North Coast Journal WeeklyIn the News

July 11, 2002

Holy roller not giving up

Pac Bell sues Caltrans over stalled fiber optic line

 Sudden Oak Death hits


Empty no longer

No more static

Mid-air follies

Holy roller not giving up


Ted Niemeyer of Niemeyer and Associates and the newly formed Eel River Railroad are not going away.

That's despite what Leo Sears of the Northcoast Railroad Authority has called several "non-starters" in Niemeyer's offer to acquire the portion of the railroad between Healdsburg and the Eureka/Arcata area. One, according to Sears, is that Niemeyer, because he's a private operator, won't be able to get the $42 million in state funds to rebuild the railroad. Nor, Sears said, will Niemeyer be able to lay his hands on $8.2 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair washed out tracks in the Eel River Canyon.

Undaunted, Niemeyer -- who has told the local media that he had a religious vision that he was going to acquire the railroad -- said this week that he's still going ahead on the deal.

"We're developing our financing as though it (the state and federal money) did not exist," Niemeyer said in a telephone interview from his office in Ringwood, Ill. "We are approaching this project as a high-cost, low-revenue sort of deal, but you'd be remiss as a negotiator if you didn't try to get the best deal; the more money, the higher the rate of return."

Niemeyer originally proposed his plan to acquire and reopen the rail line on June 7 at a North Coast Railroad Authority meeting. Board members were wary of his aggressive project time line (he proposed to have the line open in six months and to begin work on June 24) and his very open religious convictions.

"If he can do anything he says he can do I would jump up and down for joy; I would rather not waste all this time," said Sears by telephone from his Eureka home. "But is it going to happen? I'm skeptical."

Niemeyer, on the other hand, has no qualms about his plans. He sees the skepticism as a trust issue and the renewal of railroad service on the North Coast as a sacred duty.

"If we say something is going to happen it's going to happen," said Niemeyer. "If we drag things out too much it's not going to be able to happen this year. I'm not a public relations person; I'm just a Christian, a railroad engineering person, and what we're trying to do is what's right."

Niemeyer, a Lutheran, stressed his diverse background, railroad experience and ability to build teams of highly qualified professionals as selling points for his firm.

"I was born in the inner city of Chicago, and now I manage a ranch in Wyoming," Niemeyer said.

Niemeyer was born in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago on Sept. 22, 1949. He attended Valparaiso University in Indiana, graduating with a degree in engineering. He immediately went to work for Chicago Northwestern Railroad, both building and decommissioning railroads. (He met his wife when he split her family's ranch in Wyoming in half with a railroad line.) That ended when the railroad was bought out by Union Pacific in 1989.

At that point Niemeyer decided to strike out on his own. Originally he was not very successful, "making so much money I didn't have to pay income tax," in his words, but over the years his persistence paid off. Last year Niemeyer and Associates grossed just over $8 million. Their work has included training contractors for work on the Canadian National and Norfolk Southern railroads, rebuilding 300 miles of track in Texas and consulting in Germany.

His association with railroads on the North Coast began when his firm was hired as the engineer for the line's operator, Northwestern Pacific, near the end of 2000.

"We have an area of the country that needs rail service," Niemeyer said. "It is something we knew about, and something that has perplexed us."

His company had never attempted to buy a railroad before, but his people had inspected the entire line and made estimates of time and costs involved, and since no one else seemed willing or able, Niemeyer decided his corporation would be right for the job.

"At Christmas time I never would have imagined this; it's like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle coming together," said Niemeyer. "We have the financial, operating and engineering, and legal people. We found a plan to develop a business where we think it could work."

Pac Bell sues Caltrans over stalled fiber optic line


Talks between Caltrans and Pacific Bell aimed at resolving a dispute over the telecommunications company's plan to link Eureka and Ukiah with a fiber optic line have broken down and the matter is now in court.

Completion of the line, which is 70 percent built, is widely considered to be critical to Humboldt County's economic growth.

Pacific Bell filed a lawsuit against Caltrans after the state highway agency refused to back down from its demand that the company pay a fee in order to receive right-of-way permits to lay the line along portions of Highway 101 between Scotia and Redway. The fee, a one-time permanent charge, is $6.40 per linear foot of one-inch conduit. That amounts to a total of $709,632 for the 21 miles of line that are at issue.

According to Byron McDaniel, vice president of construction and engineering, Pacific Bell has invested over $24 million in the project so far and has built approximately 114 miles of the 170-mile line.

The first hearing on the case is scheduled for Aug. 2 in San Francisco before Federal District Court Judge Maxine Chesney.

Pacific Bell claims the fee is "arbitrary and unreasonable" and hence in violation of a federal telecommunications statute, according to court documents. The company also says that Caltrans has never before imposed such a fee on Pacific Bell.

Caltrans, meantime, wants Judge Chesney to dismiss the case on the grounds that the U.S. Constitution does not allow private parties to sue states in federal court. The state agency also says that it has imposed similar right-of-way fees on five other fiber optic projects in the state without encountering the opposition that Pacific Bell is mounting.

The failure to resolve the impasse has alarmed local business and educational leaders, who say that installation of the fiber optic line is critical to Humboldt County's economic future.

John Dalby, senior vice-president of Humboldt Bancorp, said in a July 8 letter (written at the request of Judge Chesney) that local jobs with his company could vanish if the fiber optics line is not installed. "Without the additional bandwidth fiber optics can provide, our company will be forced to move data processing jobs out of our community," Dalby said.

John McBrearty, director of Information Technology Services with College of the Redwoods, said in a letter (also dated July 8) that a plan to greatly increase Internet bandwidth at the college by the fall is in jeopardy.

"Unfortunately, the promised expanded Internet link, called a T-3 connection, cannot be installed without digital fiber connectivity to our community. Although we will do our best to adjust and balance our Internet traffic, we are concerned that we will not be able to meet peak demands for our new web services."

McBrearty, whose letter is also part of the court record on the case, said he also had broader concerns: "We feel that failure to achieve an agreement on this issue will adversely affect our entire student population, since they live in an area where both educational resources and potential jobs are constrained by the availability of digital resources."

Currently, data and voice communications leave the area via microwave systems between Eureka and Santa Rosa and Eureka and Redding. Traffic from Del Norte County also depends on those systems -- all of which are at capacity.

Sudden Oak Death hits

Trouble is brewing in the town of Redway, with the first confirmed appearance of Sudden Oak Death (Phytopthora ramorum) on a California bay tree, adding Humboldt County to a list of 11 counties in the state known to have the disease present.

Previously, the aggressive pathogen had been found to the the north and south of Humboldt County, leading members of the forestry community to believe it was present here but with no proof until now.

"This was expected," said Yana Valachovich of the University of California Cooperative Extension Service office in Humboldt County. "It was just a matter of running into the right site."

The disease is found in 15 species, all of which are found in Humboldt County and isn't deadly to most of them. But in the Bay Area it has been wiping out stands of coastal live oak and tan oak with a vengeance.

The possibility that redwoods might also be a host is being investigated, but the research so far is inconclusive.

The main problem right now is finding how it is spread so that the spread can be controlled.

"If it was the size of a pigeon and colored orange we could see it and stop it, but we're dealing with spores here," said Humboldt County Agricultural Commissioner John Falkenstrom.


The artist who drew the illustration of the Professional Building in downtown Eureka that appeared in the June 27th issue was misidentified. The illustrator was Jerry Lee Wallace.

Empty no longer

The long abandoned Safeway on Central Avenue in McKinleyville will soon have a new occupant. The store has been acquired by the adjacent Ace Hardware.

Ace officials plan to remodel the space by adding a greenhouse and a lumberyard. Overall, 35,000 square feet will be added to the store.

"It'll be a good-sized store, not the biggest, but good- sized," said Kevin Jenkins of the hardware outlet.

The biggest hardware store in the county will still be Pierson's Building Center in Eureka.

No more static

Masterpiece Theatre, The News Hour, Mystery and the eternal Lawrence Welk show will all be back on the air by Friday, ending the two weeks of static-snow on Channel 13.

KEET-TV stopped broadcasting June 24 to move its transmitter to a new 466-foot tower on Kneeland Mountain. The project is the first step in complying with the Federal Communication Commission's mandated switch to digital broadcasting.

Though the station will not initially be able to broadcast digitally, the move was the first major technological upgrade toward making the switch possible.

The tower, transmitter building and new equipment cost approximately $500,000, money that came from KEET's Focus on the Future Digital Conversion Capital Campaign.

The digital television broadcast, which KEET hopes to have online by next May, will offer several types of programming (called "stations") simultaneously through "multi-casting."

The plan is to have a children's station, a station dedicated solely to regional affairs and one carrying standard PBS programming.

Data-casting, a merger of the Internet and television, will also be available.

"If you're watching a biography of a president you'll be able to download some of his speeches or a blue print of the White House or whatever," said Amanda Tobin, KEET's director of community relations. "Basically, it's like combining a web site into TV programs."

Approximately $1.2 million has been raised already for the conversion, which is expected to cost $4.6 million overall. The money is coming from residents, the Humboldt Area Foundation, and the Melvin and Grace McLean Foundation.

Mid-air follies

The Humboldt County Sheriff's Department ended an eight-hour-plus standoff with Mattole Forest Defense on Monday by dismantling a barricade the forest activists had erected -- but it took an aerial wrestling match to do it.

The barricade was erected to block the Pacific Lumber Co. from logging an area of old-growth Douglas fir in the watershed of the lower north fork of the Mattole River. The action marked what could be a protracted campaign against the timber harvest plan.

"It's not over for us until it's saved or there's nothing left to save," said an activist who called himself Bracken, speaking by cell-phone from the site of the roadblock.

The structure itself was 30 to 40 feet tall, according to Bracken. It was made of a tripod of dead poles scavenged from a nearby clear cut and anchored by ropes to a car parked sideways across the road.

An activist, identified as James Further, was suspended by a cargo net hung from the structure to hinder its destruction. Other activists were stationed nearby observing and videotaping the encounter.

The roadblock turned away the two logging trucks that drove up during the day. But a confrontation of a different sort began when sheriff's deputies showed up late in the afternoon.

The law officers chased away the other activists by "approaching and attempting to arrest" them, according to Bracken, who, along with the other protestors, managed to get away.

At that point, the deputies sent up a climber to deal with Further in the cargo net, and, after a struggle, he was arrested while his compatriots watched from the surrounding woods.

"There was a climber in the structure attempting to put a harness on the person (Further). The last thing I saw the climber was trying to wrestle the arms free from one of the poles," Bracken said.

The logging operation under dispute is a state-approved plan to clearcut 184 acres on the north faces of Long Ridge and Palor Peak, an area situated between Humboldt Redwoods State Park and the Kings Range National Conservation Area.

Bracken said the area is a crucial biological corridor between the two protected areas and is home to species such as the bald eagle, golden eagle and the kingfisher. It has never been logged nor had roads built in it, according to Bracken.

The battle on Monday was lost, but the protestors say they feel far from defeated -- and that they're prepared for a protracted battle.

From the fall of 2000 to the summer of 2001 the activists mounted operations in the Mattole watershed until bear-poacher trackers were brought in to root them out.

"I think actions are going to be ongoing, whether it's blockades or other types of actions, such as tree sits," said Bracken. "We're just going to have to regroup and figure out the most strategic way to do this."

The Humboldt County Sheriff's Department and Pacific Lumber Co. could not be reached for comment.


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