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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