October 27, 2005
State of the bay
Marine industry, bay management at issue in district election
by HANK SIMS
THE HARBOR DISTRICT? THE BAY DISTRICT? Whatever you call it in casual conversation, the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District is arguably the most important governmental entity in the Humboldt County, outside county government and the seven incorporated cities. It oversees all aspects of the management of Humboldt Bay, including heavy industry, mariculture, recreation and environmental protection.
The district is governed by a five-member board of commissioners, one elected from each of the county's five supervisorial districts. On Nov. 8, two seats on the district's board are up for election: Division Four (downtown Eureka, Myrtletown, Samoa and Fairhaven) and District Three (Arcata, Manila and Kneeland).
Candidates (left to right): Fritzsche, Herbelin, Hunter and Wilson. Photo by Hank Sims.
Though each of the candidates has brought different ideas to the race, it is fair to say that a line can be drawn between them on the central issue facing the district these days --- an ambitious plan to develop the shipping industry on Humboldt Bay (see "Port of Call," June 23 at www.northcoastjournal.com). Both of the incumbents, Dennis Hunter and Ron Fritzsche, support rebuilding the Port of Humboldt's infrastructure in an attempt to attract international shipping (at an estimated cost of $100 million, not including restoration of rail service).
Both of the challengers, Maggy Herbelin and Mike Wilson, raise questions about the plan's viability and desirability --- questions that they say the district has been slow to consider. And both Herbelin and Wilson make a point of calling the governing body to which they aspire "the bay district" --- an attempt, in shorthand, to define their priorities and to revise the perception of the district.
Though only these two seats are up for election, the outcome of the election could be a major influence on the public conversation about the future of Humboldt Bay.
For the past 16 years Division 4 of the district, which is made up of downtown Eureka and much of the Samoa Peninsula, has been represented by Dennis Hunter. Hunter, a 63-year-old vice president of marketing at Coast Central Credit Union, said in a recent conversation that he brings a realist's position to the district.
Hunter said that he grew up fishing the bay, and considers it an immense resource --- both in terms of its historic commercial fishing fleet and the recreation opportunities it provides the citizens of Humboldt County.
But Hunter said that, in addition, he knows that the district's principal source of revenue --- the thing that pays for boat launches and harbor dredging --- is shipping.
"What I have to look at, from a business perspective, is how are we going to pay for everything we want?" he said.
To that end, he said, he is an avid supporter of the district's efforts to revive and modernize the harbor's facilities for capturing international trade. Last year, the district regained control of the Redwood Dock, a shipping facility near the Samoa Cookhouse formerly leased by Simpson, and Hunter, like the rest of the current board, wants to see that facility quickly become a public shipping terminal.
If such a plan were successful, and if the district were able to attract international trade to Humboldt Bay, the district --- which still owes around $10 million to the Army Corps of Engineers for dredging work done on the bay --- would see its sluggish revenues increase sharply. Perhaps more importantly, Hunter said, the expansion of industry could provide a great number of high-paying blue-collar jobs to the residents of Humboldt County.
"What I'm trying to do is change the attitude of `We can't do that here,'" Hunter said. "Well, we can do it here"
This time, Hunter is being challenged by Maggy Herbelin, 62, a part-time census taker for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, for the last several years, lead coordinator of the Humboldt Bay Stewards, a group that has organized several well-attended public forums on different aspects of Humboldt Bay.
Herbelin, a recreational boater whose Myrtletown home overlooks the Eureka Slough, said in a recent interview that the district has historically overlooked what she believes is one of the bay's principal assets --- its natural beauty. She said that changes in the community over the last few decades have made that aspect of the bay more important.
"I think the demographics of the area have changed," she said. "When we moved here 36 years ago, it was a mill town. The people who have moved here have moved here for the beauty, and they want to enjoy it."
Herbelin said that she believes the district's shipping plan has not been studied adequately --- that its likely impacts on the quality of life around Humboldt Bay (and its environmental impacts on the bay itself) have not been determined. Until that happens, she said, she would like to see the district focus on different types of development.
She has been promoting an estuarine research center, a place for Humboldt State University to dock its ship, the Coral Sea, and conduct marine research. (HSU President Rollin Richmond has previously expressed interest in the idea --- see "Out with the tide," April 21.) And she'd like to see a seafood-themed culinary academy in downtown Eureka, a potential adjunct to College of the Redwoods' new hospitality and tourism program.
"These are the kind of jobs I'm talking about," she said. "These are where our society's interests are."
Overall, she said, she'd like to see the district act with more consideration toward what she believed was the majority of the area's residents --- those who see the bay, first and foremost, as the crown jewel of the region's natural glory.
"Trails now, the railroad when we can," could be the campaign slogan of the Division Three challenger, Mike Wilson, a 37-year-old environmental engineer and owner of Humboldt Water Resources, an Arcata-based environmental consulting firm. Like Herbelin, Wilson believes that the district, with its focus on industrial development, has been slow to look at other potential futures for the bay.
At the top of Wilson's to-do list, if elected, is the development of a bay trail running on or near the Northwestern Pacific Railroad corridor between Eureka and Arcata. In the past, the district has done little to promote the idea, largely because it is depending on the return, someday, of railroad service to Humboldt County.
But Wilson said that people in his district are starting to get impatient to see better access to recreational opportunities on the bay, and a pedestrian/bicycle trail would be at the top of many citizens' priorities. He expressed some skepticism about the viability of the district's shipping plan, and some exasperation about the opportunities lost to residents of Humboldt County in the meanwhile. For one, land around the bay remains vacant because it is zoned for marine-dependent industry, which has largely shown little interest in Humboldt County.
"I think a lot of planning around the bay has been done through the rear-view mirror," he said. "We've looked at development around the bay in this 20th-century box. Once we get outside that box, the palette of opportunity expands enormously."
Wilson said that like his opponent, he supports the expansion of the oyster industry and the commercial fishing fleet --- what he calls "the edible bay."
"My main thrust is that whatever we do around the bay for economic development needs to be sustainable and appropriate, and needs to enhance and maintain our quality of life," he said.
Ron Fritzsche, 60, a retired fisheries professor at Humboldt State University and a nine-year veteran of the district, would likely agree with that statement, but he has a slightly different definition of "quality of life." When asked, in a recent debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters, if he would rather have a trail or a railroad around the bay, Fritzsche picked the railroad without hesitation.
In an interview before the debate, Fritzsche explained that he believed that the county must do everything it can to provide for its people, even if it means taking a gamble on port development.
"I don't want to see a big port here at all," he said. "But I want to see something. Our economic situation is very bad. We don't provide for our own here. We're kind of a revenue drain on the state, economically."
Fritzsche said that he takes pride in the accomplishments he has had with the district in the past, and would like an opportunity to see them forward. He has led the district in instituting a geographic information database that helps regulatory agencies and the general public understand in detail the bay's ecology. He's worked with the oyster industry to make their operations more environmentally friendly. He's talking with various agencies about developing a short trail that would run on the levees along the Arcata waterfront.
But he's also concerned about Humboldt County's economic climate --- he doesn't want to see the county become a tourism-driven economy, or worse, a "retirement community."
Fritzsche said that his experience working with the mariculture industry showed him that too often in Humboldt County, people are quick to dismiss the importance of strong industry and commerce as important aspects of "quality of life."
"We have ongoing roadblocks for the most environmentally sound businesses we have," he said. "If people are against those, what does the future hold?"
Comments? Write a letter!
© Copyright 2005, North Coast Journal, Inc.