State (meaning you) must pay $25,000 for tree mess in Big Sur

Published in The Carmel Pine Cone on September 17 - written by Kirstie Wilde

Whether it made a simple miscommunication, or was guilty of deliberately spreading misinformation and violating the law, the California State Parks Department will have to pay a penalty for chopping down more than 1,000 trees without a permit and dumping approximately 100 of them over the scenic cliffs of Big Sur.

The massive tree-removal project was designed to slow the invasion of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park by non-native species - eucalyptus, acacia and pittisporum - but when parks workers started killing the trees in the fall of 2003, horrified neighbors realized that a lot of environmental damage , including the destruction of sensitive plants and habitat of the endangered Smith's blue butterfly, was the byproduct of the logging. The tree trunks that slid down the cliff crushed Seacliff buckwheat on the way to the pristine cover below, where they became "battering rams smashing the inter tidal zone," according to Friends of the Big Sur Coast, which appealed to the county to stop the project.

Tom Moss, senior resource ecologist with the Monterey district of the state parks department, admitted that trees ended up on the beach below the highly scenic McWay Falls, but denied they were dumped intentionally.

As one of the people who fought to bring the tree controversy to light, Gary Pike, told The Pine Cone, "If a private citizen did this, they would probably be sitting in jail right now. It's outrageous that there is no punishment for government officials who break the law and harm the environment in such a flagrant way. I think the parks employees responsible for this should be fired."

Punishment = double permit fees

There has been no suggestion of punishment for those responsible for illegally cutting the trees. And ironically, the "double permit fees" of approximately $25,000 assessed against state parks by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors Sept. 14 will not be paid by the people who violated the law. Since they work for the government, the expense of their misdeeds will be borne by others.

"Correcting this mess will be very expensive, and of course the taxpayers will foot the bill," said Pike.

Attorney John Briscoe, representing Friends of Big Sur Coast, said state parks should have known better than to do work without a permit, considering they are a permitting agency themselves and often hold private property owners to very strict standards. They work closely with other agencies all the time, he said, and should have known that this project might need permits from the coastal commission, the state department of fish and game, the state lands commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Central Coastal Regional Water Quality Control Board, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Monterey County. Others who have slogged through the permit process were forced to seek permission from those agencies, and if they didn't they paid dearly.

"One of my clients had to pay a $55,000 fine for putting gravel on a half-mail of dirt road," Briscoe said. A federal grand jury indicted three Bolinas men in 2001 for conspiracy to cut down trees to make a bicycle trail on federal land; they faced a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Closer to home, the Kleissner family of Big Sur wondered if state parks would be held to the same standards as they were when they repaired a road on their property at Garrapata without proper permits and were forced to perform rigorous mitigation, namely:

  • Submitting a restoration and maintenance program, approved by the county and the neighbors, that will be required in perpetuity;
  • Replacing damaged or killed buckwheat plants in a three-to-one ratio and making sure 80 percent of them survive for five years;
  • Providing quarterly and yearly reports for five years from a biologist, a hydro morphologist and a civil engineer with details of the status of their mitigation plan;
  • Providing numerous reports from biologists and civil engineers from a list approved by the county;
  • Enduring the pain and expense of an approval process for three or more years.

If state parks is also subject to the above, "then the state is being treated equitably," wrote Charly and Lisa Kleissner.

Besides repairing the damage already done by state parks, there are concerns about how the other hal of the estimated 4,500 exotic trees and shrubs will be removed from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Environmental consultant John Gilchrist said, since the previous work was "substandard, at best," the county should be very careful to extract detailed project information before giving a permit to do the rest of the work.

"We have no information on where or how those trees will be removed," Gilchrist said. "Three or four methods are possible; a couple of those could induce serious erosion problems and injure native vegetation. We don't have any information on phase two of the project, removal of the other half of the exotic trees out there. Where are they going to take them? Are they going to chip them up?

County planner Carl Holm assured county supervisors that many strict conditions would be placed on state parks' work from now on, including flagging all the buckwheat plants, controlling erosion and submitting a landscape maintenance plan. It is still unclear whether the trees that remain on the slopes above the beach will be removed, and exactly how. Fifth District Supervisor Dave Potter said those details are crucial before permits to fix the mess are issued. "We need to spell out the process for removal of the fallen timber, get all the issues resolved, because [this permit] could be appealed to the coastal commission, and I don't want to revisit it there."

His motion to bring the permit conditions back in two weeks, and assess double permit fees against state parks, was passed unanimously by the board.


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