Conservation group sees more challenges ahead

The staffers at the big round table in the Coastal Conservation League headquarters get quiet when kidded about who wants to take over when Dana Beach finally steps down.

Though the group's founder shows no signs of walking away anytime soon, the thought of finding a replacement is daunting.

Twenty years ago, in the shadow of Hurricane Hugo, Beach opened a small office with two other staffers and became the environmental gadfly buzzing in the face of rampant development of the Lowcountry.

To find donors, he paged through a phone book, circling names he knew, and he launched assaults on issues such as land-use planning, stopping the widening of U.S. 17 through wetlands and protecting the night herons in Washington Park.

They eked by on $90,000 per year.

Today, the nonprofit environmental advocacy group is a $2.5 million-a-year operation with offices in Beaufort and Georgetown and two Columbia lobbyists. Its 30 staffers are divided into seven areas of advocacy, fundraising and policy initiatives.

The league is maybe the highest profile environmental advocate in the state, with 4,000 members.

More and more, the work focuses on the bigger picture, "trying to move a social, cultural and environmental heritage a certain way," Beach said. Jane Lareau, one of three founding staffers, has mostly retired.

Beach is 54, spending more of his time as an administrator and the face of the organization, working for large-scale policy changes.

"We became known at first as the group that's going to stop things," said conservation program director Megan Desrosiers. "Now we're trying to effect change to get what we'd like done."

More and more, the younger staffers are the feet on the ground in grass-roots efforts.


The staff members share that gadfly, think-on-your-feet quality and passion for environmental work.

They bring an assortment of skills and backgrounds - conservation biology, urban planning, corporate savvy, law - and mind-sets pushing the work in new directions.

"I feel so lucky to be actually able to make a difference," said Gretta Kruesi, communications manager. "That's the driving force that keeps all of us staying around late at night, working extra hours. It's not your average day job."

The league led efforts to restrict hog farming and marsh island bridges, preserve Sandy Island near Georgetown, pull the plug on the proposed Santee Cooper coal-fired power plant in the Pee Dee, move the Charleston port expansion from Daniel Island and curtail sprawling development, among other major campaigns.

It carries a big stick - the threat of a lawsuit or roused public opposition.

But Beach would rather sit at the negotiating table, giving ground on one issue to win the war on another. It makes for a crusade that occasionally baffles foes and alienates friends, one that he describes as "enlightened, vision-driven opportunism."

The process works in no small measure because that's how Beach works.

"You find yourself sometimes trying to figure out what to do next. It's not writing a (legal) brief, it's not making a loan. You're trying to save the Lowcountry," Beach said.

It requires "skills you don't normally associate with environmentalists," he conceded. "The hardest thing is finding people who fit."


The people who fit have their own ideas. Kruesi talks about connecting environmental and social issues, becoming not just an environmental organization but also a quality-of-life group.

Nancy Cave, the North Coast office director, wants to focus on getting the state to tighten "lax" environmental regulations.

"The world has changed," Desrosiers said. People are more attuned to issues like climate warming and "going green" than they were in 1989, and they need leadership. "You need an organization at the local level to do it."

The fight against the Pee Dee coal-fired plant moved program manager Hamilton Davis into a role working on energy and climate issues, championing "green" efforts in what amounts to a new direction for the league.

He sees the potential of forging "unusual partnerships" with the sort of businesses the league has opposed, championing green jobs "as it becomes more apparent this state is incredibly dependent on its natural resources."

That isn't as unlikely as it sounds. The league fought Santee Cooper tooth and nail to stop the Pee Dee plant. But the utility company, as it turns out, is also looking to develop "green" energy sources.

"We're always open to working with partners," said Laura Varn, corporate communications vice president. "I think it's all about working together where it makes sense."


Beach doesn't see himself retiring anytime soon. He keeps coming back to a comment made to him by a business representative during one of the league's battles: "What do you want?"

What he wants is a metropolitan area with a so-called "smart growth" urban design surrounded by protected and rural lands and waters. He sees the league as part of a larger partnership of organizations like The Lowcountry Open Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited.

The league is becoming more structured, rigid and bureaucratic in some ways, Beach said, and the challenge is to continue looking for new ways to do the work.

"It's a risk a large institution takes. You can lose the vision, become an organization that puts on conferences. You don't really do the things that are important; you do the things that have a flashiness to them."

He grapples with establishing "a culture of organization that's lasting," a mind-set that remains unafraid to go to court, and no reluctance to get out on the street to organize community opposition.

"Conflict is the seed of change," he said. "There's really not anybody else doing what we're doing."