By Steven Greenhut
Special to The Orange County Register
Published: July 8, 2011
Updated: July 9, 2011 8:19 a.m.
SACRAMENTO – As I took the nearly six-hour drive recently from the Sacramento area, past Ukiah and up to Eureka, through the heart of California's redwood-forested north coast, I was reminded of the spectacular beauty of California. Driving through Mendocino and Humboldt counties also reminded me of the spectacular ways the state government wastes taxpayer dollars even at a time when officials are crying poormouth.
Deep in this remote country, enveloped by state and federal parks and public forests where so much of the land is off-limits from development, the state of California is spending tens of millions of dollars buying up land (for conservation easements) to protect it from development threats that are even more remote than the landscape.
The public is financing land deals that are causing consternation to timber companies that operate along the north coast. Before you ask, "What would you expect from self-interested despoilers of the environment?" consider that these are companies with a long history of environmental sensitivity. They operate in an environment hostile to their existence and must maintain public support for their efforts as well as protect the land for their future business.
The companies, such as Mendocino Redwood Company, have long been lauded by the local environmental community for their efforts to carefully harvest and upgrade wildlife habitat in the forests and streams. But they get to watch, up close and personal, how the state is operating in these forests and they are appalled by the waste of tax dollars and frustrated by the way that these questionable land deals are driving up the cost of forested land.
In a 2007 letter to the state Wildlife Conservation Board, six forest managers from north coast timber companies argue that various "transactions targeted lands zoned for timber production that have a long history of continuous production of forest products, while containing little in the way of pristine forest attributes." They further argued that the deals "have been completed at prices that were too high for private operators to compete, even as there are models of successful private stewardship in the same area."
These taxpayer-financed deals, completed with the help of non-profit foundations, paid fees based on the value of the deal, are about what one would expect when Other People's Money and Noble Goals are involved. Timber officials tell me that the same goals can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost through restoration projects and without transferring more land out of the private sector. But who cares about that these days? (One north coast newspaper even complained that the companies represent the "private ownership/free market model" of land use, which just shows us how far California has moved from the nation's founding principles.)
State officials in Sacramento and voters in urbanized regions want to "save" the redwood forests, even if they don't need to be saved. These are magnificent places. I've driven through the Avenue of the Giants, that 32-mile stretch of giant redwood trees, and frolicked in the deep, dark redwood forests. Few things are more beautiful, but few things are less endangered.
For perspective, there's still another two-hour drive north from Eureka to the Oregon border – and towns in the area are little more than tiny pockets of development swallowed by the encroaching forests.
As the Wikipedia entry (based on official Humboldt County data) explains: "[T]he vast majority of [the forests are] protected or strictly conserved within dozens of national, state, and local forests and parks, totaling approximately 680,000 acres (over 1,000 square miles)."
This is not the next Irvine, Pleasanton or Rocklin. No one proposed major developments even at the southernmost point closest to the Bay Area at the height of the market. The steep canyons and lack of public utilities, combined with onerous local development regulations and a culture that frowns on development (but smiles at marijuana production!), assures that these forests will remain in their natural state. I don't see why we want to turn vast portions of the state into wilderness areas that few can enjoy and that are so controlled that few humans can earn a living there. How about a little balance?
The purchase of these regional open space districts and conservation easements is a story about the waste of tax dollars and about secretive government, given that the appraisals have been largely off-limits from public scrutiny – at least until after the deals are done.
The timber folks complain that the appraisals don't consider that most of the land is largely un-developable and that the state uses appraisals from other state-funded conservation deals, which skews the true market value. State officials released a review of the latest appraisals and insist that they are done to the highest standards.
They also defend the deals and insist the public had plenty of opportunity to object. In response to industry concerns, officials developed criteria for the conservation program – to "promote the ecological integrity and economic stability of California's diverse native forests for all their public benefits." Those are nebulous goals, of course, and the public hearings are dominated by no-growth environmentalists.
The state officials and wildlife foundations are about to ram through two other easements now pending before the State Wildlife Conservation Board (the Usal and Gualala properties). They are soon expected to be OK'd by a telephone voice vote of directors. This does indeed raise open-government questions, given that these purchases ultimately are financed by taxpayers.
As the state runs out of money, even environmentalists ought to think about properly divvying up scarce resources.
At a time when the state can't even maintain its current holdings of park lands, with an estimated maintenance backlog of about $1.3 billion, the state continues to expand its reach, grabbing control of land to protect it from imaginary threats.
If you wonder what's wonderful and awful about California, there are few better places to start than the north coast, where magnificent scenery contrasts with absurd public policy.