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July 27, 2006

The Weekly Wrap

Barstow or Big Lagoon, what's it gonna be?

8 Questions for Jasmine Loucks

The Weekly Wrap



PALCO EXODUS: Robert Manne, CEO of the Pacific Lumber Co. since 2001, has stepped down from his post, according to a report published late Tuesday afternoon on the Times-Standard's web site. The report, which quoted from a Palco press release, said that Manne would be replaced by George O'Brien, a former executive with International Paper, who will assume CEO duties immediately. The struggling company, still one of the county's largest private employers, had recently sold around 6,000 acres and secured a new $145 million loan in order to meet a $28 million payment to bondholders.

In addition, the Garberville-based Independent newspaper reported this week that Chuck Center, Palco's director of government relations, also left the company in recent days.

— Hank Sims


WILDERNESS BILL ADVANCES: The California North Coast Wilderness bill passed the House on Monday and was headed for near-certain passage in the Senate. The bill, H.R.233, spans five counties, designates several wild and scenic rivers and protects more than 273,000 acres, including 42,585 acres in the King Range National Conservation Area and its long, undeveloped, famously remote Black Sands Beach.

The house bill was a compromise of original legislation proposed by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) that would have protected more than 300,000 acres. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein pushed a version of that first bill through the Senate last year, but it then stalled in the House under Rep. Richard Pombo, who sat on the bill while his off-roading constituents grumbled in his ear.

The House bill reflects concessions made to the off-road and mountain biking lobbies: It drops about 35,000 acres from the original acreage, including 6,500 acres proposed in the Mad River Butte region, about 15,000 acres in the Siskiyous and part of Cache Creek in Lake County, said Derek Chernow, spokesman for the Wild Heritage Campaign. And, it allows for a number of roads that head into the new wilderness areas to be "cherry-stemmed" — that is, not closed. The only place where cherry-stemming (in the past, a sore point with many wilderness advocates) won't occur, said off-road advocate Don Amador of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, is in the King Range wilderness. Amador said he is sad that Black Sands Beach will be off-limits to vehicles, but he's happy otherwise.

"This is precedent-setting," said Amador. "Traditional wilderness bills have closed any roads that were inside any wilderness lands. It's a significant number of routes."

A little extra wheeling and dealing also helped dislodge the bill from the House: Off-roaders and mountain bikers convinced legislators to set aside 51,000 acres of BLM land for their use in the Cow Creek area in Mendocino; and commercial surf fishermen succeeded in getting the 27 permits currently issued for vehicle access to certain beaches in Redwood National and State Parks (namely Gold Bluffs Beach) permanently sanctioned. Under the parks' general management plan, the beach-driving permits had been set to be phased out over time, and no new permits were to be issued.

Despite the concessions and additions, wilderness advocates seemed exuberant on Monday. "It's huge," said Chernow. "I think Congress realized it was a bill with broad local support. And a lot of the 51,000 acres [in Cow Creek] was already being used by off-highway vehicles and mountain bikers. And it wasn't ever in the bill to begin with. In any legislative effort there's going to be some compromises made."

— Heidi Walters


PROSECUTORS DEPART: Two more prosecutors announced their intention to leave the Humboldt County District Attorney's office last week. Andrew Isaac, a nine-year veteran of the office, announced that he would be taking a job in Santa Cruz County effective September. Prior to the election of District Attorney Paul Gallegos in 2002, Isaac was one of the two prosecutors who worked with the Child Abuse Services Team, an interdisciplinary agency that investigated and prosecuted cases involving juvenile victims. He had since been assigned to different tasks in the office. In addition, 27-year-old Nicole Hanson, a Eureka native who joined the office in 2004, recently accepted work elsewhere. Neither could be reached for comment.

The departure of Isaac and Hanson follow the firing of Paul Hagen, a circuit prosecutor specializing in environmental crimes who was based in the Humboldt County DA's office. In June, Gallegos, who is unpopular amongst the office's staff, was reelected for a second term.

— Hank Sims


FIRE FEES FLY: If you were confused by the sizable signs that popped up around Arcata and McKinleyville shortly after the June election urging you to vote "yes" for the Arcata Fire Benefit Assessment, you were not alone. Fire Chief John McFarland said that voter confusion was one of the main obstacles that contributed to the failure of a similar resolution in 2004. But this time, apparently, clarity reigned. A public campaign designed both to educate property owners and give them an opportunity to voice their concerns led to a big victory for the fire district this time around, McFarland said Tuesday.

"The public input was tremendously greater this time," he said. "They gave us all of their requirements and we met those requirements." One of the major differences between this proposal and the 2004 version is the removal of an "escalator clause," which would have caused assessment fees to increase correspondingly to the rate of inflation.

The latest, successful proposal also includes provisions for a citizen review board, which will evaluate the funding and expenditures of the fire district seven years from now. McFarland said this advisory board will be able to "decide virtually everything having to do with funding, except to increase it." McFarland said that seven years will give the district time to get "the business side of things" sorted out. By that time, he said, the district will have paid off the debt it still owes from the aerial truck it purchased several years ago.

The new fees, which will be about five times greater than the old ones, will go toward new fire engines (which McFarland says the District needs "desperately," and which carry a price tag of between $400,000 and $800,000) and hiring eight additional full-time firefighters over two years (there are presently seven firemen, three chiefs and about 63 volunteers). The assessment also provides for a "revolving apparatus replacement program," which McFarland said replaces vehicles "on a revolving cycle" so that older vehicles will be upgraded every 20 years or so.

Unlike a tax increase, a raise on assessment fees is voted on by local property owners rather than the general public. Of the approximately 13,000 ballots that were mailed out, 5,821 were returned, a number fire district officials call "incredible." Seventy-one percent of the ballots were in favor assessment increase, while 28 percent were against it.

— Luke T. Johnson


COUNTY LOSES ANOTHER ROUND: The County of Humboldt recently lost another round in its Tooby Ranch lawsuit, which charges that the 2000 subdivision of the 13,000-acre south county property was illegal. On Monday, Judge Bruce Watson of the Humboldt County Superior Court denied the county's request to push back the case's trial date, meaning that the case will go forward as scheduled on August 14.

In arguments filed with the court, Deputy County Counsel Richard Hendry argued that the county needed the additional time in order to bring its newly hired attorneys, the Walnut Creek firm Morgan Miller Blair, up to speed on the case. But Watson ended up siding with the defendants in the case, who protested that bringing on additional attorneys to assist in a case was not sufficient grounds to grant a delay.

— Hank Sims


ST. JOE PROS, CONS: On Tuesday, Humboldt County Public Health Officer Ann Lindsay gave a report to the Board of Supervisors to summarize the North Coast community's ideas regarding the three options now available to the financially anemic St. Joseph Hospital — sell, tough it out or create a public community hospital district. Lindsay called the community dialog a "healing process" and a chance to vent frustrations. Over the past two months, six groups of health care workers and also laypeople (including journalists) met with Lindsay and Allan Katz of the Community Health Alliance. Between the groups, Lindsay said, there was a "remarkable congruence of ideas" concerning St. Joe's future.

Among those points of agreement: On the pro side, if the hospital sells there would be new insurance options, a possible increase in services, tax contributions from the hospital and a clean slate free of St. Joe's perceived history of "inconsistent management." The downsides to selling include a lack of local control, the potential for job loss and a potential reduction in services.

As for a community hospital district, which seems to be the favored option, benefits included local control, improved planning and better recruitment of doctors. Possible limitations included a politically complicated process, the large debt that the district would inherit from St. Joe's and the politically difficult task of obtaining a two-thirds majority vote that the formation of such a district would require.

Lastly, the perceived pros if St. Joe's continues in Eureka: the hospital's community programs and the fact that it already has a relationship with Redwood Memorial Hospital in Fortuna. The cons focused on poor management, Catholic ownership and the bad relationship the hospital has with health care workers and other hospitals.

Lindsay added that many participants were relieved when Hospital Partners of America backed out of due diligence talks with St. Joe's because of what Lindsay called the "peculiarities" of HPA's ownership model. Forum participants agreed that Kaiser Permanente was the health care provider they wanted most to take over St. Joe's, despite the fact that the company has never expressed interest in the venture. "Practices are having a very hard time recruiting doctors," Lindsay said. But Kaiser, on the other hand, has a constant flow of applicants.

Physicians just do not want to relocate here, Dr. Ellen Mahoney of the Humboldt-Del Norte Medical Society explained to the supes, because docs are paid up to 30 percent less than in other areas of the state and so they work more to compensate for the wage gap. The average doctor in the area is 50 years old, and as they retire their positions are not filled. To improve the situation, Mahoney is suggesting the creation of nonprofit "multi-specialty" clinics, composed of most or all local doctors, where support staff and technology would be shared among primary care physicians, who could then spend more time seeing patients. If St. Joe's becomes a community district, this new model could be integrated into the public hospital system. Mahoney said she has received positive feedback from doctors thus far. Discussions with physicians will continue until mid-August.

— Helen Sanderson


Barstow or Big Lagoon, what's it gonna be?


Big Lagoon is a lilting side dish of freshwater loveliness

30 miles north of Eureka, separated by a narrow three-mile strip of sandy land from the crashing ocean which, ideally, breaks across the barrier once or twice each winter to flood the lagoon with saltwater and allow anadromous fish to enter and find their way up a tributary to spawn. The isolation and occasional breakthroughs make the lagoon unique, exotic and home to a mix of species. It's recognized officially as an important stop for migrating birds within the Pacific Flyway.

The lagoon and its wooded environs is also home to a small, jointly-operated community of cabin owners, some individual residences, a county park, state park lands and the Big Lagoon Rancheria's reservation. The tribe is made up exclusively of the 27 members of the Moorehead family.

But although there is a tribe at Big Lagoon, there is, as of yet, no casino, nor any real commercial development to speak of, these days. And in a settlement reached last August between the rancheria and the state, the tribe agreed never to build a casino or commercial development there alongside the lovely lagoon.

Or maybe it will. It all depends on Arnold, you might say, and how much he's willing to risk for the Big Lagoon Rancheria's plans for a different casino, way down south in the desert town of Barstow.

But first of all, nobody said it's easy getting into the casino business. For the Big Lagoon Rancheria, its bid to put down a gambling hall — anywhere — can perhaps be described as similar to a gambler-with-bad-luck's fervent desire for the jittery little ball on the spinning roulette wheel to land on his numbers. Sometimes the ball lands where the tribe wants it to, but so far it hasn't stuck. Or maybe the tribe itself is the little ball, getting tossed around. For a decade. You might say the fate of the actual lagoon, north of Eureka about 30 miles, is getting bounced around as well, at least as a natural, recreational and semi-residential backwater devoid of commercial development.

On June 28, the state legislature's Assembly Governmental Organizational Committee voted to reject a compact signed last September between Governor Schwarzenegger and Big Lagoon Rancheria. The compact would have allowed the rancheria to build a big, Las Vegas-style casino/resort in the San Bernadino County town of Barstow, in tandem with a casino/resort planned by the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians of San Diego County. Despite its rejection, the committee left the matter open to reconsideration, which means the rancheria gets one more spin sometime before the end of August, when the legislature enters recess.

Funny thing is, it was the state — the governor, actually — who told Big Lagoon to seek its fortune in Barstow in the first place. Last August, the rancheria and the state reached a settlement in which the tribe agreed to not put a casino or anything commercial on its Big Lagoon tribal lands — something the tribe had proposed doing 10 years ago, to great opposition from the state, environmentalists, neighbors and biologists who said the lagoon is far too ecologically rich for photo of Virgil Mooreheadsuch a development. In exchange, the tribe could embark on the Barstow venture. Both tribes are hundreds of miles from Barstow, and the plan requires a few more hoops to tumble through — the biggest one labeled "reservation shopping," whereby tribes build casinos outside of their historic lands. It's a term embraced with righteous repugnance by the big-time gambling tribes, according to Big Lagoon chairman Virgil Moorehead.

Right: Virgil Moorehead.

'The big tribes don't want that," Moorehead said last Friday. "'Reservation shopping' is a made-up term by the big gaming tribes. They don't want the competition. But since 1988 there have only been three [off-reservation] casinos that have gone into business. It's a hyped-up frenzy. It's been built up as a chronic, gonna-take-over-the-world thing."

Moorehead and many following the Barstow casino saga, accuse big gaming tribes of influencing the assembly's decision — including the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which has two big casinos in the Coachella Valley. Agua Caliente's chairman, Richard Milanovich, testified against the Barstow project. Milanovich (whom an LA Weekly story dubbed "Greedovich," noting his tribe's massive lobbying expenditures and connection with the disgraced Jack Abramoff) told the committee that the Big Lagoon/Los Coyotes project "opens the door to labor. It opens the door to disgruntled city councils to take advantage of the tribes," because their compacts allow for union negotiation and require them to pay a certain amount of their profits to the City of Barstow to help pay for police and other services. When the big tribes' own compacts come up for renewal some years hence, the reasoning goes, they'll likely be held to the stricter regulations placed in these new compacts.

Moorehead said he's waiting to get a list of big-gaming tribes' contributions "to the people who killed the project" to draw a more definitive picture of the politics involved. In the meantime, he said, he's wondering where the governor was when the vote was going down. "What surprises me is that we weren't able to get the governor to push for us more," he said. After all, the governor signed Big Lagoon's compact last September, touting it as a measure boosting a poor tribe while at the same time preserving an ecological wonder in Northern California.

If the assembly approves the compact, the Big Lagoon/Los Coyotes double casino/resort project would still need the federal government to take the land in Barstow into trust for the tribes. That process has already been launched, and Moorehead said he doesn't see any reason for it to not happen. As for Barstow, it's gung-ho for the side-by-side casino/resorts. The city signed municipal services agreements with both tribes two weeks ago.

But if the state assembly committee again rejects the Barstow project, refusing to ratify Big Lagoon's compact, the project would likely die. That, says Moorehead, would mean that Big Lagoon would return to its original plan: building a casino at Big Lagoon. It would mean the legal tangle with the state would resume. Eventually, perhaps, it would mean a casino at Big Lagoon — not the big-bucks kind as envisioned down in Barstow, but a casino nonetheless. "We'll go back to our lawsuit," said Moorehead. That lawsuit, launched about a decade ago, accused the state of acting in bad faith for refusing to sign a compact for the Big Lagoon casino and sought to force a signing. Similarly, said Moorehead, "the governor and us, we signed an agreement. And if that can't go through, then the state again acted in bad faith."

For some of his neighbors, it would be a disappointment, although they seem to have given up hope of a fight should the casino come back to their shores. The Big Lagoon Park Company — a consortium of 76 private cabin owners who jointly own the land the cabins sit on — fought the casino project 10 years ago, but gave up when it ran out of money, said Don Tuttle, a cabin owner and president of the company.

"Most of our members were concerned about the potential increase in traffic," Tuttle said on Monday. "They estimated there'd be between 300 and 600 [cars] a day. We also worried about the impact to the fishery and wildlife." Tuttle bought his cabin in 1972. "To me and my wife, it's our place to escape."

He was happy when the Barstow plan emerged. "We thought that would be beneficial to all people, including the rancheria. They would maintain their natural environment here," and make better money down there.

But Tuttle said he "figured Virgil would" revisit the Big Lagoon site if the Barstow plan fell through. "That's natural. But he would have to find an investor. I've talked with Virgil about our fears, and I think he understands. But it's their chance for economic opportunity." Still, he said, "a casino just seems completely out of place in this semi-wild, park-like place. If a casino happens, everything depends on how it's built — how they mitigate for noise, and the glare of lights. Water is a big issue. They'd have to build a small treatment plant."

In the end, what happens in Barstow — and at Big Lagoon — might come down to what happens at the Governor's office. So what does the Governor's office have to say? Hard to know. Repeated calls were answered by a machine that intoned every few seconds: "Thank you for holding. We look forward to serving you. A member of Gov. Schwarzenegger's staff will be with you shortly. Please hold during the silence."



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