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The Steward of Stoke

The Surfrider Foundation's Pierce Flynn Wants Everyone to Understand Why Waves Matter

June 07, 1998|JIM BENNING | Jim Benning's last article for the magazine was a profile of wave forecaster Sean Collins

To Pierce Flynn, for whom surfing is nothing less than a form of prayer, the rise overlooking Trestles is sacred. Early most mornings, he pedals through empty San Clemente streets, surfboard riding shotgun on his mountain bike, to this bluff above one of California's most popular surf spots. On days with curling waves, he'll cruise down the dirt trail, tug on his wet suit, paddle out and picture in the distance the big change about to unfold here. Soon, despite the intense lobbying of Flynn and his flock at the Surfrider Foundation, the Marine Corps will build housing on this chunk of coast within Camp Pendleton. "Our kids won't be able to look down and see the waves breaking," Flynn says. "It's sad."

In Flynn's world, the act of surfing is linked to the battle to preserve beach access, clean ocean water and unspoiled coastlines. Waves, this mellow Southern California native will tell you, deserve the same protective status as gnatcatchers and condors. To promote this agenda, Surfrider practices a brand of environmentalism that Flynn calls "surfer-bohemian-hip." It's a term that also describes Flynn--a tan, youthful 44-year-old PhD who thwacks around the small nonprofit's San Clemente headquarters in flip-flops and counts among his passions Zen and traveling by plane, boat and skiff to hell-and-gone surf breaks around the world.

These days, Surfrider is riding a swell into the mainstream, and Flynn is out front on the nose. Propelled by recent victories against polluters, Surfrider, now going on 15, has won the attention of many government and industrial leaders on the both coasts. Despite having taken some media hits for playing loose with the facts, Flynn has delivered Surfrider's gospel to America's masses. He has courted the support of--and surfed with--such recording artists as Chris Isaak and Eddie Vedder. Pearl Jam's front man donated cash as well as tracks for one of the CDs that Flynn co-produced as fund-raisers. And Flynn helped smooth-talk MTV into airing a short video that coolly spelled out Surfrider's causes.

All this hype has fueled a hint of fear that the organization is straying from its core, surf-inspired mission. But even the grumblers concede that Flynn is a charismatic, brainy, media-savvy leader, equally at home in the boardroom and on the ocean. Put him in front of a TV camera and he really turns it on. Says Steve Barilotti, a Surfrider member who writes a monthly column about the environment for Surfer magazine: "He's the master of the sound bite."

Surfrider's headquarters consumes part of the second floor of a rustic three-story office building about a mile from the San Clemente shoreline. A stack of surf magazines teeters near the front door. Hanging surfboards cover one wall. Flynn, who moved around as a kid, living with his doctor parents in Westwood, Redlands and San Bernardino, recalls how he got to Surfrider in 1992. The organization had just won a major settlement from two Humboldt County pulp mill operators that had been dumping millions of gallons of untreated waste into the ocean each day. The group tapped Flynn, then a communications consultant, in part to relieve internal squabbling over how to spend a $300,000 windfall in legal fees from the settlement. He loved it. "I thought, this is a real good vehicle for me," he recalls. "I can serve and give back. It was very meaningful."

Drawing on his background in media relations and academia--he has a doctorate in ethno-methodology, or the study of knowledge, from UC San Diego--Flynn made friends quickly. In three years, he made the leap from communications manager to executive director, which pays $65,000 a year, learning about the ocean as he went. He met his fiancee, coastal scientist Melissa Gordon, at a meeting in Washington, D.C.; their wedding is next Sunday.

Flynn spends much of his time talking on the telephone to Surfrider constituents, discussing policy with board members and brainstorming PR schemes with record producers and entertainers. (His Rolodex includes Woody Harrelson and Tom Hanks.) In the afternoon, he might meet with a geographer or an oceanographer for a briefing on a coastal issues, then finalize a grant application. Flynn moves easily from the role of inspirational leader to stoked surfer. "We want to reinvent democracy," he'll say one minute. Then, the next: "We receive so many bitchin' letters."

Flynn wants the organization to become more sophisticated. "We're probably coming into young adulthood from adolescence," he says. "I'm trying to be a maturing agent." His goals include adding to the membership of 25,000 and finding ways to make the chapters more self-reliant. "We've been reactive, putting out environmental fires," he says. "Now we need to look ahead."

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