BEACH WATCHERS TO STAND ALONE: Group casts off university shackles to become independent organization

The Island County Beach Watchers are breaking free from Washington State University Extension

The Island County Beach Watchers are breaking free from Washington State University Extension, citing frustration with restrictive policies and conflicts in vision.

“The university is very clear. The first priority is the university, the second is the project and the third is the members,” said Derek Pritchard, president of the Island County Beach Watchers board of directors. “We see it differently.”

The group will remain under WSU Extension stewardship until Dec. 31. After that, the group will become an independent organization, but retain close ties with Lighthouse Environmental Programs, the nonprofit through which it does all its fundraising.

“The idea is that the membership has reached a maturity that it can run its own business,” Pritchard said. “We want to address the needs of the community and the desires of the membership.”

Tim Lawrence agreed that there has been some tension with the Beach Watchers who have found it frustrating to constantly need approval from WSU leadership in Pullman.

In some cases, the university and the Beach Watchers have been unable to come to an agreement on simple things like venues, speakers, training or topics.

“Now they can do what they want to do without restriction,” Lawrence said.

The organization is celebrating its 25th year since inception and its 20th year organizing Sound Waters, its annual fundraising seminar focusing on environmental issues.

“It’s easier for them to plan this on their own,” Lawrence said. “We wish them well.”

Another extension group, the Lighthouse Docents, left WSU oversight starting Jan. 1 and is now under the management of the state Parks and Recreation Department.

Lawrence said in both cases, the individual organization had grown to a state where they no longer needed the assistance of WSU Extension.

Similar to the Master Gardeners program, an agreement between WSU Extension and its former programs will allow for sharing of resources while still allowing them the autonomy they crave.

Judy Feldman, who worked within WSU Extension programs for more than 10 years, said that there has been a shift in the university’s priorities over the last several years.

“It’s a different climate now,” Feldman said.

Ten years ago, the program was under the leadership of Don Meehan, who prioritized finding grant money and supporting volunteerism, according to Feldman.

“It was a different time at the extension,” Feldman said. “Each director brings their own personality and priorities. The current director just has a different perspective with more focus on academic resources. That’s not bad, it’s just different.”

Feldman served as the interim director of Beach Watchers for a year and a half during her tenure and is now the director of Greenbank Farm Management Group.

At the height of its popularity in 2004-2006, the county’s Beach Watchers was the “poster child” for WSU Extension programs state-wide, Feldman said. The organization enjoyed an influx of grant money at the time, both due to a popularity of environmental issues and Meehan’s dedication to seeking out and attaining funding.

“It was a time of heightened funding for all things maritime ecology,” Feldman said. “(Meehan) saw that as his role. Don was the master at finding the money.”

The group took some heat from the public at the time because they thought state funding was better spent elsewhere.

Since that time, grant funding has all but disappeared and the group relies almost exclusively on fundraising.

Despite its 580 members, only 220 are active and Beach Watchers only raises around $50,000 annually — something Pritchard said the group would like to change.

With their new independence, the group can pursue donations from companies — like Shell Oil Company — which already give to WSU. The group will also be able to plan fundraising events and activities without WSU approval.

Current Beach Watchers Director Barbara Bennett was out of the office this week and was unavailable for comment.

Pritchard said that while Bennett will retain her position as director through the end of the year, it was unclear what role she would play in the new organization.