North Coast Journal

Jan. 1995

A failed alliance

Bonnie Glantz

Not a member of the elite "Six Rivers" only because it doesn't flow through a national forest, the Mattole River is nevertheless a river of note in Humboldt County.

It has become even more noteworthy since the development of the Mattole Watershed Alliance, a group of 200 individuals who live in the area, own property in the watershed and want to work together to repair the damaged ecosystem.

Or at least they used to.

When President Clinton visited Portland two years ago for his Forest Summit, he learned about the alliance and its efforts to restore the river. He used the idea of the alliance as a guide for some of his Option 9 forest policy. Striving for consensus, the president and his advisers seemed to think alliances like this one would be a great way to manage timber lands (See North Coast Journal, May 1993).

Several state agencies and grass-roots organizations around the nation began calling Alliance members, looking for guidance. But today something has gone awry - the group no longer meets, no longer makes decisions about the watershed - and the numbers of salmon in the Mattole continue to decline.

The headwaters of the Mattole River lie in Mendocino County, just west of Whitethorn. The river winds for 64 miles northward to the Pacific Ocean, and flows into the surf just west of Petrolia. The 300-square-mile Mattole watershed once boasted a thriving salmon fishery. Early settlers speared spawning salmon, hauling them away by the wagonload. Decades of logging followed the massive salmon catches, and today less than 2 percent of the native salmon remain.

The Mattole Alliance started in late 1990. The Department of Fish and Game organized two meetings to focus attention on restoring the river. So much sediment had poured into the Mattole that king salmon spawning habitat was being destroyed. Roads, logging, ranching and homesteading all contributed to the problem.

"Not any one person was to blame" for the erosion problems, said DFG fisheries biologist Larry Preston. While the community was polarized over logging and ranching issues, they could agree on a need to restore fish populations.

Four months after the first Fish and Game meeting, ranchers, environmentalists, loggers, timber company employees, land owners, business owners and others - more than 250 people - came to the first meeting of what would become the Mattole Watershed Alliance. They wanted a loose and informal organization, and they decided to rule by consensus.

Consensus uses democratic principals and provides broad and diverse participation; it also requires much time and energy from the participants.

"A simple majority does not rule," explained Betsy Watson, director of the Center for Resolution of Environmental Disputes at Humboldt State University.

For one Alliance member and Mattole landowner, the consensus idea was initially appealing, but he was soon disillusioned.

"Consensus is nonsense," he said, not wanting his name published. "It's a farce. Ultimately we're involved in lawsuits with the very people we sit in the room with."

Others were more optimistic. Rich Bettis, land manager for Pacific Lumber Co., said members communicated with and educated each other. Eventually Alliance members developed a rapport and the term "common ground" came into usage.

Consensus was reached - in the beginning. Fishery issues were brought up, ad hoc committees drafted proposals and then more discussion would follow until everyone agreed. A final draft was signed by coordinator Dan Weaver.

The group agreed to support drift net moratoriums, salmon hatch-box programs, voluntary changes in fishing seasons and public road erosion controls. Projects, like one involving PL, rancher Sanford Lowry and the Mattole Salmon Support Group, resulted in the movement of large root balls to eroding sections of the river.

Most of these projects worked the first year. By the second year the Alliance started taking on more serious and complex challenges, such as defining old growth. At this point it began moving beyond what brought them together - the fish. And they hit a snag.

"Everybody agrees that they are everybody's fish, but not everybody agrees that they are everybody's trees," said Seth Zuckerman, principal of Petrolia High School, describing how the old growth discussion was affecting the Alliance.

The old growth issue came up because some members wanted to know about the legal definition of old-growth. Is it a 100-year-old tree? 200 years? 500 years?

Other Alliance members got antsy. This question could infringe upon their private property rights and affect future logging.

Discussions lasted for more than a year, and old-growth was defined at least five times. Heated meetings resulted; some were five hours long.

In the end, no one could agree on everything and attendance dropped off drastically until the Mattole Watershed Alliance stopped meeting at all.

"I don't think it was wasted time because we couldn't come to consensus," said Sierra Pacific Industries forester Bill Blackwell. But, it finally felt like they were "beating a dead horse," he said.

Lynda Roush, area manager for the Bureau of Land Management, echoed a common point: "The alliance had reached a point that if they were going to move forward they needed more organization."

On the positive side, the Alliance inspired other watershed groups to form in Trinity, Tehama and Shasta counties. These groups still meet regularly and are making progress.

In the meantime, sediment continues to clog the Mattole spawning beds, the deep cool pools that the salmon like to spend their summers in are getting shallower and fish numbers are still declining. Bettis may have best summed up the danger of not meeting when he said, "The longer we go without an organization, the more we get back to the way we used to be of drawing the line - it's us and them."

Bonnie Glantz is a free-lance writer and photographer living in Whitethorn.

Comments on this story? E-mail the Journal:

The North Coast Journal Table of Contents

North Coast Journal weekly banner