Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The big one's coming

                            5. Disasters Natural and Otherwise

     Her “sense of nature” provided a useful alternative. Chris Malan described herself as humanitarian and deeply concerned about the environment. “This is a fragile world,” she would say, “Carl Sagan’s small blue dot. If we screw it up, we’ll all be miserable.”
     Experience in the gritty world of the emotionally damaged carried into the public weal. She sidled up to organizations devoted to environmental causes that tended to coalesce around specific issues, mutate, and reemerge in different form, like mayflies. There was no dearth of these issues in Napa Valley. Her first fight, as she would later tell it, was for a prospective greenbelt around the city of Napa that did not prevail legislatively. Then she joined the board of the fledgling Friends of the Napa River, a polyglot group of outdoors people and conservationists devoted to cleaning up both the water and the riverbanks.
     Friends of the Napa River argued that if the primary drainage couldn’t be saved, then the county, too, would be lost, that the river was the key to everything else. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had listed the steelhead as a threatened species throughout the San Pablo Bay drainage; someday the federal government might demand changes in farming, construction, and road-building practices, all of which had an impact on the river, so there was an impetus for the locals to act first. Friends of the Napa River also became effectively enmeshed in flood control politics.
     Chris soon found herself involved in an effort to prevent some Texans from developing an elevated bit of real estate known as Soscol Ridge. She was learning, taking advice from others, and concerned about the outcome of this fight. She worried that enough wasn’t being done. In the house of Moira Johnson Block, a founder of Friends of the Napa River, she met the bearded Volker Eisele, veteran of the vintner wars and reputed master strategist, and Volker tried to reassure her about the outcome of the vote on Soscol Ridge. The development would be defeated, he said, and to drive this home he wagered a lunch on the result. Chris accepted the bet, figuring she would win something either way: if the initiative passed, Soscol Ridge would not be developed, and if it didn’t pass, at least she would get a free meal.
     The total opposed to the development turned out to be more than eighty percent, and Chris happily paid for lunch. For her, Soscol Ridge had been a watershed. She had clearly seen the face of the enemy—despoilers of natural habitat—and clearly understood that what was needed to defeat them was early involvement and dedicated follow-through, even when the outcome appeared dubious.
     Others in the environmental movement viewed Chris as an activist rather than an organizer, more a bulldog than a strategist. An errant pants leg was always attached to development, in her view, and she clamped down on it. Although her sympathies were divided between the hills and the river, the two were inextricably linked. Vineyards were appearing just under every horizon, and no one was acting to stop them. It didn’t seem to bother her friends as much as it bothered Chris. Opponents of sprawl could strongly unite for preserving the valley floor, she would say disapprovingly, “but they can’t get it together for the hillsides.” And gradually a divide began to grow between her and other, less outspoken environmentalists.
     Meanwhile, a proposal for a bedroom-community development within the Napa city limits surfaced. It was known as Stanley Ranch, and it required rezoning for high-density housing; this inspired an ad hoc committee opposed to high-end sprawl and “the Santa Rosa trend,” and included were Richard Niemann, a schoolteacher and Sierra Club member, Ginny Simms, a former county supervisor and the first woman ever elected to that office, Harold Kelly and Diane Dillon, both long involved in community action, Chris, and others.
     For two years they fought Stanley Ranch, lobbying the city council, calling for new studies and public hearings. The Napa city General Plan was subject to an environmental impact review, and they attended these public meetings, spoke out against rezoning, and formed Get a Grip on Growth to launch a referendum if need be. Eventually the city council, faced with lawsuits and the referendum threat, backed down, and Stanley Ranch sank into the increasingly crowded compost heap of potential developments.
     But in the midst of the Stanley Ranch fight, something occurred of such cataclysmic severity, a personal crisis in the life of the county crisis counselor so profound, that it overshadowed all other concerns and left her “living every parent’s worst nightmare.”
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