CHARLESTON | Dana Beach was 28 when he quit his job as a New York investment banker, got married and went to Africa on his honeymoon.
What he found changed his life.
Beach and his wife were hiking through a Rwandan jungle one day, when their guide stopped, told them to be quiet and pointed through the rainforest.
Staring back at them was a young gorilla. As they crouched behind a shrub, the curious primate inched in their direction, extended a muscular arm and laid a finger on the knee of Beach’s wife.
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“We were absolutely entranced,” said Beach, recalling how the encounter inspired his career in conservation. “As much as anything, that was one of those transcendental moments, where I just knew ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Today, the Columbia native is South Carolina’s most visible and influential environmentalist.
Since founding the S.C. Coastal Conservation League in 1989, Beach has systematically built an eco-political machine that dwarfs other environmental groups in the state. As the state’s population has expanded into once pristine rural areas — particularly along the coast — Beach’s group has been on the front lines of virtually every big environmental issue.
The Conservation League, headquartered in Charleston, has 28 full-time staff members, $9 million in assets and offices in four cities. Major supporters include wealthy Lowcountry landowners and celebrities such as billionaire Ted Turner, singer Jesse Colin Young and author Anne Rivers Siddons.
Beach and his troops have led successful campaigns against a coal-fired power plant near Florence, mega hog farms in the Pee Dee and giant garbage dumps across the state, while also helping to protect thousands of acres of coastal land.
These days the Conservation League is seeking to limit cruise ships in Charleston, clean up air pollution in North Charleston and stop a huge apartment complex near a landmark live oak tree on Johns Island. And as the league enters its third decade, Beach has launched initiatives to bolster rural communities and to promote energy efficiency.
Beach has been recognized in national publications, such as The New York Times and Time magazine, and his successes with the league have inspired others to form conservation groups.
Not everyone likes what Beach does —- particularly industrialists, who say he’s trying to stifle growth.
But Beach, a preppy 54-year-old, doesn’t apologize for putting the environment first. His message is simple: protect the air, water and landscape that make South Carolina a special place.
“If we compromise that, we compromise our economic future,” he said.
Beach grew up in Forest Acres, the son of a Millwood Avenue garage owner and a homemaker whose family had lived in Columbia for generations.
As a child in the 1960s, Dana Beach had an appreciation for the outdoors, but his closest encounters with nature typically were family vacations to Edisto Beach or the mountains of western North Carolina.
“I wasn’t one of these young bird watchers,” he said. “I didn’t really know much about nature.”
Like other kids, Beach went to the mall, listened to rock ‘n’ roll and dabbled in youth sports. When he was 12, Beach beat his younger brother in a tennis championship at the Forest Lake Club.
At the prodding of his mother, he also took 10 years of piano lessons.
But Beach really liked cars. And he used any opportunity to race them at a family-owned dirt track in lower Richland County.
Beach’s dad told Dana and his brother, John, they could drive any old cars kept at the family’s salvage yard near Hopkins. The trick was to find the ones that were running. Needless to say, the Beach brothers spent plenty of time looking for cars that would start.
“Our friends’ parents must have cringed when they said ‘We’re going down to the Beach’s farm,’” John Beach said. “We would drive as fast as we could on that track with anything we could get our hands on.”
Dana Beach attended public school at what is now Crayton Middle, but his parents later sent him to Hammond Academy just as the country’s schools were integrating. Beach said he was never really comfortable at the private school. In about 1971, he and a friend made a point to show their dissatisfaction with authority.
Following a visit and speech by Republican U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, Beach and his friend were the only Hammond students who refused to give the conservative political legend a standing ovation. His other classmates were not impressed.
“They thought we were freaks, but they said, ‘That’s typical of Beach, he’s just being a contrarian,’” he said. “I was very rebellious in high school, and I think part of that was the atmosphere of conformity that existed in Columbia and at Hammond, and probably all over the South.”
Beach said he later began to realize “you can’t sustain a level of overt indignation” all the time.
Upon his graduation from Hammond, Beach went to Davidson College, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1977. He then earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School before launching a career in banking and finance. He came home to Columbia in 1979 to work, but grew restless. In 1981, he moved to New York. It was there that he began dating Virginia Christian, a former resident of Richmond, Va., who had an interest in nature. The couple began watching birds in Central Park and volunteering with environmental groups in the city.
They married in 1983 and decided they would return South, choosing Charleston as their new home. But first, a trip to Africa beckoned.
Virginia Beach — yes that is her name — said she may have played a role in her husband’s interest in nature. But seeing the gorilla in 1983 solidified his commitment.
The Beach’s two children also have developed an interest in public service. Their daughter, a student at Columbia University, taught English in Nepal between high school and her first year of college. Their son, a freshman at an Episcopal boarding school, is one of 15 students going to Africa this summer on a public service mission.
Dana Beach plans a visit to Africa this summer to help establish a nature center on the equator. While there, he will spend time with his son.
On a typical day, Beach rises early, runs 2.5 miles, then bikes from his house off South Battery Street to the league’s main office on East Bay Street.
His office is in a converted antebellum home with wide porches that the league uses rent-free, courtesy of a major donor. The small parking lot is filled with the bikes and energy-efficient cars of his enthusiastic staff.
Once at work, Beach might phone a board member about a business matter, meet with an attorney to settle a lawsuit or huddle with staff members on the league’s latest strategy.
In April, Beach spent four hours patiently and energetically answering questions from several environmentalists who had come to Charleston from another state seeking advice on forming their own group.
He described how he launched the Conservation League in 1989 by picking up a phone book and calling anyone he thought could help with donations. His initial budget was about $90,000; today the operating budget is $3 million. Talking with the public and supporters is the key to success, he said.
“The DNA of this organization is communication,” Beach said.
Beach often writes personal thank-you notes to those who contribute, no matter how big or small the donation.
“Even when I was a student, Dana signed a thank-you note — and my contribution was for only $15,” staff member Katie Zimmerman said.
Beach also is sought out by staffers for advice.
On a recent spring day, he helped Zimmerman identify a broken egg shell she found. An accomplished birdwatcher and photographer, Beach checked his computer and quickly determined the shell was that of a Least Tern, a bird struggling to survive in coastal South Carolina.
As a boss, Beach can be demanding, and by his own admission, tends to micro-manage. But he’s inspirational and fun to work for, some current and former staff members say.
To keep morale high, Beach makes it a point to do things for his staff. That might mean sailing together along the coast or throwing a party downtown. Earlier this month, Beach hosted “Pickin on the Porch,” an evening jam session for league supporters. A rock fan with tastes that range from Jimi Hendrix to the Talking Heads, Beach is himself an amateur guitar player and singer.
“I had a great experience working for the league — it was like a family,” former league lobbyist Christie McGregor said.
Not everyone is enthralled with Beach.
Conservationist Bob Wislinski, a Columbia public relations specialist, said Beach’s success sometimes makes him hard to work with. The two clashed several years ago over the direction of a campaign against the coal plant near Florence.
“He is used to doing stuff himself,” Wislinski said. “He’s not a team guy.”
Beach said the league was paying for the campaign, so he had a right to change direction.
Others, including State Ports Authority backers, say Beach isn’t always reasonable.
Beach’s group was instrumental in defeating the “Global Gateway,” a massive port expansion planned for Charleston’s Daniel Island about 10 years ago. After the Ports Authority backed off and agreed to expand the port at the old Charleston Navy base, Beach’s organization filed legal challenges over that site, too. The group said the expansion would worsen air pollution and clog traffic on Interstate 26 and in North Charleston.
Now, the Conservation League is pushing to limit the number of big cruise ships that dock in Charleston. The idling ships burn fuel that releases harmful air pollution, the league says.
Whitemarsh Smith, a neighbor of Beach’s and a member of the Ports Authority board, said Beach’s organization does many good things, but he questioned the Conservation League’s motives on ports issues.
“It almost seems like when it comes to the port, they approach it like a fundraising effort, rather than ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves and meet in the middle,’” Smith said. “Whether it’s cruise ships or a new terminal, they kind of whip it into a frenzy.”
Beach says he’s willing to negotiate but that the Ports Authority doesn’t want to make any changes in the way it does business. He said he’s not trying to raise money off the port’s back.
Some business interests have gotten so upset with league positions they have sued Beach and his environmental group.
GREEN AND POLITE
That Beach has built an influential conservation group in South Carolina is nothing short of remarkable, his supporters say.
Business and government leaders have long been suspicious of environmentalists, who are viewed as outsiders and threats to job creation in an historically poor state.
But Beach, speaking in the soft drawl of a native South Carolinian, appeals to many people with a calm, down-to-earth style that makes folks think he’s their friend.
His polite but passionate manner has been instrumental in raising money and winning battles for the league, observers say.
“Dana doesn’t appear to be a threatening person; he looks like a businessman and his demeanor is like that also,” former S.C. Sierra Club director Dell Isham said.
The Conservation League won’t hesitate to file a legal appeal against an environmental permit or sue to stop a project. The league has more than a dozen suits and appeals outstanding now.
Still, Beach is a realist. He’ll settle a legal action if he thinks it will help the environment overall. In the 1990s, his group was instrumental in brokering a deal that stopped a bridge from the mainland to unspoiled Sandy Island in Georgetown County. In exchange, Beach didn’t oppose letting the state fill wetlands to build a freeway near Myrtle Beach.
“This is not about articulating an ideology, it’s about getting something done,” he said.
Isham said Beach’s business background has helped the league become financially stable.
Of the Conservation League’s $9 million in assets, about $6 million is an endowment. The investment returns on that provide the league with a stable source of income, rather than having to rely solely on annual donations to keep afloat. The league also has a $1 million fund for use in case of an emergency. Few other conservation groups in South Carolina have resources like that.
Beach has obtained donations from charitable foundations and scores of wealthy Lowcountry landowners by pushing issues they care about — such as curbing sprawl, stopping factory-style hog farms and protecting open land. In effect, he has tapped into many big landowners’ tradition of preserving the tidelands and the open spaces of coastal South Carolina.
Among the Lowcountry property owners who contribute to the league are brothers Charles and Hugh Lane, long-time conservationists who each donated more than $10,000 last year to the league. Other big donors include Steven Rockefeller, a New York philanthropist and son of former vice-president Nelson Rockefeller.
The league’s most recent newsletter also lists some 30 foundations as giving at least $10,000 each from February 2009 to February of this year.
Others have taken note of Beach’s success, among them Upstate Forever.
“The success of the league was really an inspiration to me to start Upstate Forever back in 1998,” said Greenville’s Brad Wyche, the group’s director. “Dana had a great track record with the Coastal Conservation League. He was very kind to let me pick his brain.”
Beach said he is glad to let people know what he has learned. And sometimes, if he needs inspiration himself, he has a gorilla to think about.
“I have a picture of a gorilla on my desk; I feel like I should have all my relatives” nearby, he said with a smile.