Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pity the rich

                                  19. Enter the Breakfast Club
                                                    (Excerpted from The Far Side of Eden )                                                         

     All summer Chris Malan videotaped activity on the Pahlmeyer Post-it. By the end of August the ground was bare and the last of the vines were going in, the heavy equipment shuttling back and forth, dust plumes rising. It was dry, dry as only the air can be when the wind blows from the desert.
    According to existing regulations, all such work was supposed to stop by the first of September, but the work didn’t stop. Chris gave the workers a little more time and then, over Labor Day weekend, decided to act. She knew the ropes well enough by now to get a response without having to go through the county planning department, and she called the sheriff. He went up and shut the operation down until the following Tuesday, when it could be reviewed by the appropriate authorities, but by then the story was in the press.
     Jayson Pahlmeyer claimed to have obtained oral permission to continue working for a few days, until the grapes were finally planted, but the project stayed on hold. Most of the work was done, but once again his cowboys had run up hard against a deadline, prompting angry comparisons with “the Viader vineyard of the decade before and setting the stage for what was to come.
     Two weeks later, Tom Lippe drove up to Napa and walked into the courthouse, located between the county administrative building and the district attorney’s office. There he filed suit on behalf of the Sierra Club against Napa County for failing to enforce the California Environmental Quality Act, and he filed suit against the three individual defendants for putting in their vineyards.
     Two days after that became public knowledge, members of the Watershed Task Force received a letter informing them that the group was being reconvened. The timing was purely coincidental, but it didn’t really matter: the spark had already been struck, the fat was in the fire.
    The Winegrowers, a.k.a. the Breakfast Club, became an institution, at least among its members, and by the fall of 1999 many of them did not attend meetings but instead sent surrogates. Michael Mondavi’s was his vice president for public affairs, Herb Schmidt, wearer of the disarming smile and loafers soft as bedroom slippers. Herb was known for keeping two lists, of people he trusted and of people he didn’t trust, and was a common sight in Sacramento, Palm Desert, and Washington, D.C.
    One person not invited to join was Garen Staglin. In addition to being in a fight with Jack Cakebread, Staglin was a Democrat. He represented, as Jack described it, “Napa burnout. A guy’s been trying to hit financial home runs for so long he can’t quit, and he comes to Napa to do things differently, and buys land and starts a winery, but not to make a living. He feels entitled to some enjoyment, but then ego takes over. He wants more of whatever he has. What happens when he gets tired of the place and decides to sell out? He prices it too high for a grower to buy. If the wine market goes to hell, and no one else will pay his price, no telling what will happen.”
    What Jack didn’t say was that, more likely than not, a member of the Winegrowers would buy Staglin’s winery.
    Their executive director was a pro-development supervisor who had retired from the board, Fred Negri, and their official adviser a smart young attorney in the law firm of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty named Richard Mendelson, an aficionado of wine, an artist who worked in metal, and the brains behind “many a decision by Napa Valley vintners. Many Winegrowers and other aspiring vintners yearned for nothing more than for Mendelson to tell them, “I understand.”
Exchanges had been frank. “Spit it out,” Jack had said, and they still did. The issue of greatest concern now was environmental regulation. The Winegrowers all said repeatedly that they were the true environmentalists, their vineyards proof of this. Their critics were chronic complainers, they added, and worse: radicals out to torpedo the industry, talking about alcohol farming and alcohol factories, running to the courts.
    The Winegrowers needed to get the facts out, they felt. They were intimately involved with the land, and their profits not just shared by the community but essential to its well-being. All vintners had to develop better “communications” and flex some legal muscle because the industry was being blamed for things that couldn’t be scientifically proven, like a muddy river. “What about runoff from the streets of Calistoga, St. Helena, and Yountville?” someone would ask, and when the question of the ever-falling water table arose, “What about all those holes being dug by weekenders?"

     “The Winegrowers thought they had neutralized some “troublemakers” in the industry, most notably Volker Eisele. The former UC Berkeley sociologist had been essential in the transformation of the Farm Bureau from a mere advocate of economic advantage for farmers into what the Winegrowers considered an activist cell of demanding greens. Eisele had been defeated in the Farm Bureau board election, in part because of manipulations behind the scenes by the Winegrowers, while he was visiting relatives in Germany. But there was a bigger threat now. Truly radical enviros from outside the industry had dropped a bomb: the Sierra Club lawsuit.
    Filed against the county for failing to enforce its own environmental regulations, the suit had caught many people by surprise. There had been talk of it, but few thought the plaintiffs had the courage to do something so divisive. The emotional effect on the men gathered around the big table in the Pond Room, behind the Cakebread winery, was profound. Unaccustomed to criticism, suddenly they were being condemned by the spiritual heirs of John Muir, and the legitimacy of their way of life was being questioned, and some of them were too angry to discuss this rationally.
    They blamed the county for getting them into such a mess, for not shielding the valley from CEQA when the hillside ordinance was first written, for not vowing now to fight the Sierra Club suit to the death—money, countersuits, whatever it took. They discussed having Napa Valley exempted from the California Environmental Quality Act through a state legislative end run, resolving all this with a legal deus ex machina, their attorneys and lobbyists descending on a platform of legal brilliance and connections to save them from “Malan/Mennen.”
    This new phrase for the collective demon was uttered with alliterative disgust, some members wanting to go after them and their lawyers—“carpetbaggers”—who operated out of San Francisco and Sacramento and made their livings suing respectable people—businessmen!—who happened to violate some obscure environmental regulation while engaging in the basic American right to make a profit.
    Jack denounced Malan/Mennen as humanoid equivalents of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the vine-sucking wasp that transmitted a bacteria threatening the vineyards with destruction. Chris Malan was, in Jack’s opinion, the worst, either neurotic or craving of attention, a “pot-stirrer” who put men like him on the defensive when they should be on the offensive.
    The reaction of members of the Breakfast Club to the mention of Chris approached the apoplectic. “You never know when she’ll bite you on the ankle,” someone would say. Her presence on the Watershed Task Force was seen as a travesty that would prevent additional planting in the valley. Many of those vineyards already in existence—like Groth’s, Silverado’s, and virtually everybody else’s in the Winegrowers—would have to be pulled back from streambanks at great cost unless the industry got a grip on the problem, meaning the environmentalists.
    There were other culprits. A few of what Jack called “rogues”—Delia Viader, Jayson Pahlmeyer, Dave Abreu, others—had brought the wrath of the uninformed public down onto the head of every vintner. The county should have been tougher on those people in the first place, although many of those sitting in the Pond Room had opposed all restrictions on hillside development.
    The collective blood pressure rose again at the mention of the Sierra Club. These men all considered themselves victims, deprived of the credit they alone deserved for the valley’s success.
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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Was the resource already lost?

                                      18. A Fire in a Trash Can 
                         (From The Far Side of Eden. Series begins with the 4/11 posting)
     The Redwood chapter of the Sierra Club in Sonoma County objected to their suing Napa County and the individual landowners. Since the Napa group of the Sierra Club was just one of several within the Redwood chapter, it was at least theoretically obligated to get approval. But the Sonomans didn’t want the Napa suit brought because the bad publicity might hurt Sonoma’s chances of passing a tough hillside ordinance of its own. A lawsuit in Napa might frighten the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors into enacting weak regulations that would not be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, so Sonoma wouldn’t be sued.
     This argument was ridiculous, in Carlene’s view. The voters over there would demand a strong ordinance, she thought, just as they had in Napa, regardless of what went down in court. The suit would show how serious the fight had become all over California, the Sonoma syndrome being replaced by the Napa syndrome. It was time for everybody to kick it up a notch.
     But environmentalists in Sonoma were jealous of the resources available to environmentalists east of the Mayacamas. The Napans’ influence over the regional environment rankled the Sonomans, in Carlene’s view. The voters over there would demand a strong ordinance, she thought, just as they had in Napa, regardless of what went down in court.
     The suit would show how serious the fight had become all over California, the Sonoma syndrome being replaced by the Napa syn drome. It was time for everybody to kick it up a notch, but environmentalists in Sonoma were jealous of the resources available to environmentalists east of the Mayacamas. The Napans’ influence over the regional environment rankled the Sonomans, just as the high prices paid for Napa wine rankled Sonoma’s vintners. The Redwood chapter resented the funding available in Napa, and the fact that the Napa group would get even more attention
     Carlene thought some members of the Sierra Club in Sonoma were too close to the industry. They had gotten the ear of the Sierra Club’s lawyers in San Francisco and were trying to kill the suit there. The whole question of so-called radical action was complicated by warring sentiments within the Sierra Club membership, some veterans demanding an end to logging in the national forests and others, including the club’s leaders, holding a more accommodating view of the use of public lands.
     This difference of opinion had resulted in a schism, the apostate group calling itself the John Muir Sierrans, which included the legendary David Brower, a mountain climber and veteran environmentalist. The leadership of the Sierra Club denounced the John Muir Sierrans as unruly and characterized their movement as an illegal “fire in a trash can” rather than a serious attempt to get back to the club’s roots.
     At the same time, the leadership was tightening control over individual cadres and strongly discouraging activities at odds with official policy. In the middle of all this the little Napa group arrived with a lawsuit and the money to pay for it, the target being a highly celebrated and influential industry that ordinary people did not associate with environmental degradation. The lawsuit could easily make the club sound radical, if not downright John Muir Sierran, the opponents of the suit argued. The battle, after all, was over a relatively insignificant, glitzy piece of real estate where, as some Sierra Clubbers said privately, “the resource is already lost.”
     The same people feared that actions like the Napa group’s could lessen support for the club, and for environmentalism in general, at a crucial moment when a presidential campaign was under way and there was a good chance of placing a true environmentalist, Al Gore, the current vice president, in the White House. Gore was being challenged by the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader, and the Sierra Club grappled with a decision about which man to endorse. All this demanded caution and restraint.
     Carlene had not joined the Sierra Club until 1997. By then the Mennen Foundation had been in existence for a couple of years and she had had the opportunity to appraise several of the big environmental organizations. Some were good and some were death stars, absorbing contributions to pay big salaries and working against sound ecology and biological integrity. The Sierra Club was one of the good ones, she thought, but like all bureaucracies, it had to be watched.
     Sizable donations had put her on the club’s National Advisory Council, something those in the Redwood chapter didn’t know about. Money enabled her, sitting at the barn-gate table on Sylvaner Avenue, under the elkhorn chandelier, to pick up the telephone, immediately reach a lawyer in the Mission District headquarters, and have a meaningful conversation. She then telephoned Bill Yeates in Sacramento and asked him to make the same call.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Terminator, Napa-style

            17. Time for Democracy to Reassert Itself
      Much of the work of the Mennen Environmental Foundation was done in the house on Sylvaner Avenue at the kitchen table, made from a two-hundred-year-old barn gate from Mexico, where light fell from a chandelier of elk antlers and from a lamp made of an old saguaro cactus trunk.
     On a shelf stood a tightly woven Pomo basket, given to Carlene Mennen by her friend Yolande Beard, dead now, author of the elegant little book Wappo, about Napa Valley’s indigenous people. Hanging nearby was a prayer wand of wild turkey and grouse feathers dedicated to the health of Turtle Island, the Cherokee name for planet Earth. The barn gate was spread with letters, press clippings, photocopies of documents relating to half a dozen issues, pads, and reference books.
      Carlene had no computer on this command deck. She didn’t want to be bombarded with e-mails and other time-wasting electronic messages when the really big stuff—wilderness inventories, the health of fish, redwood and live oak preservation—had better ways of making itself known.
     This was usually through the resonance of the human voice. The telephone was her chosen instrument, quick, direct, capable of transmitting more than information—resolve, strategic nuance, sometimes anger. Carlene got calls at seven in the morning from Washington, D.C., such as the one from Senator Barbara Boxer, who wanted Carlene to fund a political action committee. Carlene kept up with campaigns all over the country because, in the end, everything was political.
     It was after a lobbying trip to Washington and a session in the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein that Carlene had decided to go back to Napa and work on her own. Now while Peter sat in the post office receiving bureaucratic directives about what sort of art to hang on the bathroom walls, Carlene worked away here, “under the canopy,” a figurative screen from public view of her string-jerking in twenty different environmental causes, from Utah to Oregon, from the nation’s capital to the California coast. She didn’t want recognition, she wanted to affect the argument.
      Her husband called her the Terminator. “Don’t try to hide anything from Carlene,” Peter Mennen would tell people, laughing. “She’s out there, over the curve of the earth. She sees things come up long before the rest of us see them.”
     One afternoon Peter came home from work and stood at the kitchen sink, eating a leftover sandwich and gazing out into the narrow backyard. The day of legal decision had come. “I have to think things over for weeks,” he said, “but Carlene decides immediately. With her, there’s no difference between a good idea and an act.”
     Her philosophy of philanthropy was simple: empower activists with real science, then empower them with real money. She had told Chris Malan to handle oversight on the litigation and report to her. The Mennen Foundation had financed the study of the Napa River, to provide scientific ammunition for the courts and for the political arena; Carlene had helped Chris find the experts to do the ongoing research, part of a wider look at cumulative effects on the watershed, the objective being a long-term recovery plan to restore the river and the wild-land corridors. The fight was no longer about parks and open space, it was about conservation biology and sustainability—more important, harder to win.
     Money was credibility, but it could also be destructive. The national assumption nowadays was that if you had a lot of money you had to build an in-your-face mansion and an in-nature’s-face vineyard. Those building them didn’t want to be told what to do, but they were telling everybody else what to do—accommodate my spectacle, my erosion, my water diversion, my herbicides and pesticides. Well, wine was a luxury, and an economy based on luxury shouldn’t be allowed to destroy the landscape.
     There was sufficient money in the valley to achieve anything, she knew The Culinary Institute of America could actively promote local organic food and responsible farming, and the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts celebrate and support the ecosystem in which it sat, but they had no plans to do so. Vintners, vineyard developers, and promoters of the Center would rather call Chris and people like her radical than look at the radical things they themselves were doing, such as building a tourist attraction in the middle of the floodplain and then diverting the river.
     They should be thinking about the Dust Bowl, not about Burgundy and Bordeaux. Public agencies shouldn’t be assisting agriculture in destroying the hillsides with public money, something that was truly radical, and the supervisors should be protecting the rights of the people and not getting caught up in the idea that grapes are the one true cross.
     The vintners couldn’t see that maintaining the ecology of the river was important, or that other people were affected by their activities. If they’d take a hard look at this, Carlene thought, something could be worked out. Instead, the vintners were turning the valley into a feudal state.
     It was time for democracy to reassert itself. She and Peter had decided on the litigation strategy as a way to refocus the argument. Assisting them was not just Lippe but also Bill Yeates, founder of the Mountain Lion Foundation and a recognized environmental attorney in Sacramento who had led a successful statewide initiative to protect the mountain lion. They had talked to representatives in Congress and with the folks at the Center for Conservation Biology in Oakland. They were ready. The Mennen Environmental Foundation was considering a future suit over water allotments in the county, one part of a years-long strategy. But first things first.
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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hooking up with John Muir

                                              16. He Was the Cutest
     Chris Malan’s driveway emerged at a point directly below the ridge where the new Pahlmeyer vineyard was going in. She saw the activity up there every time she left the house to drive down Atlas Peak Road, every day for months, trading her short black raincoat and gold loops for shorts and bobbed hair, noticing first the isolated power pole and then the narrow trail coming down from the ridge and then the clearing. She stopped on one of the countless trips down the mountain to look more closely, and the next time she got out of her Cherokee with a video camera and stood amid volcanic rock and pushed the button. The lens was pointed eastward and upward, and it recorded the weekly progress of chainsaws and Caterpillars.
    What Pahlmeyer was doing up on the ridge was apparently legal, but it enraged her and other residents of Atlas Peak Road. The videotaping happened to coincide with the research and strategizing going on among the tight group composed of Malan, the Mennens, and their lawyers. Unbeknownst to Pahlmeyer, he had made each shortlist of possible defendants; whatever evidence was required to sue him was already in the group’s possession, including the early aerial photographs. But this continual transformation of a formerly wild place, the final Post-it in the larger Pahlmeyer scheme, in full view of Chris Malan, fueled her and the group’s resolve.
    The Watershed Task Force’s first phase was now completed. There would be a second phase, but neither the supervisors nor the county planning department would tell Chris definitively when. In June 1999 the task force recommendations were formally accepted by the board, and although it did not rule out funding a second phase, the board still had not authorized funds for it.
    Chris and her allies took this as evidence that the county thought the issue of the hills had been officially dispensed with and that it would be allowed to pass into political oblivion, if possible. Throughout the summer she telephoned the county offices seeking to learn the fate of the second phase, without success. Then one day she cornered the planning director, Jeff Redding, in the elevator of the county building and demanded to know if the task force would be reconvened.
    Redding had come to Napa from Santa Cruz, and he wore his hair in a ponytail. Energetic, generally responsive, he spoke quickly and moved his hands in the air at the same time, as if development and conservation principles were right there, to be grasped by anyone who was interested. But Redding was overworked and stressed by the ever-increasing applications for new vineyards, as well as by the politics surrounding the issue, and he was unable to say which way the task force decision would go.
    Chris thought the decision had already been made, and by August she was pushing harder than ever for the lawsuit. The best defendants, they all agreed, were the county and three individual businesses that had recently put in vineyards, all of them ignoring the California Environmental Quality Act. The individual defendants would be a little-known partnership then called The Best Cellar/ Vineyard Properties West; an aspiring boutique, Chateau Potelle, managed by a Frenchman living in the Mayacamas; and the owner of the cult wine featured in the movie Disclosure, Jayson Pahlmeyer.
    The Sierra Club would be the plaintiff, the Mennen Environmental Foundation the means. The Napa group ex-com had already agreed to this arrangement, despite the fact that the announcement was bound to be explosive, the outcome transforming. For the first time ever, a well-known, powerful environmental advocacy group was challenging not just development of wild places but the right of Napa’s successful, adulated, glamorous industry to prosper and grow. The very basis of the wineries’ existence, not just profits, was being cast into doubt, and the result was bound to be acrimony, and worse.
    Chris Malan and John Stephens assumed that their decision to sue in the name of the Sierra Club would be sanctioned in the club’s up per echelons. The Sierra Club could not be associated with any lawsuit without approval by the litigation department in the national headquarters in San Francisco, but that should be no problem. The lesser lights in Napa assumed the slightly brighter lights in the Redwood chapter in Sonoma, to which the Napa group belonged, and the beacons in the Mission District would all be as enthusiastic about their cause as they were.
    The lesser lights were wrong.

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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Driving a Caddy convertible's dangerous

                          15. Headed  for Disaster  

     Jayson Pahlmeyer stepped out onto his patio and turned first to the east and then to the west, his hawklike profile to the wind. Behind him were the steep slopes of Atlas Peak, littered with volcanic debris, not the sort of place where a house would logically stand, but with a view, as visitors often said, to kill for. Miles straight out from the edge of his swimming pool, the south end of the valley slipped away through the Napa River estuary and the tule marshes to San Pablo Bay, gleaming like a doubloon dropped in the unblinking California sun, while farther out, beyond the fog banks, stood the intimation of San Francisco, the ghostly white skyline there one moment, gone the next.
     His house had been remodeled in a style he described with pride as “high-tech Italian industrial,” all glass and tile and tubular steel. The architect had put a lot of effort into rendering the walls the color of dirt and the angles suggestive of the European ducal antecedents of all-American, ever-striving, results-oriented entrepreneurial brass. The house’s roofline resembled the blade of a huge overturned snow shovel, and the blinding south wall reflected the conjunction of sea, sky, and land.
     Inside, the living space was separated from the outside by a kind of automated clerestory, a glorified garage door fitted with glass panels that rose on command to allow the dining room table to be rolled out under the stars. Circular stairs were encased in fiberglass plates at once reminiscent of fifties industrial breakthrough, foundry discards, and armor. The gorgeous blue leather chairs in the living room, under a cliff of burnished steel that served as a chimney, complemented the overall retro feel, as if the creator had found refuge in a universe of sharp manufactured objects and worker upheaval where he could safely sip his wine, emblematic of Old and New World craft.
     In the attached garage lived two monkeys, a spider and a capuchin, both born in captivity. (Jayson Pahlmeyer would never own a monkey from the wild.) They shared the space with his white ’64 Cadillac convertible, the last year Caddies had good, clean lines, in his opinion. He owned a powder-pink Cadillac convertible of similar vintage and liked to drive first one and then the other while wearing a high school letter-style jacket and a billed cap bearing his and his wine’s name, Pahlmeyer.
     He would head down the mountain to lunch at Mustard’s, his favorite restaurant, or, as he did this morning, in the white Caddy, up Atlas Peak Road. After a few winding miles he stopped to look at his new vineyard in the distance, overlapping the ridge separating Napa and Wooden valleys. The clearing of chaparral had begun, as Jayson and anyone else taking this dead-end route could plainly see in the spring of 1999, the final step in the ambitious, multimillion-dollar estate that had already caused him grief but was now marching toward completion.
     The young vines would be in by the end of summer, as the cowboys had promised. The clearing on the ridge resembled a light green Post-it on the darker flank of mountain running north to south, the natural palisade without a break except for the vineyard. Jayson’s Post-it had once been pasture, he argued; he was not destroying old growth. He could have dealt more easily with his critics among the environmentalists if he felt he had the backing of his own peers, but he was shunned by some vintners, despite his mea culpa and his lighthearted description of himself as the poster child for the hillside ordinance because his contractor had graded without a permit. A bit of humor doesn’t hurt, he kept thinking, and he took it a step further, referring to himself deprecatingly as the Monica Lewinsky of Napa Valley.
     But many people were still not amused. He hoped his new vineyard would help put his misdeeds behind him, that people would be forced to recognize the value of what he was doing. Eventually there would be a winery up there. The architect who had made over Jayson’s house was developing the concept: three levels, gravity flow, all natural materials blending into the hillside. A stealth structure.
     It would be beautiful, with heavy, industrial pipe columns and an elevator made of glass and furnished with chairs and a sofa for wine tasting as one rose with an ever-expanding view of the valley—of creation. A three-dimensional computer model being devised by the architect would allow Jayson to move things around and see what worked, what looked best, once he got his building permit. This was more stunning edge work and the final step in a master plan allowing him—finally, in quantity, on premises—to make a wine to drop you to your knees.
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Monday, May 30, 2016

Think like a fish

                               14. But Sue the Bastards Anyway 
                                                          (from The Far Side of Eden

     John Stephens, chair of the Napa group of the Sierra Club, lived on the west side of the city in a blue-collar subdivision with shared driveways and patches of grass. His patch was given over to native species. During the day, Stephens—tall, thin, with owlish glasses and slate-blue eyes—worked as a plumber at the Napa State Hospital, and at night he pursued various environmental goals, including river and forest protection, land conservation, the curtailment of urban sprawl, the preservation of ground water and water in the river and the wells, and numerous others. But what most of these had in common was H2O—its purity, its increasing scarcity, the declining health of things living in it. The state of the steelhead in the Napa River was in Stephens’s estimation “dismal, sickening.”
     So as a plumber he dealt with the utilitarian aspects of the earth’s most precious resource, and as an environmentalist he tried to restrict its use and degradation by human beings. It was a thoroughly contemporary dilemma, and it was mirrored, with variations, in the lives of most people actively involved in aspects of Napa’s environmental reforms.
     Many of these were discussed around Stephens’s dining room table in the west of the city. For years he had been a civil rights and a peace activist as well as what he called “a rocking chair Sierra Clubber,” but the Stanley Ranch controversy had galvanized him. Stephens proved adept at dealing with conflicting personalities and was voted onto the local Sierra Club executive committee, known as the ex-com. Its numbers varied from time to time, half the seats on this governing body elected by the valley’s entire membership and half by the other ex-com members.
     The Sierra Club was famously democratic and grass-roots, but there were certain controls not immediately apparent to the rank and file. Local autonomy—like access to local dues—went only so far, and Stephens soon learned about these limitations. He found the ex-com in Napa to be an “intellectual, quite wordy group,” and he had no trouble holding his own. Any member could raise an issue of concern and become the expert in that area and lead the charge, so to speak, as long as the rest of the committee went along. He became the conservation chair, one of many lesser chairs available to those who would sit in them. His soft-spoken persistence and ability to avoid open conflict usually prevailed, and during one meeting he went into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and came back to discover that he had been elected chair of the Napa group.
      Membership was extensive in the county, but the vast majority of members weren’t actively involved in the group’s political activities. Many were only dimly aware of them, their interests tending toward hiking and bird watching and preserving redwoods and treasures like Yosemite. The local environmental nitty-gritty was left to the wordy ex-com members, the core of which in Napa was made up of Stephens, Tyler York, the vice chair, who was a builder and a distributor of organic fertilizer, two other veteran Sierra Clubbers, and a relatively new arrival, Chris Malan.
     She was voted onto the ex-com by the committee itself. This was due to her keen interest in the issues and a desire by other ex-commers to take advantage of her energy and growing clout. Her insistence on being heard and her reputation for environmental action indicated a dynamo for the resource, not a dilettante. The issues had in “recent years become increasingly complicated and divisive, and Chris was made the political chair.
     From the beginning she talked, across the embroidered white cloth on John Stephens’s dining table, sometimes nibbling a cookie, about the growing need to sue the county for neglecting state environmental laws and to sue specific property owners for wreaking havoc in the hills.
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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Looking for the big one

                  13. Gravitas Matters in Fights Like This
                        (from The Far Side of Eden)

     A month after meeting with Lippe, Chris and her associates in Concerned Citizens for Napa Hillsides began combing through erosion control plans filed with the county and then comparing those plans with what had taken place on the ground. They needed photographs of work done in the early stages of vineyards to buttress their assertions that the actual work had not conformed to specifics put forward in the erosion control plans. Neighbors came forward with photographs of their own of what was taking place on adjacent properties. Chris saw the relationship between the county and the developers as one big administrative scam.
     “What was being done by the engineers and the attorneys,” she told people, “and what the county was approving, was not what was happening on the landscape.”
     An almost religious fervor pervaded the search. To back up paper evidence, she had the growing stash of photos showing ecological assault and some scientific evidence from ongoing studies financed by the Mennen Environmental Foundation. Damage to invertebrates, fish, and waterway channels downstream from vineyard development was obvious, all fodder for any future legal action. And there were moles in at least two public agencies in the county providing additional raw data. This all went into the spinning hopper that would eventually spit out a verdict on whether or not to sue.
     Chris was adamantly for it, as she had always been. The lawyers were cautious, and the Mennens in between. They now had more than seventy potential targets, should they decide to move. They started narrowing the possibilities, to increase their chances of winning if they did go to court; the criteria that emerged from these sessions were simple: no mom-and-pop operations; vineyard plans that could be challenged within time limits set down by the California Environmental Quality Act; and real, demonstrable environmental damage.
     The photographs of early stages of development were crucial. Vivid pictorial evidence could, if need be, prove to a judge that damage had been significant before it was obscured under a sea of trellises and young vines. No decision would be made until all the legal research was in and the lawyers could predict near-certain success. Everyone agreed on all these things. Napa Valley had supposedly the best erosion control and land conservation regulations in the United States. The publicity about any such lawsuit in this, the darling of the wine world, destination of billionaires, would be widespread, and the criticism of the suit relentless. The stakes were just too high, both for the environment and for the environmentalists, to screw up.
     Meanwhile, on the Watershed Task Force, Chris found herself in arguments not just with Stu Smith but also with other members. Dennis Groth, owner of the well-known winery of the same name in Oakville, the pink stucco mission-style landmark nicknamed Taco Bell, producer of a notable cabernet, told her in a moment of exasperation, “Some people don’t care as much as you do about these species.” She took this as an indication that he cared for them not at all, and she thought the county’s position not much different. She was convinced now that “the developer/special interest deck was stacked against the conservationists and environmentalists.”
     In her opinion, both the county planning director and the professional facilitators in charge of task force procedures were tacitly allied with the wineries. They sought the same outcome of all the deliberation, which was hand slaps for the developers and no real follow-up. The first phase of the task force was almost at an end, and concrete change would clearly not emerge. There was a plan for establishing an information center where the citizenry could obtain facts about hillside development and a way of dedicating certain sensitive lands to a public trust; both good ideas, Chris thought, but of little practical use in addressing regulations and penalties for violations.
     Worse, there was no firm indication that the county planned to go ahead with the second phase of the task force, as had originally been intended. The second phase was to have looked at the scientific evidence still being collected and to have made hard recommendations for a tougher hillside ordinance. But the board of supervisors delayed authorizing money for the second phase. All this pointed to a legal remedy.
     There was a catch, however: the Mennen Environmental Foundation couldn’t sue. Its bylaws and tax-exempt status prevented this, although the foundation could, and did, finance the research for the potential suit. It would have to find an organization willing to front as plaintiff if the backers and the lawyers ever decided to file, and finding the right organization was crucial. Public perception of environmental lawsuits was generally good; almost as important as the cause itself was the reputation of the organizations behind it. This could be a factor in the final outcome, and in the outcomes of possible subsequent lawsuits: the more important the organization—the older, larger, more respected, more popular, and more committed—the better.

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Throw a dart

              12. The Long Arm of the Law - Yours   
                                                  (from The Far Side of Eden

     Tom Lippe grew up in faraway Florida but went to law school at Stanford University and spent his free time in the Sierra Nevada. He naturally gravitated toward environmental issues and “social betterment”—his phrase—and by the time he graduated knew he wanted to practice in the public interest. Environmental litigation would be his niche.
     In the eighties in northern California that meant the timber wars. Protecting old growth was the emblematic regional struggle, and Lippe represented the Sierra Club and another organization up in Humboldt County against Pacific Lumber, with some success. Along the way he got to know the leadership of the club in San Francisco, where its headquarters was located. He later opened an office just blocks away from the Sierra Club’s utilitarian digs in the Mission District.
     “He now shared a suite with a financial consulting firm in an Embarcadero skyscraper but kept his hair long; he wore open shirts and sport jackets, and rarely talked about strategy. “Litigation is like poker,” he would say. “You don’t say what cards you had in the last hand” once your opponent folds. And you don’t waste a lot of time on sentiment.
In 1998, he got a call from a woman in Napa Valley named Chris Malan. He wasn’t surprised to learn that she had heard of him through the Sierra Club; it had often sent him referrals. Malan and other activists in the wine country were concerned about vineyard development in the hills and wanted to know if it could be halted, and Lippe drove up to talk to her.
     He found Malan both personable and well informed. Lippe didn’t drink wine and knew nothing about it or vineyards, and he couldn’t digest all the information on the spot. But it certainly seemed to him that the county had big legal problems, and that there might be work for him. For one thing, the visual evidence was compelling. “Look what’s happening up there,” he said of the patchwork development.
     He thought Napa Valley representative of other places in the United States where success had come down to money versus the environment. Many projects in the hills had been approved piecemeal, allowing developers to assemble big vineyards by doing them as a succession of smaller projects and avoiding more rigorous review. And there was the problem of enforcement—projects uninspected, violations unpunished, wrongdoers unrepentant. No one seemed to be looking at the possible effect of all this on the overall environment, or what would happen if it continued—the effects on wildlife and the river.
     Here was a cautionary tale, he thought: do something destructive to the land and try to fix it with technology, and you create other problems as unintended consequences. During storms, underground drainage delivers water too quickly for the river to handle, for instance. Developed hillsides erode. Rocks roll. Species suffer.
     Lots of laws applied, at least theoretically. One of these was the Endangered Species Act, savior of old growth—and of the northern spotted owl—and bane of the timber industry. It was a strong law but had its weaknesses, including the need to prove a “taking”—death or injury of an endangered creature as a direct result of activity by human beings. Proving this required a lot of field work by scientists and was very expensive (a million dollars just to get into federal court nowadays).
     San Pablo Bay was listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as impaired, and so consequently was the Napa River, a major tributary to the bay. The steelhead in the river were officially threatened, so that was a clear opportunity. And there were a few spotted owls in old growth above the west side of the valley.
     But there was a better, cheaper, more immediate way, the best card in any potential plaintiff’s hand: the California Environmental Quality Act. Known all over the state, either reverentially or contemptuously, as CEQA, the law stated that any project affecting the environment, if it involved “discretionary” decisions by local officials on the specifics, had to be first opened to public comment. The other sort of decision, “ministerial,” was for more standard projects and unsuited to those in Napa County because of the variety of the projects themselves and the terrain. Virtually all vineyard development in the hills involved discretionary approval, and to date there had been no public comment on erosion control plans.
     Lippe asked Chris for her documentation relating to new vineyards, acquired some erosion control plans from the county planning department, and reviewed it all. He was “dumbfounded,” he later said, to discover that the plans were apparently illegal. “There’s evidence all over them that the county was exercising discretion.”
     By that he meant that the planning department had approved projects on their merits without giving the public a chance to weigh in, as required. The irony was that if Napa had not passed a good hillside ordinance requiring certain safeguards and review, all the projects could have been treated as ministerial, rubber-stamped, and exempted. It was the provisions of Napa’s hillside ordinance, more stringent than in the rest of California, passed years before and requiring erosion control plans, that had opened Napa up to such potential litigation. From the time the ordinance was passed, Napa County should have been complying with the California Environmental Quality Act, and it wasn’t.
     If the county thought that its already strong hillside ordinance rendered public review unnecessary, Lippe thought, the county was wrong. Even if there was more environmental protection in Napa because of the hillside ordinance than “elsewhere, the requirements of CEQA still applied.
There also existed the possibility of suing individual property owners. If vineyards had been planted in the hills without environmental impact reports, then those same vineyard owners were presumably as liable as the county was.
     There were plenty of owners to choose from, including vineyards developed in the last few months with nothing more than a declaration from the authorities that they would have no negative impact on the environment. They belonged to all kinds of people, from big boys like Beringer to little start-ups nobody ever heard of to cult producers like Jayson Pahlmeyer. You could almost throw a dart.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Do good, or buy a Jaguar?

                                                       11. Go for it
                                                       (from The Far Side of Eden)
    Peter Mennen read the letter again, then leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. In a rush of elation and rage, he realized that stock in the family company, long reputed to have been left to Peter by his dear grandfather, had in fact been left to him, and had sat somewhere all these years without his knowing it. Mennen, Inc., had recently been acquired by Colgate-Palmolive, rendering all such stock public, and so his had surfaced through the inadvertent action of some functionary in a distant countinghouse through whose purview it had passed. Peter was not disinherited, as he had believed. He was not poor. He was, in all likelihood, rich.
     He found a lawyer, a hotshot litigator in San Francisco, who looked into the situation and came back and told Peter that he did indeed own stock and that its history was less savory than he had imagined. But if he took the matter to court, some people once close to Peter might go to jail and he might lose the bulk of the money. Peter told the lawyer, “I don’t care.”
     That is just what a litigator wants to hear, but this one didn’t work on contingency. The case would require a lot of digging and the pursuit of people who didn’t want to be pursued, and the lawyer asked, “How much money do you have?”
     Peter had about thirty thousand dollars that was supposed to pay for home renovation—the vegas, the fireplace designed by Carlene, the deck with its redwood ramada where Peter intended to plant wisteria—but it all disappeared into the litigator’s account.
     While he waited, Peter saw in his mind’s eye millions of dollars tumbling toward him, the greenbacks fluttering and turning in the air. They rained down, electrifying, transforming—sixteen million of them. As if in a dream, the case did not make it to court, and all pretension and false rectitude dissolved in a settlement that he felt vindicated decades of moral groping. It was the headiest of moments, a breathless experience, and then a strange thing happened: for the first time he could remember, Peter wanted to be rich.
     He went outside the post office and saw a Jaguar and wanted it. He saw a trophy house and wanted that, too, not a bungalow on Sylvaner Avenue. He wanted a sailboat, he wanted better clothes, he wanted . . . Going up and down, from the heights of anticipation to the depths of despair, he imagined himself in every enviable position in the valley and then got depressed. He realized that once he had all the possessions and positions, he wouldn’t be happy.
     It was painful, Carlene thought, watching all this. She would say, “Peter’s having a terrible time,” and wait for him to come out of it. They talked about what else might be done with the money, about various causes and, specifically, about fish—salmon and steelhead—species emblematic of big trees and clear mountain water, of the best of the West, which meant a lot to both of them, and wilderness. Gradually, Peter began to see that he had enough money either to be rich or to do some good, but not both.
     He sat in his office behind the Depression-era mural, staring up, and saw the dollars falling, falling right past him and into a bin at his feet marked “Mennen Environmental Foundation.” He wasn’t going to be rich after all, and that meant he had to remain a postmaster. This was fine, but the prospect of juggling both his public duties and those of the new environmental enterprise freaked him out. Carlene, who had taught him to eradicate Scotch broom and had prayed on Mount Shasta, said simply, “Why don’t you let me do it?”
     She went about it in her usual way, first looking into other, larger foundations and discovering that some were fronts providing access to resources for powerful people. Others did good work but wasted time and money by pitting one environmentalist against another. Some projects were good and some just excuses for extracting money. The Mennens’ was a piddling foundation compared to most, but it had about six hundred thousand dollars a year to spread around, enough to do something.
     The way to go, Carlene decided, was to pick a really good cause—there were so many—offer some money, and then bird-dog it. One of the best causes was the inventorying of wilderness in Utah, so it could be preserved, and Carlene got directly involved. She met with ranchers out there, whom she understood, and with native-plants people; she gave public testimony about wilderness before an advisory council, and shook things up.
     She and Peter started getting invited to things, like the meeting of Conservation International in Washington, D.C., where they showed up in Tevas and jeans only to discover that everybody else had on formal clothes and lots of jewelry. When Harrison Ford asked Peter to sit with him, Peter said, “I have to sit with my wife.”
     No one in Napa knew these things. Peter and Carlene helped with reforestation in Costa Rica and salmon restoration in Oregon. Carlene got interested in urban sprawl in the Bay Area and in how much money had been raised and spent over the years by the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the National Conservation League. She thought she could get more bang for the buck with smaller, more tightly focused grants, including those promoting watersheds and recovery of wild-land corridors. These had to be run by people who knew the terrain, she thought. “Don’t look for expertise and grant-writing talent,” she would say. “Look for passion on the land.”
     Gradually she and Peter returned, philanthropically speaking, to the place they had never left, where they had begun their lives together, Napa Valley. Then Chris Malan showed up at the fundraiser for Mike Thompson, nearly hysterical about development in the hills and unsure of what to do next. Chris might be overbearing at times, Carlene thought, but she was passionate and she got them to look differently at something they had taken for granted until then.
     Carlene delved into the possibility of suing the county, the vintners, or both. Through her contacts in the Sierra Club in San Francisco, she found a lawyer good at such things, and she collected a lot of pertinent information and turned it over to Chris, telling her, in effect, "Go for it."
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Monday, May 9, 2016

Help comes from the strangest places

                                        10. Corn Killer to the Rescue
                         (From The Far Side of Eden)

      Sometimes he thought about the distance the country had come since his great-grandfather invented a corn remover in a Newark basement, at the end of another century. Then America was, in relative terms, unspoiled. At least large parts of it were. Then, millions of acres in the West retained sufficient beauty and wildness to be included by Theodore Roosevelt in new national parks and national forests; this stretch of California still had remnants of Great Basin Indians in the early twentieth century, including a handful of Wappos of Napa Valley whose forebears had once enlivened the coastal ranges with myriad languages and customs. Redwoods stood tall and thick the entire length of the Mayacamas and other ranges then, and the California dream had been very much alive.
     Mennen’s Sure Corn Killer had led to other inventions for the temporary melioration of the natural human condition, like perspiration and the growth of facial hair. Deodorants, after-shave lotion, and the like eventually produced a significant fortune, and the great-grandson grew up in its glow, not in Newark but in a mansion in exclusive New Jersey suburbia, vaguely aware from an early age that his world lacked something. Concepts “that Peter Mennen later came to understand as privilege, exclusion, loneliness, and guilt attached to an existence over which he had no control and could only oppose obliquely, first through withdrawal, later through rebellion.
     Conformity and exclusivity were among the things being rejected in the 1960s, and Peter joined in. “I know what you’re against,” his father would say, “but what are you for?” And Peter couldn’t answer. He didn’t yet know that natural beauty was something you could be for, like God and country.
     He was accepted by Brown University despite mediocre grades—he was, after all, a Mennen—but failed all but one subject his sophomore year. Young men his age who were not in school or married were being drafted into the army, involved in a military campaign in Southeast Asia becoming a full-fledged war, “Vietnam” a synonym for everything supposedly wrong with America. So Peter bought a motorcycle—a Honda Dream, barely capable of reaching sixty miles an hour on the open road—and took off for Mexico.
     He had heard of a cheap university in Mexico City that catered to veterans on the GI Bill and offered a haven for the academically and “professionally challenged, as well as those enjoying the honeymoon of a marriage between illicit drugs and industrial democracy. This was inspired by the ready availability of mind-altering substances not so readily available in suburban New Jersey. Peter enrolled. The school was called—ironically, he thought—the University of the Americas, while many of its students had rejected American culture and had no allegiance to the one below the border, either.
     Personally, he was on a search but didn’t know for what. He still could not answer his father, but felt he was getting closer even as he slipped farther down the slope toward disinheritance, the fate he had been led to believe was his. One night, having inhaled the essence of a green substance he considered essential in those days, he took the Honda Dream over the mountain between Mexico City and the sea, an ancient volcano of great spiritual significance in pre-Columbian times.
     Descending at speed, his relaxation and coordination chemically enhanced, he went through a seemingly endless series of curves, courting the precipice, dipping first to one side and then the other, so low that the motorcycle’s footrests scraped the pavement and re-leased showers of sparks that blended with stars hanging out in the immense, unmarred Mexican sky. He sensed a coming together of self and surroundings, totally new, even as mind and body separated and the feeling expanded to include the universe. It was sustained ecstasy—no other word for it—and it lasted until he gained the flatland and got off the Dream and stood looking back. He knew he could never again be the person who had made that descent in that way.
     “Once you ram through that window,” Peter would later say, “you can’t go back, even though life’s new possibilities might mean extreme loneliness. You can’t even want to go back.”
     Later, he wrote a poem about the experience:

               I lie, an open wound, ‘neath my devouring lover night

               and bleed to mingle freely with the darkness,
               spread fine as mist ‘round the earth’s curve;
               and I die in ecstasy, kindling a million stars.

     He returned to the United States, unable to shake the memory of that night, and was told he had been disinherited. In search of an other window, he took a civil service exam, and to his surprise did well, and went to work in “a post office in San Francisco. It was the late sixties, the beatniks gone, the hippies going, love coming in, high boogie time in North Beach and psychedelia in the Haight. Peter collected some experience as a bureaucrat and began to look around for a more peaceful slot.

     There was an opening for a postmaster in a town north of San Francisco called St. Helena. It was the next-to-northernmost branch in the region ruled from Oakland, and so unlikely to be hassled by supervisors. He looked it up on a map and found that St. Helena was in the middle of nowhere, just where Peter wanted to be. He applied and got the job on merit.
     The lovely little building on Main Street, he discovered, had wood paneling, old metal post boxes, and a vibrant mural from the Depression era showing Anglo-Saxons picking grapes. His office in the southeast corner, directly off the reception area, had two big windows and another door leading into the sorting room. It would be home for a long time.
     In 1981, the first year of the Napa Valley Wine Auction, Peter Mennen got into a dispute with the woman organizing that event over the amount of postage required for a mailing. She sent her assistant, a good-looking, dark-haired younger woman named Carlene, to deal with the postmaster. She and Peter hit it off, and although the postage price was not reduced, they began to see each other outside the little building on Main Street.
     Carlene seemed to be Peter’s polar opposite. She had grown up on a big ranch in Texas, about as far as you could get from the New Jersey gold coast, but both Peter and Carlene had broken off relations with their families. She took this tall, blond, boyish former scion on hikes in the woods, fossil hunting in eastern California and New Mexico, and into canyons and wild lands. He was Ivy League, she seat-of-the-pants, but she taught him something about nature. Together they worked for the eradication of Scotch broom in California, gathering and distributing the seeds of native plants.
     At first, Peter had said, “This is so boring.” But gradually he came round to an appreciation of the land, something intuitive in Carlene, having been raised on the Red River, where she spent hours watch ing soft-shell turtles, coyotes, and panthers. She abhorred the land rush there and the practice of wearing out a piece of property before moving on to do the same “thing someplace else. She considered that part of Texas “Bible-belted” and hadn’t bought into that brand of spirituality. It was just another version, they agreed, of conformity and exclusivity.
     Peter was impressed with Carlene’s “wildness.” Her mother was French, but there were Cherokee and Comanche genes aplenty, and he liked her knowledge and persistence. Over the years Peter would say repeatedly, “Carlene’s like water. It always finds its way to where it wants to go.”
    In 1987 they went up to Mount Shasta, and Carlene read aloud Gary Snyder’s “Prayer for the Great Family,” after a Mohawk prayer; she asked for guidance to support biological integrity and the wherewithal to do it. This sentimental act had implications more profound than either of them suspected  for after they were married and living in a trailer, having bought the house on Sylvaner that still had to be renovated before they could move in, Peter received a letter at his office from a bank in the Midwest. He opened and read it. The manager of his trust fund, the letter informed him, was requesting a million-dollar raise in her annual fee.
     He thought, “What trust fund?”


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