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Save the Trees! 

A plan to build a water tank in Rohner Park Forest has awakened the Friendly City’s inner treehugger

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Save the Trees!
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Save the Trees!

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Engineering consultants to the City of Fortuna have recommended that a new, 2-million-gallon water tank be built in the city’s Rohner Park Forest. It would mean cutting at least 69 trees — many of them towering, 100-year-old second-growth redwoods and firs — and 18 gigantic old-growth stumps that have become raised islands of hoary forest themselves over the years, populated with leather ferns and huckleberry.

The consultants say building on the forest site is the cheapest, most practical option for replacing two old storage tanks on Stewart Street — which serve an area including downtown — one of which is 102 years old and has been leaking for at least a quarter century.

The proposed new tank is just one of many much-needed improvements to the town’s aging, leaky water system. And nobody disagrees that the water system needs improving. But a surprising outcry from Fortuna’s residents — a hundred of whom packed a workshop on the project in May, and 800-plus more of whom (including some visitors) have signed a petition to keep the tank out of the park — has made the city pause to consider alternatives to the forest site. Now, the city’s staff, and ultimately its council, will be forced to weigh the value of cost-savings — always a point of pride in frugal Fortuna — against something less tangible: the intrinsic biological and, yes, emotional value of live, standing trees and historic, life-giving stumps.

Right away you might think you sniff an irony here. Fortuna, mill town. Fortuna, rodeo town. Dairy town. Resource-appreciation town, and hardly the land of the earth-muffin treesitter. Ah, how little you know of the Friendly City.

First of all, how many of you even knew that Fortuna has a community forest, similar to Eureka’s Sequoia Park Forest and Arcata’s Community Forest? That it has marked hiking trails, and broad dirt roads now closed to automobiles except those driven by city staff? That, as in those other community forests, people used to be able to drive right on into the woods to set up camp or spread out the picnic blanket? That there used to be a Boy Scout camp up in there? That in the spring the leafy floor of the Rohner Park Forest is alight with the three-petal faces of Trillium flowers — white in their youth, deep pink in old age? Of course, many Fortunans know these things.

The redwood sorrel is in bloom now, pink flowers staring up through the green mingling of poison oak and ferns, beneath the shading canopies of dark-trunked grand firs, Douglas firs and redwoods. The blue-bead lilies, too, are profuse — later this summer, their spiky red flowers will have become topknot clusters of gumball-blue berries, wondrously fake looking. And everywhere you look there’s a sprig of inside-out flower, tiny inverted white blooms provoking a re-examination of accepted truth.

And so it is with Fortuna. Lo-and-no-kidding, people here love their trees — but not just in the lucrative horizontal. That isn’t to say their love will save the Rohner Park Forest trees. In the end, Fortuna’s practical nature may very well choose to side with a money-based decision on that water tank. But not without a fierce re-examination of Fortuna values.

For 48 years Marian Perry has lived in a neighborhood halfway up a hill in Fortuna that blends into Rohner Park Forest. She and her partner, Mary, have walked the forest’s trails almost daily, until recent years. When Perry, a retired College of the Redwoods physical education professor, learned about the proposal to cut trees and build a water tank in her park, she raised a stink. Neil Palmer, the pharmacy manager at Redwood Memorial Hospital, joined the cause. Together they raised a wave of dissension. Palmer put a big sign on the back of his truck that spread the alarm, and he and Perry wrote guest columns and letters to the editor in several newspapers.

On a recent afternoon, I met Palmer and Perry at Perry’s house on the hill and we drove a short stretch to the Baptist Church further up the hill and parked. In the past, Perry would’ve walked from home. But two years ago, during heart surgery, doctors nicked a nerve and her left foot became frozen in plantar flexion. That made it hard to recover from the surgery, says the small, fit 81-year-old, because she couldn’t walk. Now she can walk, albeit a bit slowly and, perhaps, unfashionably: Perry, who taught legions of young adults in her day the rudiments of backpacking, was wearing a cushiony white athletic shoe on the injured foot, and a black shoe on the right. Her silver, close-cropped hair seemed functional, too. And she wore a simple plaid shirt over her pants.

Perry led the way around to the side of the church, cut through an opening between it and a fence, and entered the woods. It was a muggy day, hot sunshine pulsing through the reddish haze of wildfire smoke wafted over from the mountains. Inside the woods the air was several degrees cooler. And yet for a redwood forest it seemed dry. And there were mosquitoes. That’s because it’s an upland redwood forest, said Palmer, a little drier than forests closer to the coastal zone.

Palmer, 56 and with a fluffy white beard, also walked a little gimpy on the left side — his sciatic nerve was acting up. Dressed in jeans, a green Friends of the Eel River cap, hiking shoes and carrying a long stick mudcaked on the bottom, he kept moving because it hurt to stand still. Palmer is a Fortuna boy, born and bred. “I’ve been walking in here all my life,” he said.

Palmer and Perry headed along trails toward the site on high ground where the city’s consultants propose building the new water tank. A hermit thrush trilled somewhere in the canopy. Farther off, you could hear the hum of traffic — the park’s not far from downtown. From a little closer in came the shrieks of kids playing in the park’s flat, developed area. Rohner Park is fairly small, 55 acres with only about 30 or so of those wooded, said Palmer, while the large flats down below are covered in recreational delights: softball fields, roller rink, playground, picnic tables, BBQ pit, horseshoe pits, rodeo arena, pistol club, museum and more — perhaps the heart of Fortuna’s playful side. Up here in the trees, peace and contemplation reside. The trails were flanked by the delicate three-leafed stems of poison oak, deceptively pretty. Perry pointed out the other denizens: “These are the redwood violet,” she said. “And this is Oxalis, still in bloom.”

Here was the inside-out flower. There, Clintonia— the blue-bead lily. Here, the heart-shaped leaves of the smooth yellow violet. Wild parsley. English daisies. Fairybells. “The park is just alive with wildflowers,” said Perry.

Back in May, after Perry had heard about the city’s proposal for the new water tank and just before a big workshop was held on it, she and Palmer invited Prof. Steve Sillett to hike with them in the Rohner Park Forest. Sillett’s the Kenneth L. Fisher Chair in Redwood Forest Ecology at Humboldt State University, and he’s become famous for his studies of the redwood canopy. Richard Preston’s book, The Wild Trees, published in 2007, profiles his work. Sillett obliged, and in the evening after their walk he returned to his computer and e-mailed Perry and Palmer a thank-you note that included his assessment of what he’d just seen. He was impressed. He noted the rich understory and called the stand of redwoods where the tank would be built “among the finest second-growth redwood forests” he’s seen.

“This forest type is actually quite rare these days in Humboldt County, as nearly all of the redwood forests logged prior to the 1930s have been logged again,” Sillett wrote. “Today, mature second-growth redwood forests are far more scarce than even old-growth redwood forests. I estimate there are fewer than a few hundred acres of such forest left in all of Humboldt County.” He added it would be unwise to remove even half an acre — roughly the footprint of the proposed tank — of the forest. And, he noted the presence of the looming and broad-trunked Monterey pine just above the proposed tank site. “If the water tank project goes through as planned,” he wrote, “I urge the city of Fortuna to provide special protection for that magnificent pine, which is the tallest and most stately of its species I have seen in Humboldt County.”

The trail led through an almost meadow-like section spiked with clumps of tall sedge — high water table, said Perry. A varied thrush played its three-note set. Then, more cushiony silence. The park is named for the Rohner family — Henry Rohner built the first house and, later, first water system in what’s now called Fortuna. The Rohners held this land when it was old growth. Logged it. Then, in 1907, after Henry died, his wife, Mary Rohner, sold 20 acres to the city for $1,000 — putting up the first $500 herself, said Palmer. In 1921, the Rohner family sold 19.15 acres more to the city, for a token $10. In 1938, the family sold 13.52 acres more to the city, for $1. And in 1940, the family sold two more acres to the city, for $10. It’s been a city park ever since. Palmer said a past city manager, about six or so years ago, wanted to

do some thinning in the forest — residents protested, and the project was toned down.

So, actually, fighting to save trees — at least in this beloved city park — isn’t exactly a new thing in Fortuna. But it can bring out the ideological extremes the city of nearly 12,000embraces within its hills.

Toward the top of the hill, we entered the zone of doom: giant moss-covered stumps and tall, fat trees marked with fluorescent pink dots. Here and there a stake driven into the duff, a-flutter with a pink flag. Several trails converged here. We walked on, coming to a clearing with more stumps and trees. Here was a fenceline, and open sky beyond where cleared, private property began. A fire hydrant sat incongruously on the park side of the fence — there’s a water main connection here, actually, to the nearby Hilltop Reservoir. There was a bench in front of a particularly massive, furry stump. And, by the fence, a big white sign with handpainted red-black letters: “Water Tank in the Park Information. Please take flier. Follow map to site. Tell your friends. Sign petition.” A plastic folder holding petition sheets hung on it. Perry and Palmer collect the filled sheets regularly and put in fresh ones. So far, Perry said, more than 800 people have signed the petition, either here in the woods or at some function. Everybody and their dog: On a wood platform next to the sign, someone wrote, “Dog say stick your tank somewhere else. Woof Woof!”

“There’s going to be a cyclone fence with razor wire around it — Homeland Security,” said Palmer. “You’ll see a tank 32 feet high and 110 feet in diameter. And you’ll see a big sun hole. The canopy will be gone.”

This forest isn’t pristine. Well-worn paths meet in well-worn clearings amid the stumps and trees. On the trail a bicyclist had ridden past us then casually rolled off into the soft vegetation — he’d been there before, apparently, because a new outlaw trail could be seen emerging. And everywhere the banks of the trails and roads were scraped into widening scars of barren dirt by cyclists tricking their wheels up onto the once leafy berms; Perry said she’d notice an increase in such destruction in the past few years. Nevertheless, surrounding these zones of overplayed ground was lush forest understory: jungly clumps of red and evergreen huckleberry, five-finger fern and sword fern, wax myrtle trees. The Cascara tree with its shiny green leaves — “One could use it as a laxative,” said Perry. Hedge nettle, with its tiny pink flowers.

A horse clopped on the road farther down the h ill. “Maybe it’s one of our businessmen in town,” said Perry.

Palmer knew who she meant. “He’s against the tank,” he said. Then he added, “People have a multigenerational memory of this forest. Some remember camping in it as Boy Scouts. I think we have a lot of people who might be, well, the Republican conservative type, who are against the tank in the park here because it has value to them.”

They turned back. But instead of running into a horse on the road, they were passed by several city trucks headed up the road, one with a small redwood tree in the back and a bucket of sloshing water.

“If you cut up that steep trail, you can catch up to them,” said Perry. She’d stay on the road. Palmer and I took the short cut, doubling back.

John Crotty, the director of Fortuna’s parks and recreation department, stood in the undergrowth a few yards off the dirt road. Next to him was Dennis Wendt — local developer, known to do things the way he wants to do things, even if it does get Fish and Game all bent sometimes. Behind them a frail-looking young redwood poked up from freshly turned earth. Palmer, on the road, leaned on his stick and asked what was up. Crotty said they’d planted a tree a friend gave him — it might not make it, though, he said, because fall’s the time for planting, not summer. Wendt said he’d been down at Crotty’s office, in the park, talking, and he’d wanted to check out the place where the tank might go.

Palmer started the argument:

“You realize,” he said to Wendt, “ you’d be looking at a 32-foot high water tank here?”

“I’m on the other side,” said Wendt, rising to the occasion. “I don’t see it as a problem. The tank’s gotta go somewhere, and they’d have to buy land otherwise, which is expensive.”

They argued like two men who’ve argued many times before — passionately and, one might say, joyfully, confident in their roles.

“But Dennis,” said Palmer, “you’re a developer. What is the value of that property — with 100-year-old redwoods. Don’t you see some value and uniqueness in this forest?”

“I need to see multiple uses here,” Wendt said. “I’m interested in a skateboard park, the kids need a place to skate. But there’s probably not enough land to do that.”

“I guess we need more parkland, than less,” Palmer said, triumphantly.

“Well, we need it to be useful to more people, not just a few,” Wendt countered. And, the city could use more water for fire protection, he added.

Palmer said that the city already had a 5 million gallon tank on Vancil Street largely devoted to emergency usage. And, the city could put the new tank on the Stewart Street site — demolish the old ones, drain the ground to stabilize it, and put the new tank there.

“Well,” said Wendt, planting his hands on his hips, “I’m not a geotechnical engineer — and neither are you.”

Crotty stayed silent, hands in his pockets. The clouds built and the forest darkened; they turned to other park battles: why there are locks on the ballfields (vandalism), dog walkers (where could they go?), the cross on the edge of the park that somebody got all hot about some years back.

“So they moved it 20 feet, onto private land,” scoffed Wendt.

“Well, it’s against the Constitution...” began Palmer.

“Well, that’s getting pretty petty to me,” said Wendt. “I’m just saying, what did it accomplish? It’s on private property now, and they can piss up a rope as far as I can tell.”

Duane Rigge is an engineer, trained at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He’s a large man with a genial face, and on a hot, smoky day this summer, when he invited a visitor back to his office deep inside City Hall on 11th Street to talk about the water tank controversy, he was a little worried about the frigid air wafting from a big fan on a table. “It’s how I’m comfortable,” he apologized.

Rigge is enthusiastic about water systems. After a soliloquy on elevations and pump stations and how to get water from here to there, he started coughing and reached for a hard candy from a big glass jar. He said when he became Fortuna’s city manager, in 2002, it was already old news that the Stewart Street tanks, which hold 500,000 gallons each, needed attention — the city was biding its time until it had money. A 2005 study suggested scrapping the oldest one and enlarging the other.

“My concern was, were we putting good money after bad?” Rigge said.

An April 2007 report by Oscar Larson & Associates, of Eureka, recommended abandoning the Stewart Street tanks and building a new, bigger tank in the Rohner Park Forest — it would meet the daily demand of the zone it served, which is expected to fill in with more people, and provide extra fire storage. The site had advantages: It was at the same elevation as the Stewart Street site. It was accessible. The city owned it. It already had a connection to the distribution line.

Rigge said his staff and the consultants will, of course, consider other options. But in the end it will come down to money. And the Rohner Park Forest site seems the most favorable option from an engineer’s perspective. Another site, on Vancil street, is very steep, he said. Stewart Street’s site might not be big enough. And, there are the ratepayers to please. Three years ago the city began a five-year ramp-up in water and sewer rates to fund system improvements and pay back a related $20 million loan. Everyone’s felt the sticker shock. “I normally pay $140 to $160 a month in the summer, and $80 in the winter,” Rigge said. “Before, I paid $75 in the summer and $35 in the winter.”

Some residents, however, have questioned the need for doubling the capacity with the new tank. Is it to fuel growth? No, said Rigge. It’s meant to meet the city’s current footprint, which includes a projected build-out population gain of up to 6,000 new residents over the next 20 years. “We’re at 85 percent build-out now,” he said, adding that the rest will be infill development. “Already zoned.”

Rigge said the council, not staff, will make any value judgments on the tank site. But he admitted he was surprised by the outcry over the Rohner Park proposal. Who knew so many people loved that forest? Why, the city doesn’t even promote it.

“It’s hidden in plain sight,” Rigge said.

On a late afternoon last week, Rigge and several of his staff met with nine residents of Stewart Street in between the two old tanks. They’d invited him there to explain the water tank situation. Perry and Palmer showed up, too — one resident said afterward she resented their presence.

A woman in a green dress worried aloud that if the city decided to build a new tank here on the old site — across from her house — the construction could disrupt her life enough that she might just have to “pack up and move out for a year.”

Several wondered if a new, bigger tank here would obstruct their views — they’d all been attracted to this quiet street on the top of a hill for its sweeping view of the Eel River Valley. Others asked technical questions.

Afterward, the woman in green lingered in the street to talk with her neighbors Steve Brackenbury and Frank Ramos, who moved here from the Bay Area last year. Despite concerns over construction disruption, they all agreed they’d rather have a new water tank across the street than a bunch of new houses or, dread, a noisy skateboard park. For that matter, the quaint-looking old circular tank was an asset (but not so the leaking rectangular one).

“This is one of the things that drew us here,” said Ramos. “That, and it’s a dead-end street, there’s a view, it’s quiet, and there’s an old-fashioned barn.”

But as for the trees in the park — there they parted ways. The men both said they’d rather see a new tank go here than in the forest. “We moved up here because it’s redwood country,” said Ramos. “Arcata has its park. You don’t pack up and move 250 miles to have what you came here for cut down.”

The men walked a few paces to pet the dog in the woman in green’s yard. The woman, who wouldn’t give her name, scoffed good-naturedly. “It’s Humboldt County for goodness sakes,” she said. “So you have to cut down a couple of trees to provide water for the city — geez, they grow back.”

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