EPIC tackles Caltrans, parks issues, pot grows on federal land, and the GPU

Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

Since its beginning 25 years ago, the Environmental Protection Information Center has grown from a small group of Southern Humboldt activists to a widely recognized and respected regional non-profit organization dedicated to protecting forest ecosystems and wildlife on California’s North Coast.

EPIC is now uniquely qualified to engage with the state and federal government on a range of issues, EPIC executive director Gary Graham-Hughes said, including impacts of Caltrans projects, State Parks closures, and industrial marijuana grows on public lands, as well as industrial forestry reform and protection for endangered species.

In the last couple of years, EPIC joined a lawsuit against Caltrans, challenging the agency’s Environmental Impact Report on the Highway 101 widening/straightening project at Richardson Grove State Park as defective and insufficient.

Not only was EPIC concerned about impacts to Richardson Grove itself but as one of a cluster of projects that would make Highway 101 "an alternative to I-5, especially when Siskiyou Summit [on I-5 near the Oregon border] is closed by winter weather - the same time as the worst weather of the year on 101," Graham-Hughes said.

EPIC believes that the regional environmental and economic consequences of these projects, which include the Willits Bypass and the widening of Highway 199 along the Smith River in Del Norte County, would be hugely detrimental to the region.

In October EPIC joined the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and the Willits Environment Center in a second lawsuit against Caltrans regarding the Willits Bypass, which would reroute 101 as a four-lane highway east of Willits for several miles. This entails filling in 86 acres of wetlands and converting 2,000 acres of ranchland.

"Caltrans bought up a phenomenal amount of land" for the project, Graham-Hughes said. "They made an economic decision for the community - that the best economic use of this land is for the highway."

Because of Caltrans’ purchase of productive grazing land, the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) intervened in the lawsuit, charging that Caltrans ignored the impact to agricultural land in its environmental review.

While it might seem that CFBF and EPIC have separate interests, since Caltrans purchased the ag land to mitigate the loss of wetlands, Graham-Hughes sees this as an example of why the project is infeasible. EPIC recognizes the conservation benefits of ranchland, he noted.

On the other hand, recognizing the need for economic sustainability on the North Coast, which requires access for the extra-long STAA trucks that comprise most interstate shipping, EPIC supports Caltrans’s improvement project at Buckhorn Summit on Highway 299 between 101 at Arcata and I-5 at Redding.

State Parks

When the state ordered closure of 70 state parks and recreation areas due to budget cutbacks last spring, EPIC "actively engaged with legislators and the governor’s office," Graham-Hughes said.

He described the effort as "Intense... Things happened fast... It was a daily effort to keep communicating with legislators with phone calls and emails, coordinating with other groups."

Following the scandal of misplaced park funds, EPIC also is urging the state to take this opportunity to look more closely at how state parks are managed, which Graham-Hughes characterized as "too Sacramento-heavy."

When EPIC first wrote to the state on this issue, citing the economic and ecological benefits of state parks to the North Coast region, they discovered that parts of their comments were almost identical to comments submitted by the Garberville-Redway Chamber of Commerce, another example of the environmental and business communities sharing concerns on an issue although their interests are different.

The highway and state park issues represent a continuation of EPIC’s historical concern for protection of public lands. Graham-Hughes observed that one of EPIC’s earliest campaigns involved saving wilderness by creating public land - the formation of Sinkyone Wilderness State Parks - and now EPIC is trying to help save existing public lands.

"Not many wild unprotected lands are left, so now we have to focus on keeping what we have," Hughes said.

Marijuana Grows

Along those lines, EPIC has recently tackled the degradation of federally-owned forest lands by illegal marijuana grows.

EPIC’s approach is to call on the United States Forest Service to "immediately initiate analysis of the impacts of marijuana cultivation on national forest lands, and the effects of Forest Service actions and inactions that may be exacerbating or facilitating marijuana cultivation," according to a letter sent to several USFS officials on Oct. 11, 2012.

Back in July 2011 EPIC wrote to the acting supervisor of the Mendocino National Forest asking him to address the impacts of marijuana cultivation in the Mendocino National Forest. The acting supervisor refused to do so, stating that USFS does not need to study these impacts because they are not caused by USFS.

EPIC’s most recent letter, addressed to the regional forester as well as supervisors of several national forests in northwestern California, asserts a number of cases in which USFS analyzed impacts made by other parties. It then goes on to detail ways in which USFS actions are likely to "exacerbate or facilitate" illegal grows and their impacts - for example by building and maintaining roads into remote areas.

"We’re getting out in front of this issue with other groups," Graham-Hughes said. EPIC has joined an ad hoc coalition of environmental and stakeholder groups, including growers.

"Cannabis is an economic issue that needs to be looked at through a land manager’s lens," Graham-Hughes continued. "We need to get the moral albatross off our backs, and deal with the physical reality."

Within the ad hoc group, even the stakeholders agree that growing on public lands is not sustainable, that it is damaging to both wildlife and the pot economy.

In addition to encouraging public agencies to examine their actions, Graham-Hughes said educating growers about the toxic impacts of their practices, especially on their children, and encouraging alternative methods of cultivation, water storage, and the like, ultimately will do more good than eradication efforts.

"Things have changed a lot. It’s not just cops versus growers. It’s a question of how committed people are to the community that has offered them so much opportunity," Graham-Hughes said.

General Plan Update

EPIC has also engaged in the county General Plan Update by writing a series of letters to the planning commission and the board of supervisors, particularly addressing the Biological Resources and Water Resources Elements, calling for strong protection for waterways and biological diversity.

Additionally, EPIC criticized the Transportation (Circulation) Element as based on "outdated and misleading" information regarding truck traffic.

"I would say that one thing I have learned from the General Plan process is that effective work for biodiversity and water resource protections has to be accompanied by advocacy for the protection of civil liberties," Graham-Hughes said.

"It does not mean that private property rights are paramount," he went on. "It means that stewardship of public trust resources on residential rural lands is facilitated and more rapidly advanced by acting in respect of the civil liberties of the communities living on that land."

Although EPIC has moved its offices from Garberville to Arcata and is working on issues in five counties - Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity, Del Norte, and the northwestern part of Shasta - the organization still has its roots in Southern Humboldt and appreciates the support it gets from SoHum.

Graham-Hughes thanked everyone who attended the recent annual dinner at the Mateel Community Center and everyone who has donated to EPIC, no matter what size the donation.

EPIC’s annual budget is around $350,000. "We are more dependent on small donations than ever before," Graham-Hughes said, pointing out that a $100 donation from a local supporter means as much to EPIC as $25,000 from a movie star to a large national organization.

For more information or to make donations online, see EPIC’s website at www.wildcalifornia.org, or call them at 822-7711.