Faced with a shrinking pool of funding, local environmental nonprofit Humboldt Baykeeper is in the process of dramatically downsizing its organization. The office staff was reportedly laid off recently, and last week Executive Director Jessica Hall learned that she, too, was being laid off. Only Policy Director Jennifer Kalt, whose position has been reduced to part-time, remains employed by the organization.
Hall, who was hired as the group's executive director in October 2012, said Baykeeper recently lost some key financial support from foundations such as the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and Environment Now. Baykeeper's current financial woes can be attributed at least in part to an overreliance on such foundations, according to Kalt. Their budgets are heavily influenced by the stock market, and during the dot-com bubble of the 1990s charitable foundations were flush with money and unaware that the riches were temporary.
"So what we ended up with was a whole bunch of small nonprofits that relied on grant funding that was shrinking," Kalt said.
Pete Nichols, who cofounded Humboldt Baykeeper with Fred Evenson in 2004 and who is now national director of Waterkeeper Alliance, said history repeated itself with the 2008 financial meltdown, and environmental non-governmental organizations (or NGOs) across the country have been struggling. "They are certainly not unique," he said of Baykeeper and its financial troubles.
In response, these groups have been consolidating, collaborating and trying to focus more on local support. Nichols saw this approach work with the Northcoast Environmental Center, which he led following the death of longtime executive director Tim McKay. "I think they're doing the smart thing by paring back," Nichols said of Baykeeper. "I really wish the community would step up and support these NGOs consistently. ... [But] sometimes you just have to step back and reassess. And you also need to react to the conditions on the ground."
Humboldt Baykeeper has been working for nearly a decade to protect the environmental resources in and around Humboldt Bay. In 2006 Baykeeper filed a petition and got Humboldt Bay listed as impaired by dioxins under the Clean Water Act. The group later joined with another local nonprofit, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, and filed a lawsuit against the Simpson Timber Company over a dioxin-contaminated tidal wetland channel at its former Eureka mill site. A settlement in 2008 required Simpson to clean up the site. A similar settlement required dioxin cleanup on Eureka's Balloon Track property.
Recently the group has been actively involved in efforts to ban plastic bags in local stores, the county's general plan update and Caltrans' Eureka-Arcata Corridor Improvement project (including the billboard removal required by the California Coastal Commission), among other projects.
On Tuesday, as the Journal was going to press, Kalt was scheduled to appear before the Board of Supervisors regarding appeals over the proposed Halvorsen Quarry Reclamation Plan. Baykeeper and California Trout, another local nonprofit, have alleged Clean Water Act violations at the quarry, which is located near Bayside and owned by Ryan Schneider Construction.
Schneider and the county argue that a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan isn't required of the quarry because it's being operated for personal use, rather than commercial. But the nonprofit leaders say they've seen commercial trucks coming and going from the site, and they point to an ad for rocks that appeared in Schneider's name in recent Humboldt Builders' Exchange newsletters. Schneider claims the commercial trucks are merely taking the rock and crushing it for him and that the ad was posted years ago.
Regardless of the outcome of this particular battle, local environmental leaders say Humboldt Baykeeper serves an important purpose. Dan Ehresman, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center, said Humboldt Bay needs stringent protection because of its tremendous value both environmentally and economically. "It's one of my favorite places to get out," Ehresman said. "I love to canoe, and out in the middle of the bay it feels like a real timeless place."
Kalt said that Baykeeper must now focus on streamlining and rebuilding, much as the Northcoast Environmental Center has done in recent years. Ehresman, in turn, said his organization is prepared to help Baykeeper weather this fiscal storm. "We feel it's in our interest as an organization — and we also think it's in the community's interest — to do everything we can to help out in this time of restructuring. We are committed to be ready to help out in any way that we can."
The group, whose parent organization is the Garberville-based Ecological Rights Foundation, will continue to offer free bay exploration tours on its boat thanks to a grant that did come through, along with help from an existing group of volunteers, skippers and docents. But it will have to move out of its Old Town Eureka office on E Street. Last Saturday marked the final Arts Alive! that the office will be open. Early this week it sat dark and empty.
Regardless of what form the organization takes now, Kalt said she plans to continue working on the causes that Humboldt Baykeeper has fought for.
Note: This story has been changed from a previous version that incorrectly stated that Humboldt Baykeeper was in debt.