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Grower plans grapes, timber
Coastal parcel's proposed transformation raises environmentalists' hackles

Feb 25, 2005

By Carol Benfell
Press Democrat

The owner of a controversial 19,000-acre parcel in the coastal hills near Annapolis has released details of plans to create an organic vineyard, a redwood forest preserve and a sustainable forest of Douglas fir and redwood.
Napa-based Premier Pacific Vineyards announced last week that it intends to turn 1,900 acres of timberland into several dozen small vineyards, create a 1,900-acre redwood tree preserve and plant 14,500 acres in Douglas fir and redwood for eventual selective harvesting.

Both grapes and timber will be grown and harvested sustainably, and management practices will exceed state and county requirements, said managing partner William Hill. "We're doing something special here," Hill said. "We want to get this property to a condition where it's healthy, and trees are perpetually growing faster than they're cut."
But the proposal still raises the hackles of some environmentalists, who have seen hundreds of coastal acres clear-cut for vineyards and witnessed the resulting degradation of the Gualala River.

"The environmental community has not been brought in on this. We're just hearing it all second-hand," said Chris Poehlmann, a spokesman for Coastal Forest Alliance, based in Annapolis. "There's just enough information to make him look good, but some of the big environmental questions aren't being answered."
Those questions include water supply and the impaired state of the Gualala River, Poehlmann said. "Every time you put a straw in the river, there's less water, and a 1,900-acre development is a mighty big straw."
Hill said the company has spent a year developing its plan and will be meeting over the next few months with community members.

Premier Pacific Vineyards paid $28.5 million last year to Willits timberman Rich Padula for the 19,000 acres - 31 square miles - of logged-out timberland and abandoned pastures in the hills above the Gualala River.
The land has a history of controversy. Padula had talked about creating 10,000 acres of vineyards, later reduced to 5,000 acres, before he sold part of his holdings to Premier Pacific.
The spectre of thousands of acres of denuded ridgetops raised public outcry and led to the preparation of a county ordinance that would require no net loss of forest lands.
Premier hopes to meet those objections by a smaller vineyard proposal and by extensive reforestation. The company has already planted 10,000 redwood and Douglas fir trees. Tens of thousands more will have to be planted to restore the once vibrant forest and its ecocystems, Hill said.

The $50 million project will work, Hill said, because Premier's partners are interested in ecologically beneficial investments and because coastal wine grapes command a high price.
"We are convinced the quality of wine is going to be world class and that we can make some extremely valuable wine in the national and global wine market," Hill said.
But that still imposes 1,900 acres of grapes upon a delicate ecosystem, critics said.
"Such a large-scale conversion is fraught with problems in the area of very negative effects on water use, irreplaceable loss of habitat and probably large-scale erosion," said environmentalist Alan Levine. "The Gualala River is on the ropes and these additional impacts will not help."
Premier's plan calls for:

Thirty or 40 organic pinot noir and cabernet vineyards scattered throughout the property and totaling 1,600 to 1,900 acres. Planting would take place over the next five years.
A 1,600- to 1,900-acre redwood preserve, where trees will grow in perpetuity under a conservation easement.
An approximately 1,000-acre oak woodland preserve, also under a conservation easement in perpetuity.
Approximately 14,500 acres replanted in Douglas fir and redwood. Hardwoods like tanoak and madrone - now 65 percent of the trees - would be reduced. No harvest is contemplated for 20 years.
The state Department of Forestry, which must eventually approve Premier's plan, said the current tree-planting program exceeds anything they might require.
"If he's voluntarily going out there and planting trees, he's going above and beyond," said Leslie Markham, deputy chief in the Santa Rosa office. "There's no requirement from us that he plant trees."
A proposed county ordinance expected to go to supervisors this spring will require vintners to restore an acre of timberland for each acre planted in grapes, said west county Supervisor Mike Reilly.
The "no net loss" ordinance is aimed at curbing the wholesale cutting of coastal forest for vineyards.
"We're going ahead with the ordinance," Reilly said. "If Premier Pacific fits within the ordinance limits, that's fine. We're not modifying the ordinance because of their project."

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