by Jim Hight

River-run gravel and sand are essential ingredients in all road maintenance and construction projects. Here are stockpiles and processing equipment at Arcata Readimix.

In May the Journal revealed how movers and shakers in the building trades industry helped force the resignation of Humboldt County Planning Director Tom Conlon.

The builder-dominated Planning Review Commission declared Conlon unfit to reform the department, and it advised the Board of Supervisors to change managers. Builders also lobbied supervisors privately, and some of the most persuasive advocates were gravel operators. The chairman of the county's gravel mining commission, Tom Dinsmore, was even invited into a closed personnel session to advise the board on Conlon's replacement. (The Journal is suing the board over this alleged violation of the Brown Act.)

This summer the gravel operators were at the center of another dust-up, blasting away in letters and speeches to the Board of Supervisors. Once again their target was a regulatory outfit, the County of Humboldt Extraction Review Team (CHERT). And once again they used an industry-dominated advisory committee as their platform, the Surface Mining Advisory Committee (SMAC).

Never heard of SMAC or CHERT?

Neither have 99 percent of your fellow Humboldters. But for those who pay attention to gravel mining in Humboldt County, the story of SMAC vs. CHERT is as riveting as a soap opera.

Call it The Bold and the Biologists.

The County of Humboldt Extraction Review Team members are scientists. The Surface Mining Advisory Committee is a gravel industry-dominated group that advises the Board of Supervisors on regulating gravel mining.

CHERT tells the gravel operators where, when and how they can safely mine gravel. The gravel operators have to pay for this advice through a county trust fund.

It's an odd setup, but one supported by county, state and federal regulators who oversee gravel mining, and by Redwood Region Audubon Society and other conservation groups who have sued the county and gravel operators over what they say are violations of land-use laws for riparian zones.

The conservationists' watchdog on gravel mining was the late Lewis Klein of McKinleyville, who died of a heart condition on Aug. 15. The "Earth Warden" sat on SMAC and "devoted more than five years of stress-filled effort to make the county obey state regulations for gravel mining in North Coast rivers," according to Chad Roberts, who eulogized Klein in the September Eco-News.

In the wake of Klein's death, environmental activists who follow gravel-mining issues are doubly nervous that the gravel operators will undermine CHERT's authority. The operators have complained in recent memos and speeches to the Board of Supervisors that CHERT hasn't finished promised reports, that they're hard to reach and harder to schedule field visits with, and that they have no business regulating gravel operators in the first place.

SMAC wants to recommend two new scientists for the committee. CHERT Chairman Randy Klein (no relation to Lewis Klein) thinks this may be an attempt to stack the committee. "We'd be replaced with a group who would rubber stamp whatever (gravel extraction) plan comes their way," said Klein.

There appears to be little chance of that happening, however. If CHERT's objectivity were compromised, the big gun in gravel regulation, Army Corps of Engineers, would not be happy. And that agency could make the gravel operators very unhappy.

"We can deny their (mining) permits if we believe that the information being provided to us (by CHERT) is inaccurate," said Calvin Fong, chief of the corps' regulatory branch in San Francisco. "We still have a federal handle on it." The supervisors will discuss the CHERT process on Oct. 28.

CHERT was born in 1992 amid controversy about gravel mining on the Mad River. It had different initials back then, but the same purposes: to make educated guesses about the impacts of gravel extraction on the river; and to prescribe amounts and methods of extraction that would ensure good fish habitat and stop the bed-lowering and scouring that was threatening bridges and other structures in the river.

CHERT's jurisdiction was extended to cover all Humboldt County rivers when it was written into a county ordinance in 1995 and embraced in 1996 by the Corps of Engineers.

The scientific committee doesn't have regulatory power itself, but its review is required by the corps and the rest of the alphabet soup of state and federal agencies that have a hand in regulating North Coast rivers.

Yet CHERT is also supposed to work cooperatively with the miners, meeting them on the river bars each spring to decide together what kind of extraction makes sense. "A win-win for everybody," said Fong.

But cooperation is difficult at best.

SMAC's derision of CHERT was in full flower at its August meeting. There seemed to be only two agenda items that night: 1) Griping about CHERT; and 2) Griping about other public agencies.

One SMAC member who is not a gravel operator, Kelly Hellstrom, tried to steer the discussion toward resolving the problems between SMAC and CHERT. But the miners responded with "Whaddya gonna do?" shrugs and long stories about pain-in-the-ass bureaucrats.

The conflict is wearying for the CHERT members, who are paid for their work but also consider it a public service. The conflict "puts me and other members of the committee closer to saying 'The hell with all this,'" said Klein. "We've all got other paying clients who are happy with our work and don't create monumental problems out of little things."

One of those "little things" which rile the operators is CHERT's tardiness in completing "post-extraction" reports that assess the rivers' health after each year's gravel extractions. The scientists have yet to complete reports which were due in February for Mad River operations. Without those reports the operators fear CHERT may lower their "gravel budgets" in the future without solid justification.

"We don't have a chance without that annual report to see in a cumulative fashion what transpired there over the seasons," said SMAC member Rob McLaughlin, owner of Eureka Sand and Gravel. "Some of the operators think there's some level of arbitrariness (in the CHERT prescriptions). There may not be, but there's no physical evidence for us to look at to assure us it's not arbitrary."

Klein said that 1996 reports were late because the committee's payments had stopped. The CHERT's overdue bills have recently been paid, said Klein, after the SMAC engineered a payment procedure with the county auditor. And he said that a "big picture" report on gravel extraction from the Mad River would be done next year.

But the operators also gripe about a raft of environmental regulations which they consider absurd and unfair, regulations over which CHERT has no control.

Until about six years ago, the gravel miners operated much like their fathers and grandfathers before them, taking gravel from river bars they owned or leased with interference from no one other than the gods of weather. "The last of the wild west cowboys," in the words of one of their consultants.

"For 100 years or more we operated following the condition and the flow of the river," Bill O'Neill, owner of Arcata Readimix, told me. If the winter rains came late, they operated through November and even December. If spring rains dragged on, sometimes the water would be too high until July.

"We do not work in a live stream," he said. "Most of us work quite a distance from the water ... above the low flow."

In the old days, O'Neill's workers would drive ready-mix cement trucks until 2 in the afternoon, he said. "Then they'd move material off the river from 2 to 5."

Today their season is cut as short as six weeks due to endangered species' protections and other environmental laws. And they must complete reams of paperwork for agencies regulating everything from water quality to scenic river viewsheds. "There are approximately 32 agencies ... that you have to file separate reports for," said O'Neill. "I'd think as smart as we are in this country that there could be one agency that could oversee everything."

The commercial gravel operators are still able to mine lots of gravel, but they say their operating margin is stretched so thin that it's barely worth being in the business anymore.

To get a look at the resource in its natural state, I drove down in early September to Hauck's Bar on the Eel River near Alton. The river was running so low -- about 175 cubic feet per second I learned later -- that I could have waded across it.

But the river bed was more than a quarter-mile wide, a vast geomorphic monument to the rain that drenches the Eel's 3,000-square mile basin in wet winters. The 1996-97 New Years' flood pushed a peak flow of 360,000 cubic feet per past the measuring station at Scotia, but even the more typical 19,000 cfs recorded a week later is enough water to drag uncountable tons of sand, gravel and rocks from the hills to the valley floor.

Three yellow scrapers plowed a half-foot or so at a time into their buckets before transporting a load to the processing area.

McLaughlin's Eureka Sand and Gravel has leased the bar since 1980, but the river bed has yielded gravel to other operators at the rate of about 60,000 cubic yards per season since at least the 1940s.

In 1992, as the county began to enforce state mining laws, McLaughlin was granted a vested rights permit based on the fact that Hauck's Bar had been mined for many years.

He recently secured a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission, something that all the other gravel miners may be spurred to do if Redwood Region Audubon Society is successful in its challenge to their vested rights. The group has sued the county and several gravel miners, including Pacific Lumber Co., saying their vested rights were granted illegally. A local judge ruled against them, but they've appealed to district court.

It's a complex issue, one perhaps best explained posthumously by Lewis Klein, who was interviewed by the Journal on gravel issues in April.

"In our opinion, a lot of these operations ceased being legal operations. By law they were supposed to come in in the early '80s with reclamation plans. If they didn't, the county and state regulations said these were operations that were illegal, abandoned nuisances.

"They weren't supposed to be treated as vested, continuing operations. (They) should have been treated as new operations, requiring a conditional use permit. That would have required a broader environmental analysis.

"PALCO (is) mining on parts of the Eel River going through the state park system. There are impacts on visitors to the park, noise for people paddling down the river, traffic and safety issues, all kinds of issues not dealt with unless they applied for a conditional use permit."

One gravel operator, Jack Noble, secured a conditional use permit in September for a new operation on the Van Duzen River. The permit for 200,000 cubic yards per year was opposed by some neighbors, and CHERT chairman Randy Klein said "200,000 yards on the lower Van Duzen gives me heartburn. That's a much smaller river system than the Eel."

CHERT will review Noble's annual extraction plans, setting lower extraction amounts if they deem it appropriate. And the Corps of Engineers will back up CHERT, as long as the corps retains jurisdiction. Which may not be long.

The American Mining Association has contested the corps' oversight in federal court, and earlier this year a Washington, D.C. judge ruled against the corps. The agency appealed, and the appeals court stayed the lower court's decision -- leaving the corps in charge of river-bar mining until the appeal is heard. A court date for the appeal has not been set.

So stay tuned. The saga of gravel mining in Humboldt County promises to remain interesting and unpredictable.


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