Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 14: Muir Redux

Note: I recently acquired the rights to my second Napa book, The Far Side of Eden. I think the struggle over the hillsides at the outset of this century covered in the book is relevant to the current discussion of development that includes new wineries and winery expansions, and I decided to run excerpts here. The series begins with the June postings in the drop-down menu to the right.                                                 


      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 Mennen 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.
      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 (see The Far Side of Eden 1, at right) 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.
      The fat was in the fire.
  (Starting next month: part III of The Far Side of Eden: Divide and Fall)       
   To order my memoir, go to:                          

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