North Coast Journal WeeklyIn the News

April 18, 2002

A new Freshwater flap

Layoffs at Blue Lake mill

Sterns may get probation

A spate of cancelled surgeries

League honorees

Shakeup in Fortuna

Coffee and the soul of the west

Arcata Theater sold?

Montessori for Eureka?

Tax hike for hospital

Seabiscuit film in Ferndale?

Blue Lake Casino
moving forward

Hosed at the gas pump

UPDATE: A new Freshwater flap


A new source of disagreement has emerged in the long-running controversy over logging in the Freshwater basin east of Eureka.

The latest tiff concerns a recent report that raises questions about whether the state agency charged with regulating logging in Freshwater has underestimated the extent to which timber harvesting by the Pacific Lumber Co. is increasing the frequency and extent of flooding in the watershed.

The report has been quickly dismissed by scientists with Pacific Lumber and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In a nine-page report prepared last month, Leslie Reid -- a leading expert on the environmental impacts of logging -- said that when CDF calculated the likelihood of flooding in Freshwater in a study last year, it failed to consider the most important factor: the reduction in the ability of streams to carry water due to channel shrinkage caused by sediment build-up from harvested areas and logging roads.

Instead, CDF looked only at the extent to which logging activity can increase peak streamflows from run-off from logged areas and logging roads. Reid noted in her report that Pacific Lumber's own analysis of flooding in Freshwater suggests that "75 percent of the flooding problem is due to sediment accumulation and 25 percent to increased runoff."

Reid's report threatens to undermine CDF's determination that 500 "clearcut equivalent acres" can be harvested annually in Freshwater without further damaging the basin is scientifically justifiable. It also puts at risk a similar limit in the watershed immediately to the south -- the Elk River basin -- where CDF has imposed an annual ceiling of 600 "clearcut equivalent acres." (The restrictions apply only to the amount of land that is clearcut; the company can log more acreage if it uses lighter logging methods, such as selective harvesting.)

Even if CDF is right that the current level of cutting won't make things worse, Reid's report questions whether such an approach is wise in watersheds that are already in tough shape.

Reid, a U.S. Forest Service scientist with the Redwood Sciences Laboratory in Arcata, wrote the report at the request of Humboldt County Supervisor John Woolley, whose district includes the Freshwater and Elk River basins. Woolley said last week that he hopes that "the important critical statements (in Reid's report) are responded to by the company."

John Munn, the CDF hydrologist who made the flooding calculation, did not deny that he didn't factor in decreased channel size due to sedimentation. But he said the purpose of his calculation was simply to determine how much logging could take place and not increase peak flows beyond what they already are.

"Our conclusions haven't changed," Munn said. "The (annual acreage) limit was based on not making peak flows worse."

Jeff Barrett, director of fish and wildlife programs for Pacific Lumber, echoed Munn's remarks. "My overall response is that yes, Munn didn't consider (channel constriction). His analysis was an analysis of peak flows. He's being criticized for not doing something that he wasn't trying to do."

Both Barrett and Munn said that the restrictions the company is operating under as part of its Habitat Conservation Plan -- such as limiting the amount of logging that can take place in landslide-prone areas -- have substantially reduced the amount of sediment the company's timber activities are releasing into waterways.

Additionally, Barrett said that an ongoing effort to rehabilitate logging roads -- the main source of sediment discharge connected to logging -- is more than offsetting whatever sediment discharges are taking place in Freshwater from current logging.

Ken Miller of the Humboldt Watershed Council, a strong Pacific Lumber critic, said that the difference between Reid and Munn is "not just one more disagreement between experts."

"Reid has shown that Munn has made fundamental errors in his assumptions, his math and in his conclusions ... and that those flaws result in a gross overcalculation of how much logging is allowable without causing further damage."

Miller castigated CDF for allowing a level of cut that will perpetuate "the current degraded conditions."

"Prolonging an impact is itself an impact" and could prove lethal to hard-pressed salmon and steelhead species in the two watersheds, Miller said.

Reid's report comes at a time when the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is weighing whether to impose restrictions on the amount of sediment that can be legally discharged from Pacific Lumber timber harvests in Freshwater, Elk River and three other basins that have been intensively logged by the company over the past decade (the board is holding a two-day hearing in Eureka beginning Thursday to discuss the matter).

Reid's report also comes as the board has hired Concur Inc., a Bay Area-based mediating group, to help resolve the longstanding and bitter dispute between Pacific Lumber and residents who live along Freshwater Creek. Susan Warner, executive officer of the board, said Tuesday that any mediation that occurs will not include residents of the North Fork Elk River, because they are in the midst of suing the company for property damage. (Some residents there believe that Pacific Lumber logging has fouled their drinking water with excess sedimentation.)

Whether mediation will actually take place is not clear. Miller of the watershed council said Tuesday his group -- which represents some Freshwater residents -- might be willing to enter into talks provided they are limited in time to perhaps 30 days; and provided that during that time Pacific Lumber halt or reduce ongoing logging and not go forward with planned logging in the two basins.

Jim Branham, Pacific Lumber's director of government relations, said Tuesday that he couldn't comment about whether the company would be open to such a proposal. He reiterated, however, the company's position in favor of mediation.

Layoffs at Blue Lake mill

Bruce Taylor Sr. knows the number exactly: 93.

"That's the number of families affected, including mine," he said Monday.

As president, CEO and founder of Blue Lake Forest Products, Taylor ordered layoff notices for 84 employees Friday. He said the layoffs are permanent unless new capital is found.

"The mill is shut down. We have laid off everyone at the sawmill." About nine employees remain to finish planing and shipping lumber still on hand, which should take about a month.

"Basically, we're out of logs," said Taylor, blaming the severe curtailment of logging in national forests and low lumber prices that encourage private landowners to hold on to their stock.

"Plus, we have logs rotting in the woods, like those [downed] in the Megram fire" that remain unavailable for salvage logging.

"The people who want to get all sawmills out of business are winning," he said.

It was well known that the mill has been struggling, but the layoffs still came as a surprise to some employees.

"We've had problems before, but I've always been able to come up with a plan. This time I couldn't," Taylor said.

The mill was founded by Taylor in 1986 when he purchased the old McNamara and Peepe facility in a bankruptcy sale. Taylor filed his own bankruptcy Chapter 11 in 1991, settled with creditors and emerged from bankruptcy in May 1992.

Taylor said Blue Lake is a modern mill serving 150 to 200 customers in California and Oregon, that specializes in odd-sized boards and planks and other specialty lumber.

"We can cut up to 26 feet in length," Taylor said. "It's the best mill of its type in the Pacific Northwest. It's too good a mill to remain closed."

Sterns may get probation

Although John Sterns changed his plea to guilty on all counts last week and was taken into custody, he may not actually serve much time in prison.

"The court may very well give him probation," said Rob Wade, deputy district attorney, following the hearing.

Sterns, the chief fundraiser for Humboldt State University until his arrest in March 2001, pleaded guilty to all nine felony counts of embezzlement, falsifying records and forgery. He admitted pocketing nearly $50,000 in reimbursement for false travel and business expense claims. He also inflated university donation reports by $15 million in a scandal that rocked the university and resulted in a special investigation by the Chancellor's Office.

"The district attorney's office got everything we wanted" -- an unconditional guilty plea on all counts, Wade said. "The investigation conducted by the university, by Sgt. Tom Dewey, was excellent. With that quality of work, we were able to file and get a conviction on all charges," he said.

Sterns faces a maximum of eight years and four months in prison and will likely pay restitution of about $100,000 for direct losses suffered by the university. He is also liable for fines of up to $10,000 for each of the nine counts. Whether he actually serves time in prison or is placed on parole as a felon is undetermined.

Judge John Feeney ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Sterns, which is expected to take 90 days. Sterns apparently suffers from mental illness. Those conditions, detailed in a pre-plea probation report not yet released by the court, are now being treated and may influence his sentence by the court.

"Let's face it. He's got a lot of mental problems," Wade said. Plus, the court will consider other facts in the case.

"This was not a typical embezzlement. There were peculiarities to the crimes. He was doing things that [he knew] would ultimately be detected," Wade said.

Sterns is scheduled to be back in court May 28. His attorney could not be reached for comment on this report.

A spate of cancelled surgeries

Like most seniors, Vernon Rossig II was looking forward to enjoying his last weeks as a high school student. That's why he and his family decided months ago to have a troublesome knee operated on no later than the end of March. That would give the 18-year-old Arcata student plenty of time to recover before important events like his senior prom.

Who, after all, wants to go to the prom on crutches?

Rossig won't be there on crutches. But, as it has been for months, his knee will be sore. The reason is that it has yet to be operated on.

That's not because Rossig got nervous at the last minute and didn't show up for the operation. He was there all right, at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka on March 29. He even arrived early, with his family, at 11: 15 a.m. -- two hours ahead of time.

He was checked into the hospital, spent a bit of time in a waiting room and was then given a surgical gown to wear and a bed to lay down in.

Then with less than an hour before the surgery, a nurse walked in and announced that the surgery had been cancelled. "She said they didn't have the bed space," recalled Diane Rossig, Vernon's mother. "We couldn't believe it."

The family tried to reschedule the surgery, but the earliest date they could get was April 12 -- too late to ensure that Vernon would be off crutches come prom time. So they've postponed surgery until after graduation -- which means no crutches but also an aching knee (Rossig has a bone chip in his knee that needs to be removed).

It also means -- probably -- that Rossig, a standout Arcata high linebacker, won't be recovered in time to tryout for football this fall at College of the Redwoods. "He had the potential opportunity to play football, but now won't be able to because he probably won't be recovered. This has messed up six months to a year of my son's life," his mother said.

It's probably not much comfort, but Vernon is not the only one in the area who's had a surgery cancelled. According to St. Joseph Chief Executive Officer Mike Purvis, about a dozen surgeries have been cancelled in the past three weeks. He said, however, that "accommodations have been made to reschedule" and that no one's had to wait more than two or three days to get operated on. (That, of course, was not the case with Vernon.)

Dr. Raymond Koch, the orthopedist who was set to operate on Vernon, said that he has never seen so many cancelled surgeries in his 21 years as a physician in the area. He said at least 10 and perhaps as many as 16 surgeries have been cancelled in the past two to three weeks. While Koch described the surgeries as "elective," he said that some were "quite urgent."

"Some people were sick and it was the kind of thing where if they had to wait a month for surgery it could be a problem," Koch said.

He said one patient had a surgery cancelled twice.

What's going on? According to Purvis, two things: a spike in needed surgeries in the area of the sort that occurs from time to time combined with what is a nationwide problem -- a shortage of nurses.

Several nurses confirmed that there is a nursing shortage in Humboldt County but blamed St. Joseph administration for failing to adequately retain and recruit nurses. "It's just poor management and poor planning," said one nurse who asked not to be identified.

Koch is skeptical that a shortage of nurses is causing the problem.

Instead, he sees the cancelled surgeries as a symptom of what is still a relatively new reality: the monopoly of the hospital business in Eureka by St. Joseph, which took over General Hospital two years ago.

In the past, the two institutions competed for patients and quality of care was a higher priority. With St. Joseph dominating the Eureka medical scene, the emphasis has switched to the bottom line. That, at least, is Koch's fear.

"It seems ironic to me that we didn't have this nurse problem until (St. Joseph) became a monopoly," Koch commented.

He said that in the past, when St. Joseph and General Hospital were separate institutions, close to 200 patients could be hospitalized at the same time. Even at those busy times, he said, surgeries were not being cancelled at the rate they have been lately. He said that on one day almost two weeks ago, a total of 86 patients were hospitalized in Eureka -- 78 at St. Joseph and eight at General Hospital.

"I know of three surgeries that were cancelled that day," Koch said.

Part of the problem may be due to what Purvis called a "consolidation" of operations at St. Joseph and General. This effort has led, for example, to the closing of an entire medical surgery floor at General as well as General's intensive care unit, according to sources. Purvis said the consolidation effort has been in the works for some time and has "begun to be communicated" to medical staff.

Koch said that doctors have been frustrated with St. Joseph management for some time over a variety of issues and have been exploring the possibility of starting their own elective surgery hospital.

-- reported by Keith Easthouse

League honorees

Pennekamp and DinsmoreThe Humboldt County League of Women Voters handed out a pair of Civic Contribution awards at its annual luncheon last Friday. The recipients were Muriel Dinsmore, right, and Peter Pennekamp, who accepted the award on behalf of the Humboldt Area Foundation.

Dinsmore, a former staff writer for the Times-Standard and later director of public affairs for College of the Redwoods until she retired, was honored for her decades of volunteer work. In 1966, along with the late Homer Balabanis of Humboldt State University, Dinsmore helped found what is now the Humboldt Arts Council. She was an early advocate for historic preservation and has been a member of the Eureka Heritage Society for nearly 30 years. She continues to raise funds for those and other community organizations, including the College of the Redwoods Foundation.

The Humboldt Area Foundation, which began in 1972 with a donation of $2.4 million from Vera Perrott Vietor, was honored by the league for facilitating community philanthropy. HAF manages the Vietor Trust and dozens of other trusts worth $50 million. More than $22 million in grants to charitable organizations have been made through HAF. Pennekamp is the foundation's executive director.

Shakeup in Fortuna

Fortuna city politics was turned on its head last Tuesday as two long-time incumbents were voted out of office and the city manager quit.

Mayor Phil Nyberg and Councilman Odell Shelton lost out to challengers Debi August and Dean Glaser. City Manager Dale Neiman resigned in response, saying he no longer felt he had the support of the council.

"Two of the councilmembers are out to get my job," Neiman said. His administrative style had become an issue in the election, with critics saying he was not open to community concerns. Glaser even characterized him as a "vicious dog."

"Under those circumstances, it's best to resign," Neiman said. "The city manager becomes the issue and the city won't move forward on issues it needs to deal with."

Neiman takes with him institutional knowledge that will be hard to replace. He has worked in Fortuna government for 16 years, eight of those as city manager.

"I know why decisions were made going back to the 1970s," he said. "No one else here has that overall picture."

August, who led the election pack with 21.1 percent, said she was upset at Neiman's decision. "I wish he would have stayed, at least for a while," she said. "Now we need a manager and a clerk. Dale was all of that."

"The more I think about him leaving this way, the madder I get," she said.

The new council met for the first time April 15 and appointed Fortuna Police Chief Kit Bradshaw interim city manager. Bradshaw will occupy the position for six weeks while a new manager is found, August said.

The council also elected Mel Berti -- whose seat was not up for election -- mayor. August was elected mayor pro tem.

Coffee and the soul of the west

Coffee BettyAfter Betty Fulton's husband Roy died two years ago, she wanted to find a way to pay tribute to the man with whom she had spent her life. He had been a lifelong cowboy and a lifelong coffee drinker, so what better way to honor him than to share his favorite coffee? Fulton had no idea how well it would work: She will be sharing Roy's coffee with a lot of people at a gala celebration of cowboy culture in Washington, D.C., April 24.

"It's a blend I made myself for my husband," said Fulton, who just moved from their home ranch near Loleta to a house in Eureka. She designed the blend and had it custom roasted at Humboldt Bay Coffee Co. It quickly became Roy's favorite, so Fulton thought others might be interested.

She drew a picture of her husband for the label and sold it as Cowboy Blend Coffee at a few stores. While Roy was alive, she never put much effort into giving the coffee a high profile.

That changed earlier this year when she was invited to bring her coffee to Washington as part of a gala performance of a play called The Soul of The West. A theatrical celebration of the American West, the performance made for the perfect match with her coffee.

Cowboy Blend will be served during the performance and sent home in gift baskets to VIPs -- including President Bush. And Fulton gets to be there, something she's excited about.

"I've never been to Washington," she said.

Fulton said she was also happy to be involved carrying on her husband's cowboy heritage.

"The idea is to present our values to urban America," she said. "I just thought that would be a nice thing for him."

Arcata Theater sold?

The Arcata Theater is expected to have a new owner this week. According to David Phillips, CEO of the Minor Theater Corp., the new owner of the Arcata landmark will be music promoter Robert White.

Phillips described the sale as, "a win, win, win situation -- a win for the community, a win for the Arcata, a win for the Minor Theater."

According to Phillips, whose company has owned the Arcata since 1974, the economics of the film business have evolved to a point where single-screen theaters like the Arcata are "archaic" and no longer viable. The result is that big movie houses all over the country are either chopped into multiplexes or, worse, closed altogether.

"We were faced with deciding between selling or subdividing the theater into a triplex, and essentially by doing so, removing the opportunity for anyone to use it for concerts since the room size would have been reduced."

The building's new owner, White, has been involved in music promotion for a few years, primarily working with a Slovenian/Croatian partner putting on concerts in Yugoslavia and Croatia. He has been formulating a plan for the Arcata Theater with former Café Tomo manager Lincoln Wachtel since September.

White said his primary interest in the space is as a "legitimate entertainment complex" that will offer "performing artists in any genre." White and Wachtel are working on plans for renovation to make the theater more music friendly.

"I'm looking forward to having an avenue that I can help structure," said White. Immediate plans include removing some seats in front to make room for a dance floor and increase the room's capacity. Then they will build a "legitimate stage."

Future changes include renovation of the facade, installation of a permanent sound system and lighting grid, creating a backstage area with dressing rooms and building a balcony at the back of the room for a lighting/sound booth.

"Realistically it may be six months before major changes happen," said White. "In the meantime we will make some minor adjustments and put on some shows." Initial plans call for concerts two or three nights a week on weekends with a mix of local and touring bands.

Wachtel, who handled music bookings for Café Tomo, said he is ready to roll since he has kept in contact with a number of bands and agents. If all goes as planned, he estimates there should be concerts by the end of the month.

White is looking into offering food and drink in the facility and said he would like to set things up so that patrons would be able to "relax, have a beer and watch a movie."

As negotiations for the sale progressed, a sticking point was whether or not the new owners would still be able to show films, and if so, would they be first-run movies.

As it stands, Phillips has a virtual monopoly, at least in the Arcata/Eureka area, and if possible he wants to avoid setting up a situation where he will have to go head-to-head with a competitor for an audience and for film rentals.

At one point a clause in the sale contract said the new management would not be able to show films until five years after their release. That has been toned down considerably. The contract in the works still does not allow first-run films at the Arcata, but movies older than six months can be shown.

White has no experience with running a movie theater. He said he is planning on showing films at the theater eventually "but probably not right away." He is "looking for input" as to what sort of films to book.

According to Phillips, selling the Arcata will allow him to focus his attention and his capital on the McKinleyville Cinema. In fact his deal with White is indirectly tied to one with Murrish and Associates to purchase the land for the new multiplex, "an enhanced first-run theater with THX and all that."

Phillips said opening the McKinleyville Cinema should help with a problem he has faced in booking films for the Minor, particularly when the major studios' holiday movie onslaught rolls around.

"The studios come to us and say, `We want you to run Sorority Boys,' or some crap like that, `and in return we'll let you run Lord of the Rings and Amelie.' By building the McKinleyville complex and having a number of screens there, we can be more selective in picking films for the Minor that are appropriate for Arcata."

Murrish has a permit to subdivide the parcel adjacent to the Mill Creek Shopping Center into six lots. One will be sold to the Minor Theater Corp. "as soon as the Arcata deal is done" and, according to Phillips, groundbreaking for the multiplex should happen by the end of this month.

According to Michael Wheeler, the county planner dealing with the subdivision, one of the new McKinleyville theater's neighbors could be a church.

"There has been talk about putting a church on the southernmost parcel," said Wheeler. "Murrish has been in contact with a church that's interested in relocating."

Montessori for Eureka?

Eureka City Schools is giving parents the opportunity to choose an alternative curriculum within the public school system. The system is floating the idea of opening a Montessori program at Worthington Elementary.

Eureka City Schools spokesman Sheldon Reber said the school system needed to hear from parents interested in a K-2 Montessori program by June 1. The program would start this fall.

"This is a child-focused, time-tested program that is still innovative for our area," said Terri Vroman, a teacher at Eureka Adult School and the prospective teacher of the Worthington Montessori. The Montessori curriculum allows children greater autonomomy to determine what they would like to learn.

"It offers a lot of choice to children," Vroman said.

Some questions about the school remain open. Eureka already has a Montessori school, Mistwood Montessori, which offers a program for preschoolers and kindergartners. Parents trying to give their children a Montessori education would have to choose between the two schools for kindergarten.

Parents interested in the Eureka City Schools Montessori program can call 442-6136 or 441-2567 for more information.

Tax hike for hospital

Southern Humboldt property owners will have to decide soon which they value more -- a low property tax bill or hospital health care.

In a special election set for June 25, residents of the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District will have the chance to vote for a tax increase that would provide extra funding to Jarold Phelps Hospital in Garberville. Property owners already pay $25 a year for the hospital. The new tax would raise that rate to $100.

The hospital is losing between $20,000 and $30,000 a month, said George Koortbojian, interim administrator. The hospital filed bankruptcy protection last year and continues to operate -- barely.

"We continue to struggle, like most rural hospitals," he said. Much of the problem stems from insufficient payments from MediCal. Rural hospitals have a higher percentage of MediCal consumers than do urban areas and are harder hit by the low rates the government insurance program pays.

Koortbojian said the decision to seek an extra tax was made when it became clear that no help could be expected from the state or federal governments.

"Twenty percent of California's rural hospitals are in bankruptcy or are being closed, and the other 80 percent are struggling like us. Everyone is swimming in red ink," Koortbojian said.

"The community, in the true rural spirit, must make the decision to support this service in the community. It can only be solved on the community level," he said.

Seabiscuit film in Ferndale?

A movie about horse racing's most unlikely and iconic champion may be coming to the Victorian Village of Ferndale.

Location scouts for a filmed adaptation of a book about Seabiscuit, the undersized and crooked-legged horse that won the 1938 national championship, have been looking at Ferndale's racetrack. While racetrack manager Stuart Titus said the interest is still "very, very preliminary," the track has one thing that a Seabiscuit movie would probably need: wooden facilities.

"Unlike most other tracks which have gone to steel and concrete, ours is still made of wood," Titus said. "It was built in the '30s and '40s and has maintained much of that character over time."

Universal Studios would film in October or November and would not interfere with the annual horse races at the track.

Seabiscuit rose from total obscurity to a national championship with a failed prizefighter for a jockey and a wild-horse breaker as a trainer. He caught the attention of the country in 1938 and again last year with the publication of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend."

Blue Lake Casino moving forward

With environmental review and construction almost done, the new Blue Lake Casino is ready to hire some dealers.

Not just dealers, actually. The casino will also need guards, waiters, slot machine technicians and managers and will be holding a job fair April 27.

Training is provided for most positions, said Jack Norton, human resources manager for the casino. "It'll be everything from how to properly deal cards to recognizing someone trying to cheat the game," he said. All positions come with benefits including health coverage, he said.

The job fair will take place from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Blue Lake Rancheria Office, 428 Chartin Road, Blue Lake.

The sewage and water hookup for the new casino is in its last stage of environmental review.

People can still comment on the document at an April 23 public meeting at Blue Lake City Hall. Call 668-5655 for more information.

Hosed at the gas pump

If you listen to KHUM radio regularly, you may have heard John Berning's song, "Hosed at the Gaspump." The title pretty much says it all -- a musical complaint about the high cost of gasoline, one that fits right in with KHUM's ongoing battle against high gas prices.

Berning, who has a day job as a lab technician at Mad River Hospital, wrote and recorded the song at his home studio. Seeking a wider audience, he sent the song to the Boston headquarters of Car Talk, the nationally syndicated National Public Radio show featuring Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers.

The Magliozzi brothers offer irreverent yet serious advice to listeners who call in from around the country with automotive problems. Heard throughout the U.S., the show is among the most popular on NPR and always ranks high at NPR affiliate, KHSU. (It's on from 9-10 a.m. Saturdays and on Wednesday from 7-8 p.m.)

On April 4 Berning got an e-mail from Car Talk saying that his song would be played between segments as a "bumper" on Saturday, April 6.

Since the Car Talk web site ( includes information about the songs played each week, Berning has heard from listeners all over the country. The result: He is making plans for an entire album of gas price protest songs.

By the way KHSU's biannual fund drive starts Saturday, April 20, at 7 a.m. with Weekend Edition, immediately followed by Car Talk. The drive ends on April 27, with Car Talk. You can also find the show's web site by starting at KHSU's web site ( The station's schedule has a link to Car Talk.



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