There is no forest among the trees. That's what state officials have said regarding a large stand of second-growth redwood and Douglas fir near Annapolis that a Spanish-owned winery has proposed to level and replace with grapevines and a winery.
The project, proposed by Artesa Vineyards & Winery, has been lumbering through the legal process for several years now, and to the dismay of Sonoma County environmentalists, it has progressed almost to the finish line. Now, the only roadblock still in the way is the lawsuit filed against the state by three conservation groups in June of 2012, and which will be heard in the Sonoma County Superior Court this Friday.
Three plaintiffs—the Center for Biological Diversity, the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Gualala River—allege that the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection conducted its review while disregarding environmental protection laws. At the heart of the lawsuit is the project's environmental impact report, required by state law for certain types of development projects.
"Their report says that cutting down 154 acres of forest and converting it into vineyards will have no significant environmental impacts," says Dave Jordan, a member of Friends of the Gualala River.
But not all parties seem to agree about what actually constitutes "forest." The trees in question include thousands of redwoods and other conifers, many between 50 and 80 feet tall. The plaintiffs argue that these trees are valuable because they provide habitat for wildlife, sequester carbon and limit soil erosion.
But in August, the state attorney general's office submitted a written rebuttal to the lawsuit, stating, "Petitioners are wrong. The project site is not a 'redwood forest.' . . . [I]t was completely harvested and converted to grazing and orchard. . . . Conifer timber is now just beginning to recapture the site."
State officials had not responded to a request for comment by press time.
Sam Singer, a spokesman for Artesa who's often hired by big-name clients to "soften" environmental crises—including the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, the Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay and logging at the Bohemian Grove—says the winery plans to preserve two old-growth redwoods on the property, but that numerous 30- to 60-year-old trees will be removed. Singer says remnants of an aging apple orchard will also be replaced with vines.
"But there aren't forests here," Singer says. He claims that locally based opponents have misrepresented the nature of the landscape, which is due west of Geyserville some 20 miles. "This is agricultural land, and this is an agricultural project that will preserve and protect the environment," Singer says.
Justin Augustine, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, tells the Bohemian that removing trees that absorb carbon dioxide will contribute to greenhouse gas production.
The project's EIR, however, deemed this concern "less-than-significant."
The same conclusion was made for potential impacts on air quality, water quality, cultural resources, geologic stability and aesthetic values.
State planners considered, then rejected, alternative sites for Artesa's project, but Jordan notes that they only looked at alternative forested sites.
"Why didn't they consider a nonforested site?" Jordan says. "That would have led to a different outcome. It's almost as though their definition of the project wasn't just planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, but knocking down a forest in order to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes."
Jordan points out that though the Artesa EIR recommends a 166-foot buffer between adjacent homes and the edge of the planned vineyard—a measure addressing potential harm from pesticide sprays—state officials have acknowledged that there is a house 87 feet from one edge of the project site.
Jamie and Kathy Hall have lived here for more than three decades. "I basically moved up here to live in a forest," Jamie Hall says, "and [their project] is going to destroy everything I came here for."
Conservationists celebrated a victory earlier this year when a 20,000-acre site called Preservation Ranch that had been proposed for a massive vineyard development project was sold to the Conservation Fund, a national land-protection organization.
But the Artesa project has marked a turning point. It is the first redwoods-to-vineyards proposal requiring an EIR to be approved in California.
Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River, says that if Friday's court date results in a precedent-setting win for the wine industry, much of the North Coast could become vulnerable to similar conversion.
"If we lose, others will see that you can win these fights—that you can cut down timber and convert it into vineyards."