09/25/2012 - The Oregon coast has some of the most diverse and rich marine ecosystems in the United States. It is home to marine mammals, more than 40 species of fish and thousands of seabirds, as well as kelp forests and rocky reefs that are essential for nurturing sea life.
So when sharp declines in West Coast fish stocks, including the number of coho salmon and groundfish, became evident in the 1990s, Oregonians had cause for concern. Some scientists, state managers and environmentalists began advocating for no-take marine reserves to preserve vital habitats where fishing and mineral extraction would not be allowed. In 2000, Gov. John Kitzhaber suggested the state study the feasibility of such reserves.
But progress can take time. Due to term limits, Kitzhaber left office in 2003. His successor, Ted Kulongoski, directed the state to continue the policy discussion, and in 2009 Oregon approved its first two reserves. This was a good start for conservation efforts, not only because of the new sites, but because officials recommended that four potential reserves be evaluated to balance ecological and economic changes.
When Kitzhaber became governor again in 2011 he said creating the new reserves was a priority for him. By then, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had focused on three of the reserves after a public process that included testimony from commercial and recreational fishing as well as marine science experts and conservationists.
In May, after a campaign by a coalition led by the Pew Environment Group (PEG), Kitzhaber signed into law new, no-take ocean reserves surrounded by marine protected areas at Cape Falcon, Cape Perpetua and Cascade Head. Oregon’s five reserves mean about 9 percent of its coastline is protected.
“We are going to be able to look back on this day as a day in which we laid the foundation for future generations of Oregonians to manage our resources in a way that benefits the environment, the communities and those who depend on the ocean for their economic well-being,” Kitzhaber said at the signing ceremony.
Listening to him that May morning was Susan Allen, manager of the Pew-led Our Ocean coalition, which since its creation in October 2007 had worked with environment groups, foundations, civic organizations, fishing interests and other stakeholders to help pass the legislation. “For a woman like me who grew up in rural Oregon, it was almost unbelievable to hear the governor that day,” she said. “And if you were interested in civics at all, it was an amazing process to invest in.”
Amazing, but not easy, even though Oregon has a proud history of protecting its resources and Kitzhaber and Kulongoski had supported reserves. “It was a very long process,” said Steve Ganey who oversaw PEG’s involvement in the Oregon reserves campaign. “Reserves were a very sensitive issue. Fishing is one of the founding industries in Oregon, so we had to painstakingly overcome initial resistance.”
The state’s Ocean Policy Advisory Council, known as OPAC, had recommended a system of reserves in 2002. Some fishing interests expressed opposition because they felt protected areas would adversely affect recreational and commercial fishing. Conservation groups advocated for the reserves, but by the mid-2000s the effort had stalled.
Polls showed that many Oregonians saw the need for such protections. But environmental groups in the Pacific Northwest, known for their independence, were not working well together, said Paul Engelmeyer of the Audubon Society of Portland, which became a significant partner in the Our Ocean coalition.
“Talented organizations were working on different pieces of conservation, but what we needed was a consistent voice,” he said.
Bill Lazar felt the same way. His Lazar Foundation had for years been a major funder of environmental efforts in the Pacific Northwest, and he was also interested in establishing a system of reserves along Oregon’s coast.
With the backing of a few other foundations, a consultant was hired to assess the situation. “He said, ‘If you want to get what you want, have a campaign,’ ” Lazar said.
At the same time, Ganey, a PEG deputy director who lives in Portland, held discussions with Lazar and other funders about possible next moves. Ganey became convinced that with the then-governor, Kulongoski, sympathetic to protecting the ocean—and if efforts by conservation groups and funders could be repurposed—creating the reserves could be done. In mid-2007, he flew east to consult with Joshua Reichert, PEG’s managing director, who agreed. Shortly afterward, Pew authorized the Our Ocean campaign.
“People in the funding world realized that what they had in place wasn’t sufficient to win a policy that would create a marine reserves program in the state, and Pew had the experience and the organization,” Ganey said. “Pew brought in a director, a field manager and six full-time organizers, a lobbyist, polling, and worked with coastal residents, the Ocean Policy Advisory Council, the legislature and the Governor’s office.”
“Pew brought resources and talent,” Lazar said. “And Steve really knows how campaigns are organized and run, and how to focus on an objective.”
To Allen, the key was forming a broad coalition, especially of funders and conservation groups.
“Our diversity was and still is our biggest strength,” she said. “We embraced the political structure in each region, such as working with leaders in coastal communities. We knew that building lasting relationships would lead to better policy.
“Our campaign was based on the principle that Oregonians are conservationists at heart, and we reached out to many nontraditional allies. We also kept an ongoing dialogue with members of the recreational and commercial fishing industries. And we got endorsements from such groups as the state AFL-CIO and the Oregon League of Minority Voters.” The groups in Our Ocean now represent 250,000 Oregonians.
One community group that has aligned itself with Our Ocean is the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team. Many of its board members are part of the fishing community in the southern Oregon town. Leesa Cobb, who directs the team and is married to a second-generation commercial fisherman, said, “The framework of a coalition was important, because we now had one place to talk to conservation groups instead of seeking them out individually. And it helped unify goals and messages, which was a real advantage.”
In May 2009, a turning point in the campaign came when the state legislature authorized two reserves and set up a process to evaluate other potential sites. OPAC ultimately accepted the recommendations for Cape Falcon, Cape Perpetua and Cascade Head, and this year the state legislature overwhelmingly passed legislation authorizing the reserves.
It was a resounding affirmation of everyone’s efforts—“a huge win,” said the Audubon Society’s Engelmeyer.
The coalition’s inclusive approach continues. The Lazar Foundation and other funders have also contributed to Pew’s work to protect wilderness lands in the state. “I hope the spirit of collaboration will continue,” Lazar said. “Foundations that worked on this coalition see that they can work with Pew.”
And there is still more work for Our Ocean, as it monitors the scientific assessments of the three reserves, provisions mandated by the legislation for this year and 2013, as well as the management practices to be implemented in 2014, Allen said. She calls the reserves “ecological savings accounts” that will enrich Oregon’s ocean.
Leesa Cobb sees something else: “They are our future. For those of us in the fishing community, they will allow us to pass on our way of life to our children and our grandchildren.”
Tim Warren is a contributing editor to Trust.