Whose paradise is it? A drive to designate a scenic stretch of Humboldt as wilderness runs into landowners who cherish their piece of heaven

April 24, 2005

By David Whitney [email protected] or 202-383-0004
Sacramento Bee Washington Bureau
Sacramento, California
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Shelter Cove, California - From the 4,088-foot summit of King Peak, the grade drops precipitously through the deep canyon separating Rattlesnake and Miller ridges and, within a couple of rugged miles, opens onto the wide coastal plain of Big Flat.

This is the centerpiece of the King Range National Conservation Area, the largest and wildest portion of California coast that the federal government owns.
Pending federal legislation would turn much of the western slope into a wilderness area, where the only equipment allowed for public access is a backpack and hiking boots.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has been gobbling up private property for decades to make this happen, says the King Range in Humboldt County would instantly become the "crown jewel" of the agency's wilderness holdings.
Big Flat, with the towering mountains behind and its south-facing beach popular with surfers, is where the jewel dazzles most brilliantly.
But this will not be wilderness in the same sense many Californians have come to think of the word, and for some users, it won't be a wilderness experience at all.
At Big Flat, the solitude and serenity are pierced by airplanes landing at a private retreat of people long associated with environmental causes.
"There's been controversy there for a lot of years -- a lot of years," said the author of the wilderness bill, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.
Tucked above the high-tide mark is what amounts to a small resort used by surfers and environmentalists.
It was built in the 1980s from the ruins of an old farm.
Meanwhile, other private property owners, facing varying degrees of bureaucratic pressure, sold out to Uncle Sam or, in two instances, had their lands condemned.
BLM officials said they didn't exactly look the other way while a dilapidated cabin and barn were transformed into the exclusive retreat.
In a 1999 report to Thompson, the BLM said it continued negotiations with Big Flat owners under a "tolerated noncompliance position."
But since then nothing much has happened.
"We haven't been as assertive or aggressive as perhaps the law allows," conceded BLM spokeswoman Jan Bedrosian.
Humboldt County property records show that the Big Flat property is owned by Nelson Swartley, whose family has long been affiliated with the Sierra Club.
One nearby landowner is Mark Harris, an Arcata lawyer.
Harris was a lead lawyer in the fight to stop Pacific Lumber Co. from logging redwood forests in the Headwaters area.
Repeated calls to Swartley and his longtime attorney were not returned.
Harris said that rather than detracting from the wilderness character of the area, Big Flat's owners have worked to keep it clean and safe by flying out injured hikers and hauling out garbage left by hikers and surfers.
Like others, Harris flies his private plane to the coastal retreat, touching down on BLM property that one day could be part of the federal wilderness.
Many people who live in this area, especially the few remaining property owners in the proposed wilderness area, are opposed to the wilderness bill, saying it would deny access to the old and the infirm and create a federal preserve for use only by those strong enough to backpack in.
Unlike most of the property owners, Harris supports the wilderness bill -- but with some reservations.
He wonders what new protections it can bring since the land already is tightly managed.
"Within reason, wilderness is a great concept," Harris said. "I come from the environmental world. But I am also very, very aware that the King Range is different."
Although Harris earned a national reputation fighting Pacific Lumber over logging on its private lands, when it comes to his own land in the King Range, he argues strongly for development rights that the BLM says disappeared when Congress enacted the King Range National Conservation Act in 1970.
"The ability to develop an ecologically friendly and compatible dwelling clearly falls within a reasonable property use," Harris insisted.
The King Range is indeed a different kind of wilderness.
When Congress enacted the conservation act, after years of debate, the area included 30,000 acres of federal lands and 24,000 of private property.
Roads cut across mountains and ridges.
Cars could drive all along the beach at low tide.
Logging was done on lands owned by timber companies.
There were ranches and ranchers, now all gone.
The conservation area's boundaries were expanded in 1976 with the enactment of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which also directed the BLM to study its real estate for possible wilderness additions.
Over the next two decades, the BLM began buying up property, even though the King Range act had celebrated the mix of public and private in a common cause of land conservation.
Construction crews were hired to obliterate roads.
Activities on private lands were closely monitored.
Robert Pietila lost his 40-acre property to condemnation after he started to build a cabin.
Management guidelines allow property owners to rebuild only to the extent that it exactly replaces structures on the property before the King Range act took effect.
"I thoroughly believe the BLM has the highest paid bandits in the country," said Pietila, who said a jury awarded about $500,000 for land he regarded as "priceless."
According to the BLM, nearly 25,725 acres of once-private lands became, parcel by parcel, publicly owned, almost all from willing sellers.
Within the proposed wilderness boundaries, only a half-dozen privately owned parcels on less than 200 acres remain.
One 80-acre parcel belongs to Mary Etter and her brother Raymond, and includes a freshly painted two-bedroom, one-bath house overlooking the beach. The Etters, though unhappy at the thought of selling, have offered the property to the BLM for $5 million. King Range manager Gary Pritchard-Peterson said the agency's appraisers figure the place is worth no more than $1.9 million.
Linda Franklin and her husband, Bill, said they will never sell.
Linda Franklin's father, Paul Smith, built the steep, dangerously curvy Smith-Etter road that leads over the mountain range to the coast and the Etter and Franklin properties. A provision in the wilderness bill added by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., guarantees them access to that road.
The Franklins spent their honeymoon at their cabin -- three and a half decades ago.
Though rough and spare, it is full of personal history, and they resent every step the BLM has taken to tighten road access.
"It's obvious they don't want us here," Bill Franklin said. "We're a thorn in their side. They'd like this all to be wilderness."
What galls the Franklins and others is that -- while the BLM was pressuring private owners to sell and get out -- the Big Flat compound was being rebuilt from the ground up.
"I think they've gotten special treatment," Linda Franklin said.
Don Amador, an activist for the conservative Blue Ribbon Coalition fighting the wilderness bill, agrees.
"There seems to be a double standard," Amador said.
"If you are a conservative, you get a lot of scrutiny, and if you're an environmentalist, they look the other way. It's really at the center of what this King Range controversy is all about."
Bedrosian, the BLM spokeswoman, said the agency has tried to work cooperatively with private landowners, including those at Big Flat.
"We've done our best to regulate their use to make it as compatible as possible with our management goals," she said. "We've worked to be good neighbors. Maybe we should have been more aggressive, but that's history now."
In more recent years, the BLM has stepped in to limit commercial use in Big Flat. For several years the Surfers' Medical Association flew to the retreat, but Pritchard-Peterson, the King Range manager, said that ended when the BLM questioned commercial activity.
But other groups still use the place, including the Sierra Club, which pays for the use of kitchen facilities for annual camping treks for disadvantaged inner-city youth. And when the surfing is at its best, Big Flat airstrips are busy.
Mark Massara, the California Sierra Club's coastal director, is a surfer and an attorney who describes Big Flat as one of his most cherished spots on the globe.
"To the extent that our little trips getting kids out there is able to keep them able to offer those facilities, I just think it's a huge public service," Massara said, adding that he doesn't think their airplanes will pose any risk to a wilderness designation.
Tim Mahoney, a seasoned Capitol Hill lobbyist working on the wilderness legislation, said the King Range fits a different kind of wilderness model that is more typical to the East Coast.
Instead of pristine expanses, the King Range is assembled wilderness, he said, land that was gently trod by humans and now restored and wild.
"While it might be nice if it were absolutely secluded like the Brooks Range in Alaska, it's not," Mahoney said.
"It's as secluded as we can get and protect in Northern California."
Wilderness designation would have some practical consequences, however.
The BLM said it would limit its discretion in land management and [would] bar mountain bikes.
But Congressman Thompson said the larger benefit is status.
"What you get is national recognition that this is the crown jewel of the coast."


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