If you were too busy enjoying the great outdoors to read about the great outdoors, we understand. Here’s a summary of this week’s cover story, “Shot Up and Shut Down.”
In the final week of February, Joseph Alexandre, a farmer at Alexandre EcoDairy Farms in Ferndale, pushed a set of concrete K-rails into the parking lot next to Fernbridge and welded them together, blocking access to the river bar below the bridge. The lot, which is partially owned by the Alexandres, has been the point of entry for many people who like to hike, picnic, off-road, target shoot, and – sadly – dump their garbage on the river bar. The Alexandre family says there has been little recognition that the public river bar is next to their private property, and stray bullets are endangering the lives of their employees and dairy cows. Here are five things we learned while researching this story.
1. The Eel River is amazing. The third-largest water system in California, and formerly the third-largest salmon spawning ground in the state, this mighty river is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species. It’s also a traditional recreation spot for locals, and its banks have been the scene of many a rowdy teenage party.
2. Land ownership along waterways is complicated. Navigable rivers – rivers you can float down in a canoe – are basically treated like roadways. In the very first act of Congress, they were decreed public land. What that means is that the river itself, and the river bed, should be accessible to the public. But private property owners have rights too, and the lower Eel River is abutted on most sides by private property owners, mostly dairy farmers. While the public has the right to access public land, people don’t necessarily have the right to access it through private property. And that, says Blake Alexandre, Alexandre EcoDairy Farms' owner, is exactly what they were doing, by driving through the parking lot where the Alexandres own a parcel.
3. The Alexandre family has gotten some blowback for its decision to block access… Lost Coast 4x4s, a local off-roading club, expressed dismay that they would no longer be able to drive their vehicles beneath Fernbridge. The club's president, Carl Brandt, sees the blockage as the latest example of diminishing public access to the region’s wild places. The 4x4 club does have access to the Eel further upstream, just off Grizzly Bluff Road, where a county right of way leads to a public beach (also next to private land) that locals call "the Track."
4. …but Blake Alexandre says most people are happy with the decision. Target shooters, the source of most of the concern by local farmers, have been firing toward private land. Livestock have been shot, and others harmed when panicked by the sound of exploding targets. And some off-roaders have been driving on private land, even going through gates to drive through farmers’ fields. Many shooters and drivers are responsible recreationists (Lost Coast 4x4s hosts a yearly cleanup) but it appears as though enough are badly behaved as to force the farmer’s hand. Neighbors have been attending Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meetings to complain about the noise and danger, and Alexandre says many have thanked him for his action.
5. The jury is out on how much the barriers are actually going to help. While the barriers have effectively stopped people from driving below Fernbridge, nothing is stopping target shooters from just hopping over, rifles in hand. Problems continue at the Eel; on one night in late March the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office received more than 60 calls about explosives being detonated near "the Track." The K-rails may slow illegal dumping below Fernbridge, however, which was popular spot for people to leave (and shoot) household garbage. One volunteer group, PacOut Green Team, removed more than five tons of garbage in 2015. Neither the HCSO nor the Department of Fish and Wildlife seem to have enough resources to properly address bad behavior in the area. For the time being, creative measures such as K-rails might be the most expedient way to address shooting, driving and dumping on the scenic Eel.