Posted on Categories Forests, Habitats, Land UseTags , , , ,

Sonoma County couple ordered to pay nearly $600,000 for damage to protected property

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship Director Bob Neale had seen pictures.

So he thought he had a good idea of what awaited him when he went out to inspect a protected piece of land on the north flank of Sonoma Mountain a few years back. A concerned neighbor had reported heavy equipment and questionable activity on property protected under a conservation easement and, thus, intended to remain in its natural state.

But while photos conveyed “a sense of it, it’s nothing compared to actually seeing it,” Neale, a soft-spoken man, said of the environmental damage he witnessed that day in 2014. “I was not prepared.”

Neale and an associate found a patch of private landscape above Bennett Valley scraped down to bedrock in some places and a trenched, 180-year-old oak uprooted and bound so it could be dragged to an adjoining parcel to adorn the grounds of a newly constructed estate home, according to court documents.

That heritage oak and two others the landowners sought to move over a haul road they bulldozed through the previously undisturbed site all died, along with a dozen more trees and other vegetation, according to court records.

The damage would eventually prompt Sonoma Land Trust to sue the property owners, Peter and Toni Thompson, a highly unusual step for the private nonprofit. Last month, it prevailed in what representatives hailed as a landmark legal victory.

The court battle came well after the full extent of the losses was discovered on the 34-acre conservation property. Grading for the haul road in 2014 removed more than 3,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock, the ruling found. No permits were obtained for any of the work, according to court documents.

The Thompsons had construction crews dredge an existing lake on their adjacent 47-acre residential spread, known as Henstooth Ranch, and dump the soil on the protected parcel, extending the haul road to accomplish that work, according to court documents.

“It was,” said Neale, a 25-year veteran in the open space field, “really the most willful, egregious violation of a conservation easement I’ve ever seen.”

In his blunt 57-page ruling, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick sided strongly with the land trust, calling out the Thompsons for “knowing and intentional” violations of a legally binding conservation deal. He said the couple had shown a “persistent failure to tell the truth” as the case unfolded and had “demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the easement.”

Broderick ordered the couple to pay more than $586,000 in damages toward environmental restoration and other costs outlined in a judgment finalized last week.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9556824-181/sonoma-county-couple-ordered-to

Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , , ,

Op-Ed: Build to Survive: Homes in California’s burn zones must adopt fire-safe code

SACRAMENTO BEE EDITORIAL

After the apocalyptic Camp Fire reduced most of Paradise to ashes last November, a clear pattern emerged.

Fifty-one percent of the 350 houses built after 2008 escaped damage, according to an analysis by McClatchy. Yet only 18 percent of the 12,100 houses built before 2008 did.

What made the difference? Building codes.

The homes with the highest survival rate appear to have benefited from “a landmark 2008 building code designed for California’s fire-prone regions – requiring fire-resistant roofs, siding and other safeguards,” according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese.

When it comes to defending California’s homes against the threat of wildfires, regulation is protection. The fire-safe building code, known as the 7A code, worked as intended. Homes constructed in compliance with the 2008 standards were built to survive.

As many as 3 million homes stand in what the state calls “very high fire hazard severity zones,” according to Cal Fire. These areas, where the climate and the presence of combustible foliage can lead to tinderbox conditions, are destined to burn. The data on which homes survived the Camp Fire should be a call to action for every city in the danger zones.

Unfortunately, short-term thinking can triumph over common sense. Cities facing severe fire risks can avoid compliance with the fire-resistant building codes, or choose to avoid their obvious advantages, despite the fact that “a new home built to wild-fire-resistant codes can be constructed for roughly the same cost as a typical home,” according to a report by Headwaters Economics.

Take Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, where the Tubbs Fire killed five people and destroyed 1,321 homes in 2017. The neighborhood wasn’t considered a fire hazard zone, unlike some other areas of Santa Rosa. The Tubbs Fire proved otherwise, but Coffey Park still isn’t designated as a “very high fire hazard zone” by Cal Fire.

“City officials are OK with that,” according to The Bee. “Although developers rebuilding Coffey Park are being urged to consider fire-resistant materials, city spokeswoman Adriane Mertens said the city doesn’t see any reason to impose the 7A code in the neighborhood.”

Mertens suggested high winds on the night of the fire meant officials have no reason to require fire-safe construction as Coffey Park is rebuilt. One fire scientist called Santa Rosa’s stance “an error in judgment.”

Folsom also appears to have its head in the sand with regards to fire risk. It’s allowing the Folsom Ranch development to be built without adherence to the fire-safe code. The parcel of land south of Highway 50 was formerly managed by Cal Fire and designated as a moderate fire risk zone, which would trigger the fire-safe building requirements. Once Folsom annexed the land for the new development, the city decided to opt out of the 7A code because the area was never considered a “very high” fire hazard zone.

The city will require “vegetation management” plans and fire-resistant fencing. But they may eventually put 25,000 people into non-fire-safe housing in an area Cal Fire knows has a higher risk of burning.

Getting officials and developers to follow the fire-safe code in increased risk zones is hard. But the even bigger problem is how to retrofit the millions of homes built before the new standards existed.

“What are we going to do about the existing housing stock that’s been built in these places?” asked Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at UC Santa Barbara interviewed by The Bee. “For the existing housing stock that’s out there, that isn’t built to these codes, we have a massive retrofitting issue on our hands.”

“You’ve got to get in and retrofit,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing McClatchy’s reporting during a press conference at the state’s Office of Emergency Services operations center.

Assembly Bill 38 is a good place to start. The bill by Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood of Santa Rosa would provide $1 billion in loan funds to help homeowners retrofit their properties. It’s not enough money to retrofit every home, but it’s a start and that can raise public awareness of the dire need for fire-safe retrofits in hazard zones.

The state fire marshal is currently developing a list of low-cost fire retrofits that the state plans to promote once it’s finalized in 2020.

In addition, Cal Fire is revising its fire zone maps, and the “very high fire hazard” zones will surely spread over a larger portion of the state. This time around, local officials won’t be able to opt out of the requirements, as they can under current law.

A series of recent “atmospheric river” storms made fire season seem like a bad memory. But it’s all too easy for most Californians to forget that these rains feed the growth of vegetation that turns into kindling.

Thanks to McClatchy’s analysis, we now know fire-safe building codes can mean the difference between survival and destruction. When the next big incinerating fire barrels down on a city full of ready-to-burn homes in the hazard zone, we can’t claim we didn’t know better.

Source: https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article229425004.html

Posted on Categories ForestsTags , , ,

Wet winter in Sonoma County may have helped spread virulent oak disease

Derek Moore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Now that the North Coast is finally drying out from an unusually wet winter, concern is growing over the potential rapid spread of sudden oak disease, renewing calls for the public’s help tracking the deadly forest pathogen.

“Now is when we might expect the pathogen to take off a bit,” said Kerry Wininger, a UC Cooperative Extension staffer in Santa Rosa.

Wininger is a local organizer of annual sudden oak death surveys known as the SOD Blitz. This year’s survey occurs from April 25 to 28 across Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Organizers are hoping for a good turnout of volunteers, who will become educated spotters and collectors to help scientists slow the disease’s spread.

A relatively dry winter in 2017-18, coupled with the attention paid to devastating wildfires, appear to have dampened public concern over sudden oak death. But experts say conditions are ripe now for a resurgence of the disease. In addition, there’s heightened worry about a new, more virulent strain of the pathogen gaining a hold on the North Coast and causing more devastation.

Wininger said one of the highlights of this year’s surveys is the unveiling of a new test for the European strain in time to possibly thwart its spread. The new strain has been detected in Oregon.

“We want to nip it in the bud, if it’s here,” Wininger said.

Phytophtora ramorum, the pathogen that causes SOD, most often is spread by water droplets blowing from the leaves of infected bay laurel trees. There is no cure, only preventative measures or destroying oak and tanoak trees that succumb to the pathogen.

Read more athttps://www.pressdemocrat.com/lifestyle/9481637-181/wet-winter-in-sonoma-county

Posted on Categories ForestsTags , ,

Group gets $1 million for Sonoma Valley fire prevention efforts

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Protected Wildlands Map

Cal Fire has awarded more than $1.7 million for wildfire prevention in Sonoma County, with the bulk of the money going toward a coalition working to reduce fire risk on public lands in Sonoma Valley.

The Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative received more than $1 million, allowing it to conduct controlled burns, clear brush and thin forests. The newly formed group of private and public agencies oversees 18,000 acres of fire-prone areas along Highway 12 that include Hood Mountain Regional Park and Sugarloaf Ridge and Trione-Annadel state parks, which were burned in the Tubbs and Nuns fires.

“The areas that we’re talking about have a long history of fire,” said Tony Nelson, longtime Sonoma Valley program manager for the Sonoma Land Trust, which is part of the collaborative. “It has burned in the past and we know it will burn again. The vegetation is not going to stop growing, so we need to not stop managing our natural systems with fire, as well as (need to) maintain safety.”

The collaborative also includes state and regional parks, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Audubon Canyon Ranch and the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation. The group is a product of discussions predating the 2017 wildfires that raced over the Mayacamas Mountains and left behind scorched ridgelines, charred trees and ashen soil. The firestorm renewed conversations on how to prevent large-scale blazes.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9512516-181/group-gets-1-million-for?sba=AAS

Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , , , ,

Why your house may burn while your neighbor’s survives the next wildfire

Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese, THE SACRAMENTO BEE

The sky was turning orange and the embers were flying from the Camp Fire when Oney and Donna Carrell and Donna’s father sped away from their Paradise home.

“I thought, ‘Oh, well, the house is done,’ ” Oney Carrell said.

A few days later, they learned otherwise. The Carrells’ home survived the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history with a couple of warped window frames, a partially charred down spout and a stubborn smoky smell inside.

Most of their neighborhood was destroyed. A guest house in their backyard, where Donna’s father lived, was reduced to ashes, along with a couple of sheds. Yet their beautifully restored 1940 Studebaker sat untouched in the garage.

The arc of destruction the Camp Fire carved through Paradise was seemingly random: Why were some houses saved and others incinerated? As millions of Californians brace for another wildfire season, a McClatchy analysis of fire and property records shows the answer might be found in something as simple as the roofs over their heads — and the year their house was built.

A landmark 2008 building code designed for California’s fire-prone regions — requiring fire-resistant roofs, siding and other safeguards — appears to have protected the Carrells’ home and dozens of others like it from the Camp Fire. That year marks a pivotal moment in the state’s deadly and expensive history of destructive natural disasters.

All told, about 51 percent of the 350 single-family homes built after 2008 in the path of the Camp Fire were undamaged, according to McClatchy’s analysis of Cal Fire data and Butte County property records. By contrast, only 18 percent of the 12,100 homes built prior to 2008 escaped damage. Those figures don’t include mobile homes, which burned in nearly equal measure regardless of age.

“These are great standards; they work,” said senior engineer Robert Raymer of the California Building Industry Association, who consulted with state officials on the building code.

Yet despite this lesson, California may end up falling short in its effort to protect homes from the next wildfire.

Read more at https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/fires/article227665284.html

Posted on Categories Forests, Sustainable LivingTags ,

Wiped out: America’s love of luxury toilet paper is destroying Canadian forests

Sam Wolfson, THE GUARDIAN

Link to report and sustainability scorecard for paper products

We’re all becoming more aware about the damage single-use plastics and fast fashion has on the environment. Yet there is one product we all throw away every single day that, so far, has not been a major part of conversations about sustainability: toilet paper.

But America’s heavy use of toilet paper – particularly the pillowy soft kind – is worsening climate change and taking “a dramatic and irreversible toll” on forests, especially the Canadian boreal forest, according to a new report by two major environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Stand.earth.

The boreal forest covers almost 60% of Canada and is home to 600 indigenous communities. Its huge size means it can absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the equivalent to the annual emissions of 24m cars each year.

The report found that major brands’ refusal to switch to sustainable materials in toilet paper is having a devastating impact on forests and climate. About 28m acres of Canadian boreal forest have been cut down since 1996, an area the size of Pennsylvania. Virgin pulp, the key ingredient in toilet paper, accounted for 23% of Canada’s forest product exports.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/01/canada-boreal-forest-toilet-paper-us-climate-change-impact-report

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Forests, Land UseTags , , , , , , ,

Napa County wineries, environmentalists clash over proposed land-use rules

KPIX

A land-use fight is brewing in Napa County pitting environmental activists on one side and winery owners on the other.

The county is considering new environmental rules that opponents say could make some properties impossible to build on. If approved, they would apply to every property of an acre or more in unincorporated parts of Napa County.

Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting was packed with people concerned about the proposed county ordinance to increase protection of trees and watershed throughout the county. Climate protection activists say it’s needed because winemakers are now expanding up into the hills and removing native trees to do it.

“The valley floor is largely planted out,” said Jim Wilson, a member of an activist group called Napa Climate Now. “A lot of times, a forest is on the land that they want to develop and removing that forest is just a matter of getting down to business.”

The ordinance would ban private property development on any land with a slope of more than 30 degrees. It would also prohibit development within 35 to 65 feet of creeks and require keeping 70 percent of trees on a parcel. If property owners do remove trees, they would have to set aside three times the area of those trees’ canopy as undeveloped, open space.

Read more at https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2019/02/21/napa-county-wineries-environmentalists-proposed-land-use-rules/

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, ForestsTags , , ,

Sonoma County groups embrace return of the mighty acorn

Stephen Nett, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Oak trees are among the most visible icons of the ancient Northern California landscape. With dark limbs curling above a carpet of grass, they lend an almost parklike visage to the foothills. The ten native species here also have seasonally dropped vast quantities of edible harvests of acorns, which support a bounty of wildlife and once fed indigenous people, who used fire and other tested practices to protect and nurture productive “orchards” in the woodlands.

The acorn was the original California cuisine, a reliable, nutritious staple on every menu that literally grew on trees. But after thousands of years, the venerable acorn was ignominiously edged out, to be replaced by imports of wheat flour, French fries, instant rice and corn flakes.

Despite its culinary disappearance, appreciation for the humble oak tree nut was never completely extinguished, and now it’s making a modest comeback, thanks to renewed interest in local, sustainable, functional and even foraged foods.

A mid-February workshop at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation entitled “Seed to Table: How to Process and Eat Acorns of the Laguna Watershed,” was nearly sold out several weeks in advance.

The wild acorn is also the focus of local tribal groups seeking ways to strengthen cultural ties, reclaim their rich California heritage, and restore links to healthy diets from ancestral lands. A local, indigenously produced new product, Acorn Bites, is set to hit the local market in February.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/lifestyle/9247142-181/sonoma-county-groups-embrace-return

Posted on Categories Forests, Land Use, Local OrganizationsTags , ,

Judge: PG&E put profits over wildfire safety

A U.S. judge berated Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. on Wednesday, accusing the nation’s largest utility of enriching shareholders instead of clearing trees that can fall on its power lines and start fires and making “excuses” to avoid turning off electricity when fire risk is high.

Judge William Alsup in San Francisco did not immediately order PG&E to take any of the dramatic measures he has proposed to try to stop more wildfires.

But he warned that he was not ruling out at least some new requirements on the company if it did not come up with a plan to “solve” the problem of catastrophic wildfires in California.

“To my mind, there’s a very clear-cut pattern here: that PG&E is starting these fires,” Alsup said. “What do we do? Does the judge just turn a blind eye and say, ‘PG&E continue your business as usual. Kill more people by starting more fires.'”

Alsup is overseeing a criminal conviction against PG&E on pipeline safety charges stemming from a 2010 gas line explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

He proposed earlier this month as part of PG&E’s probation that it remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines in high-wind conditions and shut off power when fire is a risk regardless of the inconvenience to customers or loss of profit.

Posted on Categories ForestsTags , ,

Federal judge halts timber sale including old-growth trees

April Erlich, JEFFERSON PUBLIC RADIO

Destructive wildfires along the California-Oregon border in recent years has the U.S. Forest Service pursuing projects to clear forests of burnt debris and trees that could feed future fires.

One of those projects included selling the rights to log old-growth trees in Northern California, until a federal judge halted the timber sale on Friday.

Environmental groups asked a federal court to halt the Seaid-Horse timber sale in the Klamath National Forest. They say it would violate the Northwest Forest Plan by clear-cutting protected old-growth trees and harming Coho salmon.

U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley issued a preliminary injunction to temporarily halt the sale, which included 1,200 acres of timber in Siskiyou County. Environmental groups will negotiate terms of the sale with forest service workers, who returned to work on Monday for the first time since the month-long partial government shutdown.

Western Environmental Law Group attorney Susan Jane Brown says old-growth trees in Northern California provide a habitat for threatened species such as the northern spotted owl. They’re also the most resilient in enduring wildfires.