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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Jenner, California: The Little Town That Did

Jenner…The Little Town That Did

By Vesta Copestakes

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ M. Mead

How many times do we sigh deeply when forces larger, and better funded, than we are, undesirably affect our lives? This is the story of a small group of dedicated people who, for years, fought the giant, then won. Their persistence in strategy and response, combined with attention to detail, were vital to their successful outcome, but most importantly, they were united in their cause as they combined their individual talents.

When I met with Jenner residents Sharon Chang, David Kenly, Kathie Lowrey and Elinor Twohy, to recount how their “Little Town That Could” had struggled to save its watershed in the early years of the last decade, they spoke about the aspects of their town’s involvement in the process that would lead ultimately to the acquisition of the Jenner Headlands. From the start, they repeatedly mentioned John R. Twohy, who no longer with us, had been a vital contributor to their success and an inspirational leader of their team.

Although the action started in the late 1980s, the story really began in 1964 when Jenner Water Works owner Mr. Bressie protested a plan to divert Jenner Creek in order to support a proposed 200 home development in the hills above town. Nothing came of that plan, but in 1979, a timber harvest plan fouled the upper reaches of Jenner Creek with silt, and Sharon Chang, then co-owner of Jenner’s water system, realized that a complex and expensive filtering system was then necessary to guarantee clean water for the town. In the late 1980s, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, grant funding was approved to improve the water system. In 1990, the system was sold to Sonoma County to protect against diversion by the uphill ownerships. 

Even then, many in the town were relatively unaware of how their surface water collection system was and could be affected. The causes of this problem weren’t clearly understood until Sharon Chang read the geologist’s report accompanying the 1999 proposal for yet another timber harvest plan. It was this document that revealed not only failures to remedy past actions, but many major reasons why timbering should not be conducted in the watershed as proposed.

But that wasn’t the end of the story – it became the beginning.

Jenner’s water system relies entirely upon surface water collected from the town’s watershed. If you’ve been following water articles in the Gazette over the last several years, you know how important preserving a watershed is for good, clean water. In the case of Jenner, with water collected entirely from the surface, the supply is more susceptible to contamination than water filtered through earth and rock. The first sign of trouble is muddy water.

John and Elinor Twohy, Sharon Chang, and David Kenly, as members of the Jenner Water Citizens Advisory Committee (a group of local citizens appointed by the Board of Supervisors to provide oversight to the water system), encouraged a multi-agency review team to visit the hills above town to find reasons why the water had become cloudy. Plenty of reasons were found and noted. Many were because past projects had not been completed in ways that protect and sustain healthy watersheds. Earth had already been moved, streams crossed with skid roads, resulting in erosion that continually silted Jenner’s tributary streams. 

The primary upstream landowners, Sonoma Coast Associates (SCA) then submitted plans to build three large holding ponds, diverting water from Jenner Creek. The plans stated they’d be for watering livestock, but when the JWCAC compared the amounts of water actually available with what sustainable land use requirements for a livestock operation might be, it was noted that the numbers simply didn’t work. It was also noted that, years prior, SCA had advertised this land for a master plan community, complete with resort hotel, golf course, and commercial areas. If these holding ponds weren’t stopped, Jenner would be without water. They proved that these holding ponds would destroy Jenner’s creek and water supply, and the project was stopped.

Victory and relief didn’t last long enough to savor and relax.

By early 2000, SCA and Russian River Redwoods, both owners of the Jenner watershed lands, applied for two Timber Harvest Plans to cut 33% of the watershed, all on steep unstable slopes mapped with well over 50% underlain landslides. Once again, if Jenner were going to survive, these plans had to be stopped.

Protesting two concurrent THPs in Jenner’s watershed, the JWCAC brought in private and agency scientists and advocates to compile data and regulatory argument that would stop the timber harvests as they were proposed. Biologists, geologists, foresters, fisheries experts, wildlife advocates, and other environmental scientists all gave input. 

Whether with lengthy written documents or in many meetings, the JWCAC produced argument and data to defend the watershed. This was all brought to the timbering regulating agency, the California Department of Forestry, yet all for naught. CDF approved the first of the THPs, and harvesting became imminent.

At this point, the only hope for Jenner was in postponing harvesting, but how? The JWCAC had discovered a requirement in the Forestry Practices Act that harvested lands be returned to original condition. The JWCAC demanded that such a return be quantified by data, not by the arbitrary assessment of a reviewing official. In June of 2001, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued orders to both timber companies for in-stream monitoring programs, and Jenner’s residents realized they had opportunity to delay the process and assure verifiable quality through a verifiable and scientific data collection program.

Many of the town volunteered to be a part of an in-stream monitoring program, that after years, would establish a baseline reference to which watershed affecting activities, such as timbering, would be held accountable. 

After more than a year of protesting that the plan was unsafe, and with monitoring orders and promise of reliable baseline data in hand, the JWCAC, the Jenner Community Club, and Sonoma County continued the protest by filing a lawsuit against CDF, asserting that approval of this THPs was flawed and illegal, providing no protection for a vital watershed. They had the tools to prove it.

This is where the tide turned. By 2003, well into the THP, Jenner was awarded grants to pay for monitoring. Many of the citizens volunteered to join a program requiring regular data collection, a program that proved far more reliable than automated alternatives. This continued seasonally on a daily basis with volunteer citizen commitment that hadn’t previously happened in Jenner. The grants supplemented dedication while helping pay for these expensive data evaluations. Additional equipment was purchased and installed upstream, increasing the quality of information gathered. The monitoring program was a success.

Delays in actual harvesting continued. By 2004, with no reasons given, CDF withdrew approval of the Timber Harvest Plan. What’s important is that never before in CDF history has a Timber Harvest Plan been stopped once approved.

Jenner had won its argument, and the watershed was saved from one THP. Nevertheless, victory had shallow aspects. Since the case had never gotten to court, what would have been a favorable ruling was not to be, and with that, the opportunity to set case law that could protect other watersheds was lost. Those in Jenner who had struggled for so long to save their own watershed could only wish that CDF would alter the ways it approves THPs, especially by taking into consideration cumulative impacts over time and founded on reliable, quantitative baseline data. The threat to Jenner of two THPs in the watershed brought strong awareness that, included in such assessments should be the cumulative impacts upon the entire watershed, not just the area of the THP. Events in the forest know no arbitrary boundaries other than ridge tops and watercourses.

When various factors led Sonoma Coast Associates and Russian River Redwoods to stop moving forward with their plans, the years from 2004 to 2010 took on a whole new light. Many of Jenner had long realized that the only escape from the threat of uphill development of any nature would be acquisition of the lands (hopefully for preservation in perpetuity), or development rights at the very least. They approached many, from then Fifth District Supervisor Mike Reilly and Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, California’s Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Sonoma Land Trust. Nothing could be done, however, without a willing seller.

Suddenly, in April of 2005 and after the unexpected announcement that the landowners might be willing to negotiate a sale, Sonoma Land Trust came in to save the day, following a fruitful meeting of Mike Reilly with the watershed’s owners. After years of trying to raise enough money to purchase the 5,630 acres of land above Jenner, the SLT succeeded. Jenner’s watershed, as an integral part of the Jenner Headlands acquisition, became protected forever. This stunning land above the mouth of the Russian River is now owned and studied by organizations sharing the common goal of preservation and public availability.

The Little Town That Could
will be celebrating this extraordinary success on Sunday, August 8th, at the Jenner Community Club. Invitation is extended to all to share in that celebration. Starting at 4 pm, there will be a barbecue, followed by words of appreciation and acknowledgement, then capped with the skilled and immensely entertaining vocal talents of Teresa Tudury. Participants in this effort will be there to share details of their story, hopefully to encourage others who feel up against such daunting challenges. This tiny town of just over 100 homes and a hand full of caring people proved that success can be found when efforts are united toward a common goal.

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