"I have the greatest job in the world, and if it wasn't for Cal State I probably wouldn't be here."

That's the enthusiastic proclamation of Jack Ainsworth, the newly appointed executive director of the California Coastal Commission, and a 1981 graduate of California State University, San Bernardino.

Ainsworth was appointed to helm the Coastal Commission in February 2017 after 29 years with the agency. Established in 1972, the Commission is charged with protecting public beaches, wetlands, wildlife, agriculture and recreation along the state's 1,100 miles of shoreline.

We chatted with Ainsworth about his path and his vision. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

Q: You were born and raised in San Bernardino and went to school there as well. The area is called the Inland Empire because it's nowhere near the coastline. So how did you come by your dedication to California's beaches?

John Ainsworth:  I come from a really large family—nine kids—and it was a great treat for us to make weekend trips to the beach. We'd all cram into a station wagon and head to Newport Beach, Laguna or San Clemente where we'd rented a beach house. I fell in love with the sounds, sights and smell of the ocean…as well as with the chocolate-covered bananas we'd get on Balboa Island.

Q: What role did CSU San Bernardino play in helping you get to where you are today?

Ainsworth: With nine kids, money was tight. The Cal State system allowed me to go to a local university at a low cost. Without the financial aid that was provided I likely wouldn't have gone to college or it would have taken me a very long time to get through college.

Q: What was your college experience like?

Ainsworth: I loved Cal State San Bernardino. At the time it was relatively small and you were able to interact closely with your professors. I stayed around an extra year so I could complete a dual major in geography and environmental studies. The courses I took, in subjects like the biology of ecosystems, the geology of California, and urban planning, provided an incredible foundation for this job and ingrained an environmental ethics framework that was formative. 

Q: What do you see as the most important mandate of your new role?

Ainsworth: No question, the key mandate is to protect California's beaches and oceans. One of the most important elements to that right now is our partnership with local governments to regulate development along the coastline. That's an important part of our ability to deal with sea-level rise.

We're seeing very different patterns in our storms here in California and that's leading to dramatically more erosion along the coast. That's happening now, not in the future, and it's posing a risk to our sandy beaches. It's a huge, complicated problem that may require very costly and complex engineering solutions. But one thing we can do right now is plan and regulate development along the coast so we're not accelerating erosion.

Another mandate that's important, especially to the public, is protecting and opening up access to the beach. This is a battle we take on at every commission hearing. One thing that's happening is low-cost motels along the beach are being replaced by very high-end, exclusive hotels. We're looking for opportunities to partner with the California State Coastal Conservancy and state parks to construct affordable overnight accommodations like cabins and tent cabins where families can come and experience what my family experienced so many years ago. For example, we just approved $5 million to restore 17 historical oceanfront cottages in Crystal Cove State Park.

Q: We've heard that you'd like the California Coastal Commission to interact more with universities.

Ainsworth: Yes, that's important to me, and not just universities but elementary, secondary and high schools, especially inland schools. There are kids who live in California — some attending Cal State schools — who have never been to the beach. We provide grants through our "Whale Tail" license plates to communities for beach trips and environmental education, and we want to bring awareness of these programs beyond coastal communities to inland communities, too.

We're also focusing on recruiting a more diverse workforce for our agency. I feel it's important to reach out to some of our state's more diverse universities with opportunities for internships and the like. We want students to know they can make a career with resource protection agencies like the Coastal Commission or with recreation agencies like state parks. [The Coastal Commission posts employment and internship opportunities on its website.]

One way I'd like to reach out is by having some of our monthly commission meetings on college campuses, including Cal State campuses.

Q. Do you still take time to enjoy the beach today?

Ainsworth: Yes, every weekend. For the last 24 years I've been lucky enough to live along the coast in Ventura. On weekends, my wife and I go for our runs at Emma Wood State Beach, just north of the Ventura River. There are times there's absolutely nobody there. It's just amazing.