Doug Bosco & His Phantom Railroad

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by Will Parrish on Apr 27th, 2011

Across recent years, a State of California agency called the the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) has been plodding ahead in its campaign to make freight chug-a-chug down the tracks from the Port of Eureka on down to the San Francisco Bay — carrying some sort of merchantable cargo as they go, presumably — for the first time since its closure in 1998. In the process, the NCRA has emerged as an object of considerable derision on the part of local observers. Many view the Authority as a waste of time and money. The section of track that runs through the Eel River Canyon would require an estimated $643 million in repairs alone, after all, according to the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) — a level of public expenditure that wasn’t forthcoming given the political climate that obtained when the study was first issued, let alone in the present one.

Others view the NCRA as a den of corruption, populated by North Coast Democratic Party loyalists who have secured gainful employment by way of a phantom rail line, or as a case of crony capitalism whereby politically connected big business interests are enriching themselves by suckling from the public teat — or both. The NCRA is a public agency, keep in mind, funded by taxpayers.

It would be difficult to dispute that the limited liability corporation that has contracted to develop the rail line on behalf of the NCRA struck the agreement on highly favorable terms. The name of the corporation in question is Northwestern Pacific (NWP) Co. Some sentences from its 2006 business plan, like this one, boldly leap from the page: “Douglas H. Bosco, Attorney, NWP Co.’s General Counsel, will be an owner, and member of the NWP Co. Board of Directors.”

According to a former representative to the North Coast Rail Authority from Marin County, Bernie Meyers, the contract between NWP Co. and the NCRA was negotiated, respectively, by Bosco and a fellow named Mitch Stogner, who served as Bosco’s aide de camp during his congressional tenure. The two men have maintained close political ties ever since. The initial term of the contract was for five years, but NWP Co. has a unilateral option to extend the lease for up to 99 years, with virtually no input into the matter from the NCRA — that is, the taxpayers’ ostensible representatives in the matter — itself.

“The lease requires the NCRA to obtain and expend public funds without limitation,” Meyers noted in an op-ed in the Marin Voice this past March. “Yet NWP could conceivably pay NCRA almost nothing under the lease. Payments begin the year after NWP has a net annual profit of $5 million. If NWP makes payments, they will not be to NCRA, but into a ‘kitty’ that NWP jointly controls.” In other words, taxpayers are on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, strongly to the benefit of the NWP and its owners, but with only an incidental amount of public benefit.

The NWP business plan makes note of Bosco’s function in this matter: “As General Counsel, Doug Bosco will focus on building trusted relationships with the public agencies.” Readers of the first two parts of this series on the erstwhile Congressman’s activities since he departed public office can readily translate that sentence to mean roughly the following: Bosco will use his considerable connections within the state Democratic Party apparatus, forged across his many years as a public officeholder and his more lucrative recent service as a lobbyist on behalf of large corporations, to win sweetheart deals on his and the company’s behalf.

Bosco is joined as an owner and director of the NWP Co. by a small handful of regional business empires. One is that of Sausalito-based developer Skip Berg, best known for such audacious schemes as a proposal to develop over 2,500 homes and almost three million square feet of commercial space on Hamilton Air Force Base, south of Novato, during the 1980s. Berg’s most successful business venture to date was his ownership of the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma during the ’80s and early-’90s, which became one of NASCAR’s most lucrative tracks. More recently, in 2005, he scored a highly suspicious $20 million federal contract to develop ferry service out of Port Sonoma, located on the Petaluma River at the Sonoma and Napa county lines.

Another is Evergreen Natural Resources of Oroville, California, which has long set its sights on reopening the hard rock mine at Island Mountain, in the heart of the main stem Eel River canyon. That particular quarry being located in the remote reaches of Trinity County, however, and utterly inaccessible by truck, it has no viable means of bringing the rock to market absent the restart of Northwestern Pacific freight service. The old rail line runs right through the heart of the mine. The Island Mountain Mine report, obtained by Friends of the Eel River, and the 2006 NCRA Strategic Plan propose that the company mine six million tons of rock from the quarry every year.

To make any sort of economic sense, of course, a freight line needs actual freight: that is, merchantable bulk commodities. The Northwestern Pacific once ran almost entirely on the strength of the timber trade. Most of the marketable forest stands in the North Coast have long since been cut, however, and even those that remain tend to be either off limits from logging due to protected status or else are being immediately exported overseas. As a substitute for the trees, NWP Co. originally proposed to fill the freight cars chiefly with the Island Mountain gravel, at an estimated value of $50 million per year.

But absent the aforementioned $643 million to repair the Eel River Canyon track, the Island Mountain mining proposal is destined to remain on hold. As a result, the NWP Co. and the NCRA have focused primarily in the last few years on restoring a far more modest section of the track, from Sausalito to Willits. The Authority had announced plans to begin running trains from the California Northern interchange at Schellville, north to Windsor, beginning this month. It has recently stated that it will have freights rumbling into Willits again by 2014. All of that remains to be seen.

Lacking any Eel River Canyon gravel, another major regional mining interest with ties to Bosco has moved to ramp up gravel extraction in the Russian River basin, beginning in the Alexander Valley, within a 6.5 mile stretch of the river just outside of Geyserville. Entitled the Syar Alexander Valley Instream Mining Project, it involves withdrawing 350,000 tons of gravel per year from the riverbed. Bosco is one of the project’s two attorneys.

Most counties in California feature gravel mining of one sort or another. And, while the modern construction enterprise depends on the practice, it has also caused more than its fair share of the catastrophic damage that is endemic to most waterways throughout the state. Many gravel mines have radically altered flows in streambeds, greatly eroding river banks, and clogging up spawning habitat for fish.

Among North Coast gravel miners, in fact, Bosco’s father-in-law Victor Guynup was specifically singled out for the destructive form of his gravel mining activities in Humboldt County, in a report issued by the County of Humboldt Extraction Review Team (CHERT) in 1997. Guynup’s gravel mine, it noted, had left its gravel bars with “undulating topography and several closed depressions” — a highly technical way of saying he had more or less destroyed a large chunk of the Mad River basin.

Where gravel mining operations go off the figurative rails most of all is when the profit incentives of large business entities become involved. A 2009 Sonoma County gravel monitoring report concluded that the Russian River naturally replenishes roughly 181,000 tons of gravel per year — roughly half of what Syar is seeking to mine annually. Russian Riverkeeper and Trout Unlimited have filed suit in an effort to halt the project. The extra gravel would not only be a boon to Syar itself; it would also furnish profitable freight for the NWP Co.

Another trump card Bosco and his NWP Co. associates have pulled in an effort to make the freight proposal viable is hauling all of the North Coast’s trash on outtahere and to a dump site in Nevada. “NWP Co. is believed to have a strategic advantage because of its exclusive right to negotiate to use a solid waste site in Nevada owned by Nevada Resource Recovery Group, LLC that has a capacity of about 200 million tons,” the 2006 business plan brags. “NWP Co.’s longer term objective would be to meld solid waste haulage from Mendocino County, and eventually from Marin County and Humboldt County, with that of Sonoma County to the Nevada disposal site which could accommodate all of those counties’ solid waste for more than 200 years.”

To be clear, much of what is notable about the plan to restart freight service via Bosco, Berg, Evergreen Natural Resources, and their NWP Co., then, is that it is based not on any existing cargo that would benefit from access to markets that the rail line would be uniquely suited to provide, but rather depends on such cargo being generated whereas it does not presently exist. Both the gravel mining and trash hauling schemes are emerging in this context.

Fast-tracking all of the aforementioned proposals through the political and legal systems, meanwhile, requires friends in high places, which Bosco and company have in abundance. One fast-track route comes by way of Bosco’s wife, retired Sonoma County Superior Court judge Gayle Guynup. There are strong rumors that Guynup is even on the verge of un-retirement. She has reportedly gone back to school to become certified as a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) attorney. She may soon be appointed as a Sonoma County CEQA judge, meaning many of the legal challenges brought against extractive industries would be routed to her courtroom. The Sonoma County judge who will preside over the lawsuit against Syar’s gravel mining proposal, meanwhile, is a fellow named Elliot Daum who has close ties with Guynup.

An entirely greater level of political interference is manifestly run on behalf of Bosco and allied financial interests by many members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. As only one example, the precocious political career of present Fifth District Supervisor Efren Carillo was wholly engineered by people like Bosco and former Fifth District Supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, an attorney and long-standing member in good faith of the Bosco Boys. In the final weeks of the race, Carillo’s campaign received a virtually unheard-of campaign donation of $23,500 from none other than Bosco’s Northwestern Pacific Railroad business partner, Skip Berg, by way of his company Berg Holdings. Syar, the gravel mining company, gave over $8,000. Bosco himself chipped in $5,000. Carillo’s opponent, long-time Sonoma County public servant Rue Furch, ran on a platform opposing many of the Bosco Boys’ pet projects.

One of those is one of the most egregious vineyard development proposals to crop up during the Grape Rush era, the so-called Preservation Ranch development in the Gualala River basin, operated by wine financier William Hill’s Premier Pacific Vineyards (PPV) of Napa County. PPV proposes to clear-cut roughly 1,700 acres of redwood trees on a 20,000 acre parcel, rip out the roots, and install wine-grapes. In keeping with the extractive zeitgeist, PPV has also proposed at various times to install a gravel mine on their property — presumably as a supply for the roughly 90 miles of road they intend to build. Eric Koenigshofer is a member of the Premier Pacific Vineyards legal team.

The story of the Bosco Boys’ perpetual association with the extractive interests throughout the North Coast is virtually as long and involved as you want to make it.

A bigger point concerns the present state of the American political system. Politicians who act as all-around big business consiglieres while in office parlay this role into lucrative employment and business opportunities once out of office as a matter of course. One billionaire venture capitalist, Ron Burkle, has even referred to former President Bill Clinton as his “rain man,” on account of Clinton’s uncanny ability to use his connections to “rein in” sweetheart deals on Burkle’s behalf — only one example. This series on Doug Bosco serves as only one case study of this systemic tendency.

There are various organizations across the North Coast working to address various of the projects I’ve mentioned in this article — often with considerable success. See , , and for information on some of them.