Threatened Oak Divides Calif. Landowners
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 28, 1998; Page A6
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. The wine industry has long been a sacred cow in California, where grapes and wine are principal sources of income and leading tourist attractions.
But in verdant Santa Barbara County, where vineyards are gobbling up woodlands at an unprecedented rate, the wine industry has been targeted by environmentalists who hope to save California's threatened valley oak trees. Their campaign is led by iconoclastic Los Alamos Valley winegrower Richard Sanford, who broke ranks with his fellow vintners to back Measure K, an initiative that would require landowners to obtain permits to remove all but the smallest oak trees.
"Destroying the oaks is a reflection of the frontier mentality," said Sanford, an ardent conservationist who has left standing every oak on his 1,800-acre property in the Los Alamos Valley, where he has grown grapes for three decades. "But Manifest Destiny and the Western expansion are finished, and we now have to live in harmony with the environment."
Frontier values remain meaningful to Fess Parker, who once portrayed Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett on television and owns 300 acres of vineyards in Santa Barbara County. Parker contends that laws to prevent farmers from removing trees "violate property rights and the Constitution."
Voters will express their opinion Tuesday when they decide the fate of Measure K as well as Measure O, a countermeasure proposed by agricultural interests that was placed on the ballot by a 3 to 2 vote of the county board of supervisors. It calls for replacing each oak tree that is removed with 10 seedlings but lacks enforcement provisions. If both pass, the measure receiving the most votes will become law.
"Measure O is designed to confuse the voters and may do just that," said supervisor Naomi Schwartz, who voted against putting it on the ballot. Mark Chytilo, chief counsel for the local Environmental Defense Center, calls the measure "a sham."
But Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, an oak enthusiast who has planted a thousand oak trees on his 850 acres of vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley, says Measure O is preferable because "regeneration is the key to saving oaks."
The valley oak is unique to California. In the Santa Ynez and neighboring Los Alamos valleys, 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the average age of these stately trees is 200 years. Oak woodlands are home to 2,400 species of plants and animals and are breeding grounds for hawks, eagles and deer.
But the oaks are going fast. More than 2,500 oaks in the Santa Ynez and Los Alamos valleys have been felled during the last two years, more than the number removed for subdivisions and commercial development in the entire county during the past decade.
Sanford said the process is "greed-driven." Winemaking is the county's most profitable agricultural industry, with an annual income of $100 million. County officials expect vineyard acreage to triple within 10 years, to 45,000 acres, equaling the combined grape acreage in the Napa-Sonoma region in northern California.
Napa County is belatedly trying to preserve its own dwindling supply of oak trees by offering financial incentives to farmers.
Firestone said what is needed in Santa Barbara County is a combination of incentives and penalties. He faults the supervisors for failing to devise a compromise "less rigid" than either of the initiatives. John Lankford, editorial page editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press, says the supervisors have ducked the issue since it was first raised in 1979.
The ballot showdown was triggered by the removal of 843 oaks alongside a major freeway late in 1996 by the Sonoma-based Kendall-Jackson winery. Although Kendall-Jackson had obtained the necessary permits, what Schwartz calls the "visual assault" of the tree-cutting galvanized conservationists.
"It was the corporate mentality at work," Firestone said. "They had the permits so they cut down the trees as quickly as possible in the most efficient way."
It is the hope of vintner Sanford and other environmentalists that voters will outlaw such "efficiency" Tuesday.
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