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Surfer Dude to the Rescue
Leon Richter just wanted to, like, catch a good wave, but he ended up saving a Puerto Rican coral reef

Photo of Leon Richter
What happens when you pit the passion of a surfing community against a developer who would destroy the community's rural character and its surfing reefs? You get the Salva Tres Palmas campaign. Tres Palmas is located on the northwest corner of Puerto Rico near the quaint fishing village of Rincón. Its waves break over one of the largest and healthiest colonies of Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) in the region.

The campaign to save Tres Palmas began in 2000, when word came that developer Francisco Levy was planning to build a mega-resort called Villa Ikaria. Opponents of the project desperately needed a full-time organizer. Enter thirtyish wild man Leon Richter, a lionhearted, six-foot-four (7 feet with the Afro, before he cut it off) entrepreneur, whose career path had been radically redirected by surfing, and by a very nasty bug.

Chad Nelsen, a surfer from Laguna Beach, California, who is environmental director of the U.S.-based Surfrider Foundation, stirred in Richter an intense desire to surf when the two were fraternity brothers at Brown University. But Richter put the idea on hold when he was invited to join a start-up communications corporation in Argentina.

"Eventually, my partner wanted me to move to Los Angeles to grow the business," Richter says. "I agreed, with a couple of conditions -- a basketball hoop, bringing a dog to the office, and an office close to the beach. By damn, I was going to learn to surf." But soon after starting, Richter became seriously ill. "The doctors said it was a virus from the water. I called Chad and said, 'What can I do? This is not acceptable.' Nelsen's answer: If you can't go in the water, be an activist -- join the Surfrider board.

Richter recovered, prospered further, and sold his share of the business in 2000. "Chad asked what I had planned next," he says. "I wanted to find a Latin American surf town and settle down. The sly dog told me about the Rincón campaign and the opportunity to do some good there."

Richter found that running an environmental campaign is like running a start-up. "You have to leverage creativity, drive, and endurance," he says. "We commissioned a study on the economic impact on the reefs in the region. We showed how construction might be a short-term economic stimulus, but once you block beach access, dirty the water, and kill the reefs, you've ruined your core assets." By early 2002, half of Rincón's 14,000 residents had signed Surfrider's petition to stop the resort. In March of that year, Puerto Rican authorities refused to issue Levy the necessary permits, and in January 2004 Governor Sila Calderón signed a law establishing the Tres Palmas de Rincón Marine Reserve, guaranteeing long-term protection from developers.

The reserve set aside no-fishing zones; selling local fishermen on this idea wasn't easy, since commercial fishing is one of the town's biggest employers. But now, Richter says, "They understand the reef's nursery value, sit on the steering committee, and advocate larger protected areas."

Educational efforts like this one are the key to the campaign's success, Richter says. "We're weaving coastal stewardship into the fabric of the community," he grins, "to make sure that it will prosper for future generations."
-- Terry Gibson

Home on the (Artillery) Range
News from the Department of Hot Air
Voyage of the Sorcerer
Cue the Whale Sounds
Surfer Dude to the Rescue
Avian Flu: The Silver Lining
The Planet Kicks Back

Avian Flu: The Silver Lining
Last October, tissue samples from a dead parrot from Surinam and a songbird from Taiwan tested positive at a quarantine facility in England for the H5N1 strain of avian flu. The European Union responded with a temporary ban on all commercial imports of captive live birds, recently extended through July 2006. The move has already prevented more than two million birds from being taken from the wild and sold to the pet trade. The E.U. had been the world's largest market for wild-caught birds, accounting for 87 percent of all imports (the United States stopped importing most wild-caught birds in 1992). James Gilardi, director of the World Parrot Trust, is optimistic that the ban will become permanent, since no one wants to increase the risk of spreading avian flu. It's "a silver lining for wild birds in a pretty ugly cloud," he says.
-- Jen Uscher

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Photo: photograph for OnEarth by Steve Fitzpatrick

OnEarth. Summer 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council