There’s quite a bit happening on the conservation front, in the Pacific Northwest these days. Between the Red Flat Nickel Mine proposal near Pistol River Oregon, the Gene Banks being created in Washington state and recent research done on the impact to a steelhead’s head when caught, there’s a lot of new ground to cover. I’d like to start with something closer to home though, near the small, but infamous Gualala River, in Northern California.
The wine industry has been slowly expanding from the Napa & Sonoma epicenters for many years. The reason is because of necessity and taste. As the temperatures in the valley region rises slowly year after year and the taste of wine drinkers shifts toward cooler climate grapes, such as Pinot Noir, winemakers have been setting their sights on the coastal region of Northern California. This same cooler, damper climate is the same one that sustains the last of our beloved redwood trees and the small creeks which are the spawning grounds of salmon and steelhead.
In 2012, Artesa Vineyards filed for a permit to clear cut 154 acres of redwoods and douglas fir to plant grapes. California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire for short, approved the plan. It is important to note that these are not old growth redwoods. This land was once a commercial timber property and was previously clear cut fifty years ago. Today, the thousands of redwoods slated to be cut down are less than 100 feet tall. They do, however, provide substantial wildlife habitat and stabilize the soil which would otherwise be washed away during heavy winter storms.
The stabilization of soil is of huge importance to the health of streams and creeks in the area. Without the necessary stabilization and shade provided by the trees, the average temperature of the water in the streams would rise significantly and the streambed choked with silt. This siltation suffocates the fertilized eggs laid by salmon and steelhead in the spawning beds. Artesa is planning on keeping a 30 to 100 foot buffer along the banks of its’ property creeks. This is a minimum in bank stabilization and still subjects the small creeks to immense siltation, as the hillsides adjacent have nothing to stabilize the soil from erosion.
The results are unavoidable; salmon and steelhead spawning grounds are laid to waste. We’ve seen it too many times to deny it. You only need to look at the well documented devastation bestowed upon Pass Creek, a tributary of the North Umpqua or the results of logging along Redwood Creek or the much larger Eel River system to realize that these actions have severe and lasting consequences.
Artesa’s intent to clear cut the land, minus the two remaining old growth redwoods left on the property, was halted by a joint injunction set in motion by three conservation organizations. The Friends of the Gualala River, the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity immediately filed suit in June 2012, stopping the clear cutting.
Dennis Hall, an official with CalFire, maintains that the Artesa proposal was approved, only after a lengthy review process. “We did an [environmental impact report] for the project,” Hall says. “It was an extreme and exhaustive analysis of potential impacts to the environment.” The report deemed most of these potential impacts to be “less-than-significant.” If you look at Artesa’s website, www.artesasonoma.com, they outline several important points in the proposal. These points look vaguely acceptable on paper, but probably don’t translate well to the real world. Chris Poehlmann, president of the Friends of the Gualala River, states that, “They [CalFire] are acting as if they are actually the department of deforestation.”
The Friends of the Gualala River and the Sierra Club have gone to court several times in the past decade to successfully stop timberland conversion projects proposed by winery groups, already approved by the state. Among these fights was the battle to save Preservation Ranch, a 19,000-acre parcel that developers planned to partially deforest and plant with grapes.
Sara Cummings a spokesperson for Sonoma Vintners, a wine industry trade group, says new vineyards are usually planted on land that is already designated by county planners as agricultural. Between 1979 and 2006 however, twenty-five redwood to agricultural conversions have occurred at a rate of 21 acres per year. Additional acreage has been clear cut without permits, including a parcel by high profile winemaker Paul Hobbs. The Artesa proposal will set a very large precedent in the fight to preserve what few redwoods we have left and keep deforestation at bay.
As with every conservation issue facing us today, it isn’t just a clear answer of right and wrong. With only 4% of the old growth redwoods remaining on the planet, these aren’t matters to be taken lightly. It isn’t just the future of trees, wild salmon, steelhead and other wildlife at stake, either. The wine industry is of vital importance to Northern California. Wine is the most valuable finished agricultural product produced in California and the wine industry contributes over 45 billion dollars to California’s economy. That is a lot of jobs, for a lot of people.
What we need more of, is an increase in sustainable growing practices in agriculture. Only 25% of the state’s wine acreage falls within the boundaries laid out by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. This alliance helps focus winemakers into a sustainable wine growing practice, alleviating as much of the impact felt by water consumption, deforestation and the introduction of herbicides and pesticides into the environment.
As always, we have to decide what our natural world is worth to us. Is it worth protecting? Is it worth saving? I believe the answer is yes and it begins with each of us taking small steps toward the contribution. Much more about that soon…
To learn more about the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing visit, www.sustainablewinegrowing.org