Court Rejects Plan to Clearcut California Redwoods for Vineyard

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum has rejected a plan to clearcut 154 acres of Northern California redwoods to plant vineyards for a winery. The proposal in northwestern Sonoma County was challenged by the Sierra Club’s Redwood Chapter, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Gualala River. In response, Judge Daum said the state’s “environmental impact report” for Artesa Winery’s forest-to-vineyard project violates the California Environmental Quality Act.

“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,” said Victoria Brandon, chair of the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter.

The judge found that, in preparing the environmental review for the project, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) failed to properly analyze alternatives that would be less damaging to the environment, such as using an unforested area for the vineyard.The court also determined that the agency did not appropriately address the lost carbon sequestration that would result from destroying the redwood forest. Redwood forests are well known for their capacity to absorb massive amounts of greenhouse gases as they mature over time.

The judge also agreed with the conservation groups that the environmental report wrongly ignored California Board of Forestry policy regarding forest conversions. The board is charged with overseeing forest policy in California and opposes the conversion of prime timberland, like the project site. Finally, the court ruled that Cal Fire failed to properly address the project’s pesticide impacts as well as the noise impacts.

“Rather than be destroyed to make room for a vineyard, this redwood forest will continue to do what it does best – provide habitat for wildlife and remove harmful carbon emissions from the atmosphere,” said Justin Augustine, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Sonoma County has already experienced a large-scale conversion of natural oak woodlands and inland forests to agriculture. We have drawn a line to stop furtherdestruction of redwood forests and salmon streams for more acres of grapes,” said Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River.

The project is funded by Spanish company Codorniu S.A., the owner of Napa Valley’s Artesa Winery, and was approved by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Contact:
Chris Poehlmann, Friends of the Gualala River, (707) 886-5182
Victoria Brandon, Sierra Club Redwood Chapter, (707) 994-1931
Justin Augustine, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682 x 302

  • The Sierra Club works to protect and restore wild places, public health and wildlife for future generations. The Redwood Chapter covers northwestern California. Redwood.SierraClub.org
  • The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 625,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. BiologicalDiversity.org
  • Friends of the Gualala River is a volunteer nonprofit group that advocates for preservation of the Gualala River watershed in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. GualalaRiver.org

Redwood Chapter defends coastal forest from conversion

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.

Preservation Ranch – preserved for posterity!

Over the past ten years the Redwood Chapter has focused on a campaign to protect a vast acreage of coastal forest and rolling oak woodlands near Annapolis from a project ironically called “Preservation Ranch.” This development proposal, the largest forest-to-agriculture conversion in modern California history, would have resulted in nearly 2,000 acres of the 20,000 acre property being cleared for vineyards, augmented by scattered luxury housing. In an added irony, vineyard development on this massive scale was also predicted to have adverse effects on Sonoma County’s small family-owned winegrowers.

Genuine —not ironic—preservation of our forests, woodlands, and coastal rivers lies at the heart of the Chapter’s conservation mission, and both the scale of this project and the dismal precedents it would establish have made Preservation Ranch our number one priority throughout the intervening years. While readying ourselves to participate in the dialog surrounding its environmental review, we did all we could to raise public awareness of the issues involved (including the filming of a trenchant video under the direction of former Forestry Committee chair Jay Halcomb) and also tried to persuade its primary funder—CalPERS, California’s giant state workers pension fund—that its resources would be more responsibly invested elsewhere.

On May 31 these efforts came to fruition in a very positive way, with purchase of the property by a consortium of conservation buyers led by the Virginia-based Conservation Fund in partnership with the California Coastal Conservancy, Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, and Sonoma Land Trust. The $24.5 million deal will result in the use of the land for sustainable timber production with a focus on forest health and wildlife habitat restoration, possibly including some public recreational access and the generation of income from the sale of carbon credits. The threat of commercial vineyard development and rural estate subdivision has been taken off the table—permanently!

In the words of Redwood Chapter legal chair Keith Kaulum, “it is like having a huge weight lifted from our shoulders. I think that our persistence over the years, along with other groups, is the only reason that the developer of PR, continued to delay their final proposal to the county for years. They know we were waiting for them with legal and political guns at the ready.”