Give me a break department: Rich landowners are an oppressed minority??


On April 13, Stuart Smith published a letter in the St. Helena Star opposing Measure C, which is designed to protect the Napa Valley watershed.

The team behind Measure C have a very simple proposition, which is supported by much of the citizenry and by science: Stop deforestation of oak woodlands and destruction of critical riparian areas so that the water services of the watershed will be protected. Save the environment so that the population, including winegrowers, will not experience the predictable harms that follow deforestation. 

Mr. Smith’s argument focuses on two of the talking points propagated by the group opposed to watershed protection. He claims that protecting the environment is an encroachment on property rights and that somehow the science associated with protecting watersheds doesn’t measure up.

First, let’s consider his claims about property rights. In the early days of populating an area, the impact of one person is typically negligible, and so there are few formal restrictions. As an area becomes more populated, two things happen. First, there are irresponsible people who do things on their land that have negative impacts on neighbors and downstream. Whether carving up a mountain such that it washes into the river, polluting, or creating problems with neighbors, rules are created to make it clear that irresponsible behavior is not allowed. 

Of greater significance is the aggregate impact of development when an area attracts many landowners to deforest, build facilities, and scrape the land of natural vegetation. The aggregate and cumulative impact of development has harmful effects for neighbors and downstream communities, even if each individual adheres to a ‘best practice’ approach. That was resoundingly demonstrated in the Dunne report of 2001 (discussed more later). As density increases, the cumulative impact becomes significant, and each landowner has to adhere to increasingly stringent rules to prevent permanent harm to the environment and its citizens. Even the first guy, who operated under no rules and was responsible, has to adhere to the rules that protect everybody. The same rules for everybody. 

Is this stealing property rights? No. Nobody has unlimited sovereign rights. In general, you can do with your property as you please, unless it negatively impacts others. You can’t build a rock concert venue down a 2-lane road deep in a canyon and you can’t operate a mercury mine (any more). You can’t light a bon fire in windy dry weather. I can recall growing up in Los Angeles that we burned our dry trash in incinerators in the back yard. The cumulative impact was horrid smog, so it was made illegal to possess an incinerator. Was this an infringement on property rights? Not at all. It was acknowledgment that with increasing population density, this was a pretty stupid thing to do. 

The flip side of the “rights” argument is “responsibility.” Acknowledge that Napa today is not the Napa of 1970. The volume and density of development – agriculture and ‘hospitality’ - is having cumulative impact on the county, and we will have to create rules that protect the environment and communities from the cumulative impact of individually responsible operations. Property rights are not absolute or infinite. What you can do with your property has always been with consideration to the impact on others. You are part of a community. 

Next, Mr. Smith sounds the drumbeat of “where’s the science?”, knowing full well that there is ample science. The Watershed Task Force compiled and summarized the science associated with protecting vs. deforesting watersheds. The aforementioned Dunne report systematically detailed the cumulative and permanent impact of deforestation. Mr. Smith has been an active participant in consideration of the science involved, and his claim that none exists is disingenuous. What science would he like to argue with? The beneficial services of oak forests? The negative impact of deforestation? The benefits of setbacks from tertiary and secondary streams?  Would he like to argue that vineyards don’t use water drawn from the water table? He begins to sound like the climate change deniers who look straight at the science and declare it to be opinion. Can he show any science that shows that deforestation is good? A single case? No, I didn’t think so. 

Lastly, Mr. Smith contrives an argument to make the landowners of Napa Valley an oppressed minority that is being done wrong by the tyranny of the majority. He argues that the initiative process by which citizens create laws directly when their representatives are unresponsive is somehow an injustice. He calls Measure C an oppression of a minority group. I confess I laughed hysterically when I got to that line. Napa wine growers as small family farmers is mostly a myth now. They do exist, but the lion-share of land holdings are one per-centers and mega corporations. The idea of the super-rich being an oppressed minority is laughable. 

Mr. Smith is from a previous era, when responsible vineyard developers could figure out how best to create a winegrowing business. Because the Napa brand has attracted people with less knowledge and commitment to sustainability, we need to create rules. Because we are so densely developed, we have to create rules and guidelines that consider cumulative and aggregate impact. 

This one very simple measure has a very clear objective, to protect the watershed forests that assure our water supply. You can complicate it and make up ideological arguments to distract people from the simple necessity to protect the watershed, but it remains that deforestation will lead to bad effects for us all, and protecting the watershed is one thing we can do right now to protect our future. 

Please vote YES on C.