by KEITH EASTHOUSE
THE FIRST SIGN THAT THIS WAS NOT GOING TO be a pristine nature experience was the trash, broken glass and empty liquor bottles scattered on the ground near some bushes. A little later, just off a footpath, a pile of used toilet paper announced the presence of an open-air bathroom. Not far away, hidden in a thicket of reeds, was a crude encampment: plastic tubs turned upside down for chairs, a dirty sleeping bag coiled on the ground.
"The city is just totally neglecting this area," fumed Melvin McKinney, who has organized numerous cleanups of the open land just north and west of Bayshore Mall. "We've hauled 16 tons of garbage out of here."
McKinney is an unusual sort. A bespectacled man in his 80s, he used to work in the timber industry, both in the Humboldt Bay region and down in the Fort Bragg area. He is also a fierce environmental activist who was instrumental in pushing the city to clean up and preserve the Elk River wildlife area.
He walks back to the main path and joins up with the six or seven other nature-lovers who are all out here on a gray, late-summer day for the same reason -- to raise public awareness about an area they believe could be an asset to Eureka in the same way the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary is to that city.
That the Eureka marsh -- also known as the PALCO marsh -- has a ways to go is obvious not simply because of the litter and the rather unsavory signs of human habitation. It's the prevailing atmosphere of abandonment and vague danger that, more than anything, makes it difficult to relax and enjoy what is potentially an attractive natural area.
"I've had them run out at me," McKinney said, referring to the transients who frequent the marsh. "I carry pepper spray out here. You have to be careful."
Jim Clark, conservation chair of the local Audubon Society, grimaced in agreement. "This is scary. I'm even afraid to ride my bike through here."
Never a priority
It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 1985 the California Coastal Conservancy gave the city of Eureka $610,000 to purchase the 39-acre tract known as the PALCO marsh and surrounding lands subject to a conservation easement held to this day by the conservancy. In all, 113 acres were bought by the city, including marsh land both east and west of the railroad tracks that run along this part of Humboldt Bay.
Back then, no one thought the "marsh enhancement project," as it was called, would remain unfinished in 2002, 17 years later. "When we gave [the city] the grant, we didn't anticipate in 2002 that it wouldn't be finished," said Karyn Gear, North Coast regional manager of the conservancy.
The purpose of the deal was to enhance the natural attributes of the area in accord with the conservancy's mission of protecting and restoring California's coastal resources and providing public access to the coast. For a time things went smoothly. In 1987, the conservancy disbursed $30,000 to the city to undertake a "marsh enhancement plan." It was completed in two years.
The conservancy then made available $900,000 to the city so the real work could begin -- returning the marsh to a fully functioning tidal ecosystem through such measures as revegetation, removing invasive species, cutting and widening ditches and installing tide gates to improve water circulation in the marsh.
Before the project got very far, the city ran into a snag -- grease and solvents from a nearby engine repair facility were found to have migrated into the southeast corner of the PALCO marsh, right where the city had planned to construct a 1.5-acre freshwater pond slated as a major feature of the restored area (such ponds, havens for birds and other types of wildlife, dot the Arcata marsh).
Due to the pollution, the project split in two, becoming a restoration effort in the marshland untouched by the pollution and a cleanup effort in the contaminated areas.
An additional problem soon arose: The Eureka Southern Railroad went bankrupt. This complicated things since the company owned a right-of-way on either side of a set of railroad tracks that runs adjacent to the PALCO marsh.
The tracks, elevated above the surrounding land, are built on fill and have considerably reduced the tidal circulation in PALCO marsh and adjacent areas. The fix seemed simple -- install tide gates on the bay side of the tracks to allow passage of seawater into the marsh at high tide. But with the railroad bankrupt, there was no entity to obtain an "encroachment permit" from to allow such work to occur.
Faced with these two roadblocks, the project languished.
While some restoration work was accomplished, eight years would pass before the pollution in PALCO marsh was cleaned up sufficiently to allow restoration work there to resume.
Karen Kovacs, a California Department of Fish and Game biologist familiar with the Eureka marsh saga, said the cleanup was a legitimate delay. But she said a fundamental reason the restoration project remains unfinished is that city staff and city officials have never considered it of prime importance.
"The wetlands within the city of Eureka rank equally with those in Arcata. But coastal wetlands within [Eureka's] city limits have never been a priority for the city."
Since the conservancy gave the city the money -- $1.5 million in all -- it might seem that conservancy officials would have been consistently pushing the city to get the work done. But that does not appear to have been the case.
Part of the reason may simply be the fact that the conservancy is a state agency that always has lots of important projects going on; with no offices on the North Coast, it is not easy for conservancy personnel to monitor projects in the Humboldt Bay region. Moreover, it is unlikely that the enhancement of an obscure bit of marshland in the middle of Eureka was ever a top priority -- particularly after the project was slowed by the pollution and bankruptcy problems.
"I think perhaps there were higher priority items they were working on, and this one was not always on their radar," said Kovacs.
Violating a contract
By 2000, though, the conservancy was clearly bird-dogging the project. In a Jan. 6 letter to then-City Manager Harvey Rose, the conservancy official in charge of the project, Mark Wheetley, expressed impatience with the lack of progress. In particular, Wheetley complained that the city had essentially reneged on a 1992 written agreement in which the conservancy allowed a parking lot to be built on top of marshland originally slated for restoration in exchange for the city undertaking specific restoration measures elsewhere on the marsh.
Wheetley noted that while the parking lot, intended to provide additional parking space for the mall, was built, the enhancement work never took place. "The conservancy agreed [to the parking lot] subject to a number of express, written conditions contained in [the contract]. Unfortunately, some of these conditions -- including those imposed to protect the environment and the restored portions of the marsh -- remain unmet despite various exchanges of letters and other communications over the years."
Photo at left: Railroad bed and pampas grass, an invasive species
While Wheetley doesn't say so in the letter, the city had violated the 1992 contract in another way. The contract allowed the city to lease over two acres of the six-acre "poleshed property," as this parcel is called, to Bayshore Mall -- on the condition that the property be used for parking and parking alone: "Use of the parking area shall be restricted to parking. No structures shall be erected on the poleshed property, except as appropriate to implement the marsh enhancement plans."
What's on the parking lot today? Parking spaces, of course, including 28 at the north end reserved for marsh visitors; but also the Oasis Fun Center, which operates a go-cart track, and a scrap metal outfit called Zink's Recycling. When asked if the presence of these businesses on the poleshed property wasn't a clear violation of the 1992 contract, Moira McEnespy, Wheetley's successor at the conservancy, conceded that it was. But she said the conservancy is most concerned at this point "that the city move forward and get the [restoration] work done."
The city, in a two-paragraph, unsigned document recently made available to the conservancy, ignores the fact that it is out of compliance with the 1992 contract. Instead, it states that "the city has verified [that the two businesses] have both obtained the licenses and permits required to properly conduct their respective operations" -- as if that obviates the violation. The statement goes on to say both businesses "operate at the lower end of the marsh and do not impact the designated marsh parking or public access." To McKinney and other critics that's beside the point. "They're in violation of the contract, plain and simple," McKinney said. "There's only supposed to be parking down here."
This issue wouldn't bug McKinney and other marsh supporters so much were it not for the fact that the go-cart facility in particular seems at odds with restoring the Eureka marsh to its natural state because the vehicles make so much noise. "It really roars. It's totally loud," said Christine Ambrose of the Environmental Protection Information Center.
While the conservancy is apparently willing to tolerate these businesses, there's no question that it never intended the poleshed property to be the source of loud noise. That's made clear in another provision of the 1992 contract pertaining to construction of the parking lot. "All construction shall be accomplished in a manner minimizing disruption to PALCO marsh," the provision states.
A couple of other aspects of the 1992 agreement have also not been honored: a commitment from the city to post signs "from the nearest public roadway" (meaning Highway 101) directing the public to the marsh parking area; and to erect a "marsh interpretive display" either inside Bayshore Mall or in the vicinity of the marsh parking area. Ten years after the contract was signed, neither have happened.
Mike Zoppo, property manager for the city, told the conservancy in an e-mail in April that the city and the mall would use the results of a larger effort called the "Humboldt Bay Signing Program" to produce the display. That program is being developed by the Redwood Community Action Agency, a local nonprofit organization.
As for the signs, the conservancy sent a letter in early July asking that the city submit a plan for its approval describing "the number, design, placement and wording of the signs," which are supposed to include an acknowledgement of conservancy funding in restoring the Eureka marsh. As of early September, the conservancy had "not received a sign plan from the city, nor an indication of when [such a plan] will be forthcoming," according to a "project update" that conservancy staff is presenting to conservancy officials at a meeting in Orange County this week.
One more thing: According to that two-paragraph statement from the city, "the mall strictly enforces their policy against overnight camping" in the parking lot. But the statement goes on to acknowledge that, in fact, camping occurs there. "From time to time and mostly during the summer months, travelers with self-contained trailers and motor homes may spend the night at any one of the mall's parking areas."
Dragging its feet
The project update lists other shortcomings in the city's performance on the marsh restoration project. They include:
The city is dragging its feet on reviewing a restoration plan for the Eureka marsh.
In February, Spencer Engineering submitted "Draft Final Plans, Specifications and a Construction Cost Estimate" to the city that outlines the restoration work remaining to be done in the Eureka marsh. At that point, according to McEnespy, "the hope" was that actual restoration work could take place by the summer -- although she said she knew that it could take longer since the plan would have to be reviewed by other agencies, such as the California Coastal Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game.
What McEnespy didn't anticipate was that the plan would get mired in the city's bureaucracy.
On June 4, in response to inquiries from the conservancy, the city's deputy engineer, Gary Boughton, said he would review the restoration plan in July. In response to a follow-up query from the conservancy, Boughton said he had forwarded the restoration plan to the city's Community Development Department to determine whether an updated environmental review would be required.
On Aug. 6, conservancy staff asked the city for more information -- in particular, when specific restoration projects would take place and when the restoration plan itself would be reviewed by other agencies. On Aug. 22, the city submitted something that was presented to the Eureka City Council at a meeting on July 16: a one-page "proposed project schedule" that says the project will be completed by October of 2003. The schedule, which contains few details, lays out a timeline for "submitting applications" and obtaining permits from outside agencies. But it does not make clear when the restoration plan would be circulated to other agencies for review -- a critical concern to the conservancy since a previous restoration plan for the area, crafted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has fallen seriously out of date.
"We want anything we fund to be the best plan it can be so we look to agencies like Fish and Game for guidance because they have the resource experts," explained McEnespy.
The proposed project schedule is also just plain confusing. It says that an "updated marsh enhancement plan and environmental document" will be completed by July 2002 -- in other words, two months ago. That's left conservancy staffers scratching their heads. "As of this writing," staff says in its report to conservancy officials, "there is no indication whether the city has accomplished this task -- or, indeed, what it has in mind for those documents."
The episode appears to be emblematic of the entire project, and a sign that the city, despite taking $1.5 million from the conservancy, does not consider the project important.
"You don't anticipate a seven-month review time (of the plan from Spencer Engineering) with still no word on what's happening," McEnespy said.
A conservation easement important to the goal of restoring tidal circulation to part of the marsh has never been recorded with the county -- despite the fact that the city agreed to impose such an easement in a legally binding contract with the conservancy.
The conservation easement pertains to a parcel west of the poleshed property called "Restoration Area A." The parcel, which is undeveloped, was not part of the 1985 marshland acquisition and is owned by Bayshore Mall. Nonetheless, given its location in the midst of the marsh, conservancy staff says it must remain undeveloped if the restoration work is to be successful -- hence the need for a conservation easement.
"The easement must, among other things, be adequate to allow enhancement, restoration, maintenance and monitoring," conservancy staff says in the project update.
According to the update, Brent Siemer, the city's engineer and public works director, informed the conservancy in April "that only a separately required access easement has been recorded [in 1994 that was] in favor of the mall."
On July 3 conservancy staff sent a written request that the city draft for its review a conservation easement for Restoration Area A. The city has not responded.
McEnespy refused to speculate about why the conservation easement has not been recorded. Ambrose with EPIC suspects that the city is afraid a conservation easement in that location would interfere with its Waterfront Drive Extension Project, which is supposed to run south of the mall and hook up to Highway 101 via Truesdale Street. (See story below, "Incompatible projects")
The city has never come forward with a serious proposal for developing 15 acres of marshland that was part of the 1985 acquisition. Yet the city does not want to see the land protected and put off-limits to development.
"Parcel 4," as it is called, comprises 15 acres of wetlands and drylands squeezed in between Bayshore Mall and Humboldt Bay.
Under the terms of the 1985 deal, the city had 10 years to come forward with a proposal to develop that land. If such a proposal was not forthcoming, the conservancy could at any time after 1995 impose an "open space easement" that would permanently protect the land from development.
In an Aug. 22 letter to the conservancy, City Manager David Tyson reiterated the city's desire to develop the area. He said that the city is looking at "two primary project proposals: development of an aquaculture/industrial park facility and a marine terminal facility." He said that part of the reason the parcel has never been developed is "the absence of an operating rail transportation system in our region."
McEnespy said the conservancy is sympathetic to the city's wishes regarding Parcel 4 in part because it's zoned for industrial use. But, as the staff's project update notes, the city has never submitted concrete development plans despite several requests from the conservancy.
The city has also not addressed the question, according to the update, of whether such plans would conflict with the fact that the city was allowed to destroy wetlands as part of the Eureka Waterfront Boardwalk project in exchange for leaving Parcel 4 alone.
Tyson speaks of the possibility of having Parcel 4 serve as a "mitigation bank" (a place to leave undeveloped so that development can take place elsewhere). But he suggests that the conservancy consider removing its right to impose an open space easement on Parcel 4 to "another piece of city property."
Conservancy staff said it "would consider any viable proposal the city submits, but none has yet been submitted."
A different vision
The folks who want to see the Eureka marsh become a wildlife preserve and visitor destination on par with Arcata's believe that city officials simply don't get it.
"It's a quality of life thing, it's about what makes a city livable," said Dennis Cahill, a biology teacher at Eureka High. [photo at right] Standing out in the marsh with Humboldt Bay behind him, Cahill said bluntly "the city of Eureka views the marsh as a problem and not an asset. That's the problem."
Christine Ambrose agreed, adding that the preoccupation of city officials with port development and the Waterfront Drive extension project (the road would cut right through the marsh) is blinding them to the importance of restoring Eureka marsh.
"The idea that Humboldt Bay can compete with San Francisco Bay as a port is illusory. We'll end up with a bunch of brownfields, a deserted, polluted area.
"We need an alternate vision," she continued, "one that's more environmentally sustainable. This could be a nature research study area."
The city's view
by GEOFF S. FEIN
CITY MANAGER DAVID TYSON [photo at left] acknowledges the importance of wrapping up the PALCO Marsh Restoration Project, as the city calls it. But he pointed out that the public works staff (between five and 10 people) responsible for the project have a lot of projects on their table.
"Staff are working on this project to move it forward," he said. "As well as the other 100-plus projects they are working on."
To date the city has spent $1.1 million of the $1.5 million given to it by the California Coastal Conservancy to acquire and restore the PALCO marsh and surrounding lands. The entire marsh area north and west of Bayshore Mall is also known as the Eureka marsh.
According to one Eureka City Council member, the project has taken far too long. But city officials claim it wasn't a matter of the city dragging its feet, but a series of circumstances that led to the delays: contaminated soil, discovered early on, stretched out the time-line; the Eureka Southern Railroad going broke added a few more years to the project; changes in the Coastal Conservancy's project manager delayed things even further; and then a new project design, which entailed refiling permits, added to the delay.
The biggest delay was produced by the contamination, which took eight years -- from 1991 to 1999 -- to be cleaned up, Deputy Engineer Gary Boughton said.
"It took a long time to get clearance for the contamination clean-up," Boughton said. "Contracts with the regulatory agencies took a number of years."
The finding of contamination led to the project being split up into two phases. That produced a whole new set of bureaucratic delays.
By April 1999, after the cleanup was done, the city was set to proceed with Phase 2 of the project, essentially finishing up the restoration work. But city officials realized that much had changed since the initial restoration work and that major revisions to the restoration plan were needed. Additionally, new specifications and cost estimates had to be drafted.
To keep the plans moving, the city began working with the Redwood Community Action Agency, a local nonprofit agency that had been involved in monitoring the effectiveness of the restoration work that was done in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The idea was that it should be involved in the new restoration effort that was in the works.
But, according to city documents, attempts in the summer of 1999 to get the conservancy's approval to hire the RCAA proved futile. It wasn't until September 2000 that the city was finally able to get a response from the conservancy.
By then the city backed off of its construction plans because of the looming winter.
Part of the problem was that there was apparently a period of time when no one at the conservancy was responsible for the project. An earlier project manager had left and was not replaced until January 2001.
In July 2001, city officials and the conservancy took various state and federal officials on a tour of the site. That led Fish and Game staff to ask for a redesign of a major feature of the restoration effort: construction of a freshwater pond. That produced a further delay, as the redesign would require new permits from both the California Coastal Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Chris Kerrigan, Eureka city councilman [photo at right], acknowledges the process to restore the marsh has taken too long. But he said the project will be completed.
"This council affirmed its commitment to getting the improvements done," he said, referring to the action taken in July approving a timeline that says the project will be completed by October 2003. n
For more than 30 years, Eureka city officials have known that something would eventually need to be done about traffic on Highway 101. Numerous plans have been considered. But because of the enormous cost of building a bypass around the city -- as high as $300 million -- and certain opposition from neighborhoods to alternative routes within city limits, officials have been left with few options.
The current choice, approved recently by the council, is a proposal to extend at a cost of $6 million Waterfront Drive from Del Norte Street south to Truesdale Avenue. One problem with the route is that it would run right through the middle of 113 acres chunk of marshland slated for restoration under a $1.5 million agreement between the city and the California Coastal Conservancy.
The road would be built alongside -- perhaps on top of -- already existing railroad tracks that are located inside a right-of-way owned by the North Coast Railroad Authority. As a result, an open space easement held by the conservancy on the land slated for restoration does not apply. Legally speaking, in other words, there's nothing stopping the city from putting a road in there.
Nonetheless, those who see the marsh as a potential nature preserve equal to the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary say the road and marsh restoration projects are incompatible.
"The road would cut the wetlands off from the bay," said Christine Ambrose of the Environmental Protection Information Center. "It would negatively impact its ability to function as a wildlife refuge."
Added Diane Beck of the local chapter of the Sierra Club: "The road would destroy the whole idea of the marsh being connected to the bay." [photo at right]
Karen Kovacs, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, said that because the railroad tracks are built on fill, no wetlands would be destroyed by routing the road through the marsh area. She said, however, that noise generated by the road would degrade the natural qualities of the area.
She also said that wildlife would be directly impacted -- through road kill of small mammals, by blocking passage between the marshlands east and west of the road and by birds flying directly into the windshields of cars. "Rails don't fly high," she said, referring to one bird species, "and a lot of shore birds tend to fly out and away [rather than up] when disturbed. There will clearly be opportunities for birds to be directly impacted."
According to Brent Siemer, city public works director, the two-lane, 40-foot wide road would be designed to prevent effects to the marsh. For example, a "bioremediation swale" -- a ditch to handle and control roadway runoff -- would be built alongside the road, he said.
Earlier this year, the city received $250,000 in state transportation funds to do a project design and an environmental impact review for the Waterfront Drive extension. The EIR will detail impacts to the marsh, potential ways to resolve those impacts, and numerous alternatives to the new road. That process is expected to take 18 months.
Opponents of the Waterfront Drive project asked the city not to proceed with the EIR. But without the document, the effects on the marsh cannot be known.
"Until we look at the environmental picture, we won't know the impacts," said Chris Kerrigan, a city councilmember.
But before anyone accuses Kerrigan of changing his environmental views, he does have serious doubts about a road through the wetlands.
"I've got concerns with putting a 50 m.p.h. truck route through there," he said. "The city should protect and preserve open space."
-- Geoff S. Fein and Keith Easthouse
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