Our Laguna: Coastal foundation marks 10 years

Laguna Ocean Foundation is celebrating its 10th anniversary this spring — and it hasn't let any grass grow under its feet.

A small group of concerned Laguna Beach residents took to heart the VISION 2030 project that identified the need to protect Laguna's coastal resources and created the foundation in 2003. Since then, staff members have logged more than 20,000 hours educating a half million folks about Laguna's tidepools. And they don't even count volunteer hours.

"Our message is that we have this gorgeous resource at our feet and we need to be good stewards of it," said Louise Thornton, foundation chair. "The government has preserved gems of land in national parks and in California we are working to preserve the gem of the ocean.

"Our most public activities are, of course, the TideWater Docent Program, conducted by volunteers and our several Tidepool lnterpretive Education Programs, conducted by staff members."

The foundation was an active participant and supporter in the Marine Life Protection Act initiative process and subsequent formation of the new Laguna Coast Reserve.

"None of what we have done, however, would have happened without the dedication of our volunteers and the support of our community," Thornton said.

The founding board members included Chair Fred Sattler, Walker Reed, Mia Davidson, Kurt Wiese, Ed Almonza, Candice Burroughs and Jeanne Meyers Thornton's hero.

"We started on a wing and a prayer," Sattler said.

And it took flight.

"We began the volunteer docent program and decided it needed a home, so we got our 501 c3 and began to raise a little money," Sattler said.

With financial assistance in 2006 from Montage Laguna Beach, the foundation was able to hire staff to provide interpretive education at the Treasure Island tidepools on weekends year-round when the tide is below 2.5 feet and the weather is enjoyable.

Besides educating the public, staff members track the number of visitors — an average of 28 folks per hour — and for five years, have conducted quarterly surveys of shorebirds along the Laguna Coast. Human data has been collected since 2005.

"All of this information provides valuable insight for our future management of this resource," Thornton said.

The Laguna Coast Reserve went into effect in 2012 and prohibits the taking of any marine life forms along most of the Laguna coast.

"Our program gave the state something to build on and that makes me proud of the work that the foundation has done," Sattler said.

Sattler is also proud of the regional Emmy Award for a six-minute video on the tidepools produced by the foundation and the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau.

But even before the initiative was in the works, the foundation partnered with other beach communities to form the Orange County Marine Protected Area Council.

"Our membership in the OCMPAC has made the implementation of the reserve with new signs, training and procedures a smooth transition," Thornton said.

"The council gives a cohesive message from Bolsa Chica to Dana Point that if we don't have an ocean, we won't be here."

Other partnerships have also been important to the growth of the foundation, which works with researchers at UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton, Cal Poly Pomona, the California Audubon Society and the Orange County Sea & Sage Audubon.

But foremost among the partnerships is the foundation's ongoing relationship with the city and especially, the Marine Safety Department, Thornton said.

"Working with the city the foundation helped develop a set of policies calling for visitor management along the coast," Thornton said. "These policies were adopted by the city and integrated into the General Plan."

The policies were also adopted by California Coastal Commission as policies of the city's Local Coastal Program. These specifically call for the development of a Coastal Resources Protection Program.

"So, we come full circle," Thornton said. "Laguna Ocean Foundation hopes to continue to actively partner with our citizens, the city and many others on the development of a functional, science-based and consensus-driven Coastal Resources Management Plan.

"It is our intention that this plan will not only preserve and protect the natural marine resources of our beautiful city, but will also continue to educate and enhance the experience of all of our visitors."

As beach tourism increases, the foundation's activities increase incrementally, Sattler said.

"Visitors from the Inland Empire [or Nebraska, for that matter] don't know our coast is a preserve — they don't even know what a preserve is," said Sattler, who retired from the board last year.

He was replaced by his wife, Jan, a native of Laguna and founding docent. Kelli Lewis is the most recent addition to the board. They join Almonza, Burroughs and Davidson, members of the founding board, Scott Ferguson and Thornton.

They are all volunteers — and more are needed.

To qualify as a TideWater Docent, volunteers must attend one two-hour training session at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, followed by on-site training at the tidepools. The next class begins May 8.

Docents are encouraged to volunteer for a three-hour shift monthly, with a choice of Crescent Bay, Shaw's Cove, Heisler Park, Wood's Cove, Goff Island and Treasure Island.

College-level summer internships are also offered. Interns train as tidepool educators at Heisler Park and Treasure Island, conduct research and interpret it in creative ways for publication.

The program generally runs from mid-June through mid-September, but the dates are flexible, based on students' needs. Students are required to work about 10 to 15 hours a week, half as tidepool educators. All hours worked as educators and some research hours are paid. Remaining hours are unpaid.

Interested college students should email their resumes and a one-page letter explaining their interest in the internship and relevant personal or work experience by March 15.

For more information about internships, volunteering, or the foundation, visit lagunaoceanfoundation.org.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (714) 966-4618 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.

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