Rec and Parks chief Jared Blumenfeld dumps his boat to work on green issues

During the past year, former San Francisco Recreation and Parks chief Jared Blumenfeld has enjoyed the best of times: In January, he was appointed EPA administrator for Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, and the Pacific Islands. And he has suffered the worst: he also had to give up Alexandra, his 1970 Mako Center Console 22-foot deep-V hull, 225-horsepower Johnson two-stroke saltwater motorboat. He donated it to the Department of Recreation and Parks. Alexandra produces smog equivalent to dozens of automobiles.

Does this mean that under the enviro-sensitive Obama administration, enviro-bureaucrats don't get to own smoggy old boats? Blumenfeld assures us it does not. “I'm sure lots of EPA officials have old boats,” he says.

How could this be? Isn't being green as much a matter of self-actualization as it is cleaning up the planet? Shouldn't we eliminate personal possessions like bottled water, meat, non-organic foods, non-hemp fibers, and motorboats?

This idea, that environmentalism equals austerity, is one we've been hearing about a lot lately as oil companies have contributed to an $8 million campaign to pass Proposition 23, which would repeal California's stringent anti-greenhouse-gas rules. The campaign is based on the claim that fighting climate change will require mass suffering in the form of job losses to industry. A jobs-focused governor denies this, as do legions of economists.

But the message resonates because some people still recall images of a 1970s-style environmentalism in which living green is a form of self-abnegation. In September, polls said Prop. 23 had about even odds of passing.

But the fact is that among the environmental movement's leaders, being green long ago moved past being self-imposed punishment or private suffering. Instead, many are now looking to innovations in regulation, technology, urban planning, and economic development — rather than voluntary individual privations — for solutions to environmental woes.

The point is to give people continued access to what they want and need, while producing less harm overall.

That may be why an EPA administrator such as Blumenfeld, who recently helped inaugurate a $5.2 million Port of San Francisco project to hook cruise ships to onshore electricity to reduce bunker-fuel-generated air pollution, might still express deep fondness for an old fishing boat named Alexandra.

When he bought the boat's motor in 2000, it was the cleanest he could find. EPA regulations since then have induced manufacturers to produce much cleaner burning engines. “And that's a good thing,” he says.

Notwithstanding, Blumenfeld's reasons for getting rid of his boat had nothing to do with burnishing his image as a conscientious environmental official. Instead, they're familiar to anybody who has ever owned and loved a watercraft. His kids' interest shifted from weekend boating trips to soccer and school friends. The slip fees were prohibitive. Life had changed such that there was no time left for the equivalent of a second job maintaining and enjoying his old boat.

“I would love to still be owning this boat,” he says. “We went to Angel Island, camping every weekend. … But as every boat owner says, the best days in your life are the first day you get it and the day you manage to get rid of it. I sure miss it, though.”

Blumenfeld is part of this generation's green technocrats. He received an advanced law degree from Boalt Hall School of Law after studying at the University of London. He became global habitat director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Cape Cod. And in 2001, he was hired to direct San Francisco's Department of the Environment, where he oversaw implementation of the city's recycling and composting programs. He was later moved to head the Department of Recreation and Parks, where he kept the lights on despite millions of dollars in budget cuts.

But as any boat owner understands, these were really just sidelines to the near-full-time job of maintaining and enjoying a watercraft.

Blumenfeld said he bought Alexandra, also his wife's name, years ago when he lived on Cape Cod. He bought an old, battered hull for $4,000, fixed it up, and bought a relatively new Johnson outboard motor for $9,000. When he moved out West, he couldn't bear to part with it. So he packed Alexandra along.

“I decided, 'I'm going to bring it with me,'” Blumenfeld recalls. “I put it on a flatbed trailer, and it went under a bridge that was too low. The cabin got whacked off. So I got a new cabin in Oregon for $5,000. And then I went salmon fishing with my kids.”

After a few idyllic summers, environmental issues intervened. “Thanks to [George W. Bush's Interior Secretary] Gale Norton, the salmon fishery on the Klamath River was closed,” Blumenfeld says. “Then the Cosco Busan hit the [Bay] Bridge. … My kids didn't want to go out on the oily water. And they grew up and started playing soccer. Four soccer games in one weekend.”

Then there was the $395 monthly slip fee he'd been paying. Around that time, Larry White, harbormaster for the San Francisco Marina, told Blumenfeld that he needed a watercraft for puttering about. “How can we have a harbor filled with boats, and we can't monitor them?” is how he recalls White's lament. “I told him: 'I can't go salmon fishing. My kids don't want it. If you'd like it, use it.'”

So he gave Alexandra to the Department of Recreation and Parks. None too soon, it turns out: Blumenfeld is now one of the world's most powerful environmental bureaucrats, and he enjoys the luxury of not having to explain away ownership of a smog-belching old boat. These days, he says his vehicle of choice is a Prius.

Apparently, even a pragmatic environmental official will tolerate a little sanctimoniousness and suffering, if it comes in the form of a $22,000 car.

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