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Humboldt County's most impactful stories of 2023

click to enlarge Ferndale's largest-ever Pride parade marches through town in June.

Photo by Mark McKenna

Ferndale's largest-ever Pride parade marches through town in June.

2023 has been a year of transition in Humboldt County. On the positive side, after generations of efforts, we're transitioning into a community that undams its rivers, with news of PG&E's plan to remove its dams from the Eel River following word that the first of four dams had been removed from the Klamath River. On the scary side of things, we're also transitioning into a community in which a growing number of our neighbors are hungry and food insecure. Meanwhile, Cal Poly Humboldt, a flagship institution of the county, continues to transition into the state's third polytechnic university, while Eureka's effort to transition into a city with less parking but more housing has met fierce resistance. Perhaps most importantly, Humboldt continues to mull a potentially transformative transition into a hub for the offshore wind industry. These are Humboldt County's most impactful stories of 2023, presented in no particular order. Let us know what you think we missed, either in online comments or by sending a letter to [email protected].

click to enlarge Jeffery Woodke addresses the media after his release in West Africa. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Jeffery Woodke addresses the media after his release in West Africa.

Woodke Freed

"Six years, five months, five days and 12 hours, give or take a few minutes, I was a hostage."

So began Jeffery Woodke's March 31 press conference and his first public remarks since the McKinleyville man had been freed 11 days earlier in West Africa, where he'd been taken captive while doing missionary work in Niger, and retuned with his wife Els.

"I was treated brutally and without humanity during my captivity," Woodke said, identifying Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Mali, as the group that held him hostage. "I was beaten and held continually in chains for 16 hours a day, every day, seven days a week. I was kept in isolation. I suffered injuries and illness, which were never medically treated."

A Humboldt State University graduate, Woodke had been doing aid work in Niger for more than 25 years, having found his passion in the ministry, when he was taken from his home in Abalak by armed men in a coordinated attack Oct. 14, 2016. It's unclear what ultimately led to Woodke's release, as U.S. officials maintained that no ransom was paid or other concessions made to his captors, and news reports have quoted unnamed administration officials as saying the government of Niger was "central" to the successful effort to free him.

Woodke said he'd lost all faith when on March 20 his captors loaded him and another hostage — French journalist Olivier Dubois — into a truck and drove them to a pre-arranged meeting point "in the middle of the desert," dropped them off and sped away. Then, he said, he saw special forces from a "third-party nation" coming.

"Then, my mouth was filled with laughter, then my tongue with songs of joy," he said. "And that day, I danced in the desert."

— Thadeus Greenson

click to enlarge A residence in Rio Dell damaged in the Dec. 20, 2022 earthquake. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • A residence in Rio Dell damaged in the Dec. 20, 2022 earthquake.

A Slow Road to Recovery in Rio Dell

On Jan. 1, 2022, a magnitude 5.4 aftershock struck a second blow to already battered Rio Dell, where residents were still reeling from a magnitude 6.4 earthquake that devastated the small town less than two weeks earlier. Many of those impacted are still struggling to pick up the pieces a year later.

According to the latest report in December, 11 of the 90 Rio Dell residences deemed unlivable in the aftermath remain so and another 200 yellow-tagged homes are still in need of a wide variety of repairs.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the inadequacies built into the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief program. Despite damaging 25 percent of the small city's housing stock and causing nearly $26 million in damage to the city's vital infrastructure, the total still fell far short of meeting FEMA's $65 million threshold for releasing aid.

That shortfall has left local and state officials with few options for providing assistance, and most of what is available is geared toward low- and very-low low-income households and require lengthy applications that necessitate navigating a maze of red tape.

In the end, the situation has left many in the county's hardest hit community feeling, as Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell described during an October update on earthquake recovery efforts, "left behind."

A community gathering to mark the anniversary of Dec. 20 is set for Jan. 13.

— Kimberly Wear

Klamath Dams Coming Down

And then there were three. The decades-long effort to remove four hydroelectric dams from the lower Klamath River and reclaim hundreds of miles of salmonid spawning territory started to become a reality in 2023 with the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corporation announcing it had completed removal of the Copco 2 dam.

In January, crews are slated to begin drawing down the reservoirs behind the Copco 1 JC Boyle dams, coinciding with the river's natural high flow months to facilitate flushing the sediment trapped behind the dams out to sea. The drawdown is expected to take three to five months, after which deconstruction of the three remaining dams will commence, tentatively scheduled to run from May to November, after which the lower Klamath River will flow freely for the first time in a century.

Restoration and replanting work will ramp up with the reservoir drawdowns, with crews working to cover the 2,000 acres of land that has long sat under water behind the dams with native grasses, trees and shrubs. Restoration and replanting work is slated to continue at least until 2030.

Dam removal is coming to fruition while the fish species it's meant to aid are in crisis. Record low salmon runs in the watershed prompted the closure of California's ocean fishing season, while the Yurok Tribe canceled both its commercial and subsistence fisheries and held its annual salmon festival without its namesake.

— Thadeus Greenson

click to enlarge An aerial view of Scott Dam on the Eel River, which PG&E has applied to remove. - PHOTO BY KYLE SCHWARTZ/COURTESY OF CALTROUT
  • Photo by Kyle Schwartz/courtesy of CalTrout
  • An aerial view of Scott Dam on the Eel River, which PG&E has applied to remove.

Eel River Dams, Too

Not to be outdone by its neighbor to the north, the Eel River apparently decided in 2023 that this whole dam removal thing looks pretty good after all.

Just weeks after Copco 2 came out of the Klamath River, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. filed a 94-page surrender application to federal regulators, formalizing its plan to tear down the two dams that comprise its Potter Valley project on the Eel River, which has blocked fish passage and reduced flows for more than a century.

In the filing, PG&E said deconstruction work could begin as early as 2028, pending environmental review and regulatory approval.

"Dam removal will make the Eel the longest free-flowing river in California and will open up hundreds of miles of prime habitat unavailable to native salmon and steelhead for over 100 years," said Trout Unlimited California Director Brian Johnson. "This is the most important thing we can do for our salmon and steelhead on the Eel River, and these fisheries cannot afford to wait."

While PG&E's filing was celebrated in environmental circles, dam removal is unquestionably a hard reality for some. Currently, there is no agreement in place that would allow continued water diversions into the East Fork Russian River, on which vineyards and other users in Sonoma and Mendocino counties have come to depend. Undamming the Eel will also mean the loss of the popular recreation destination Lake Pillsbury, the 3.5-square-mile reservoir formed by Scott Dam, sending property values for the 300 homes and cabins in its immediate vicinity plummeting.

But while the issues of monetary aid for affected landowners and ongoing diversions of Eel River water south remain open conversations, it now seems the question of dam removal has been answered.

"Either way you look at it, the Eel River dams' days are numbered," Friends of the Eel River Executive Director Alicia Hamann said after PG&E's filing.

— Thadeus Greenson

Parking Lot Wars

It's odd to think that a handful of city-owned parking lots could be at the center of one of the biggest news stories of the year but here we are. 2023, it turns out, will be remembered in part as the year local businessman Robin Arkley went to war with the city of Eureka ... over some parking lots.

To hear Arkley tell it, the fate of these lots in downtown and Old Town Eureka will determine that of the business community. If the lots fall victim to the city of Eureka's plans to convert them into housing developments, the thinking goes, folks will stop traveling to the areas to do business, and shops and restaurants will soon wither and die. Other businesses, meanwhile, will suffer as employees are forced to risk their safety to walk, who knows how far, from their parked vehicle to the safety of their offices. If, on the other hand, the lots are saved, businesses can thrive, customers will be plentiful, and everyone can park safely near their destination.

And so goes the thinking that compelled Arkley and the group Citizens for a Better Eureka to file a trio of lawsuits seeking to nix the city's planned parking lot conversions, while bankrolling an initiative that will ask voters in November to block the city's plans and, at the same time, rezone more than 8 acres of a long-shuttered school campus on Allard Avenue for housing.

The ongoing parking lot kerfuffle gained a new layer of intrigue earlier this month, when Eureka City Schools surprised just about everyone by deciding not to sell the aforementioned campus to the California Highway Patrol, which had been long negotiating its purchase. Instead, Eureka City Schools opted to offload it in a $6 million "property exchange" that's primarily made up of $5.35 million in cash with a mystery developer. Identified only as AMG Communities-Jacobs LLC, a freshly constructed legal entity, who's behind this developer and what they're planning remain unclear. Is it Arkley, the citizens group or the initiative proponents? Not according to their spokesperson, but it seems likely we'll get some sort of grand reveal in 2024.

— Thadeus Greenson

click to enlarge Students protest Cal Poly Humboldt's handling of on-campus housing in February. - PHOTO BY MARK LARSON
  • Photo by Mark Larson
  • Students protest Cal Poly Humboldt's handling of on-campus housing in February.

Growing Pains at CPH

Cal Poly Humboldt's ascent to full polytechnic status hit its stride in 2023 and things got a bit turbulent.

Preparing for a large influx of new students it thought would be drawn by the new P in its name, CPH alarmed students back in February when it announced returning students would have to live off-campus in the 2023-2024 school year, either in private accommodations or in one of more than four local hotels the university was contracting with to house hundreds of students. On-campus beds, the university said, would be reserved for new students only.

Within days, word leaked that the school was also in talks with the city of Eureka about the possibility of housing some 600 students aboard a multi-story residential barge docked in Humboldt Bay. Not only was the barge plan mocked by national late night television hosts, but it also inspired a pointed protest sign that sought the attention of CPH President Tom Jackson Jr.: "Hey Tom! Don't put us on a fucking prison boat!"

It turned out the boat plans and most of those motel rooms were a bit premature, as the ambitious enrollment growth CPH had projected did not come to be, with the final fall tally showing an uptick of just 123 students on campus. While that may have come as welcome news to students looking to keep living on campus, it puts CPH in danger of missing state enrollment targets, which could lead to lost funding in future years.

CPH stayed in the headlines for other reasons throughout the year, too, with a student suing it for failing to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, a Title IX audit finding its program lacked staffing, trust and communication, and university administration deciding to crack down on a handful of students living in vehicles on campus just weeks before finals. But it wasn't all bad: CPH also announced it will offer the first four-year degree program to maximum security inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison.

— Thadeus Greenson

click to enlarge A food distribution event in Rio Dell. - COURTESY OF FOOD FOR PEOPLE
  • Courtesy of Food For People
  • A food distribution event in Rio Dell.

A Growing Hunger in Humboldt

Across Humboldt County, more residents are going hungry.

While poverty has long been an issue here, those working to provide a safety net have reported a marked increase in community members seeking assistance this year, largely due to a perfect storm of rising costs coupled with the end of COVID-19 emergency allocations through the state's food aid program CalFresh.

That need was seen acutely as children headed back to school in September, with Food for People putting out a call for community help to meet the large uptick in families looking to participate in the Backpacks for Kids weekend hunger relief program, which provides healthy snacks and easy-to-make meals to help bridge the gaps left on days school is out of session.

Just as the pandemic brought a new wave of community members reaching for a helping hand from the county's nonprofit food bank — which serves an average 12,000 individuals a month through a network of 17 food pantries and other services — rising inflation did the same, pushing many of our residents already living on the financial brink to the edge.

While an estimated 12 percent of Californians live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data, Humboldt County's numbers are bleaker, with an estimated 20 percent of households living below the federal poverty line of $30,000 in annual income for a household of four, while the county's median household income comes in at $53,000 compared to $84,000 statewide.

If there is a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, food prices are not expected to continue spiking into the new year and may even drop a bit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, if you are looking for a way to help your neighbors in need, find more information on donating to Food for People at foodforpeople.org.

— Kimberly Wear

Fair Issues

It was a slog of a year for the Humboldt County Fair Association, which entered 2023 still reeling from the arrest of its former bookkeeper on suspicion of embezzling from the nonprofit. In fact, the association is still picking up some of the pieces from Nina Tafarella's alleged "ghost payroll" scheme, which according to a federal indictment saw her bilk more than $430,000 from the association over the course of about 21 months.

The fair board spent much of 2023 trying to bring its fiscal books into order while overhauling its financial safeguards to include a system of checks and balances to ensure nothing similar happens in the future, all while working under an interim CEO after the resignation of its former general manager after just a year on the job.

And the hits kept coming. An April 18 inspection of the fairgrounds found its grandstands had been badly damaged in the 6.4 earthquake that rattled the Eel River Valley on Dec. 20, 2022, rendering them unsafe for occupancy. The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors then approved a loan of up to $1 million for a temporary fix that would allow the association to use the grandstands for two weeks of horse racing — believed to be an economic driver of the annual event — and the race was on to get the work completed by the fair's Aug. 17 opening.

The work went off without a hitch and early reports from the association indicate the fair was economically successful. Planning is already underway for next year's event, which will feature three weeks of horse racing, while Tafarella has pleaded not guilty to five federal counts of wire fraud.

— Thadeus Greenson

click to enlarge Ferndale's largest-ever Pride parade marches through town in June. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Ferndale's largest-ever Pride parade marches through town in June.

LGBTQ+ Resistance

In a year marked with bigoted threats, anti-LGBTQ+ protests, legislation and violence — particularly against trans people and drag performers — the local community and organizations did not hide. After a Lost Coast Pride all-ages drag event at Ferndale's Old Steeple was canceled due to safety concerns, the Eureka chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence held a Day of Non-Judgement with flags, speeches and a sing-along beside the town hall.

Ferndale Repertory Theatre hosted an adults-only fundraiser for Lost Coast Pride, albeit with metal detectors at the door, that sold out. And College of the Redwoods stepped up to host the original all-ages drag show with increased security and an added outdoor market-fair in the parking lot. In the theater, attendees got a little drag history, messages of unconditional love and inclusion, as well as song and dance numbers in colorful costumes that brought the house down.

In the wake of a failed anti-hate resolution (later softened to a "kindness resolution") by the Ferndale City Council and the open bigotry displayed during public comment at its April 19 meeting, LGBTQ+ community members and allies again made themselves heard and seen. This year's Ferndale Pride was the largest the town has seen, with hundreds of rainbow-clad, sign-carrying marchers filling the streets and gathering in Fireman's Park.

Even after finding themselves in the middle of a national misinformation campaign when the story of a former volunteer (not member) arrested for alleged public indecency went viral, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence stuck to their mission of support. Along with a community picnic and other events, they held a Trans Week of Resistance in November. As Sister Gaia T said at one of the events that week, despite real dangers for LGBTQ+ people today, "We never organize from a place of fear."

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Offshore Wind

Plans to build a floating wind farm 20 miles off Humboldt's coast continued their slow march from hypothetical to possible reality in 2023, with friction points emerging as the community begins to contemplate the project's environmental, economic and quality-of-life impacts.

As the year comes to a close, the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Conservation and Recreation District is conducting an environmental review of plans to transform the former pulp mill site on the Samoa Peninsula into a state-of-the-art heavy lift, multipurpose terminal specifically designed to serve the offshore wind farm. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has begun its environmental review of potential environmental impacts of the farm itself.

In August, the Harbor District approved a project labor agreement — the first of its kind in Humboldt — that will govern who works on the aforementioned marine terminal project, which was hailed as a big milestone for organized labor.

And as work moves forward on the massive project, a pervasive unease remains in some circles, with a variety of local stakeholders and tribal leaders having expressed concerns about the Harbor District's partnership with the multi-national company Crowley, which has an exclusive right to negotiate the terminal project but has faced allegations of sexual misconduct by executives and a spotty environmental record. Others, meanwhile, continue to push for the finalization of so-called community benefits agreements that would pledge funds for workforce training, investments in Native communities, research collaborations and impacted industries.

The reality of an offshore wind farm and the infrastructure to support it remains on a distant horizon, but, if it comes to fruition, the work done in 2023 (and 2024) will shape what it looks like, as well as what and who it impacts and benefits.

— Thadeus Greenson

click to enlarge Tori McConnel in her Miss Indian World crown. - COURTESY OF THE MISS INDIAN WORLD PAGEANT
  • Courtesy of the Miss Indian World Pageant
  • Tori McConnel in her Miss Indian World crown.

Bonus! Miss Indian World

For the first time since 2009, a local took home the beaded Miss Indian World crown at the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On April 29, the honor went to 23-year-old Tori McConnell of the Yurok Tribe and Karuk heritage, who impressed judges with her personal interview, essay and letters of recommendation, public speaking, traditional talents, dance and overall character. She's the first member of the Yurok Tribe to win the title and duties of cultural goodwill ambassador for all of Indian Country and Indigenous communities around the world.

McConnell, who was born and raised in Eureka, already had an impressive resumé, having graduated from University of California at Davis with a Native American Studies degree, after which she worked in the Yurok Tribe's food sovereignty division and with artist Julian Lang in its master apprentice language acquisition program run by the Advocates for Indigenous Californian Language Survival. At the competition, she sang a song she composed in traditional style, one "of gratitude and respect for the creative energies that define myself and my people."

McConnell also showed her skill and artistry with traditional basketry, which won her Best Traditional Talent. The skill and artistry of her community was on display, too, as the regalia she wore was painstakingly crafted by family and friends from traditional materials like bear grass, maple bark, pine nuts and abalone shell, some of it handed down through generations. And she did them all proud.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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