state is downsizing its budget for onshore parks and law enforcement.
As to the abalone poachers, a group of local residents has formed MAW, or Mendocino Abalone Watch, as a nonprofit citizen-based organization acting as additional "eyes and ears" for the Department of Fish & Game.
Interested persons are asked to drop an email at email@example.com for information or to volunteer," said a press release from MAW.