UPFRONT FEATURE


DEMOCRACY'S CLASSROOM

by Jim Hight



It takes steady blood sugar and a tolerance for environmental controversies to be a Humboldt County supervisor.

On one Tuesday morning in July, the five supervisors were asked to balance the rights of waterfowl and waterskiers at Big Lagoon and to consider whether the county's largest private employer is poisoning people with herbicides.

And that was all before lunch.

The supervisors' meeting room on 5th Street is a forum for people with divergent views on the natural-resource issues that polarize Humboldt County. While the board has no direct control over most of these matters, their vote is often sought to send a message to state and federal agencies. On July 15, they took testimony on two such eco-conflicts.

After the Pledge of Allegiance, a Christian invocation and some routine business, the supervisors settled in to hear about Big Lagoon.

The lagoon has been for decades a popular spot for waterskiing and jet-skiing. But it's also been a state wildlife area since 1992, with a 5 mph speed limit to protect waterfowl.

Since state Fish and Game can't patrol the huge lagoon, people still waterski and jet-ski. But the threat of enforcement hangs over their weekend fun, and they came to ask the supervisors to urge the Fish and Game Commission to increase the 5 mph limit.

"As locals know, Big Lagoon takes care of itself," said Geoff Neely, an adviser to the board on fish and game issues (and brother of board chair Bonnie Neely). Wind and weather limits the days when powercraft can use the lagoon, he said; and waterfowl are thriving even with hunters working the lagoon.

Noting how far away Ruth and Trinity lakes are from most communities, Geoff Neely said Big Lagoon was important to "the working guy who puts in six days a week, then takes his family to get in one day of watersports."

Other speed-limit opponents echoed the "working man" theme. "I work full time, I have kids and I've never been on unemployment," said Jim Davis of McKinleyville. "Where else can we go? Stone Lagoon is shut down and Freshwater Lagoon is so small (that waterskiiers) make the fishermen angry."

Fish and Game official Herb Parrish said Big Lagoon was managed like other wildlife areas. "Hunting, fishing and other forms of use (are allowed) when they won't interfere with the original purpose."

"High-speed watercraft displace these birds," he said. "Continuous or frequent movement causes a fall in energy. When organisms are living on fixed incomes of food sources, the use of energy for unexpected movement may be more than they can afford."

Four others spoke against the speed limit, and judging from applause at least a half-dozen other speed-limit opponents were in the audience. Besides Parrish, only one citizen spoke for retaining the 5 mph limit, to no applause.

Paul Kirk made a motion to "send a clear message in the form of a resolution" to the California Fish and Game Commission urging it to modify the speed limit.

John Woolley objected, saying that the item hadn't been properly publicized and only "one advocacy group" was present. "This is obviously a contentious issue and the public needs to be informed."

But Chair Bonnie Neely said the item "was properly agendized" and noted that the Fish and Game Commission had a late-July deadline for public comment. Woolley spoke up again with a point of order. "No way is it indicated (on the board agenda) that we're going to take a position on this today."

"It notes 'take appropriate action,'" responded Neely, before calling for the vote which went 4-to-1 against Woolley.

After a 15-minute break, the supervisors came back to a room packed with about 60 members of Taxpayers for Headwaters. With 10 speakers and a 20-minute video, TFH mounted a detailed attack on Pacific Lumber Co.'s logging practices since the Maxxam takeover.

"Bear Creek drainage (was) once a gravelly, canopied creek," said Richard Gienger. After intensive logging by PALCO, he said, "the alders are gone, instream structures are gone, there's no deep pools and the stream meanders so much that it will not support salmon or steelhead."

Residents of Elk River and Freshwater basins blamed PALCO for increases in flooding and erosion. "(Elk River) once flooded every 10 to 20 years," said Kristi Wrigley, "not once or twice a year like during the last several years."

The herbicides that PALCO uses after logging to encourage conifer growth were labeled a public health hazard.

"Spraying of atrazine has occurred on Freshwater Creek," said Erica Upton of Freshwater. "Freshwater pool downstream is always filled with kids in the summer."

Jan Kirsch, a cancer specialist from San Francisco, said research shows atrazine is linked to "breast cancer, testicular cancer, childhood leukemia. ..."

But by her third reference to "xenoestrogen," all five supervisors seemed to have a slightly glazed look suggesting data overload.

And she wasn't the last speaker. The promised one-hour presentation stretched to nearly two hours, capped by Willow Creek attorney Tom Petersen's 25-minute litany of Maxxam/PALCO's alleged misdeeds.

The board considered what to do next. Several speakers had asked them for a study session, and Ken Miller requested that they seek state Senate hearings on charges of unsafe logging practices raised against PALCO by a former employee.

But several supervisors noted that any study session would have to include PALCO. Woolley, who said he shared many of the speakers' concerns, volunteered to design a session that would include "all sides."

In a later interview, Dixon said the presentation, along with other data, "raises the question clearly about whether logging practices on steep slopes need to be addressed by (changes in) forest practices rules."

Kirk told the Journal he was impressed by "the thoroughness of the group's information," but not swayed. "It all has to be digested and understood."

The supervisors had hoped for a lunch break after the logging discussion, but a dozen people had come from Southern Humboldt to talk about medical-marijuana. The board took testimony from civil liberties activist Ed Denson, attorney Hannah Nelson and several people who use marijuana to relieve medical symptoms. After the testimony, Rodoni and Woolley volunteered to recommend a committee to study the issue.

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