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by Will Parrish, May 21, 2014
In February 2013, Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen visited the now-famous tree sit of Amanda “The Warbler” Senseman south of Willits. Senseman, a 25-year-old goat and vegetable farmer who now works growing produce for Willits-area elementary school children on a one-acre plot at Brookside Elementary School, was then living 71 feet above-ground in a ponderosa pine, in the path of the California Department of Transportation’s planned Willits Bypass destruction swath.
Senseman’s action — which she sustained for 65 days — had created a significant shift in the political climate surrounding the $300 million-plus, six-mile freeway. Media scrutiny of Big Orange’s boondoggle was growing. The direct action wing of the Bypass opposition had carried out several successful blockades of construction equipment, which helped stave off the initial mowing down of trees and gobbling up of vegetation. State Senator Noreen Evans (D-Sebastopol) came tepidly out against the project.
It was in this context that McCowen — a 65-year-old westside Ukiah resident, son of a prominent former local judge — chatted up Senseman for roughly an hour via walkie talkie, waxing fondly about his opposition to clear-cut logging during the Timber Wars of the 1980s and ’90s. During that time, local people organized blockades, tree sits, and other acts of defiance aimed at blocking predatory timber firms such as Maxxam and Louisiana-Pacific from devouring this region’s remaining old-growth and virgin forests.
As a friendship offering, McCowen brought along his personally-signed copy of famous tree sitter Julia Butterfly Hill’s book, A Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman, and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods. On the inside cover, Ms. Hill had addressed the book to “Raven” — McCowen’s old “forest name.”
Senseman had already read the book while living in the cramped quarters of her aerial blockade, having checked it out from the Willits Public Library a day prior to scaling the pine. It was evident, though, that McCowen regarded his memento with a sort of doting sentimentality, and that the mustachioed fifth-generation inland Mendo resident might experience hurt feelings if Senseman proved unwilling to receive it.
So, The Warbler politely hauled McCowen’s copy up the tree in a cloth bag attached to a 70-foot-long drop line, promising she would soon have it returned to him via a ground supporter (which she did).
About a month after swapping eco-resistance stories with Senseman, McCowen voted in favor of the Bypass at a Mendocino County Board of Supervisors meeting. Specifically, the vote was to endorse a letter reaffirming the Supes’ “historic support” of the project. Every public remark McCowen issued at this meeting — and it really was every remark — was aimed at refuting the Bypass’ opposition.
The vote was 3-2 in favor of supporting the Bypass, with Supervisors Dan Gjerde and Dan Hamburg dissenting.
It is, of course, now virtually certain that the Willits Bypass will be completed. The possibility of downsizing the project’s most arbitrary and bloated feature, the northern interchange, does remain alive, although even most people in the group, Save Our Little Lake Valley, concluded several months ago that trying to scuttle the CalTrans Bypass in its entirety was no longer a battle worth waging.
One redeeming aspect of CalTrans’ more than 20-year slog to get the Bypass built over the objections of environmentalists, local business owners, and a relative handful of farmers, is that it provides a detailed lesson on how an earth-destroying swindle like this ultimately gets rammed through the system. As Frederick Douglass once wrote, “To understand, one must stand under.”
To that end, McCowen’s seeming support for Ms. Senseman while voting for the unjustifiable project as a done-deal is a fitting symbol. For more than two decades, and especially for the past year-and-a-half, the political process attending the Willits Bypass has been characterized by hubris, fallacy, and consistent hypocrisy. The project’s major political supporters — including local, state, and federal officials — have routinely bent logic and willfully ignored inconvenient information to accommodate the project’s overarching political and ethical contradictions.
Reviewing the Contradictions
Before we look more closely at how specific political leaders here in Mendo have justified the massive contradictions attending the Willits Bypass, let’s review what these contradictions are.
Massive Contradiction #1, which has been noted countless times by Bypass opponents, is that the Bypass is a $300 million-plus, four-lane Interstate 5-sized freeway that will handle less traffic than the stretch of Talmage Road east of Highway 101 near Ukiah. It will handle about 50 percent less traffic than Highway 20 on the stretch from Ukiah to Upper Lake. It will handle less traffic than Low Gap Road.
During a brief fling with opposing the Bypass, Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Gjerde did a serviceable job summarizing this dilemma. He made this statement at the Supervisors’ infamous meeting last March, following several hours of public comment by Bypass opponents.
“I understand some of the numbers about the traffic on the highway in Willits. And it’s only about 22,000 vehicles per day. A three lane highway, a three-lane road, two lanes in each direction and a left-turn pocket, can handle about 20,000, so it’s just barely over capacity. You could easily divert that traffic with connector streets that would parallel Main Street. So I want to congratulate and compliment everyone here who has identified some obvious facts, because these obvious facts for whatever reason have not been pursued by CalTrans and others.”
Then there is the matter of draining, compacting, filling in, driving heavy machinery upon, stripping trees and vegetation from, and/or installing viaducts on nearly 90 acres of federally protected wetlands in the area that historically comprises the southern portion of Little Lake — the seasonal body of water for which Little Lake Valley is named. In 1977, the US Congress amended the Clean Water Act to mandate “no net loss of wetlands” in the US. One of the world’s greatest wetlands destroyers, the Army Corps of Engineers, is paradoxically charged with enforcing this policy.
The means by which CalTrans wrangled the Army Corps’ permission to destroy these wetlands brings us to Massive Contradiction #2.
CalTrans has pledged to “mitigate for” 82.05 acres of destroyed wetlands via a combination of “wetlands creation” and “wetlands enhancement.” This “mitigation plan,” however, centers on the excavation of 266,000 cubic yards of topsoil. This figure is courtesy of a document the Army Corps provided the Willits Environmental Center last year. This amount of soil is enough to create a fairly large earthen dam (this kind of structure is the Army Corps’ specialty), or, if you prefer, a berm on which to lay asphalt for a typical freeway segment of, say, six miles in length (that being CalTrans’ specialty, except for the “modest-sized” part).
Apologists for the Bypass rush to point out aspects of the mitigation plan that may be beneficial. For example, bridges are slated to be built over creeks so that cattle cross over them, rather than trampling the creek banks, compacting the soil, and pooping in the water.
Jane Hicks, the Army Corps’ chief regulator, stated it well at the time, as quoted by a June 2011 story in the California Farm Bureau newspaper Ag Alert:
“Caltrans has purchased properties that are mostly wetlands for their wetland mitigation, and that’s a problem for the Corps because that puts us in a position where we are asked to replace wetlands with new wetlands. What we asked Caltrans to do is get us involved while they are looking at properties so that we can tell them if there are wetlands on them already, or what the potential would be for wetland establishment on those properties. That did not happen in this project; they went out and bought properties that were already wetlands, and so how do we give them wetland creation or establishment credit on properties that are existing wetlands?”
As I described at length in a piece last year in the AVA called “The Bypass Mitigation Charade,” the way the Army Corps of Engineers, the Water Board, and CalTrans resolved this dilemma was by allowing CalTrans to count disturbance and destruction of existing wetlands as “wetlands creation.” Not a single public official — local, state, or federal — has publicly commented on this enormous contradiction since.
Of Conservatives, Liberals, and the Bypass
The main mechanism by which local officials have helped nurture the Willits Bypass into being is a relatively little-known agency called the Mendocino Council of Governments (MCOG), one among a statewide network of regional bodies that coordinates transportation planning across town and city boundaries.
Presiding over MCOG is a Captain Ahab sort of fellow named Phil Dow, who acts simultaneously as MCOG’s executive director and as the executive director of MCOG’s primary private contractor, Dow & Associates. All staff people at the taxpayer-funded MCOG also work for Dow & Associates, and vice versa. Mr. Dow has been an avid supporter of the Willits Bypass throughout his tenure.
In 1997, California Senate Bill 45 authorized greater independence for local transportation agencies. Under this bill, the lion’s share of regional transportation funding goes to such organizations. Yet, partly owing to Phil Dow’s influence, most of the regional transportation planning funds — $32 million — have been spent not on local roads projects, but rather on the Willits Bypass.
MCOG’s board membership is made up of members of the Board of Supervisors, reps of Mendo’s four city councils, and other regional officials. These individuals have voted on whether to continue to give funding to the Willits Bypass numerous times across the years. Following a less-than-thorough search, I was unable to find a single instance of a MCOG member voting against an allocation of local transportation dollars in support of the Bypass.
One of these MCOG members, Mendocino County Supervisor John Pinches, wears the mantle of fiscal conservatism. He has also been one of the most outspoken supporters of the biggest government boondoggles to occur in Mendocino County in recent memory. The Bypass is occurring in Pinches’ district, and one of his main priorities has been to get it built. (Although years ago Pinches was one of the first ones to point out that the bypass could be built on the existing railroad right-of-way.)
When it comes to Pinches, at least you know what you’re getting. Pinches likes the economic activity generated by big infrastructure projects and industrial activities regardless of the ecological toll, and apparently regardless of other long-term consequences (economic and cultural) as well. The MCOG meeting minutes of March 2012 record the following statement from Pinches with regard to the Bypass: “As the largest construction project in Mendocino County, it is extremely important to send a message… of our unwavering support.”
Two leading lights of Mendocino County’s Democratic Party, Supervisor Dan Gjerde and Willits Mayor Holly Madrigal, have also been MCOG board members through the years. Gjerde is currently the board’s chairman. While they have not taken a leadership role in getting the Bypass built, they have nevertheless consistently voted in favor of directing the vast majority of Mendocino County’s transportation funds to the Willits Bypass’ coffers.
A politically ambitious woman in her mid-30s, Madrigal is an especially interesting case because she was born in raised in Willits and is one of the leading candidates in the race to replace Pinches as a supervisor. Madrigal is active in various progressive organizations, including Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL), where she helps to promote local currencies, local farms, reduced dependence on fossil fuels, and the like. While she personally opposes the CalTrans Bypass in favor of a much smaller and less damaging in-town bypass connecting Baechtel Ave. to the Northern Pacific railroad corridor, her occasional public opposition to the project has always been cautious and selective.
As far as I know, Madrigal made precisely one visit to The Warbler’s tree sit. On February 27, 2013, the day that State Senator Noreen Evans’ staff people turned out for a conversation with the Bypass opposition, Madrigal came by and chatted up her Democratic Party compatriots for the better part of an hour, expressing her misgivings about the Bypass. Earlier this year, Evans endorsed Madrigal in her bid to become a county supervisor. As soon as the Bypass construction began in earnest, Madrigal largely turned into a Bypass “acceptor.”
Madrigal and Gjerde exhibit the classically liberal tendency to embrace ambition and practicality as their highest political aims. For instance, Madrigal has been invited to testify before state environmental officials on at least two occasions regarding the Willits drought. It would not have been much of a stretch for Madrigal to bring up the Bypass in this context, being that it is causing largest destruction of wetlands anywhere in California right now. In his State of the State address this past January, Gov. Jerry Brown mentioned wetlands restoration as a primary priority for mitigating the impacts of the drought.
Madrigal chose not to rock the boat.
We now return to McCowen-’80s and early-’90s, a former board member of the Mendocino Environmental Center, and the current owner of the building in which the Mendocino Environmental Center operates, who is nevertheless one of the Willits Bypass’ main local champions. McCowen seemingly resolves his impressive contradictions by taking the firm position that the group Save Our Little Lake Valley is cynically promoting inaccuracies and exaggerations regarding how much environmental damage the project is actually causing.
In a conversation with my friend Julia Dakin last month, McCowen said that “even CalTrans is more accurate than SOLLV.” He referred to some members of SOLLV as “bullies.”
McCowen’s odd fixation with SOLLV reached its public nadir at a Supervisors meeting on March 25th, when the Supes voted 4-1 to permit extraction of nearly 900,000 cubic yards of soil from Mendocino Redwood Company’s abandoned mill site north of Willits, with said soil to be disbursed across roughly 40 acres of Little Lake wetlands to construct the giant berm on which the freeway’s asphalt is to be laid.
Prior to the vote, McCowen launched into a diatribe regarding how “disheartened” he was that “the environmental community” had failed to support “clearly the environmentally-superior option.” He intoned that those who opposed the Supes’ decision on environmental grounds “should be ashamed” of themselves.
McCowen, you see, prefers excavating soil from the mill site as opposed to CalTrans’ other potential soil source, Oil Well Hill. The latter is located about five miles north of town. It is often the first spot that rises above the fog of Little Lake Valley, where the northbound Highway 101 driver is greeted with a piercing blue sky as the road rises up the incline. Beautiful, old-growth stands of Douglas fir reside there — visible from the vantage point of Highway 101.
The mill site excavation would involve clearing seven forested acres, whereas excavating Oil Well Hill would entail clearing roughly 40 acres. Oil Well Hill is also roughly two miles further north of the Bypass construction site, so hauling said soil would involve greater fossil fuel emissions.
McCowen may well be correct, then, that it is better for CalTrans to extract soil from the old mill site. Then again, the mill site’s soil might very well be contaminated with deadly chemicals. The studies regarding these soil’s contaminants have been inadequate, with one of the studies indicating elevated levels of Chromium 6 and arsenic.
Either option, however, involves the largest filling in of wetlands in northern California in more than a half-century. As Supervisor Dan Hamburg pointed out, the Water Board had just broached the possibility of downsizing the northern interchange, where most of this soil would be deposited. The Supes’ vote in favor of hauling soil from the mill site helped set into motion the development of the arbitrarily bloated, 40-acre northern interchange, even though it remains politically contested. (Hamburg’s a great one for riding down out of the hills to shoot the wounded. Not a peep out of him at any time in the process until he got to grandstand against a done-deal with his lone no vote. All the local liberals have been consistently cowardly and of no use, up to and including Jared Huffman who listened to the arguments, agreed with many of them, but said there was nothing he could do.)
So, McCowen’s strong stand on behalf of taking soil from the mill site is not unlike arguing whether to cast the first mate overboard or devour his corpse, even as the lifeboat still remains afloat and perhaps not all that far from shore.
Just below the surface of McCowen’s stance is his stated belief that the Little Lake wetlands have been largely destroyed by grazing anyway, so they are not nearly as worthy of protection as SOLLV says. He told Dakin the idea that these are “high-function wetlands” is a “mythology that SOLLV tries to develop to sell to the public.” The Value of The Wetlands vs. The Value of Money Given that McCowen is as an ardent supporter of the Bypass, I was not surprised to learn that he regards the wetlands (“cow pasture,” he calls them) unworthy of much protection. These nearly 90 federally protected acres that CalTrans is destroying to build its Bypass have been at the crux of the project, making them perhaps the most politically controversial patch of land in Mendocino County’s recent history.
When I first heard McCowen’s assessment, my mind immediately conjured images of the brief tree sit I conducted roughly a year ago, in an Oregon ash grove located along the northern end of the Bypass destruction swath. From this perch, I looked out from nearly 70 feet above the horizon as CalTrans’ contractors began the multi-year process of converting the wetlands from habitat for cows, deer, elk, waterfowl, newts and salamanders, insects and microbes, into habitat for the atomized steel capsules to which the dominant culture has grown addicted as means of achieving both mobility and social status.
Functioning wetlands make for a study in contrast vis-a-vis the larger culture’s emphasis on speed and efficiency. Wetlands perform three primary roles in relation to their greater watershed: water filtration, retention of flood water, and groundwater recharge. In spite of extensive damage wrought by grazing, Little Lake Valley’s wetlands were still performing all of these functions fairly well. All of these functions involve slowing down the water, allowing it to build up and slowly seep into the land. Certain vegetation does particularly well in such conditions. Little Lake is historically home to a mixed, deciduous forest mainly comprised of Oregon ash, mixed with valley oak and Oregon white oak trees and an understory of red and white willows. Having led numerous public tours of the Bypass “bootprint” in the preceding several months, I took note that the base of the ash trees remained in standing water until mid-April. It was perhaps the most pristine wetlands area in the entire Bypass destruction swath. It seemed a fitting place to make a stand.
From 2009 to 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers’ staff scientists extensively studied the Bypass and mitigation lands. The main dilemma the Army Corps faced as it plotted out ways of “enhancing” these wetlands was that the wetlands were mostly functioning at a fairly high level. The Oregon ash grove where I lived in a tree platform for seven days is a primary example of the wetlands’ relatively intact state and latent regenerative ability.
For several decades, the dominant land use there was grazing. There are various ways to graze cattle that are more or less ecologically harmful. As a general rule, though, these livestock animals consume most vegetation and also compact soil, particularly in riparian areas. Such changes in the land cause water to rush into streams. The extra water velocity generates high peak flows during storms, causing erosion on stream banks and deepening of waterway channels. As a result, water tables are lowered and less water is available in the soil for the late summer, drying out the land as a whole. Over time, re-vegetation of formerly grazed areas can allow the soil to stabilize and recover, thus allowing the watershed at large to recover.
Beginning in the 1960s or 1970s, grazing was excluded from this land, and the land quickly restored itself. An understory of red and while willows, Pacific blackberry, sedges, and grasses was present there at the time of the tree sit. This recovery happened largely because the spongy soils and other characteristics of a wetlands were still relatively intact in these lands. The lands that McCowen derides as “cow pasture” and simply “a place where water backs up” have the same latent capacity.
For what it’s worth, the person who has studied these wetlands more than anyone else, Army Corps of Engineers biologist Dan Martel, agrees. He projected that removal of cattle grazing from 1,100 acres would gradually restore soil organisms and moisture to these lands, allowing them to return to the sorts of self-willed ecological processes that characterized them in a previous era.
The overriding purpose of environmental regulation, however, is not to protect ecosystems, but rather to provide order to capitalism’s otherwise unruly central imperative: constant expansion. In the case of the Willits Bypass, that has meant placing far greater value on a six mile freeway than on Little Lake Valley’s wetlands.
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has more or less said as much with regard to the Willits Bypass. In a conversation with Bypass opponents in Santa Rosa this past January, Water Board staff member Jeremiah stated that the Water Board’s organizational goal vis-a-vis the Bypass is “to help CalTrans succeed.” He was echoing the words of his boss, NCRWQCB Executive Officer Matthias St. John, who wrote them in a letter to CalTrans last fall.
Whereas the Water Board allegedly exists for the purpose of preserving water quality, success for CalTrans in the case of the Willits Bypass means carrying out the largest destruction of wetlands in northern California in more than a half-century for the purpose of improving the flow of commercial goods along the Highway 101 corridor, bestowing tens of millions of dollars on their corporate contractors and those contractors’ corporate-style union co-dependents, and saving commuters five minutes of travel time. This contradiction seemingly does not register for the Water Board’s executive officers.
McCowen, too busy focusing on discrediting SOLLV as a way of resolving his own contradictions, also willfully ignores such dilemmas. In their conversation last month, Julia Dakin asked McCowen if he considers it underhanded for CalTrans to exclude consideration of small-scale, two-lane freeways from its list of project alternatives virtually whenever it proposes a bypass in California.
“Could be,” McCowen said. “Some might call it strategic.”