California Coast Under Siege Part II

They wouldn’t let me into the meeting. Otherwise, and I’m serious about this, Dr. Charles Lester may still be the executive director of the California Coastal Commission. I had a plan, and it would have worked, too, but I lit a Piccolo Pete in the parking lot of the Inn at Morro Bay before the meeting. It was at the urging of the crowd that I lit the thing. I’m weak to the desires of a crowd. The Piccolo Pete itself would have been just fine, and I probably would have been there, but I removed its plastic stand and hammered it so that the powders were mixed just right for combustion. Once lit it took off like a rocket, sailing around the lot like a frightened bird that’s gotten into a mall or gymnasium, until finally it was stopped by the side-view mirror of a 2013 champagne Honda Accord. Horrible luck, for that car belonged to the hearing’s doorman and my entrance was immediately revoked. That’s when I met Lenny, a fisherman from Morro Bay. Old and gruff and smoking, and happy at the commotion caused by the Piccolo Pete. I sent my assistant into the meeting because she was still permitted, and we needed the details, we needed the story. I need a constant stream of updates, I said, as I shuffled away and into Lenny’s beaten-down 1956 Ford F150, colored blue at one point in its existence. We putted away, throwing up an exhaust pipe full of black smoke. I think they were happy to see us go.

Lenny, whose real name is Leonardo (You’d think he’d have a different nickname), was born in San Luis Obispo to an avocado farm worker and a waitress. His first job was cleaning boats down at the Marina. He used to jump in the water and scrub the scum away and pluck off the barnacles in all seasons. He didn’t care, he said. He liked the job, he told me, because he got to get in the water, even if it was topped with a layer of gasoline and sprinkled with bird crap. He chuckled at the imagery. He just liked the ocean, he urged. He did that job until he was about 17, when he was asked by a local fisherman if he wanted to fill a spot on the boat. No hesitation there. He learned quick. That was forty-six years ago. He’s been fishing ever since.

“I think I’ve caught everything you can catch out here,” he said, pointing to various jutting rocks and coves. “There’s a good little lobster tub right over there. Not many people know about it. I can go down there barehand and grab a few. Dinner!” he exclaimed, wheezing out a laugh and a smile. “This coast has fed me for the last fifty years. If it changes. If they start building people farms along it and spillin’ oil into it, then it feeds no one. Especially me,” said Lenny, changing tones. “That’s what those people in that room up there don’t realize. They’ve never pulled anything from the ocean and cooked it up. They look at it too different than me,” he said, pausing to spark another cigarette.

We parked the truck and pushed off in his tiny fishing vessel, and as we drifted out of the marina and into open water, eyeing the very coastline in dispute, the public hearing that may very well decide its future had begun. Perhaps a bit dramatic, but the signs were there. Why else would they remove a PhD, conservation-minded, science-based leader from the helm of the commission charged with preserving the coast of California? Lenny knew why.

Fred Collins, an administrator of the northern Chumash territory, rose to the podium early, praising the good Dr. Lester and begging the other commissioners to vote protect Grandmother Ocean and retain the good doctor. “We believe with all our hearts that we were put on this earth as stewards of the coast,” Collins said, his demeanor calm and peaceful. “Dr. Lester has worked with us and opened up lines of communication that have not been there before.” This is all from my assistant sitting in on the hearing. I asked her to get Fred’s information so that we could meet him at a later time for an interview. The Chumash are known for their interconnecting channels running through the central coast. Wondrous coastal hunters.

Back to Lenny, though, who had started to drink. “Not early enough,” he swore. Breakfast and sleep appeared to get in his way. I would soon join him.

“The coast to those people is either money or power,” he said. “That’s it.”

“Leonardo,” I interrupted, “what about the good Dr. Lester?” I asked. “What about me?”

“I don’t even know you!” he yelled, smiling. “The doctor is good, though. He’s smart. He knows what the coast is. He sees it differently than them. That’s why Fred Collins likes him.”

I asked him if he knew Fred Collins. He said, not really, but I wasn’t so sure. We continued on in silence for a while, Lenny gesturing to various rocks and inlets and points and hills and coves, nodding his head as if that was all that was needed to understand. And it was. The coastline along there was recognizable. It was preserved. It was wild. As Lenny sipped and smoked and pushed the vessel up the coast, I imagined the hotels and the condominiums and timeshares that would pop up, the people farms as Lenny put it, and then the tankers that would soon show up to anchor and drill just outside breaking waves. It would soon be lit up like Vegas, I thought. There’d be McDonalds drive-thrus and Starbucks right on the sand. It would no longer be wild. It would be developed, it would be sucked dry, it would be cut and torn and made to look like something thunk up in a dark room where toys and beautiful things are pulled apart and then put back together just for the sake of putting them back together. Isn’t good enough the way it is because they haven’t built on it yet. They’d draw up the plans in the backroom of a fluorescently lit office building, where they say things like eco-friendly, and state-of-the-art green technology, which really means nothing, and come up with marketing campaigns where each new condo would save a square-inch of rainforest and put shoes made of rubber on the feet of a starving child in Africa and generate 12 ounces of clean drinking water that they would bottle in plastic and sell at Whole Foods. It’s science, they’d say. It’s proven, they’d whine.

No more hiking. No more beach. No more coast.

It was still early in the day, and we still had hope that the good Dr. Lester might survive the night. We anchored in a tiny bay, where Leonardo had set a crab trap. He motored up to it and ordered me to pull it aboard. “Pull it! Yank it! Come on!” he screamed, his mouth smoking and dripping liquid at the same time.

We would finally get the crab aboard and then I’d wash them with fresh water — Lenny’s orders. He’d watch the flask and pack of cigarettes, while flicking lighter on and off and humming a song to himself. We’d build up a fire in a small barbecue that attached to the side of the boat. Lenny would then stop humming and throw two entire crabs onto the flames. Not a soul in sight. Then we’d eat. Fresh meat pulled right from the ocean. The California coast. The day would wind down, and we’d have no idea what was going on in that meeting. No service in that bay. We’d have no idea that hundreds of people would get up to speak in support of the good Dr. Charles Lester. When we returned to the open ocean and service kicked in the line to speak in favor the doctor was still out the door. They can’t fire him now, I thought. It would last for seven hours, the support. The public hearing would then be dismissed, by a vote of 9–3, into a backroom, where the other commissioners, the ones who wanted him removed in the first place, could speak their ills in peace and free of scrutiny. Then finally, around 9pm, we’d have our answer. By a vote of 7–5 the good Dr. Charles Lester would be removed, effective immediately, as executive director of the California Coastal Commission. People would weep because they knew what it meant. Leonardo knew what it meant. He was calm about it, though. I admired him for it.

“Well, looks like the war’s begun.”

It had. It may not be quick, and they’ll do everything they can to keep you from knowing that it’s happening, but mark my words: the California coast is under siege effective immediately.

“As we speak I bet they’re drawing up plans for hotels and apartments,” Lenny said, now drunk, still calm. “We’ll just have to figure out something else.”

“But what?” I asked.

“Maybe we can write a book or make a movie. We need one them actors or musicians to jump on board,” he offered.

Problem is, it’s those actors and musicians that want to build their mansions on the coast and put up fences restricting beach access. If they build on it, it’s theirs. The Edge of U2 plans to build a five-mansion deep, ten thousand square foot ‘getaway’ on a remote ridge in Malibu. It’s eco-friendly, he says. So does Commissioner Vargas, who voted to remove Charles Lester and met with the Edge in Ireland along with one of the biggest pro-development lobbyists in California. What can you do? Where’s Jerry Brown on the matter? I’m not sure. Wonder if a cat has his tongue? I don’t know, but I intend to get to know the coast a little better before it’s too late.

“You can come fish with me anytime,” Lenny offers. “I only take what I can eat. Don’t need much more.”

“Thanks Lenny.”

Who knows? Maybe they’ll hire someone even smarter and stronger than the good Dr. Charles Lester, and maybe the coast we’ll be safer than it ever was before. Maybe.


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