Malibu Historic District, August, 2014 (Credit: Jon Steele Photography)


By Parker Brown, Communications Specialist

DURHAM, N.C.-- Most people do not associate surfing areas with national historic sites. But for Michael Blum (DEL-MEM ’15) getting a section of the Malibu, Calif. beach added to the National Register of Historic Places made perfect sense. In addition to protecting a site of cultural significance, the designation achieves important conservation objectives.

Blum serves as executive director for the nonprofit Sea of Clouds, which focuses on historic preservation and environmental conservation of America’s special coastal places.

Blum and his team recently succeeded in getting the 160-acre Malibu Historic District added to the National Register of Historic places. It is the first listing based on its surfing history.

Duke Environment corresponded with Blum recently to talk about how his time in the Duke Environmental Leadership Master of Environmental Management (DEL-MEM) program has shaped his work. He also shared his thoughts about what the historic designation of the Malibu beach might mean for future conservation efforts in coastal regions nationwide.
1. Why was it important to you to protect this Malibu surfing area?

In the past 30 years, three of Southern California's world-class surfing areas, Rincon (Santa Barbara/Ventura County), Malibu (Los Angeles County), and Trestles (San Diego County) have experienced threats from poor water quality, increased erosion, and/or coastal development.

This was most recently, and dramatically, seen at Trestles where a freeway extension proposal was aligned through an environmentally sensitive habitat, a state campground, a Native American ceremonial site and the creek that nourishes the area's surf breaks.

My understanding of these threats, and a desire to protect these coastal areas, expanded during my term as president of the Malibu Surfing Association, one of California's first surfing clubs. So, it was a combination:  a desire to proactively protect places, a set of ongoing environmental challenges, an impressive history, and a learned familiarity of the history, people, community, and rhythms of Malibu, that, to me, made it an appropriate selection for a National Register project.

2. What will listing this area on the National Register of Historic Places achieve from an environmental perspective?     
Protection and integration. California properties listed on the National Register are recognized as cultural resources that are protected under the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act. This status requires that potential adverse effects of proposed development be disclosed to decision makers and the public.

We also anticipate these specific, if limited, protections -- together with the notable reputational benefits the National Register brings -- will better integrate the property into coastal resource planning. Importantly, both the protections and integration flow from the property's historic and cultural value. That is, its surfing history.

3. How did your coursework and experiences in the DEL-MEM program lay the foundation for this achievement?

My independent study and Master’s Project (MP) courses, both with Professor Mike Orbach, are direct antecedents to the Malibu Historic District project. They allowed me to first explore, then synthesize, ideas about protecting surfing areas in California.

But two practical aspects of my DEL program experience are also worth noting.

The first was the breadth of course offerings I could take across different Duke departments and schools. I took “Ocean and Coastal Law and Policy” at the School of Law, “International Law of the Sea” at the Duke Marine Lab, “Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning” through the Nicholas School’s Executive Education program and “Ecosystem Science and Management” at the Nicholas School. Each was important and necessary in its own way.

The second aspect of my DEL experience that I want to highlight was the encouragement and administrative support to participate in these courses. At every turn, DEL-MEM and Nicholas School staff responded, 'Yes,' to my requests and worked to make my learning experience, often from Southern California, as transparent as possible.

4. You came to the DEL-MEM program with an interest in coastal policy. How did you decide on your Master's Project topic, and what was that experience like?

I had a very rewarding Master's Project experience. I came to Duke with a couple of unformed Master's Project ideas, one of which was protecting surf breaks. Professor Mike Orbach, who later became my advisor, worked with me in my first semester to explore protecting surf breaks and surfing areas as a viable MP topic.

Besides being a keen researcher, and a better advisor than I deserve (!), Mike is a lifelong waterman with experience surfing on the East and West U.S. coasts, and in Hawai'i. The following semester, I had the good fortune to do an independent study with Mike in which I was able to develop many of my ideas. Much of the writing and work I did in that independent study found its way into my final master's project. Both Mike and I went into my MP semester comfortable with what I wanted to accomplish.

My takeaway is that to get the most out of your MP experience it’s best to start early and work with great people.

5. In a broader context, how might the work that you've done in Malibu set a precedent for using the National Register to achieve conservation or environmental objectives elsewhere?

Most marine and coastal conservation efforts focus on natural habitats and imperiled or commercial species. This is urgent, necessary and unfinished work. We need as many Nicholas School students engaged in this kind of work as we can graduate!

What has received less attention are conservation actions emerging from historical and cultural significance. Less than eight percent of Marine Protected Areas in U.S. state, federal or territorial waters have a cultural heritage conservation focus. It's this deficit which deeply interests Sea of Clouds.

The Malibu Historic District project is relevant for its focus on a specific, iconic surfing area. But it's also a rationale for protecting other coastal places possessing important history and culture.

Recognizing, illuminating and celebrating such places, whose significance originates from connections between nature and culture, is a valid-if underused-path within historic preservation, and an unexplored area of coastal conservation.