February 1, 2001
An energy crunch, lagging demand for forest products and a weakening of the tourist trade are beginning to put the brakes on Humboldt County's economy.
Numbers from the December Index of Economic Indicators, released this week by Humboldt State University Professor Steve Hackett and student Debbie Keeth, show that the North Coast is experiencing its most profound slowdown for more than a year. The Index, which is adjusted for the effects of seasons on Humboldt's sometimes volatile economy, dropped 2.6 percent.
"It seems to be pretty broad-based," Hackett said of the dip in economic activity. There were setbacks in almost every sector the Index measures.
Retail sales dropped 7 percent, making the 2000 holiday shopping season an extremely weak one.
National retailers JC Penney and Montgomery Ward both folded their tents in Eureka during January.
"Ward's has been on the ropes for some time now," Hackett said, and is closing all stores nationwide. Penney's is closing all 50 outlet stores nationwide.
Manufacturing, which in Humboldt County is still mostly comprised of the forest product industry, is plumbing new depths as a drop in demand for forest products and a spike in energy costs make business unprofitable. December was the third consecutive month that the sector saw significant declines, producing 12.8 percent less than in December 1999. It is currently at its lowest level since January 1995.
The slowdown is beginning to have serious consequences for Humboldt County. Louisiana-Pacific Corp. announced Jan. 25 that it will be laying off 180 workers from its Samoa pulp mill. Management cited rising costs for natural gas and plummeting prices for wood pulp as reasons and were unsure what would happen after the plant is taken over by LaPointe Partners Inc. The Midwestern firm agreed to buy the plant in November.
The pulp mill's layoffs and the retail closures are too recent to be included in December's Index, which shows a drop in unemployment. December's jobless rate was 5.2 percent, down half a percentage point from November.
Even tourism, often cited as a sector that has grown as timber operations have lessened, provided a lackluster performance -- the sector decreased 3.1 percent over 1999.
"The old argument about economic diversification is that sectors will offset each other -- as one goes down another will go up to compensate," Hackett said. The fact that all sectors are experiencing a decline is indicative of a widespread economic downturn, he said.
"Usually, that's a good indication that something's going on in the national economy."
St. Joseph Health System announced this week that 23 health care workers are being laid off from its home health agency staff of 104.
St. Joseph spokesperson Laurie Watson Stone said the layoffs are part of a reorganization effort which is the result of "ongoing significant changes" in the home health care industry, most notably the federal Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Reimbursements for home health care fell $8.8 billion -- or 52 percent -- between 1997 and 1999, and the number of visits per patient declined 43 percent in the same period.
Watson confirmed that the number of patients served by the agency has remained steady at 1,800 per year, but "due to improved efficiency in the clinical visits, the overall number of visits has decreased."
The home health agency, which provides home health, pediatrics, HIV case management, in-home and senior care services, employed 155 as recently as July 1999.
Affected employees are being offered opportunities to fill vacancies at St. Joseph, Redwood Memorial and General hospitals, all owned by St. Joseph Health System, as they become available and training to move from home health to acute care.
St. Joseph officials continue to review and plan for consolidation of services and departments following the buyout last year of its chief competitor, General Hospital. Most recently physician services at the two emergency rooms have been combined into one group.
"There was a rumor about closing the emergency room (at General) that started because of the physician consolidation," Watson said. The closure decision and date have not been set because the hospital staff is still "doing planning and analysis." No decision has been made," Watson added.
"It's part of the planning that is ongoing, what should be combined," she said. "But that's all part of the second phase."
Eel River advocates and Sonoma County developers, on tenterhooks for months over proposed decreases in the amount of water diverted from the Eel to the Russian River, will have to wait a little longer -- one federal agency isn't quite done deciding yet.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is required to provide a document called a biological opinion to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that controls the river diversion.
That document gives FERC license to "incidentally take" -- or kill -- protected species, in this case salmon and steelhead, if the project is deemed to be acceptable in an overall sense. NMFS has released a draft opinion in which it criticized the FERC proposal for not leaving enough water in the Eel to protect fisheries.
The agency was widely expected to release a final opinion by Jan. 23, but instead asked for an extension of the deadline for the opinion so it can review new evidence presented by the California Department of Fish and Game.
"They made technical comments on the draft decision and we want to make sure our technical basis is as strong as possible," said Rod McGuiness, deputy regional administrator for NMFS. "It's not really a matter of reviewing our decision."
Nadananda, executive director of the Friends of the Eel, said she hoped NMFS would stand by its position that the FERC proposal was not sufficient for Eel River fish. If NMFS doesn't give FERC permission for incidental take, Nadananda's organization will probably sue, she said.
"We will sue FERC if they are not complying with the law -- so we'll probably end up suing them," Nadananda said.
Another important environmental decision was postponed this week as the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board put off its hearing on Pacific Lumber Co. harvest practices in Humboldt County.
NCRWQCB staff allege that Pacific Lumber's timber operations on five Humboldt County watersheds have negatively affected the "beneficial uses" of the streams flowing through them. Pacific Lumber is supplying drinking water to residents of some watersheds who had previously been able to use adjacent streams because the streams have become filled with silt (See Nov. 16, 2000).
The hearing had been scheduled for last September and has been postponed several times. Board members cite scheduling conflicts and a need to study new data as causing the delay. A new date has not been set.
When it comes to softball, Lisa Fernandez is pure gold. Fernandez, possibly the world's best softball pitcher, led teams to gold medals at the 1998 World Championships, 1999 Pan American Games, and 1996 and 2000 Olympic games.
Fernandez, who will speak at Eureka High School for National Girls and Women in Sports Day Feb. 3, said in a telephone interview from Arizona that she was a lucky child.
"I was fortunate enough to get involved in fastpitch [softball] at an early age." She said she credits that involvement with having taught her valuable life skills.
"How to communicate with others, work with a team and shoot for goals -- these are all important skills you learn through sports that you can't learn any other way."
The statistics back her up. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, female athletes are less likely to experience teen pregnancy, depression or low self esteem and are more likely to graduate from high school. That adds up to success: 80 percent of female executives at Fortune 500 companies played sports when they were young.
Fernandez said even though she had the chance to play, female athletes faced serious obstacles when she was young. In junior high she had to play with boys because female team sports weren't available, and the field conditions were always worse for female sports. These days, she said, "It has gotten better, but it is definitely not equal."
Pat Cowan, promotions chair of the committee organizing Fernandez's visit, said the status of women's sports in Humboldt County isn't all it could be, but it is improving.
"There's still some things left to do," she said, like making sure that women have the same access to equipment and get the chance to play games Friday night, when more people can attend.
The changes start in your own mind, she said. "As a mother of a female athlete I had no idea how I was not supporting her. It just occurred because of my own lack of awareness. I did not recognize that as a female athlete she was entitled to Friday night games."
Fernandez hopes she can make people aware of those attitudes and help women and girls to speak up, because the female athletes of today will be among the leaders of tomorrow.
Memorial services were held Tuesday for former Eureka Councilmember Jim Gupton, 59, who died last week following a massive heart attack.
Gupton was a Eureka native and graduate of Eureka High School and Chico State College. He worked most of his life in the grocery business including positions in the Bay Area with Safeway and Purity stores. He returned in 1979 to Eureka to work for a produce supply business, which he purchased in 1987 and renamed Six Rivers Produce. More recently he was employed as produce marketer for Murphy's Markets.
Gupton appeared on television and radio stations with his produce show, "The Fresh Guy," and had a column by that name in the Eureka Times-Standard.
Gupton was active in many community and civic activities including the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, St. Joseph Foundation and St. Bernard School.
Gupton was elected to the council in 1996 to represent the 2nd Ward. He chose not to run for re-election last year after suffering health problems.
Plans for the first phase of a 468-unit subdivision in McKinleyville will be considered by the Humboldt County Planning Commission Thursday, Feb. 15.
Mark Rynearson, a developer working on the proposed Central Estates subdivision, has applied for a negative declaration regarding environmental impact of the project proposed for the Miller property between Central and McKinleyville avenues across from Heartwood Drive.
While planning department staff feels that the negative declaration should be approved since mitigations are sufficient to offset impacts, others in the community think otherwise, including planners in the Arcata Community Development Department.
"We commented on it," said ElizaBeth Schatz, senior planner. "We have a concern regarding traffic impacts in Arcata." In particular Schatz feels that the plan does not take into account the fact that McKinleyville declares itself a bedroom community in its proposed revision of the General Plan.
McKinleyville Community Services District board member Jill Geist thinks the size of the project is being misrepresented since phase one deals with just the first 64 units on 14.7 acres, phase one of the overall development. She sees the proposed mitigations as minimal and says that most of the off-site impacts will become the financial responsibility of the county.
According to Geist, "Ultimately, this project needs an EIR and several mitigations to address cumulative impacts of traffic, drainage and sociologic impact. But that won't happen unless they hear people demanding one."
MCSD is already making plans to increase capacity for the sewage treatment plant. Bids are due Feb. 6 on work including modification of the headworks at the plant and expansion of sewer mains that will carry waste from the new development.
"The most exciting thing for us is that this is the first national news service focused on the participating stations," said Terry Green, KHSU station manager, of the new Live Wire Independent News program.
KHSU, the public radio affiliate at Humboldt State University, already carries news programs from National Public Radio, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered. But Live Wire would be different, Green said.
"To some degree NPR depends on local stations, but they mostly use their own reporters and news feeds from the British Broadcasting Corp. A station-based news service is a new thing," he said.
The four-week pilot project will provide a mix of daily stories and investigative pieces every weekday at 1:30 p.m. starting Feb. 5. Green said KHSU does not have any plans to contribute news stories to the network but may in the future.
When Humboldt County Deputy District Attorney Paul Hagen talks, polluters listen: Hagen took two cases of environmental damage to court in late January, with guilty pleas achieved in both.
Serious diesel-fuel contamination of groundwater was discovered at the Mercer-Fraser Co. on the South Fork of the Eel in November 1999. Mixed rainwater and diesel was being inadequately contained or in some cases discharged directly onto the ground. In addition, there was unlawful burning and asphalt placed too close to a watercourse. The company was fined $45,000, $40,000 of which was suspended pending successful cleanup efforts.
David Neal Grandy, a licensed timber operator who had been harvesting trees from two areas near Mule Creek, admitted Jan. 24 to violations of the Forest Practice Act. He had constructed an illegal stream crossing, harvested too close to a fish-bearing stream and apparently used Mule Creek as a skid trail. Grandy was fined $13,500, with $7,500 suspended during a two-year probation period.
CDF employees found the violations during routine inspections. Hagen said that CDF has begun to be more vigilant about enforcing the FPA.
"The number of cases has begun to pick up. Until recently, they didn't send me that many."
"Trying to just do the small projects is frustrating from the standpoint of trying to change the way things are done," said Paul Mason, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center in Garberville.
It may be frustrating, but after a ruling handed down from U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti in San Francisco Jan. 22, it seems to be the only way to go.
Conti ruled that California's logging regulations do not clash with the Endangered Species Act. EPIC had claimed the rules do not protect threatened coho salmon as required under the ESA.
In his ruling, Conti counseled EPIC to stick to "site-specific" challenges to the rules. The federal court, Conti stated, "needs to concern itself with more distinct and developed facts" -- meaning cases of specific violations.
Asked if the ruling would push EPIC to pursue a more site-specific strategy, Mason said his group "may need to do precisely that. We are still evaluating options and may appeal Conti's ruling."
-- reported by Arno Holschuh, Judy Hodgson and Bob Doran
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