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I find some hope for the future of our planet in the emergence of millions of unconnected environmental and social movements. The leaderless Anarchy of this mass phenomenon and its macro scale means that its cells will not be centrally controlled or turned aside by profit motives. It seems to be a genuine grass roots response to the global threat which our planet faces. —Paul Hawken

Bids for Giant North Coast Forest Land

State Water Board Comments on Sproul Creek Inspection

By Adrian Baumann, abaumann@willitsnews.com

Plans for the multi-agency task force, including the California Water Board and Department of Fish and Wildlife, aiming to regulate marijuana growing in the state continue to evolve.

The task force conducted January inspections of marijuana grows on Sproul Creek in southern Humboldt County.

The group is still refining its approach to regulating and mitigating the environmental damages caused by extensive marijuana cultivation across the North Coast.

In response to questions about the possibility of large fines Director of the Office of Enforcement Cris Carrigan pointed to the co-operative nature of the task force, and again stressed the desire of the Water Board to work with growers to come up to speed on regulations.

But an attorney for the Water Board stated that along with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) the board has the authority to levy fines of 10s of thousands of dollars per day for sedimentation, and not only property owners but contractors could be held liable.

Activists and members of environmental agencies stressed the urgency of the current situation for fish on the North Coast, warning the status quo may likely lead to extinction of local species.

Scott Greacen, executive director of the Friends of the Eel River, said, “I think Sproul Creek really is a really important story for the whole watershed…that stream is supposed to be the foundation on which we’re hoping to recover Coho salmon not just in Sproul Creek and Redwood Creek, but across the South Fork [Eel River].”

Greacen elaborated that because Coho run on a fairly rigid three year cycle, the loss of a whole “year class” means the creek will have no runs in three year intervals. And both Greacen and Senior Attorney with the Office of Enforcement of the State Water Board Yvonne West, who was present for the Sproul Creek inspections, stated that it’s possible another run will be lost this year.

West explained her role was to help coordinate the multi-agency task force, which drew personnel from Fish and Wildlife, the State Water Board and Regional Water Quality Control Board, Humboldt County Environmental Health, and Humboldt County Sheriffs Office. But she was also there to, as she said, “Make sure that everybody understood what the confines of the warrant were and what they could and couldn’t do under the warrant.”

In other words the Water Board wanted to focus on violations of environmental rather than criminal laws. But West acknowledged that this was a tricky balance, saying of the sheriffs, “There could be a point when it changes from our job to their job, but that’s not why we’re going out there.” Elaborating that, “And I would like to think that that the community understands that there are certain elements out that there that if we ran into them we wouldn’t want to be without law enforcement.”

The inspections proceeded under warrants from county judges. Importantly the warrants were issued for suspected water code and fish and game code violations, not for criminal violations. The inspections were conducted by three teams of about a dozen people, with roughly half being scientists or administrators from environmental agencies, and half being law enforcement, either game wardens or Humboldt sheriff’s deputies.

As West described them the sites ranged from backyard garden type grows, to properties that probably had thousands of plants growing over tens of acres.

However it was not always clear to whom each site belonged, said West, “My sense after the experience was that there was a wide continuum on the scale, there were some properties that were clearly being sharecropped, that were multiple leases, with multiple gardens across the property.” However, West described the majority of property owners as, “Cooperative and helpful.”

Among offenses that she observed were fuel canisters tipped over near streams, pesticides and fertilizers without proper protection, and the largest culprit, road construction, ranging from improper grading, to poorly placed culverts, that contribute hugely to sedimentation in streams. Said West, “Right now we have an industry that’s semi-legitimate but is still kind of hiding in the woods so we have a lot of growing on steep terrains.”

Adding that proper erosion control was essentially absent and that, “When people were in there doing forestry…they were expected to follow a set of standards.”

Here she pointed out that contractors performing grading are, “as liable as the property owners and we do intend to hold them jointly and severally liable.”

Though she sympathized with these contractors, saying she understood that marijuana is a huge part of the local economy, she said that as licensed contractors they had to be aware of proper erosion controls.

Greacen for his part believes that the cumulative effects of many small farmers are contributing more than they would like to believe. Said Greacen, “There’s a story we tell ourselves around here that we all mean well and we’re good stewards and that it’s just a few bad apples that are causing the real problems buts that’s not true, it’s the small things that everybody does that are  adding up to extinction.”

Adding, “That’s not to say that there are not those awful atrocious actors...but that fixing those things doesn’t solve the problem at all.”

Casey O’Neill, Mendocino chair for the Emerald Growers Association, responded saying, “As a farmer, and son of Mendocino County, this is not something we can solve by pointing fingers, we need to work together to achieve best management practices  and honor the past to build shared futures.”

Adding, “I think there’s been a sort of movement from the environmental community to try to take people off the land—and I don’t think that’s realistic. I think we should figure out how to avoid the little things that add up to the big things so we can all live in healthy happy communities.”

As an activist for the Eel River Greacen expressed happiness at the new efforts of governmental agencies to bring regulation to bear, but also stressed that the magnitude of the problem exceeds the resources available to fight it, “I know that CDFW looked at the scale of the problem and said they needed 30 positions and they got two.” 

February 9, 2015

The Gualala River, near the north fork along Gualala River Road. Nearly 30,000 acres of property are for sale by Gualala Redwoods Inc. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/ PD FILE, 2014).
The Gualala River, near the north fork along Gualala River Road. Nearly 30,000 acres of property are for sale by Gualala Redwoods Inc. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/ PD FILE, 2014).

A coalition of conservation groups with visions of riverfront parkland, environmentally friendly forestry practices and watershed preservation will submit a bid Tuesday on 30,000 acres of redwood timber holdings and bluff-top land at the mouth of the Gualala River, straddling Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

Led by the Conservation Fund in close partnership with the Sonoma Land Trust and a variety of local agencies and private nonprofits, the alliance is proposing what representatives say is a fair, well-researched price that it hopes will be enough to sway the seller, Gualala Redwoods Inc.

But it’s not clear who else is competing for the land, put on the auction block last fall, how the bids, due Tuesday, will be evaluated, nor how long it might take for a deal to be announced.

“I think everybody that’s out here that has any interest at all in it is trying to figure that out,” said Mike Jani, chief forester and president of Humboldt Redwoods Co. and Mendocino Redwoods Co.

The process established for the sale is shrouded in secrecy — details about the property released to potential bidders only under strict confidentiality, and seller representatives mum about who the interested parties are.

Conservation interests just hope GRI owner and Chairman Ollie Edmunds, whose family has invested 66 years in the land, sees some value in a legacy that protects the environment, though they say their offer also reflects the land’s true value.

“The whole coalition has invested a lot of time and energy to make sure we’ve thoroughly analyzed the data to make sure we can feel confident in our proposal,” said Amy Chesnut, acquisitions director for the Sonoma Land Trust, the Santa Rosa nonprofit organization. “We’re just hoping the seller seriously considers it. We feel like this is an opportunity for them to leave a real lasting legacy for Sonoma (County) and California.”

Edmunds and his family donated 10 acres of land for the Gualala Arts Center in 1990 and were majority owners of 5,630 acres near the mouth of the Russian River acquired for conservation in 2009 and known as the Jenner Headlands Preserve. Moreover, Edmunds reached out to conservation groups to alert them to his decision to sell the property months before the sale was announced publicly.

But the land has significant commercial value, as well.

Marketed as “one of the last, large contiguous blocks of coastal redwood forest likely to come to a public market,” the 47-square-mile property includes productive timberlands for which several harvest plans already have been approved, nearly 20 miles of river frontage and a 58-acre tract above the town of Gualala and zoned for a mixed-use planned development.

Jani, with Mendocino Redwoods Co., whose holdings abut GRI’s property, said the sale could draw bids from a variety of timber interests, investment partnerships, community forest administrators and others. “I have absolutely no idea who has done any due diligence at all,” he said.

While he conceded having done a fair amount himself, he declined to say whether he was making an offer.

In addition to the Conservation Fund and the Sonoma Land Trust, conservation partners include the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Sonoma County Regional Parks, the Save the Redwoods League, the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which also contributed to the purchase of the Jenner Headlands Preserve.

One benefit of acquiring the land for conservation is its inclusion of riverfront property coveted by county park officials as far back as 1955. More broadly, the land’s location adjoining more than 57,000 acres of sustainably logged timberland known as the Buckeye, Garcia River and Gualala River forests could create a contiguous block of more than 87,000 acres of permanently protected land, conservationists said.

Chris Kelly, California Program Director for the Conservation Fund, a national organization that manages the three forests, said the GRI property is quite different, however, in that it includes remote timberland, as well as ocean-front property. That complexity also could complicate the bidding process, he said.

“I think it’s possible there will be bidders on portions of the property but not all of it,” Kelly said. “So one way to look at it is, I suspect, he (Edmunds) will be looking at apples and oranges.”

Said Jani, “I think everybody will be watching, and it will be interesting to see what happens.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan
at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.
On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.