by Dave Jordan
The on-going battle to protect north coast forestland from conversion to vineyards went to court on October 18. The Redwood Chapter, along with co-plaintiffs Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Gualala River, challenged the environmental impact report (EIR) prepared by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal-Fire) for the “Fairfax” conversion project proposed by Spanish-owned winery Codorniu Napa, which does business as Artesa Vineyards and Winery. We filed suit because we think the highest and best use of coastal forests is to remain in their natural condition so they can protect our coastal rivers, support fish and wildlife, and combat climate change by sequestering carbon.
Codorniu received a 154-acre timberland conversion permit from Cal-Fire. They plan to cut more than a million board-feet of redwood and Douglas fir, bulldoze the land and plant a vineyard on a property in northwestern Sonoma County, near the community of Annapolis. Cal-Fire spent more than seven years preparing the EIR, which states, implausibly, that the project would cause no significant or cumulative adverse environmental impacts.
Protecting forestland The importance of this case goes far beyond the 154 acres proposed for destruction by Artesa Winery’s project. As the first forestland-to-vineyard conversion project in the State of California ever to complete, and receive approval based on, a full environmental impact report, this case will set a precedent.
If Artesa ‘s project goes forward, other projects will follow. If, on the other hand, Artesa’s project is stopped, that will send a message to developers that the Redwood Chapter and our allies insist on strict enforcement of California environmental laws. We will not allow regulatory agencies to rubber-stamp projects without the thorough environmental review required by law.
The Redwood Chapter campaign to protect forestland from conversion to vineyards was launched more than a decade ago by the late Jay Halcomb, who chaired the campaign, and later became chair of the Redwood Chapter, until his death last year. Jay led the ultimately successful effort to stop the misleadingly named “Preservation Ranch” proposal.
As demonstrated by Preservation Ranch, there are many thousands of acres of north coast forest that developers would like to chop down in order to grow grapes. But the most profitable use of land in today’s economy may not be the most beneficial use of that land for the long-term health of the environment.
By the time you read this, the judge is likely to have issued his decision in the case. Visit redwood.sierraclub.org to find out the latest information.
Legal case In his written briefs and oral argument at the hearing in Sonoma County Superior Court on October 18, attorney Paul Carroll, representing plaintiffs Redwood Chapter and Friends of the Gualala River, enumerated some of the many serious deficiencies of the EIR. The EIR fails to discuss the conflicts between the project and the Sonoma County General Plan and California Board of Forestry policy, fails to consider a range of less damaging alternatives, fails to mitigate the effects of pesticides and the effects of noise, and fails to mitigate impacts to cultural heritage (the project site was inhabited by the Pomo people for thousands of years).
Attorney Justin Augustine, representing plaintiff Center for Biological Diversity, focused his attention on the issue of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and carbon sequestration. He argued that Cal-Fire had used an improper baseline against which to measure the GHG impacts of the project. Under California law, the baseline must be “existing conditions,” which Augustine argued is a standing forest. Cal-Fire instead compared the project to a hypothetical condition, which it called “business as usual.”
When is a forest not a forest? The EIR says, “Vegetative cover on the timberland conversion portion of the site consists of young-growth coast redwood and Douglas-fir intermixed with madrone, tanoak, coast live oak, California bay, and bigleaf maple… Timber on the project site is located in even aged stands that are approximately 50 to 75 years old.”
Despite this description, the defendants’ attorneys argued that, “the project site is not a ‘redwood forest”” and that “conifer timber is now just beginning to recapture the site.”
Considering that these trees have been growing for more than fifty years and that the developers expect to harvest ”approximately 1.25 million board-feet“ of redwood and Douglas fir timber, this argument seems dubious to say the least. And since almost all of the forest on the north coast has been logged at least once, the argument that second growth forest isn’t really forest at all, and does not deserve protection, is extremely dangerous.