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Into the Woods

Author: Bonnie Durrance
December, 2011 Issue

Two proposed vineyard projects in remote areas of Sonoma County are drawing the ire of neighbors and environmentalists—but can winegrapes preserve a redwood forest?

In western Sonoma County, two large-scale, forest-to-vineyard conversion proposals have been igniting environmental passions and opening urgent discussions about the future of land use in the county. While the choice, on the surface, is about forests versus Pinot Noir grapes, the essential discussion is about the preferred character of Sonoma County—and sustainability itself.

Both projects are larger, by far, than any conversion previously brought to the county, but one, Preservation Ranch, a 20,000-acre project in the heart of the Gualala River Watershed, is vastly larger, more complex and controversial…and, as of this writing, has suddenly become more so. In October, just as those who see their job as protecting the integrity of the forest and the river were braced for a fight to the finish, something—the economy, a management glitch, or perhaps just a simple twist of fate—has thrown a wrench into the deal. Now Project Preservation Ranch itself is up in the air. As of press time, nobody knows where or when it will come down. Here’s what we do know.

The two projects, both in the Annapolis area in western Sonoma County, are known respectively as Artesa and Preservation Ranch. Artesa is a proposed conversion of 154 acres of coastal redwood forest to vineyard; it would become part of a 173-acre vineyard site planned by the Codorníu Group of Spain, one of the oldest and largest winemaking companies in the world. When proposed, it was the largest vineyard conversion ever applied for in Sonoma County. The Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), under revision since 2004, is now in the final stages of review with the California Forestry and Fire Protection agency (CalFire).

Preservation Ranch is a 20,000-acre tract in the heart of the Gualala River Watershed with a proposed forest-to-vineyard conversion of nearly 2,000 acres. The project has been owned by Premier Pacific Vineyards (PPV), a high-end vineyard development company based in Napa Valley and with projects throughout Wine Country lands in California, Oregon and Washington. PPV has received part of its funding from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). In October, CalPERS announced it was ending its relationship with PPV. Brad Pacheco, public affairs chief for CalPERS, said in an email exchange soon after the announcement, that CalPERS had sent “a notice to [PPV] with intent to terminate our partnership” and that [PPV has] 90 days in which to complete that termination. He said his organization expects the process to extend through the end of the year.

After the announcement, a representative for Preservation Ranch, who preferred not to be quoted during this transition time, said the expectation is that the Preservation Ranch team would continue to push the project through the county approval process. So the project could stall, go forward with other management or go away completely. But on the chance that it remains a viable possibility for the Gualala River Watershed and its residents, let’s take a closer look at what’s proposed.

Two sides

Local residents, ecological scientists and groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Gualala River say the local quality of life depends on a healthy forest, river and streams, including respect for native cultural heritage—and that Preservation Ranch will do irreparable harm to all of these elements.

Developers, on the other hand, assert that the county’s rare, prime land can and should produce world-class winegrapes, using sustainable farming practices, which will benefit the county in various ways including jobs, revenue and paying for the upkeep of remaining forests and open space.

Both sides agree that quality of life is important, as is protecting the natural resources of Sonoma County. And everyone recognizes the need for economic viability. But it’s the representations of those values—and the means used to uphold them—that cause the groups to differ. How these issues are identified, worked through and resolved will have lasting impact on the face of Sonoma County. “What’s at stake,” says plant ecologist and Annapolis resident Peter Baye, Ph.D., “is no less than the integrity of the entire northwestern Sonoma County landscape and the heart of the Gualala River Watershed.”

The land

Two views prevail as to the nature of the forest under consideration, and each serves as a lens through which the juxtaposing sides view the proposed development.

According to attorney Eric Koenigshofer, a former West County supervisor, recent campaign advisor to Fifth District Supervisor Efren Carrillo and current land use consultant for the Preservation Ranch project, the property under review has been subdivided over the last 100 years into more than 150 parcels and has been logged by previous owners at least three times, resulting in a near-valueless property in commercial timber terms. “It was heavily logged beginning in the 1940s and continuing through the ’80s by various companies and shouldn’t be confused with majestic, old-growth redwood forests,” he says. “All the old-growth trees in this area have been gone for decades. This land is in a degraded state and is badly in need of restoration.”

Environmentalists, on the other hand, acknowledge the years of logging but talk of the forest as recovering and a lively source of habitat. “The wildlife is phenomenal,” says Barbara Scalabrini, whose Annapolis Winery overlooks what seems to be a lush, redwood-covered area near the proposed development. “Not only do we have foxes, bobcats, lynx, mountain lions, wild hogs, bear, bald eagles, golden eagles and falcons,” she says. “But we’ve just in the last three years been sighting big black cats.” These nearly mythical creatures are like panthers, it’s said, with six-foot long tails and heads the size of soccer balls. The Scalabrinis settled on the remote mountain in the 1970s and planted vineyards where the apples were failing; they maintain an organic, dry-farmed vineyard and winery. Accessible only by a long, hilly, windy road, her tasting room and picnic lawn are an ideal destination for bikers and sports car clubs. Her kindly face, as she opens a map to show the extent of the proposed development, is a picture of determination and dread.

“This watershed is trying to recover,” says Chris Poehlmann, an environmentalist and longtime member of Friends of the Gualala River. “If you go in and scrape the forest off the hills permanently, recovery isn’t going to happen,” he says. “That’s the opposite direction of where we want to go.”

Planning and permitting

Before engaging the different views, it’s important to say that the draft EIR is currently being prepared by the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) and, until it’s released for public comment, the department has prepared responses to all comments on it, and the board of supervisors has given its review, no one really knows how the actual project will end up. Susan Upchurch, district director for Supervisor Efren Carrillo, said her office could not speculate at this point on how the project may go and suggested withholding judgment until the EIR is released and the public can bring scrutiny to the actual details.

Still, understanding certain principles of environmental consequence and as well as the developers’ intentions will be important prerequisites to a useful public review when those documents are complete. With that in mind, we can introduce some of these principles and proposed project aspects as they’re laid out in the current plan, which is now on the plate of the PRMD.

Some background

Prior to 2007, all major timberland conversions—such as the one being proposed by Artesa—fell under the purview of the California Forestry and Fire Protection agency (CalFire); since 2007, Sonoma County has become the lead permitting agency for major timberland conversions on resource lands. (CalFire remains involved in approval of timber harvest plans and conversion permits under state regulations; for example, Preservation Ranch will need approval from both the county and the state.) The Preservation Ranch project, originally submitted in 2008, is the largest timberland conversion project yet to be put before the department.

“It’s challenging,” says Pete Parkinson, PRMD director. “It’s a very large property, 19,000-some acres, so there’s a huge amount of terrain to cover. And the project site is very remote, so it’s tough to see parts of it. On top of that, there’s a lot of community interest and a lot of science involved.” To handle the scope and complexity of the proposal, he’s enlisted Cardno-Entrix, a subsidiary of Cardno Limited, a global provider of physical and social infrastructure services, to conduct the environmental impact review. (The tab, which Koenigshofer estimates will run into the millions, will be paid by the developers, not the taxpayers.)

Trying to sense whether Parkinson has an opinion on the project is fruitless. “We haven’t come anywhere close to evaluating the project’s consistency with policy or making a recommendation as to whether it should go forward,” he says. “We’re really in the science and fact-gathering portions of this.” He allows that whatever we know now about the proposal, the EIR (when it comes out later this year) will add a whole new layer of detailed information, analyses and facts. The depth of this information will become the fodder for people to comment on from all sides of the project. He says his team will be required to present detailed responses to each and every comment received on the Draft EIR, and he doesn’t expect the process to be completed soon.

One wonders if the process, however carefully conducted, will be sufficient to protect the environment and residents from the detrimental effects environmentalists warn about. “That’s our job,” says Parkinson emphatically. “This project is probably going to be the most heavily scrutinized project many of us here at the county have ever worked on. We want to make sure it’s done right.”

Preservation Ranch, the concept

Far from a 20,000-acre clear cut, as it may sound from a cursory description of the project, what Koenigshofer says the group is proposing is a sustainable balance of preserved and maintained lands supported by the production of high-end winegrapes.

“The project has a net acreage of about 1,100 acres of actual planted vineyard, and that would be scattered in a variety of vineyard tracts,” he says. “The largest would be several hundred acres and the smallest just a few acres. And they’re all on ridge tops with very gentle slopes and conform to the restrictions the county has in its sedimentation and erosion control ordinance. Less than 10 percent of the land is to be used for agriculture. The remaining, slightly over 90 percent, is going to be permanently protected for rehabilitated timberland and habitat.” Approximately 2,700 acres, which PPV refers to as Windy Gap Preserve, an area of part oak and part grassland, which contains the headwaters to three tributaries to the Gualala River, will be set aside for habitat conservation only. “No farming, no structures, no timber, nothing,” he says. “Just a natural landscape permanently protected with a conservation easement for preserving that amount of acreage as it is now.”

The lion’s share of the property, he says, would be put under a single conservation easement that would be modeled after the Forest Stewardship Council’s Sustainable Timber Management regimen, meaning it would be husbanded in perpetuity and turned back to healthy forest and habitat that could be sustainably harvested occasionally, “So it would be a permanent source of wood products in the North Coast.”

Koenigshofer says endowments will be set up for both conservation easements to provide “a sufficient amount of annual revenue to fund whatever annual monitoring is required to ensure the conditions of those easements are complied with.” These endowments, he stresses, represent a permanent fund, the sole purpose of which is to support monitoring and enforcement of the easement terms to a level that satisfies Sonoma County requirements, should the project be approved.

He suggests the easements would likely be held by some third party, such as a land trust or a nonprofit conservation organization. And who or what will fund them? His answer sums up the economic rationale for the project, which is: “Basically, you have this property where everything’s been sucked out of it, in terms of its economic value, over the last 80 years of logging. It sits up there and has virtually no commercial timber value anymore. Then along comes a proposal to convert a little less than 10 percent of the land to vineyards, which add real value. The applicant then has to use part of that added value to fund endowments for the conservation easements and the rehabilitation of the forest, stream restoration and upgrades to the existing road on the property, which will reduce sedimentation by a very substantial amount, improving fish habitat.”

Keep your eye on the road

Jane Nielson, Ph.D., coauthor of The American West at Risk (a landmark presentation of the consequences of civilization on natural processes) and voted 2010 Environmentalist of the Year by a group of Sonoma County environmentalists including the Sonoma County Conservation Council and the Sierra Club Sonoma Group, says, “The more you interfere with nature, the more you get a response from nature that’s much more damaging than just the interference itself.” In her opinion, any kind of roads, including the refurbished roads that will be necessary throughout the whole proposed PPV system, present potential problems. Because more water runs off hard surfaces (such as roadways), at a much higher velocity than rainwater normally would if allowed to soak into vegetation-covered ground, erosion and sedimentation will add to the degradation of the hillside. Geologically unstable, she adds, the area is also subject to landslides. “It’s in an area the San Andreas fault goes through, closer to the coast. It’s an unstable area,” she says.

Dr. Baye, echoes her concern. “The proponents for the project say, ‘All we’re doing is taking the ridge tops; it’s a tiny fraction, just 2,000 acres,’ but I don’t look at it that way at all. I don’t think any competent landscape ecologist would look at it that way. If you look at the project itself, even though the actual footprint of the vineyards is about 2,000 acres, there’s also a permanent network of roads, fences and barriers into what’s effectively an intermittent or roadless forested area.”

It’s that network, which is disruptive to wildlife, that literally paves the way for the entry of invasive species, he continues. “From my perspective,” says Baye, “this is the primary impact. It’s not only creating permanent human use corridors and transport corridors, but it’s intersecting an area of extreme geologic instability and setting it up for permanent instability and activity.”

The big issue will still be water

Adina Merenlender, cooperative extension specialist for UC Berkeley, focuses her concern on watershed issues. While she hasn’t studied the details of the proposal yet, she’s familiar with the area and the project’s rough scale and strategy. “A couple of things are pretty obvious,” she says. “They’re in a wild land running along steep coastal mountains, and so the thing we see right off is significant habitat loss.” Less obvious, she continues, is the disruption to natural hydraulic patterns when water is funneled into the currently planned 40 reservoirs (for vineyard irrigation) from pipes underneath the vineyards themselves. This alteration of the way water moves off the hillsides causes her concern. “It’ll look natural,” she says, “and you’ll see cover crops and topsoil and say, ‘Oh, that looks really nice.’ But hydrologically, by removing trees and with the addition of water collection pipes, infiltration rates become closer to paved areas with storm drains. This can impact fresh water-dependent ecosystems downstream.”

Baye adds, “I can’t see any credible explanation of how [unregulated well use to supplement unfilled reservoirs during droughts] won’t result in [cumulative] severe impacts on streamflows, especially in the anticipated future climate of increased intensity, duration and frequency of drought and the de-watering of the river.” He says he sees it as the developers’ responsibility to prove that wouldn’t be the case.

Koenigshofer says he’s confident that, by going through the EIR process and abiding by the multiple layers of regulations that will apply to the project, Preservation Ranch will conform to environmental “best practices” and serve to improve the slopes and forest. “When the EIR comes out, we expect there’ll be an analysis on the issue of erosion and sediment that will include the current condition of the property. We believe when you’ve taken into account the conversion of the acreage we’re talking about and then you offset that by the improvements that will be made, that there’ll actually be a reduction in the amount of sediment that’s delivered to the Gualala River system.” In other words, in his view, the impact of the development will be ecologically positive.

The limits of sustainability

Dr. Merenlender says she’s comfortable with sustainable agriculture on a farm scale, but questions whether it’s possible in this case, given the scale and ocation of the proposed habitat conversion. “A conversion on this scale, in core wild land that’s far from agricultural prime farmland and services for agriculture and roads, where we have infrastructure to support agricultural production?"  she wonders. “That’s not a sustainable agricultural landscape.”

Most baffling to her is the project’s economic plan. “Why are they doing it?” she asks. “It’s stumped everyone who knows about vineyard development, given the development costs and the revenue they’re likely to make from the grapes. Why aren’t they just conserving the forest and selling the carbon credits?” she asks. “How can you claim sustainability if you don’t claim economic, social and environmental sustainability? You need all three legs of the stool.”

Since it’s no secret this project is about making money, it’s vital to ask: How will it help the county? According to Professor Robert Eyler, chair of economics at Sonoma State University, who has consulted for the project, Preservation Ranch as currently configured will contribute new jobs and revenues to the local economy in three distinct phases.

In the estimated two-year preparation phase, it’s projected to create 644 new jobs and $2.3 million in state and local tax revenue. In the three-to-four-year construction phase, it’s estimated an additional 122 new jobs, $19.9 million in new business revenues and more than $790,000 in additional state and local tax revenues will come. Finally, in the operations phase, the ongoing agricultural business, utility and preserve will create 105 new jobs and more than $13 million in annual new business revenues as well as more than $580,000 in new state and local taxes. Eyler points out that “one could consider all these impacts ‘long term,’ in that they take a property that’s otherwise lying fallow and convert it into a business that generates jobs and land that can be enjoyed by the residents of Sonoma County.”

Peter Baye has his doubts the project will unfold as the promotional materials suggest. “Developers,” he says, “make their money whether this gets built or not. If this becomes a dead dog on the county’s doorstep, they aren’t affected at all because they have the ability to resell land at a higher value after permits and entitlements are obtained. This will raise the fair market value of the land and make it marketable for vineyards or other economic uses that are consistent with the proposed rezoning.” Baye seems to visualize a scenario with new roads put in, miles of wildlife fences erected, reservoirs dug, pipes laid and then the project abandoned should one or all of the investors pull out. “What if the vineyards go unsold or unmanaged and the county is left holding the half-built infrastructure?” he asks.

Koenigshofer insists the county will impose enforcement means to guarantee performance. For example,” he says, “we’re going to plant a million trees, and we have to post a performance bond that guarantees that’s going to happen. When we say we’re going to reduce the number of parcels, we’ll do that before the first shovel of dirt is turned.” Further, he’s confident that, through its various ordinances, the developers will have to show not only ecological and economic soundness but demonstrated public benefit as the project progresses. “That’s the only way you’ll get it approved,” he says. “We’ve tried to design a project that’s responsive to all the applicable environmental regulations and that, in the end, winds up creating an improved landscape up there.” He’s worked on this project for five years, and says that, as a 40-some-year Sonoma County resident, he feels confident it will move the county in a healthy direction.

Still, opponents aren’t satisfied. “I think it would be nice to challenge the project from the perspective of the sustainability on a landscape scale,” says Merenlender. “Is this the kind of agriculture the people of Sonoma County want? People know that sustainability is a three-legged stool—economy, social and the environment. Does this help us socially? Is it helping us economically? It’s certainly not helping us ecologically.”

Even recovering forests are important, adds Nielson. “Forests produce the conditions in which we live: They create oxygen; they hold soil on slopes; they preserve habitat; and they absorb carbon dioxide. A forest, even a recovering one, can be valued as a carbon dioxide bank.”

An intact forest, in other words, is a value in and of itself. “If a landscape is intact,” says Baye, “and it’s really large, there’s resilience inherent in the landscape. I think we can do a lot better than what PPV is proposing with that landscape by embracing more enlightened forestry.”

Watch this space

Perhaps Baye will get his way. But many uncertainties loom.

If plans for Preservation Ranch go forward under new management, will the project be the same? Assuming economic conditions aren’t excluded from the equation, what might be lost in a possible new design, for profitability’s sake? If the project is simply discontinued, as many hope, has the forest won—and should those committed to the integrity of the forest and the watershed be celebrating? 

Eric Koenigshofer, before the CalPERS announcement, pointed out that the property is now subdivided into more than 150 parcels, and nearly 100 of those would be eliminated by mergers, making fewer but larger parcels. That would significantly reduce the overall development potential of the property and would bring the nearly 20,000 acres into conformance with the Sonoma County General Plan’s land use densities. Further, he continued, it would correct “a big historical problem of pre-general plan lot-splitting that took place up there over an 80- to 90-year time period.”

The fate of the land itself seems to depend on who exactly owns it, and what they ultimately decide to do with it. If economic concerns are the reason for CalPERS’ October action, it may bode ill for those who’d like to see the 20,000 acres remain intact. So who, again, really owns that land? Before the announcement, Koenigshofer described it as being owned by PPV, with CalPERS and other investors. Brad Pacheco, of CalPERS, described it as first owned by CalPERS, but when questioned further says, “The land is owned by the PPV partnership which the large majority is capital from CalPERS.” But since that partnership is being dissolved and the future of the Preservation Ranch project, even as a proposal, is up in the air, Pacheco says, “It would be too premature to speculate on the future of Preservation Ranch.”

Stay tuned. Decisions will be made as the partnership comes to a close at the first of the year. Whatever the outcome, it will be a definitive statement about the values—and the value—of Sonoma County land and culture.



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