As I took the nearly six-hour drive from the Sacramento area, past Ukiah and up to Eureka, through the heart of California’s redwood- forested North Coast, I was reminded of the spectacular beauty of California. Driving through Mendocino and Humboldt counties also reminded me of the spectacular ways the state government wastes taxpayer dollars even at a time when officials are crying poormouth.
Deep in this remote country, enveloped by state and federal parks and forests where so much of the land is off-limits from development, the state of California is spending tens of millions of dollars buying up land (for conservation easements) to protect it from development threats that are even more remote than the landscape.
The public is financing land deals that are causing consternation to timber companies that operate along the north coast. The companies, such as Mendocino Redwood Company, have long been lauded by the local environmental community for their efforts to carefully harvest and to upgrade wildlife habitat in the forests and streams. But they get to watch, up close and personal, how the state is operating in these forests and they are appalled by the waste of tax dollars and frustrated by the way that these questionable land deals are driving up the cost of forested land.
In a 2007 letter to the state Wildlife Conservation Board, six forest managers from North Coast timber companies argue that various “transactions targeted lands zoned for timber production that have a long history of continuous production of forest products, while containing little in the way of pristine forest attributes.” They further argued that the deals “have been completed at prices that were too high for private operators to compete, even as there are models of successful private stewardship in the same area.”
These taxpayer-financed deals, completed with the help of non-profit foundations paid fees based on the value of the deal, are about what one would expect when other people’s money and noble goals are involved. Timber officials tell me that the same goals can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost and without transferring more productive land out of the private sector. But who cares about that these days?
This is not the next Irvine, Pleasanton or Rocklin. No one proposed major developments even at the southernmost point closest to the Bay Area at the height of the market. The steep canyons and lack of public utilities, combined with onerous local development regulations and a culture that frowns on development, assures that these forests will remain in their natural state.
The state officials and wildlife foundations are about to approve two other easements now pending before the State Wildlife Conservation Board (the Usal and Gualala properties). They are expected to be approved any time by a telephone voice vote of directors of this board.
This does indeed raise open- government questions, given that these purchases ultimately are financed by taxpayers.
As the state runs out of money, even environmentalists ought to think about properly divvying up scarce resources.
At a time when the state can’t even maintain its current holdings of park lands, with an estimated maintenance backlog of about $1.3 billion, it continues to expand its reach, grabbing control of land to protect it from imaginary threats.
If you wonder what’s wonderful and awful about California, there are few better places to start than the North Coast, where magnificent scenery contrasts with absurd public policy.