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11.30.11

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UNSCENIC CORRIDOR: Trees are cut down by winemaker Paul Hobbs to plant Pinot Noir along Gravenstein Highway in Sebastopol.

Fall of the Redwood Empire

Clearcutting for vineyards is nothing new in wine country. Can it be stopped?

By Alastair Bland

This past Oct. 11, in a rare instance of a local politician speaking out publicly against a member of the North Bay's influential winemaking community, Sonoma County supervisor Efren Carrillo lambasted winemaker Paul Hobbs for uprooting hundreds of trees in Sebastopol and adding one more open wound to a Russian River watershed already impacted by erosion and sediment.

Carrillo called Hobbs "one bad apple," and noted that the globally renowned maker of high-end wines hadn't bothered to acquire a permit to remove the trees, part of the old Davis Christmas Tree farm, which Hobbs is planning to buy and convert to vines. It was one of three instances this year in which Hobbs has cut down trees to the dismay of onlookers; he leveled 10 acres in Pocket Canyon just east of Guerneville, and eight acres of redwood trees along Highway 116 on land acquired in a court settlement from his neighbor John Jenkel.

"Paul Hobbs has shown a blatant disregard for Sonoma County, its resources, his fellow vintners and community sentiment," Carrillo declared in his editorial, printed in the Sonoma County Gazette.

But local environmentalists feel Carrillo's outburst needs to be echoed a hundred times over. To Jim Doerksen, who has lived in the Mayacamas Mountains for 44 years and has watched local streams sucked dry as wineries near his property have been built, Carrillo's words on Hobbs only amplify the silence that nearly all officials have kept toward the local wine industry through years of alleged environmental abuse.

"Efren said Hobbs is 'one bad apple,'" Doerksen says, "but all we have are bad apples."

Doerksen points straight to his neighbors, whom he charges with illegally cutting down about 60 acres of conifers to plant vineyards. This activity, along with overuse of the area's groundwater, has virtually destroyed Mark West Creek, a story covered in January in the Bohemian.

"These guys at Pride and Cornell [vineyards] are doing way worse things than Hobbs, but no one can see what they're doing because they're way up here in the mountains," Doerksen explains. "Hobbs was right on Highway 116. Everyone saw the trees coming down. Efren had to say something."

Carrillo tells the Bohemian that Hobbs' plain defiance of the law mandated an objection. "My reaction was just my response to anyone not following policies that we have in place," Carrillo says.

But are those policies strong enough?

Carrillo says he recognizes that other winery and vineyard projects currently being considered by the county for approval have created strife. He cites the proposal by Wall Street banker Henry Cornell to build a new winery among his existing vines in the hills northwest of Santa Rosa, a proposal, Carrillo assures, that is being considered via a publicly driven, unbiased and transparent process.

"We have a process in place whereby these decisions are made," Carrillo says. "We have to ensure transparency and the opportunity for people to participate."

But local environmentalists say the process simply isn't working and that county lenience toward the wine industry has resulted in irreparable damage to the environment. Stands of trees have been illegally removed. Hillsides have collapsed under vineyards, devastating streams downslope. Groundwater reserves have vanished. Rivers have run dry, and thriving salmon populations in the Russian River and its tributaries have largely disappeared.

Cornell alone seems to have played a role in all of the above at various times during his 13 years of local land ownership, but in spite of numerous complaints issued by neighbors, officials have allowed his proposed winery project to advance steadily forward.

Elsewhere in Sonoma County, two very large forest-to-vineyard conversion projects will advance toward the desks of officials in the coming months: the Artesa Vineyards project, about five miles from the coast near Annapolis; and the Preservation Ranch project, a proposed development near Annapolis on 20,000 acres.

The Artesa project was first introduced in 2001 by a Spanish wine corporation called Codornau, and poses to replace 171 acres of Sonoma County's redwood trees with vineyards. The project only needs a state permit before the trees may be felled. This would make it the largest conversion in county history of timber to agriculture.

But the Preservation Ranch project, if approved, would clear 1,769 acres of second-growth redwood trees in the upper reaches of the Gualala River drainage while planting approximately 1,100 acres of vineyards. Almost 15,000 additional acres of land would be reserved for use by timber interests, while just shy of 3,000 acres would be protected as wildlife preserve and parkland, according to land-use and environmental lawyer Eric Koenigshofer, who is employed by the project.

The county's Permit and Resource Management Department has been working with the Napa vineyard development company Premier Pacific Vineyards on producing a draft environmental impact report. This document will cost about $1.5 million and is said to be ready by early 2012. After public hearings and testimony, the board of supervisors will determine whether or not to grant a timber conversion permit; the state's Cal Fire office would also need to grant a permit based on its own review of the report.

Though officials with the state retirement fund CalPERS severed investment ties with Premier Pacific Vineyards in October, the fund, which owns the land, appears to be moving forward with plans, recently making a $400,000 payment toward the EIR.

Conversion of forestland to vineyards is tremendously destructive, according to Chris Poehlmann, director of Friends of the Gualala River. The activity, he explains, is far more impactful to a forest than clear-cutting; planting a vineyard requires permanently or indefinitely eliminating the forest as well as the soil, precluding any foreseeable opportunity for second-growth trees. The ecosystem from the treetops to the roots is annihilated as the stumps are bulldozed and the remaining forest detritus and topsoil scraped away, flattening the earth's surface and readying it for vines.

"The forest is like a living sponge that slowly drains water collected during the winter into the streams and keeps fish alive," Poehlmann says. "When you scalp these mountainsides and turn the mountain into a bald bowling ball, that effect is gone, and you have nothing but a biological desert." Without the stabilizing effect of tree roots, rain water gushes down such uprooted slopes like rapids down a waterslide, and erosion can be severe.

But Koenigshofer says that careful management at Preservation Ranch will amount to an overall benefit to the local ecosystem. Of the 300 miles of roads already extant on the Preservation Ranch site, the project proposes to put only 100 miles of them into use while reverting the other 200 miles into woodland, he says. Along the roads designated for use, the antiquated systems of ditches and culverts, which can exacerbate erosion, will be eliminated. The vineyards, he says, will be planted well within the slope-steepness limits defined by county grading laws.

"We believe this project is actually going to reduce the net erosion entering the Gualala River," Koenigshofer says.

Even with the EIR underway, environmentalists have their doubts. Jane Nielson, cofounder of the Sonoma County Water Coalition, doesn't believe that any stack of tedious paperwork can negate the reality of such a project's tremendous implications in the heart of the Gualala River watershed. "It is hard to see how a valid EIR could possibly demonstrate that this project has few or no significant impacts," she writes in an email to the Bohemian.

Koenigshofer says the timber harvest plan on the allotted 15,000 acres will allow no clear-cutting. Selective tree cutting will be set well back from streams, he says, and irrigation will be sourced from reservoirs built onsite and filled with captured rainwater.

While Preservation Ranch is 43 times bigger than the county's largest-ever permitted timberland conversion on record—a 41-acre plot owned by Kendall-Jackson, approved for cutting in 1997—"it's also the largest privately funded land preservation project that has ever been put in place here," Koenigshofer says.

Ray and Laura Waldbaum live in the mountains above Mark West Creek. Ray Waldbaum is a retired licensed geologist and calls himself "a reformed bureaucrat," having once worked as such for the county of Los Angeles. Here, Waldbaum says, he interacted with roughly 100 public agencies and reviewed thousands of proposed land-use projects.

"And I have never seen anything like what goes on in Sonoma County," he says. "From the board of supervisors down, county employees are nothing but advocates for the alcohol and hospitality industries. Their job is to see these projects approved."

He and his wife have spoken publicly against Cornell Summit Vineyards' proposed winery. The Waldbaums say that the project's managers, with the county's consent, have not conducted mandatory procedures to test for groundwater availability.

"The only reason they aren't testing for water is they know that if they do, they'll find there isn't enough water for the winery," Laura Waldbaum says.

Dave Hardy, supervising planner with the Permit and Resource Management Department, says the county agreed to skip the water availability tests after Cornell promised to permanently withhold 15 acres of his land from being planted in vines. Cornell also proposed a mitigated negative declaration, an action often required by the county instead of a more costly and time-consuming environmental impact report. A mitigated negative declaration is meant to offset part of a project's environmental footprint, which, in Cornell's case, is the expected use of groundwater.

Cornell's proposed mitigation is to take offline a large neighboring house which he purchased several years ago. The thing is, according to Doerksen and other neighbors, the house has served only as a barn and storage shed for years with little or no use of the area's water. Only after proposing to take the house offline to save water did Cornell bring tenants into the house to begin using water. Now, when Cornell removes the tenants, it will appear that water is being saved.

That the house was offline when the mitigation was concocted is irrelevant, according to Hardy. "The house could have been online with a simple use permit," he explains, echoing the consensus of county staff in 2009.

And so Cornell's mitigation scheme mitigates nothing in the eyes of critics—and his winery, if approved, will only suck more water from the thirsty streambed of Mark West Creek. The stream was in dire straits when the Bohemian last reported on the matter in January, and according to Laura Waldbaum, it's gotten worse. In June, she says, Mark West's North Fork went dry in spite of tremendous spring rains. Later in the summer, on Aug. 26, she accompanied Department of Fish and Game biologists on a fish rescue mission in which several dozen stranded steelhead smolts were bucket-lifted away to running waters.

Laura Waldbaum can't get over the irony of it. "We're using taxpayer money to restore this stream," she says, "and at the same time the county is illegally giving away all its water to these wineries."

Some environmentalists say that legal lenience toward the Sonoma County wine industry can be traced back to the 1970s, when the threat of suburban sprawl spilling off the Highway 101 corridor was staunched by amendments to county code that gave agricultural lands legal precedence in the fight to survive. Today, that agricultural land has become mostly vineyard land.

"In the old days, farming meant growing food or fiber, things to be eaten or things to be turned into clothing," observes Stephen Fuller-Rowell, a cofounder of the Sonoma County Water Coalition. "Now, a main product of farming here is alcohol."

Fuller-Rowell expects that global warming will begin driving grape growers into increasingly higher elevations as they chase the cool climes favored by Pinot Noir, a trend already at work in Oregon. In Sonoma County, this could mean increased pressure on hillside and ridge-top regions lacking in water and susceptible to erosion, and lax county laws could facilitate this uphill migration, Fuller-Rowell warns. He and his colleague Jane Nielson say that legal loopholes that once benefited the entire community by preserving farmland now may serve as red carpeting for the wine industry alone, which gets to bypass a number of regulatory speed bumps that apply to other forms of land development.

Fines against lawbreakers, too, may not be stiff enough, Nielson says, allowing winemakers to simply absorb the hit, "calculate their benefits into the fines they'll be paying," and proceed as planned.

But "piece-mealing" could be the law's most problematic loophole. This term describes the act of dividing large projects into a collection of less-imposing smaller ones and, by individually nudging these bits and pieces through the review process, effectively pushing through the entire package. The Cornell winery, Laura Waldbaum says, is a prime example. First, Cornell ventured in some illegal logging, acquiring a permit later in time. Then he got the go-ahead for a vineyard. Now, he is pushing through his winery. Meanwhile, he has bought up several surrounding properties which Waldbaum believes will eventually be turned into vineyards.

"We just can't afford to give away any more water," she says. "There's none left."

The outlook for forest conservationists could be improving in Sonoma County. The timber conversion ordinance of 2006 appears to have had an effect in slowing the crawl of vines into the county's wooded hill country. From 1979 to 2006, 25 conversions of timberland to agriculture occurred, amounting to 21 acres per year. Thirteen of those projects occurred in the grape-crazy years from 2001 to 2006, but all legal timbering activity abruptly stopped with the new ordinance in place. No officials could estimate for the Bohemian how common illegal timber removal is in Sonoma County.

Preservation Ranch is advancing along the lines of the law, but the fact that its size amounts to three times the area of all Sonoma County timberland ever converted into agriculture—573 acres—strikes dread in conservationists.

But even if 1,700 acres of stumped and uprooted redwoods appear in the watershed of the Gualala River, Supervisor Carrillo maintains that fairness and public input drive the management of county land. That some have alleged county favoritism toward the wine industry "definitely is a matter of opinion," Carrillo says, and he takes "very seriously" his job of assuring that the law is followed.

"Our county thrives through agriculture," he points out, "and how we look at land use balanced with long-term sustainability is important to this county, and to this board [of supervisors]."

Meanwhile, the Preservation Ranch project moves forward, and Carrillo promises that residents of Sonoma County can steer the course. "Once the draft EIR is completed," he says, "then the public can engage."


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