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Rivers, Roads and Rails 

Humboldt County radio listeners were assaulted last week with a series of advertisements so paranoid and goofy that they put one in mind of the failed Maxxam-led recall effort against District Attorney Paul Gallegos five years ago. From these ads, it would seem that a small, sinister cabal of shadowy individuals wants to destroy the Humboldt County way of life forever. Be very, very afraid.

"Imagine any afternoon in Santa Rosa," the voiceover artist intones. "[Highway] 101 becomes a gigantic parking lot. Not a tree in sight -- just fumes, rage, car horns and urban madness. It's getting worse day by day."

And it's coming here, apparently, in the form of the tiny alteration that Caltrans is proposing for a little stretch of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove -- the big trees at the south end of the county. Comments on the draft environmental impact report on the $5 million project were due today, and last week someone with money saw fit to share their paranoia about the project with the rest of the county.

The original ads asked listeners to send money to the Northcoast Environmental Center. It wasn't originally clear that the ads weren't sponsored by the NEC itself, but by a new "group" called Save Richardson Grove that NEC staff decided to take under the wing of the venerable organization, without input from its board. This led to a bit of a kerfuffle within the organization, whose board is split on the issue, and the ads were pulled and re-aired minus NEC references.

But what is the Northcoast Environmental Center doing lending its staff time and nonprofit tax status to a single-issue group walking in off the street, whose message had not been approved by the NEC's board of directors? Georgianna Wood, NEC administrative director, told us that the group's mission was broadly in line with her organization's mission statement: protecting the environment. She reminded us that the NEC had already signed on to a letter to Caltrans that had raised questions about the project's environmental impact. She insisted that the ads in question belonged to "Save Richardson Grove," not the NEC. She told us that the NEC did not expect to charge money for the services provided to the group.

So it's likely not the case that this is a money-laundering ploy to let someone whip up hysteria while the NEC stays vaguely neutral and collects a cut of the profits. Still, it's undeniably grubby. The fact that the ads went out under the NEC's ambit means that we will likely never know who paid for them. That fact was almost certainly high in the minds of whoever funded the "Save Richardson Grove" ads.

We didn't like it when Maxxam or the "Eureka Coalition for Jobs" did this, and we don't like now. Frankly, we expected better of the NEC.

^^^^^

Also on the transpo front: The North Coast Railroad Authority and various hangers-on showed up at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday morning to do some Humboldt County show-and-tell in advance of the authority's regular meeting in Eureka the next day. And it must be said that the presentation, delivered by NCRA board chair Allan Hemphill, was a remarkable one, in that it delivered a vision of railroad rebirth that seemed at least vaguely plausible.

As it now stands, the railroad authority has the line broken up into segments, with a somewhat clear work program defined for the north and south ends. First, it hopes to get trains running from the southern terminus to the Sonoma County town of Windsor by this fall. Next -- as reported elsewhere in this issue -- it's going to go after Obama stimulus funds to extend the line up to Willits. After that it's going to look for $30 million to reopen another section from Avenue of the Giants to Humboldt Bay, giving it two small railroads instead of one large one. The Eel River Canyon -- the remote 75-mile stretch of pain that connects the two -- is off the table completely for the time being, Hemphill said.

As far as the so-called "Humboldt Bay Short Line" goes, though, there are still a huge number of blanks left to fill in, the first of which is that $30 million. The project is a long ways from shovel-ready, and no one knows where the funds will be coming from. The second blank is whether the little Humboldt County shortline can ever make it as anything like a going concern. The assumption, bolstered by the NCRA's own consultants over the years, has always been "no." The current plan is to open it up for passenger excursion service and to haul freight between the Eel River Valley and Humboldt Bay, where it would be shipped in or out by barge. Whether such freight will materialize in quantity when trucks can move it much more quickly and probably more cheaply remains to be seen; the quantity of tourists willing to bore their children with an ol' fashioned choo-choo ride around the bay, likewise, is a bit of a question mark.

But it's at least a step up from bald fantasy. Of course, there are plenty of individuals and organizations who will ignore Hemphill's flat assertion that the Eel River Canyon is off the table, and will continue to act as if the unbroken line of their dreams is still on the horizon. First among them, of course, is the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Conservation and Recreation District, whose plans for a new shipping terminal on the bay are dependent upon the full rail line becoming operational. Will the district's tune change accordingly?

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Hank Sims

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