08/05/2011 03:35 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2011

Like Crabs Pulling Down Our Environment: Wyland vs. the California Coastal Commission

We all know about crab mentality. You put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, and when one tries to escape all of the others try to pull it down, rather than allowing it to get free.

When Wyland, the famous environmental artist, loaned one of his signature works of art to the state of California's Coastal Commission for a new license plate sixteen years ago to fund environmental awareness programs in the state, I'm sure the last thing on his mind would be attempts by the "friends of the Coastal Commission" to pull his years of environmental outreach efforts down.

On the contrary, since 1993, the artist and his foundation have donated thousands of dollars to support environmental education teachers, hosted mayor's challenge competitions for water conservation across all of southern California and south Florida, toured a 1,000-square-foot clean-water mobile learning center to 200,000 students in the last three years, created interactive water conservation maze exhibitions that have been toured by hundreds of thousands of people, hosted environmental education events in every state in the U.S., and held art clinics for more than one million kids. The foundation has worked with the Baja Mexico EPA, Baja Sure Department of Education, and the cities of Tecate, Mexicali, Tijuana, and Ensenada on educational programming about water as a shared resources among the U.S. and Mexico, and is currently working with the U.S. Forest Service, among other agencies, about water conservation and pollution reduction.

The foundation chugged along nicely thanks to a relatively modest stream of public and private contributions. In 2008, however, in the midst of the U.S. economic meltdown, the foundation, like many others, had to scramble for resources. A logical request was made to the California Coastal Commission, which by this time, had raised more than $40 million from sales of its Wyland-designed Whale Tail license plate. Ten percent of these funds benefit environmental education. After years of loaning the image to the state of California, Wyland made the apparently grave mistake of asking for a portion of the coastal commission whale tail proceeds to help fund environmental education programs through his Wyland Foundation ( on an ongoing basis. Or, more precisely, he asked the commission to support the type of programs that the whale tail plate was designed to fund.

Then the accusations started to fly.

How could this rich and famous artist ask for support from a poor, beleaguered and troubled state like California?

Wyland made the request, starting with 20 percent of net proceeds going forward to support environmental education program initiatives like his traveling clean water mobile center, clean water interactive maze exhibitions, and conservation mural projects in underserved communities. In American culture, asking for something in return for providing something of value is a generally accepted practice, often referred to as a negotiation. Wyland helped created one of the most significant environmental fund-raising projects in the state's history and in return during a down economy he asked the coastal commission help support the foundation's environmental education outreach programs. The Coastal Commission's Peter Douglas quickly offered the foundation an unbelievably generous $100,000 year for ten years -- an offer that was quickly leaked to the Associated Press on a Friday (as Wyland was in Norway giving a keynote address at the United Nations Environment Program's International Youth Conference) with the implication that the Wyland Foundation was holding the Coastal Commission hostage, waited for the predictable public backlash against Wyland, then rescinded the offer two days later because of that very backlash.

That's fine. Was the Coastal Commission's offer genuine? Or a carefully orchestrated PR gambit? Playing with an agency as powerful as the California Coastal Commission is a big boy's game, and we accept the consequences of that. But the state of California is suffering from numerous environmental problems -- rampant overdevelopment along our coast, non-point pollution, and many other issues related to enormous population growth - and the Wyland foundation is working to raise awareness about those problems. We're happy to move forward and continue, as a foundation, to do what's best for the state's environment.

There was a very good reason we tried to negotiate with the coastal commission for funding for our foundation ... because the Wyland Foundation undertakes many, many environmental education projects across the state and across the country. Not a single solitary penny from the Whale Tail license plate that Wyland created and generously loaned to the Coastal Commission was ever intended to go to Wyland himself. The only time we ever asked for a dime was to underwrite a fraction of the cost of building a traveling exhibition about human impacts on marine habitats. That was a $20,000 grant. It's not chump change, but the maze ran several hundred thousand dollars. Our Clean Water Mobile Learning Center cost more half a million dollars, not including the annual operational costs. These programs take resources to make them successful.

The Wyland Foundation is currently working with the US Forest Service on a new program called FOCUS (Forests, Oceans, Climate -- and us) to raise awareness about the function of forests and our ocean in regulating climate. We've created traveling art and educational programs from Anchorage, Alaska, to Puerto Rico in support of this program.

Maybe all of this is a shining example of no good deed ever going unpunished. The state elected to stop issuing the Wyland license plate and the artist was summarily brushed aside. A contest was held to find a new artist to paint the same plate. We still hear echoes of "greed" from people who've only heard the coastal commission's side of this story. And, as far removed from the truth as that may be, our foundation will have to live with that. Wyland started his foundation to educate families throughout the state and the nation about marine life conservation and protecting our environment. In keeping with our conservation mission, we're grateful that the artwork that Wyland loaned to the whale tail plate program for almost twenty years has been able to provide assistance to so many worthwhile environmental organizations throughout California.

Unlike those crabs in the pot, we believe in the work we do and we will continue serving communities throughout the nation. The future of our environment is too important to let anything pull it down.