Acting for Oceans
Few celebrities who take up an environmental cause get beyond a superficial commitment. But as co-founder of the American Oceans Campaign (AOC), Ted Danson has steeped himself in the issues. While lobbying on Capitol Hill he has been known to chase senators into elevators. Like his fellow actor Woody Harrelson (Conversations, May/June 1997), Danson clearly separates his life as an entertainer from his life as an environmentalist. His oceans work has earned him credibility, respect, and a high profile in both environmental and political circles.
Ted Danson the actor spent the early years of his career doing theater in New York City. In 1978, he moved to Los Angeles to teach and manage the Actor’s Institute. Early film work for Danson included acclaimed roles in The Onion Field and Body Heat. In 1982, he first got behind the bar as Sam in the hugely popular television comedy, Cheers. By the time Cheers broadcast its final episode 12 years later, Danson had received two Golden Globe awards and two Emmys. His film credits now include Three Men and a Baby, Three Men and a Little Lady, Dad, and Made in America.
Bob Sulnick, executive director of AOC, remembers a certain evening about 11 years ago when he gave a public talk in Santa Monica to rally opposition to off-shore oil drilling. At the conclusion of his talk, a tall fellow walked up to him and handed him a check for an impressive sum of money and then quickly departed the room. People asked him if he knew who that was. “No,” he replied. “Haven’t you ever seen Cheers?” someone asked. Sulnick was stumped. “What’s that?” he said. And so began what would become a deep and enduring friendship between Sulnick and Danson, which has been at the core of AOC since its founding in 1987.
During the last decade, AOC swiftly developed into a leader of ocean advocacy. Among many accomplishments, AOC played an essential role in the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act. It was instrumental in protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling. AOC is also co-chair of the Clean Water Network, a group of 800 organizations across the country dedicated to the reauthorization and strengthening of the Clean Water Act. And AOC is working to restore California’s Bolsa Chica Wetlands and publicize the importance of wetlands conservation.
Danson recently finished filming Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks. He will also appear in Saul Rubinek’s film, Tom and Jerry. But for this interview, Danson the ocean activist comes to the fore.
E Magazine: What led you to found the American Oceans Campaign?
Ted Danson: Let me ramble on this. I grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona. My father was an archeologist and an anthropologist. He was director of a museum and research center in northern Arizona. Peripherally, I must have absorbed the understanding that there is a lot that came before us and a lot that will come after us. It’s not about you, it’s about your stewardship when you’re here.
We used to go visit our cousins in California and spend some time at the beach. And coming from Arizona, that was like a pilgrimage. I’ve always had this huge desire to be near the ocean. Flash forward. I’m doing Cheers and living in Santa Monica. I went to the beach, and one day saw a sign that said: “Water polluted, no swimming.” Trying to explain that to my kid was hard. It got me questioning a lot of things. That was about 10 years ago.
About the same time, I met Bob Sulnick, who was an environmental lawyer and an ex-law professor. He was heading up something called No Oil, Inc., which was trying to stop Armand Hammer and Occidental Petroleum from digging about 60 wells on Will Rogers State Beach, right there in Santa Monica. I went to hear him talk and we became friends, so it was this local issue that we galvanized behind. When we won that battle, we were looking for some other way to play together.
Congresswoman Barbara Boxer, now a U.S. Senator, was talking to Bob about there being a real shortage of ocean advocacy. There was no group that did just that back then. And at the same time I was feeling a little guilty about how much money they were paying me to do Cheers. So we just got together as an experiment to see what we could accomplish if we put our time, energy and money into this one area. So it started with just a few of us working together. Now it’s quite a respected ocean advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. and here in California.
One of the reasons that we picked oceans is that it’s a great metaphor for everything that happens environmentally. Everything that we do on land ends up in the coastal waters, one way or the other. Global warming, the ozone layer-everything has an impact on the ocean. It’s like a mirror, reflecting the health of the planet. It’s exciting, though at times we may feel spread a bit thin as an organization.
Between 1988 and 1992 there were over 7,700 beach closures or advisories in the U.S. AOC has developed the first-ever beach closure protocol for Los Angeles County. What is the trend in beach closures, and how has that protocol served as a model for other communities?
Right now, in Sacramento, there are about 30 bills dealing with our beaches in California. So we’re trying very hard to push those through. Beaches get closed for several reasons. One is that you have huge rains and everything on the streets gets washed down the gutters into the storm drains and flows straight into the ocean. Also you get sewage overflows because of the amount of water pouring down the storm drain. There is also industrial pollution, but most of the problem is due to storm drains.
Right now, there is no uniform set of scientific standards for beach closures. So we’re pushing very strongly for that as part of the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act. With the new standards, there will be more beach closures, and that’s the trend. Once you get enough people saying, “Hey, why are you closing my beaches?” and you have answers and solutions, then you might get the political will.
You mentioned the Clean Water Act. Why is that act so important to our oceans, and how is the fight going to retain it?
The Act is our premiere legislation in this country dealing with water. It covers all of the issues of water, excepting drinking water-that’s under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In 1994 it banged into the “Contract with America” crowd, the anti-regulatory congressional group that wants to do away with any kind of federal regulation. They’ve been gutting the Clean Water Act over the last two or three years. It’s antiquated to begin with, because it’s 25 years old. The situation is worsening. So instead of trying to fight to hold the line on what we developed 25 years ago, we’re back-pedaling like crazy, which is insane. We should be looking to the future, because population is growing, and more and more people are living within 50 miles of the ocean. It’s a real uphill battle.
An estimated half billion gallons of motor oil finds its way into American waterways each year, ending up in the ocean. How is AOC addressing that problem?
I think it’s something like 50 times the amount of the Exx
on Valdez oil spill that gets dumped into the system by do-it-yourself oil-changers each year. AOC and oil companies like Unocal and Tosco BP are working together to recycle motor oil. We have banners, commercials and PSAs out on the street and on television in both Spanish and English, giving locations on where you can bring your used motor oil.
One of the things that excites me the most about AOC is that we have learned to reach out to the people that we do battle with. I think you can no longer take satisfaction in just throwing a brick. I think you really need to work with the private sector, because they are the ones that are usually at the center of the pollution. And Washington is so slow and so political. You get a new wave of Congressmen and you’re set back 20 years. Yet the problems march ahead at a pace that has nothing to do with politics.
Would you talk about Earth Shell products?
Earth Shell is a brilliant company in Santa Barbara. Their product combines calcium carbonate, a small amount of recycled wood fibers and potato starch. These three compounds end up making a biodegradable replacement for styrofoam. You can put hot and cold things in its drink or food containers. McDonald’s is actually trying it out in several locations right now. I think that part of our job is applauding the private sector when they do the right thing.
What are your views of the Playa Vista development in the Ballona Wetlands, which many groups are protesting? And how do you feel about the presence of the entertainment giant DreamWorks, which produced your sitcom, as an anchor in that development?
In California more than 90 percent of our wetlands are gone. In Santa Monica, I think we have one left. Wetlands are the natural areas that filter out the toxins and land before it reaches the ocean. They’re also flood barriers, and nurseries for all of our fisheries, and habitat for a lot of our birds. They’re gone, gone. You don’t have any natural filter. Then you have concrete built right up to the edge of the ocean. So you don’t have any way to filter toxins.
That said, no government or group of citizens will come in with the amount of money that it would take to rehabilitate Ballona and make it an active wetland again, a nursery for fish and birds. Right now it’s a wasteland. So I do think this is one of those places where you can reach a compromise. As concerns DreamWorks, their place is already a building site. It already is a set of warehouses, an industrial park. But there are other stages involved in this development, some of which go too far. I think the developer is now willing to restore some of the wetland, which would be great. But they are also building. Some of the construction is planned too close to the wetland, so it would negate the benefit. There’s a compromise in there some place, and the compromise is not to leave the land as it is. You make the deal in favor of the environment as best as you can.
Would you talk about the problems of deep sea drift nets and the effectiveness of the international ban on them?
Because of the trade agreements with Mexico, we’re bumping into this problem about dolphin-safe tuna all over again. We’ve had dolphin-safe labels on our tuna fish cans for about four or five years. It just means that the dolphins are not snared in any kind of net or encircled or harassed. So now with our trade agreement, Mexico is claiming unfair trade practice. They’re saying, “We’re catching tuna fish the old-fashioned way and we can’t compete in your market, so it’s unfair trade practice.” Washington wants very much for this trade agreement to work, so they’re saying, “Okay, we’ll revamp this whole labeling system.” The environmental community is split on the issue. What we’re asking for is a compromise, a three-year scientific study to see if their approach will work. They want to put an observer on every boat watching to see if they’re killing dolphins.
Basically, I’m not sure how effective the ban on drift nets is. They’re 30 miles long and kill indiscriminately. When they get lost or cut, they continue ensnaring and killing for the life of the net. It’s an insane and wasteful way to harvest fish.
You’ve been involved in promoting Coastal Clean Up Day. How successful has that been and what effects do such clean-ups have on coastal marine life?
Without a doubt it does have an impact on sea life-it’s not just cosmetic. It’s a great way to get people involved with their beaches and to make a connection to the ocean environment. It saves seals and a lot of birds by not having those beer can rings floating out there. And it picks up styrofoam, which causes intestinal blockages in marine animals. Beach clean up and Dives for Trash are great ways to get people involved, but there are also the larger political issues that you need to weigh in on at the same time you’re cleaning up your backyard. The problems are so huge that if they’re not regulated from the top and on an international level, we’ll be swamped.
Any remarks about the depletion of fish stocks in fisheries around the world?
In parts of the Northwest, there’s no salmon fishing for the first time in history. To find out why, you have to start up in the mountains. You have to talk about logging. You have to talk about farming too close to water sources, where pesticides get in the water. You have to talk about populations and the need for electricity from dams. It’s about how built up we are right around the mouths of the rivers and the pollution there. And you have to talk about the indiscriminate fishing practices and the lack of overall management between countries. So it’s a huge system, and everybody has to be at the table to address the problems, or else it won’t work.
CAMPBELL WOOD is a freelance writer in Lexington, KY.