Help prevent deforestation

Letter to the Editor by Sue Wagner, May 29 2018


Napa County has delayed far too long to put into place meaningful protections of our hillside watersheds. With fewer parcels of acreage on the valley floor available for development into vineyards, wealthy landowners are increasingly encroaching into the Napa Valley hillsides and watersheds to plant new vineyards and develop more wineries.

This has created a collision course with the environment and will likely have serious implications for water availability in the future.

Contrary to the assertions that Napa County's current ag policy and the Napa County General Plan protect both the environment and agriculture, continuing to allow unchecked development of vineyards into our hillside watersheds is a dangerous policy with far reaching adverse effects to the health of our watersheds and ultimately to the water supply relied upon by Napa County residents.

Current policies allow the wine industry's unrelenting quest to plant yet more vineyards into the hillside watersheds, without concern for the sustainability of this practice. Fortunately there are a growing number of wine industry visionaries such as Andy Beckstoffer and Warren Winiarski who recognize a growing body of evidence demonstrating that conversion of oak woodlands into vineyards in our hillside watersheds is unsustainable.

Last fall, during an aerial tour of the Napa Valley, I personally observed hillside watersheds in both the eastern and western mountain ranges that define the Napa Valley. Substantial acreage of these hillsides are located in the agricultural watershed which once thrived with oak woodlands and are now clear cut and littered with vineyards.

Most of these vineyard conversions are hidden from view, high above the Valley floor, while they quietly suck the water out of hillside aquifers and deplete neighboring property owner's wells, as well as disrupting eco-systems that rely upon the many benefits of a fully functioning watershed. Sadly, once these oak woodlands are destroyed to make way for new vineyards, the damage cannot be undone.

Mature oak trees perform many functions in the eco-system. They act as mini-reservoirs. Each tree is capable of storing up to 50,000 gallons of water, soaked up during the rainy season and then released back into the soil and air during the non-rainy season. This has a cooling effect on the air and the soil is stabilized by massive root structures.

Loss of these mature oak woodlands also means that they can no longer contribute to cleansing our air and helping us to meet air quality goals. Loss of the carbon sequestration benefits from clear cutting naturally forested watersheds will impact air quality. For example, a mature coastal live oak tree (35-40 years old) removes about 467 pounds of atmospheric carbon. It takes over 25 trees to offset carbon dioxide created by an average passenger car, driving 12,000 miles per year which creates 11,000 pounds of CO2 annually.

Presently, landowners are able to convert oak woodlands into vineyards without first obtaining a permit for oak tree removal. There are no protections, such as Measure C, in place to impose mandatory restrictions on removal of oak woodlands unless the project triggers a discretionary review process under Napa County code or ordinances.

Rarely, an Erosion Control Permit is required, and only then does an Environmental Review occur which may require the property owner to "mitigate the loss." Current mitigations afforded for the loss of each oak tree allowed to be destroyed in the name of vineyard conversion are typically replacement of a mature oak tree by an oak seedling. The "replacement seedling" does not replace the benefit of the lost mature oak tree that has been felled in the name of agriculture, yet, this is how "the loss" is quantified.

Approval of Measure C will beneficially change this process by no longer permitting random cutting of oaks without first following a prescribed list of rules and regulations designed to protect the our oak woodlands and hillside watersheds.

Napa County's unprecedented approval of the removal of more than 14,000 trees for the Walt Ranch vineyard project clearly demonstrates the need for protection of our oak woodlands and watersheds.

Napa County government is responsible for balancing land use rights against the greater good. Unfortunately, it has failed to implement sensible regulations to prevent further deforestation within the county, as it continues to approve conversion of forests and oak woodlands into new vineyards in the hillside watersheds.

Rod Taylor, director of World Wildlife Fund's Global Forest Program says that, ‘...deforestation is entirely avoidable today, and its persistence “is fundamentally a problem of governance”.’ Further, "…uncertainty around land rights and poor enforcement are among the lapses which allow deforestation to continue.”

When government fails to act responsibly to safeguard our environment for the benefit of all, citizens must act. Measure C will offer voters the chance to do what our elected representatives have not accomplished. Please support Measure C and vote "yes."

Sue Wagner