by Jim Hight

Darrell and Kathy Harnden opened their mailbox one day recently and found something horrifying.

It was a Draft Environmental Assessment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and on page 17 was a map. The Harndens recognized their 360-acre dairy farm outlined in thin red parcel lines. But surrounding their farm and home, indeed their entire agricultural neighborhood in the Arcata Bottoms, was a heavy black line showing where the government wanted to establish a new wildlife refuge.

The Harnden's fears didn't ease when they saw sentences like "ownership would be changed from private agricultural use to Federal ownership"; "Pastures consist of many introduced grasses"; and "Wetlands were historically tidal salt marshes."

Even if they weren't forced to sell, as the service promised in the same text, they worried that if just one neighbor's property became part of the refuge, the service - in its desire for more salt marsh habitat - would not maintain its dikes, and the Mad River Slough would eventually flood adjoining farms with saltwater.

Some of the Harnden's neighbors had the same concerns, so they began organizing. They made a strong showing at a hearing the service held in February, and they may succeed in blocking what once looked like a slam dunk: the incorporation of the Lanphere-Christiansen Dune Preserve into the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The whole idea came up because the Nature Conservancy, which owns the dunes preserve, is seeking to divest itself of the property. The Conservancy asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to take it over.

The Harndens and their neighbors say they liked that original concept. "We all agree with the fact that the Nature Conservancy property should be protected," said Darrell. "It's a unique resource."

But their attitude hardened when they saw the service's Alternative D, which threatened to take their dairy and beef ranches into the unwelcome embrace of government. Even after being assured that the service "prefers" Alternative B, a much smaller expansion of the preserve involving no agricultural land, they're still opposed to the service taking over the preserve.

"Alternative B is the one they prefer, but none (of the other alternatives) have been rejected," said Linda Kuiper of Kuiper Mariculture, an oyster-growing business that owns property and operates near the existing dune preserve. "If it's on paper, it's there ... still a possibility."

"We think (Alternative B) is just a staging area for Plan D," said Darrell Harnden. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I don't believe, has historically ever gotten smaller. It always gets larger."

Kevin Foerster, refuge manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said he met with some of the landowners recently in Rep. Frank Riggs' Eureka office. And in an interview with the Journal, he offered responses that included an apology of sorts and an inside look at how federal environmental laws made the refuge planning process seem particularly unfriendly to nearby landowners in this case.

"The National Environmental Policy Act process (mandates) that we look at a range of alternatives," said Foerster. "Alternative D came about because at the scoping meeting we had last May, several people made written and verbal comments that we should expand our study area and look at Mad River Slough and agricultural lands (to the east).

"People recognize now that D is not the best alternative. You're talking about people's ranches, houses, barns."

The service's preferred Alternative B would add about 330 acres of dunes to the existing preserve. And in none of their proposed alternatives were the preserve's boundaries left the same. The opposing landowners see this as evidence the service is intent upon expanding its land base. "Why not just accept the gift?" asked Kuiper.

"The existing preserve is three separate units," responded Foerster. "We didn't view that as being a real manageable unit. We'd be managing for endangered plants that are being affected by exotic plants like beach grass and lupus. (Without some expansion) the seed source for those would still be coming from off the refuge."

Foerster said he regrets not communicating with the landowners whose property was included in Alternative D before they saw the proposal in the draft plan. "In hindsight ... after expanding and adding Alternative D, I wish we would have gone back out and done another scoping meeting as a way of doing outreach to people."

Perhaps a less formal approach would still work. "They should admit their mistake ... and go out for coffee (with the landowners) to talk it over," suggested Ted Kuiper or Kuiper Mariculture.

Barring any final meeting of minds over coffee, the landowners will oppose the proposed wildlife refuge. Their comments and others will be accepted by the Fish and Wildlife Service until March 31. To comment, write to: John Esperance, USFWS, 911 NE 11th Ave., Portland, Ore., 97232-4181; or call 503-231-2231.


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