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Wednesday, March 30, 2005 | He’s lived in El Salvador, Texas, Arizona, Wisconsin, Peru and Mexico. But the IB-raised child of French immigrants came home to found the trans-border conservation team WiLDCOAST. His efforts include social and economic programs for low-income Mexican coastal landowners, rock star-endorsed media campaigns to curb the tradition of eating sea turtles and their eggs, and the preservation of his beloved Baja surf breaks. The Surf Industry Manufacturers Association’s 2003 “Environmentalist of the Year” talks about sniffing sewage, saving the surf and San Diego’s soul.

Do you find people on the other side of the border approach environmental issues differently?

Yes, it’s funny. It’s the reverse of what we’d think. Americans have a superficial knowledge of the environment, in most cases. So we’re environmentalists. They just articulate it in very different ways. The people who live in the slums of Tijuana obviously are environmentalists. They want clean air. They want clean water. I’m not going to talk to them about saving endangered birds. Fisherman are environmentalists, they just have a different way of expressing it.

Why is Tijuana important to San Diego?

Tijuana really is the soul of San Diego when you think about it. San Diego’s really an objective city; it’s not that exciting of a place. If you want to look at the history of San Diego, and where a lot of exciting things have happened, culturally or in terms of arts, it comes from Tijuana, even in terms of the music scene. This sort of yin and yang of San Diego … Tijuana is an escape valve for housing issues. It’s where our labor force goes. Here in the South Bay, people who work and serve here come from TJ. Economically, especially down here, this is a very different world.

As an environmentalist, you wish TJ didn’t exist. But the problems of TJ are the problems San Diego had 40 years ago.

You lived all over the place. Why did you come back to Imperial Beach?

I’m really connected to this town. This town is completely surrounded by open space. You’ve got the Tijuana estuary, you’ve got the ocean. I love being connected. That’s one of the things when you travel, you want to travel everywhere to immerse yourself in this interesting community. I don’t need to travel to get that anymore. I’ve got what I need. The lifeguard captain’s my best friend, his kids go to school with my kids. It gives us a base and a place to work. We use the experience of community building and conservation to show people that, hey, this can be done, but more importantly, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time.

That being said, were you tempted to stay abroad?

Very tempted. Very tempted. In fact, I have to get back abroad. I have French citizenship, and so do my kids, so I’m tempted in a couple years to spend a year maybe in France or Spain.

What was the water like when you surfed after the rain storms of early January?

It was very polluted, it’s always Russian roulette, you never know when it’s polluted.

Could you smell it?

Yeah, instead of wine connoisseurs, we’re all sewage connoisseurs.

How important is economics when talking about the environment, especially in Mexico?

Economics is about 60 percent of it, but about 40 percent of it is – again, it boils down to the moral argument and how you frame the issue. You need to speak people’s language. They’re always talking about, “We need to educate them.” We need to educate ourselves. We need to ask them about themselves, about what they want. That’s what liberals and environmentalists don’t get, you need to tap into their feelings about the environment and how they are living. Sure it’s about economics, but not economics alone, it’s about how people feel. When talking about ranchers and fisherman, it’s not just about their pocketbooks but about how they feel about the future.

What needs to be done in San Diego environmentally, in your opinion?

We need to do everything we can to upgrade our sewage infrastructure to make sure we minimize the harm on the existing wetlands, for example.

What do you like most about San Diego?

The ocean. I mean sure, I can talk about our problems, but on any given day I can go out in the water and, especially here, and I can surf with dolphins. I’ve got this great wilderness experience that you just can’t replicate anywhere else. And I can’t understand for the life of me why people aren’t always doing everything they can to make sure it’s clean.

What bothers you the most about San Diego?

The complacency of people. It’s a very complacent population resistant to change and unable to question authority.

If you were to dance in public, what song would you dance to?

“Clampdown” by the Clash.

Why?

That song represents everything that explains why we do what we do.

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