Hawaii SOS Stirs Ecology Wave



by Stewart Udall and John Stansbury

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HONOLULU- Recently the senior author had a closeup view of what is undoubtedly the swingingest- and surely one of the most effective local environmental groups in the whole country. It is, strange to say, a "nonorganization." It calls itself SAVE OUR SURF- and its activists are Hawaii's young surfriders.

The beaches and reefs of the Aloha state are the "turf" of SOS. In 1970, this coalition of surfers helped stir up public opinion that...

SOS became a militant movement overnight in late 1969 when plans were unveiled by the Army Corps of Engineers and the state to "broaden" the beaches of Waikiki. Using old fashioned political techniques- hand-bills, demonstrations and colorful presentations at public meetings- the SOS teenagers quickly won the respect of the politicians and developed strong grassroots support in the community at large.

Surfing is one of the most individualistic sports, and SOS describes itself as more of a hang-loose movement than an organization. It has no dues, membership lists, monthly newsletters or officers. Its single minded goal is the preservation of Hawaii's wave producing reefs and public access to them.

The principal spokesman for the group is John Kelly, a blunt, fortyish former music teacher who has remarkable rapport with Hawaii's high school youth. As described by Kelly, the SOS strategy rests on three simple concepts: respect the intelligence of the people, get the facts to them and help the people develop and action program.

Bold language and ringing demands are essential elements in this strategy. One recent SOS handbill read: "TO ALL PLANNERS, LEGISLATORS AND DEVELOPERS:

"Well gentlemen-drop your plans! We have prior users' rights in the sea. We swimmers, divers, surfers, bathers, fishermen, conservationists and park users outnumber you "decision makers" thousands to one, so please be forewarned: There will be no high rises, no "construction" on the reef at Kewalo."

"There will be no parking lot on the Ala Moana Bowl! There will be no more killing of Hawaii's reefs for someone's private profit! No more polluting swimming areas with dredging! No Waikiki at Ala Moana! This entire ocean beach park from the green grass to the horizon, from the earth to the sky belongs to the people, now and forever! And this we will defend!"

This brash style has worked beautifully up to now. Kelly's young brigadiers gather facts, prepare broadside handbills, edit crisis newspapers and tangle with leading establishment planners and businessmen in public hearings. Their batting average to date has been remarkably high. In a state where developers and land speculators are still riding high, the surfers have won most of the major fights they have entered.

Critics of Kelly and SOS question their strident rhetoric, and call him "communistic" for his anti-capitalist rhetoric. But to us, Save Our Surf is a bright story of participatory democracy. Any time high school youngsters can do battle for the environment and hold their own with the establishment elders, all of us should applaud.

And SOS, with its relatively narrow focus on a single resource, disproves the contention (heard often these days) that the environmental movement suffers from too many overlapping organizations. Diversity, we believe, strengthens the cause.

In any event, SOS is a force to contend with in Hawaii- and our forecast is that many more Hawaii land speculators and shortsighted public officials will be "wiped out" by the young surfers if they continue their old ways.

Stewart Udall was President John F. Kennedy's Secretary of the Interior. His "Our Environment" was a nationally syndicated column. It was regularly printed in the Honolulu Star Bulletin on the Op-Ed page. This article was published on September 15, 1971.