Friday, December 12, 2014
Dear Friends of the Eel River,
It never rains but it pours.
Here on the rainforest coast, the old saw often invokes less the classic series of unfortunate events than the fact that crisis and opportunity sometimes come, like our rain, by the bucket.
After three long years of the most severe drought in the last millenia of California’s history, sheets of water pour from the skies in a howling deluge. Our Wild and Scenic Eel River, a disconnected shadow of a river only months ago, has climbed back to a muddy flood stage at last. The rain is good. And yet the very intensity of the storm reflects the same rising global temperatures that turned a few dry years into a epochal drought.
Just as we all face the rising extremes of weather in a changing climate, environmental advocates are daily challenged to navigate a political landscape where the growing power of corporate money and increasing extremism threaten all we have been able to protect. With your help, we are weathering the gale. But we still need to build our strength to face the rising storms.
Of course, part of our role is seek out challenges, to create opportunities to make change. On that front, I have great good news. Indeed, I delayed this end-of-the-year letter longer than was wise because I hoped to be able to tell you this: Friends of the Eel River’s petition for review before the California Supreme Court has been granted. Our lawsuit challenging the North Coast Railroad Authority’s refusal to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) will be heard before the state’s highest court in 2015.
We seek to ensure the NCRA does not rebuild the failed rail line through the fragile Eel River Canyon without the careful environmental review the agency promised—and California taxpayers paid for. The NCRA took the money, then chose to limit their review to a small piece of the whole line from Humboldt Bay to the Bay Area. Breaking up a large project into smaller bits is a classic technique for obscuring cumulative impacts.
When we sued, however, the NCRA took a new tack: rather than defend their slipshod environmental review, the agency now claimed federal laws regulating railroads override the agency’s obligation to do environmental review. A superior court and court of appeals panel bought what the railroad was selling. However, the court of appeals considering a CEQA challenge to the High Speed Rail Authority—a case identical to ours in every relevant detail—came to precisely the opposite conclusion on the question of federal preemption. That court agreed with us: where the state is acting as an owner, not a regulator, federal law does not shield a state-owned rail line from complying with CEQA as a condition of its state funding.
Justice is ever a tenuous proposition for environmentalists, but we are closer now in this case than in long years. With your support, we may yet pull out a very important victory here. But our challenges are just beginning.
Friends of the Eel River has been outspoken in demanding attention to the impacts, on already damaged watersheds and fisheries, of the explosion in commercial marijuana cultivation across the North Coast. This Green Rush was triggered by the 1996 passage of an initiative, Proposition 215, which gave growers a defense against possession charges where they could claim to be providing weed to meet a medical need.
The rapid annual increase that has followed, in both the number and the size of grow sites, has driven an alarming rise in watershed impacts. State and federal wildlife agencies now agree that the impacts of the marijuana industry—especially summer water diversions and excess sediment transport—are now the greatest immediate threats to the South Fork Eel’s coho salmon and steelhead trout, both listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The cannabis industry requires effective regulation. Some of this is obvious. Dry-season water diversions need to be halted, replaced by winter water storage. Badly built roads and ill-considered clearings that channel excess sediment into streams must be fixed. Above all, we need effective limits: how many operations, of what size, will be allowed in areas where they can actually be sustained, without lasting harm to watersheds only beginning to recover from the last century’s abuses?
Building regulatory framework to rein in an industry that has grown up under more than forty years of legal prohibition is a complicated tangle of hard problems, particularly so as the plant remains federally illegal while states move toward legalization. But as H.L. Mencken wrote nearly a century ago, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”
Today’s would-be authors of simple answers to complex problems are a group called California Cannabis Voice Humboldt (CCVH), who propose a ballot initiative at the county level that would legalize growing at a huge scale—literally, thousands of pounds of product a year—on every substantial private parcel in Humboldt County.
The problems with this approach are manifold. On receipt of a qualifying number of signatures, the Board of Supervisors must adopt the ordinance precisely as written, or submit the proposal to the voters. Nor could an initiative be changed except by another special election. And where the same proposal from the county itself would trigger CEQA review—no small matter where the future of our watersheds and fisheries are so clearly at stake—an ordinance proposed by initiative would entirely avoid environmental review.
Nor is the substance of CCVH’s “regulation” any more substantial. They would legalize cultivation as a principally permitted use across the rural landscape, allowing up to an acre of marijuana to be grown on larger parcels. They offer no way to fund the enforcement necessary to administer even a modest program. Nor do they offer any means by which the black market operations causing the greatest harms will be brought to heel under their proposal for voluntary cooperation with existing environmental laws. The CCVH proposal is in fact a plan for the destruction of the Eel River’s struggling coho and steelhead.
We are going to need everyone’s help to beat back this scheme. We need your financial support. We need your moral support, and your considered judgment. We need you to talk to your friends, your neighbors, and your elected officials. We need you to write letters, come to meetings, We need you to raise your voice against this initiative, and for our river, our watersheds, our fish and our future.
It is only because our supporters are so steadfast that I can continue to focus first on doing the work the Eel River needs.
For the river,