Hearing deep divisions among board and audience members in the room, the Trinity County Board of Supervisors last week opted 4-1 to take a neutral stance on an updated version of Congressman Jared Huffman’s Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forests Act reintroduced in Congress as HR 2250 in April.
The original version introduced last year in Congress as HR 6596 drew a 3-2 vote from the Trinity County Board of Supervisors last August refusing to support the bill pending additional local input supposed to happen through a series of workshops that were never scheduled.
The Trinity Collaborative Group weighed the merits of the proposed legislation in April, but its members were so divided for and against it that no consensus was possible even for a motion communicating to the Board of Supervisors that the group could not agree on a recommendation.
Last week’s special meeting of the Board of Supervisors on July 2 to take a position on the revised bill was called in response to information received by Sup. Keith Groves that a hearing on it was scheduled before the House of Natural Resources Committee in Washington, D.C., on July 10. Groves was invited to attend by a Republican member of the committee, so he asked for the board to review its position in advance and for authorization to attend.
After much debate and many public comments, the board voted 4-1 (Groves opposed) to take a neutral position for now pending further discussion with the congressman in Weaverville about the current version of the bill — something Huffman offered in a statement to the board.
The board also designated not one, but two members (Sup. Groves and Sup. Jeremy Brown) to attend the committee hearing this week in Washington.
Huffman noted in his statement delivered by a field representative that the hearing this week will not involve a vote, “and there is still plenty of time for us to meet and discuss the bill prior to any committee markup and certainly before the bill would be considered by the full House.”
He added that the bill has already been modified several times to reflect input from stakeholders across his district, including Trinity County, where certain areas such as Bonanza King were removed from proposed wilderness designation and wilderness boundaries were moved away from adjacent private land to resolve concerns of residents and timber industries.
Huffman asked the board to allow “at least a few more weeks for us to properly discuss the bill before taking a formal position on it. I look forward to that opportunity, and to working with you going forward.”
The proposed legislation would designate an additional 260,000 acres of roadless federal land as permanently protected wilderness area including approximately 205,000 acres in Trinity County. It would do so by expanding nine existing wilderness areas and establishing eight new ones.
A main focus of the bill would create a 730,000-acre South Fork Trinity-Mad River Restoration Area prioritizing fuels reduction work to decrease fire danger and improve forest diversity through stewardship contracts.
Other aspects include 379 miles of new wild and scenic river designation through a four-county area, including 263 miles in Trinity County; remediation of illegal marijuana grow sites on public land; mandated agency partnerships and unified command during emergencies; establishment of a Trinity Lake visitors’ center in Weaverville and feasibility studies for new trail projects.
During last week’s board meeting, Sup. Keith Groves said other concerns previously expressed by Trinity County have not been addressed including the proposed elimination of new grazing rights or mining claims on federal land and the ability for public lands to be traded or sold. Another is language dictating that the U.S. Forest Service “shall” use prescribed burning and wildland fire “as a technique to remove timber. Should we ask for more leniency for the Secretary to decide on his own? As this is written, it says ‘must.’”
Groves argued that the bill would remove over one million acres from the timber reserve from which Trinity County derives 25 percent of the timber harvest receipts.
“It turns all activities into stewardship programs with no studies showing how much good land is in that. The federal government needs to come up with some reparations for that loss of revenue to the county that’s expected to keep maintaining roads with the loss of a lot of potential funding,” he said.
Furthermore, he argued that the Forest Service “has rarely kept its promises to us. It’s hard to understand why they’d keep this promise to maintain roads and firebreaks when they’ve rarely come through in the past. Maybe they should do all this restoration work first and then wilderness?”
From the audience, Clarence Rose of Weaverville agreed, arguing the bill creates “instant wilderness versus restoration work that could supply jobs, but is far off, if ever. They haven’t come through for us often in the past, and nothing in this bill increases Forest Service funding, capability or authority. There are no additional mandates, and nothing guarantees that the work not getting done now would be done in the future. Until it becomes more balanced, I remain opposed.”
Morgan Rourke of Hayfork noted his family’s range allotment would be “grandfathered in under its current status, but going forward there’s the possibility it could be eliminated and we could end up with no grazing on federal land.” He added access is also a concern as many Forest Service roads are already unmaintained and could be permanently put to bed, leaving islands of protected wilderness areas, but no maintenance of Forest Service ground surrounding them.
Others argued in favor of greater public input and possibly putting the bill to a vote in Trinity County. Travis Finch of Douglas City said he has spent years battling with the Forest Service to expand Internet utilities in non-wilderness areas, “and it will be impossible with more wilderness area. They cherry-stemmed out Ironsides Mountain, but there are other potential sites that will never happen if they are in wilderness.”
Strong supporters of the bill were also present.
“I think it is good for the environment and for Trinity County people over a long period of time, but I recognize the division in the county. At the Collaborative we were basically split on it, and if you question your constituents, you’d find the same. There’s no clear majority, so you should stay neutral, write a letter that the county remains neutral, let it proceed, and don’t send anyone to DC,” said Joseph Bower of Hayfork.
Executive Director of SAFE (Safe Alternatives for our Forest Environment) Larry Glass argued that “if you don’t like wilderness areas, plantations and fuel breaks, fine, but don’t use false, misleading statements to support your position. There is no revenue coming out of the forest. Any timber sale is a deficit sale today. And stewardship contracts pay their way as they go through the forest. Otherwise, no work would get done at all.”
He said that while timber companies make a profit, the Forest Service is left with the cleanup “and plantations are an absolute money loser, so you’ve got to make money as you go along to clean up all the cut blocks that haven’t been maintained in forever. There is no revenue to lose. I personally support these wilderness designations and no, I don’t ever want to see a cell tower in those areas I’ve been fighting for my whole adult life. There are plenty of other locations.”
Others in support also advocated for more public input, transparency and discussion, urging the board to remain neutral so that can happen.
Sup. Jeremy Brown said the upcoming committee hearing is just one of many steps before the bill has any chance for passage “let alone any money being allocated for it. It is not a definitive moment. I think there are changes and adjustments that could be made in the bill, but it’s a great starting point to continue the conversation rather than stomping it out right now. And by saying we don’t support this, you’re not going to stop them. It’s not the best way to negotiate with the federal government.”
Groves argued there are issues in the bill “not beneficial to Trinity County, but we’re told ‘don’t worry, there’s plenty of time for changes’ and guess what. There haven’t been any changes over the past year. I’d welcome the Congressman to put this off for 10 days from now and come here and work together. I’ve offered that on several occasions and it hasn’t happened.”
Sup. John Fenley objected to the cost of sending anyone to Washington with no direction, plan or budget and said his research indicates the bill has about a three percent chance of passing this year “so I hate to spend our money on this. Maybe we just wait and see what’s going on. I support tabling this or taking a neutral position. I don’t think it is our fight. Let Huffman and his supporters pay for this fight, not Trinity County.”
“So wait and see what the dam does to the river?” Groves said, adding that in his experience, “the longer you wait to participate, the less you are allowed to do so, and the issue is we were late to participate in the first place. The longer we wait, the less likely we are of having any success.”
After the board voted to take a neutral stance, there was more debate over who to send, if anyone, to the hearing in Washington. Groves said he was willing to go and present the board’s position in a neutral way, and Brown said he was willing to go out of his own pocket as a spectator.
“Aside from the concerns, we need to acknowledge all the positive direction. I’m not saying the concerns should not be heard, but we need to stay neutral in the interest of moving the conversation forward.”
The final vote was unanimous to send both Groves and Brown as the board’s ad hoc federal lands legislation committee and report back.