Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Western Rivers Conservancy
1418 20th Street, Suite 100
Sacramento, CA 95811
On behalf of Friends of the Eel River, I write to support efforts to secure the tremendous conservation values of key parcels in the headwaters of the East Branch of the South Fork Eel River. These remarkably intact holdings are important in their own right for the older forests and wildlife populations they shelter, and for their value to watersheds where critically imperiled coho salmon and steelhead can still recover.
Friends of the Eel River is a citizens’ group that has been advocating for protection and restoration of the Eel River and its fisheries for nearly two decades. A century ago, the Eel River produced runs of more than a million salmon and steelhead in poor years. Today, the watershed’s surviving runs of chinook, coho, and steelhead are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Eel River is increasingly coming into focus both for the restoration opportunities it offers as a large and substantially undeveloped watershed, and because of the urgent necessity of protecting the Eel’s salmonid populations, particularly of coho and steelhead, the survival of which are critical to regional recovery prospects.
Although the Eel River has suffered serious harms in the last century, including construction of a pair of dams on the upper mainstem, industrial logging and roadbuilding across much of the 3700 square mile landscape, and agricultural development of its estuary and floodplain, the Eel River today is one of the most compelling candidates for restoration and recovery investment on the west coast.
In fact, today the greatest threat to the health of the Eel River and its fisheries is arguably the combination of water diversions and abusive land uses associated with the marijuana industry. Large scale commercial marijuana growing operations have increased tremendously in both size and number across the region since the 1996 passage of California’s Proposition 215 gave marijuana growers a legal defense if they claimed to be growing marijuana for medical purposes.
The use of remote parcels in the Eel River watershed for marijuana cultivation is not new, but recent trends in scale and cultivation practices have sharply increased subdivision pressures, diversions from surface waters, and related impacts that may persist long after the growers are gone.
In order to more effectively prioritize our own efforts, Friends of the Eel River has conducted a detailed survey of current marijuana cultivation sites across the lower Eel River watershed, including much of the South Fork and Van Duzen watersheds as well as the mainstem Eel River. This project has revealed both startlingly intense concentrations of marijuana-related activity in some watersheds, and equally striking absences of such operations in other areas, especially larger, intact private holdings.
The large parcel in the headwaters of the East Branch South Fork offers one of the clearest examples we have found of a place still relatively free of large-scale marijuana cultivation. There is, however, abundant evidence of operations moving into the area from several sides. Taken together with our general understanding of the dynamics of the region’s marijuana economy and land markets, we interpret this evidence as cause for serious concern whether these parcels will long remain the strongholds for fish and wildlife they represent today, particularly if they are divided and subdivided.
An investment in the conservation values of this parcel would secure these critical values for the future. It would also help to demonstrate to the local community, to local, state, and federal agencies and other entities considering their own priorities in the region that the world beyond the Redwood Curtain values the Eel River for the things that make it truly unique – its fish, wildlife, and wild places.
Thank you for your very kind consideration. Please feel free to contact me if I can be of any further assistance.
Friends of the Eel River