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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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The postmaster and the activist

                      9. I've been wondering when you'd call
                                                       (From The Far Side of Eden)      
     Shortly after the formation of Friends of the Napa River, Chris Malan heard about Peter Mennen. He was the eccentric St. Helena postmaster, one of a long line of individualists who had been coming to Napa Valley for more than a century to get away from the pressures of life in America, before the valley came to symbolize them. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Mennen was wealthy, the interest in him might have stopped right there.
     His postal customers considered him a friendly, idiosyncratic, intelligent holdover from the sixties, a “character” who had inherited a fortune and dedicated some of it to environmental causes. Few people knew of the extent of his involvement in these things, and that included Chris.
     Friends of the Napa River was sponsoring a river festival, and she decided to call Mennen up and ask him to finance a Klamath River dory, to be offered as a raffle prize, and asking herself, “What do you have to lose?” She looked up his telephone number in the directory and dialed it, and a man with a soft, youthful-sounding voice answered. After she had identified herself, he said, “I’ve been wondering when you’d call.”
     During the fight over Stanley Ranch, Chris called Mennen again. She was peripherally involved and wanted him to speak at a gathering in Napa against the project, since Mennen often stood up at public meetings and expressed opposition to development. His letters to the editor were surprisingly hard-hitting for a public servant, but his attention, and his money, was usually focused on organizations operating outside the county. That was the word on Mennen and his wife, Carlene, a figure less outspoken than Mennen himself, as together they engaged by proxy in distant battles in Utah and elsewhere.
     The Mennens had political preferences at home, too, but remained apart from the local environmental organizations and indifferent to the reigning social hierarchy. This rendered them sideliners to the greens and irrelevant to the local elite, who tended to assess those in the valley by their access to the celebrated producers of its famous product and who didn’t keep up with environmental activities elsewhere in the nation.
     Then in 1998 the Mennens held a fundraiser for Mike Thompson, who was running for the U.S. Congress for the first time. They invited most everybody in the valley with any claim to being “environmental,” and that included Chris Malan. She took her photographs with her, as was her habit, those taken by Parry Mead from the airplane showing razed land high in the hills, dire evidence of environmental damage, and these included photographs of Jayson Pahlmeyer’s new vineyard, put in under the supervision of David Abreu.
     The Mennens lived in a modest subdivision in St. Helena, just down the street from Stu Smith and his new wife, Julie Ann, and the Mennens’ front yard was quite unlike others on Sylvaner Avenue. No neatly mowed lawn, no lawn at all, in fact, just a postage stamp of natural aridity that annoyed the neighbors, all rock and wild azaleas and a coffeeberry tree that attracted birds in unusual numbers. Inside, the little house had a Southwest feel, nothing fancy, with wooden beams and nice wooden furniture and sliding glass doors overlooking the creek between the Mennens’ and the Spottswoode vineyard which also, in season, flowed past Peter Newton’s and Buddy Meyer’s properties on its way to Sulphur Creek and the Napa River, San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay, and finally the Pacific Ocean.
     Peter Mennen didn’t look like a postmaster to Chris. He was tall and casually dressed, and the clear stems of his glasses disappeared into abundant hair that had turned from blond to off-white without aging him. Carlene, Mennen’s physiognomic opposite, was maybe five feet six, with black eyes and a mien more American Indian than Anglo. She had straight black hair much like Chris’s and, if truth be told, looked a little bit like Chris: solid, dark complexion, with a transforming smile and a level gaze.
     When Chris showed the photographs to her hostess, Carlene said, “You’re ruining my dinner.”
     Undeterred, Chris asked why she and her husband spent money on environmental causes far from Napa when right here there was much to be done. Home was the problem, Chris said, launching into her familiar refrain: people will work, and spend, to protect distant mountains, wild washes, even the Napa Valley floor, but they can’t get it together for the hills. The blaze resulting from this exchange would take more than a year to kindle, its provenance indistinct and the chronology of its progress imprecise.
     But in the end it wouldn’t matter who did “exactly what, exactly when, for the effect would be profound and there would be more than enough credit and acrimony to go around.

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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Trigger pulled

                                           8. The View from on High
                           (From The Far Side of Eden)
     Chris Malan received a plea from a woman in Wooden Valley who had assisted her with Micah when he was still in the hospital. The woman now had a crisis of her own: her neighbor, Jayson Pahlmeyer, was putting in big vineyards and subjecting her to dust and the constant drone of chainsaws. He was denuding hillsides remote from the rest of Napa Valley, out of public view. She asked for help.
     Chris and one of her neighbors on Atlas Peak Road, Parry Mead, went up in a small aircraft and told the pilot to fly them over all of Napa Valley—Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill, Howell Mountain, Diamond and Spring mountains, Mount Veeder. They were shocked by what they saw. Parry took a lot of photographs, and the worst, in Chris’s view, was Pahlmeyer’s new vineyard. She would later call it “the trigger.”
     Broader involvement was needed to give the hillside ordinance real teeth. Yet another group, Concerned Citizens for Napa Hillsides, was founded, and Parry Mead’s photographs were submitted to the local newspaper and to the board of supervisors. Concerned Citizens began to protest hillside conversions and demand that use permits for steeper slopes be required. They insisted that conversions of woodland and chaparral to vineyard on even more gradual slopes be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, from which the vintners were currently exempted. They wrote letters to the editor. People whose property had been flooded by runoff from development higher up or otherwise affected got in touch with Concerned Citizens and wrote letters of their own, and all this began to have an impact.
     The organization was granted a spot on the board of supervisors’ agenda, and Chris made a three-hour presentation. Using all the ammunition in the burgeoning file, she and her allies asked for a moratorium on the clearing of all hillsides. A moratorium was feared most by those seeking to profit from the unprecedented business expansion; the wine business was just so good, and all the flat land already in production, and here comes this proposal out of left field seeking to hobble the primary enterprise of Napa Valley. That was the view of most of the vintners. Moratorium was anathema to them, an economic and philosophical abomination sending up a figurative cloud of dust.
     The ever-mounting litany of complaints had to be listened to, as always, by supervisor Mel Varrelman of the V-neck sweaters, in the estate planning office with the blue awning. The hillside ordinance had produced some good effects, he thought, the required erosion control plans reducing the turbidity of the river, for instance. But controversial new vineyard “conversions” like Pahlmeyer’s, new houses, and the destruction of trees and vegetation wiped those benefits out of the public consciousness.
     People were so agitated that Mel’s re-election was cast into doubt. Something had to be done. Napa’s state senator, Mike Thompson, suggested the formation of an ad hoc committee composed of growers, scientists, environmentalists, soils people, and ordinary citizens to discuss development in the hills and ways to make it more palatable. It was to be chaired by a scientist from the Resource Conservation District.
     The idea of it was attacked by developers, Seventh-day Adventists up in Angwin, some vineyard managers and vintners opposed to any government regulation—the usual suspects—but the committee met anyway. It included Volker Eisele, Richard Niemann, a veteran canoeist and river advocate named Jim Hench, a young woman from the Farm Bureau, Joelle Gallagher, representatives of the legal firm of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty that often represented developers, a Mondavi vineyard manager, a vintner named Stuart Smith, and a few others. Thompson and Varrelman hoped they would all get along and that this would be the first step in defusing a potentially explosive issue.
     At first they seemed to get along, and Varrelman was reelected. He and his fellow supervisors voted to formalize the ad hoc committee, calling it the Watershed Task Force, and they appropriated money to hire a consulting firm to “facilitate” the meetings and eventually to produce a report. The operative word was consensus. Each supervisor was allowed to appoint people to the board. Chris Malan wanted on, of course, but the supervisor for her district thought her too outspoken. Then another, outgoing, lame duck supervisor agreed to appoint her, and Chris was in.
     Creating the Watershed Task Force did not, as Varrelman and Thompson had hoped, put the hillside issue to rest. Its head never touched the pillow.
 To order Napa: