The Way We Work: Phillip Johnson and Oregon Shores

by Beth Keegan March 27, 2015

In this installment of The Way We Work, we speak with Phillip Johnson, Executive Director of Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition. Phillip has been involved with Oregon Shores since 1991, first as a board member, then as the founder and coordinator of Oregon Shores’ CoastWatch program, and most recently as executive director since 2009. Drawing on almost a quarter-century of experience, in this interview Phillip shares his perspective on current and future challenges to Oregon’s coastal environments and reveals how the Coastal Law Project (the partnership between Crag Law Center and Oregon Shores) will meet these challenges in the coming decade.

What are some of the patterns or trends you’ve seen in the types of threats to Oregon’s coastal environments over the past 23 years?

One pattern is understandable and predictable—the waxing and waning of the economy is reflected in waxing and waning development pressures. The silver lining of recessions is that we see less push for inappropriate luxury development. Another trend is the endless stream of golf resort proposals—this is hardly new, but the success of Bandon Dunes [Golf Resort] has proven an attractive nuisance that is driving envious would-be developers. A major new threat throughout the Northwest is energy development. We are deeply engaged in fighting two proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants.  We’ll be watching for future LNG schemes on the Columbia and Coos Bay estuaries.

What do you think will be the biggest challenges in protecting the Oregon coast in the next 5-10 years?

There will always be the kinds of threats with which we are all too familiar:  inappropriate development catering to the wealthy; water quality threats from urban runoff; anemic regulations on logging and mining. However, the growing challenges I see are all related in one way or another to climate change. First, we will continue battling proposed energy developments, such as the LNG plants. Second, the Northwest’s climate will probably remain comparatively benign for a long time, so within 10 years we will see increasing numbers of climate refugees heading our way (I think of it as the “Phoenix factor”). Third, sea level rise and intensified storms will lead to greater erosion and a restructuring of the built environment on the coast, either through disaster or thoughtful planning.  We will lose our coastal state parks if we don’t acquire buffers so that they can move back.  Getting a good start on adaptive planning for climate change will be the greatest challenge during the next decade.

How has the Coastal Law Project (the partnership between Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition and Crag) helped Oregon Shores accomplish goals that were not otherwise possible?

I don’t think there is any other way a mid-sized conservation organization such as Oregon Shores, with our modest budget, could have afforded the kind of work we accomplish together through the Coastal Law Project. The Coastal Law Project partnership gives us a much greater reach than we would have had otherwise, providing not only excellent representation in formal legal and other regulatory processes, but also consistency in assisting citizens as they participate in land use processes; advice on formulating Oregon Shores’ policies; and long-term planning for issues such as climate change or onshore impacts to marine reserves.

What about Crag inspires you and your work?

Crag is composed of individuals who have the combination of background, education, and ability which would allow them to choose just about any path in our society.  The fact that they have made the choice to devote their skills to a strong vision of environmental protection should be inspiring to anyone, and especially to all of us who care about preserving the natural world and its resources for the long term.

For more info on Oregon Shores:

Oregon Shores: 40 Years of Protecting Oregon’s Coast

Beth Keegan is a writer and educator living in Portland, Oregon.  She holds a Master’s degree in creative writing from Portland State University.  Beth volunteered with Crag in 2014.

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