Fort Bragg’s Coastal Headlands, It’s Not Too Late

Photograph Source: Tony Webster – CC BY-SA 2.0

The Fort Bragg, California coastal headlands comprise 425 acres of the much-celebrated Mendocino Coast. If you walk the town’s coastal trail and look out to the ocean, you will see rocks and secluded coves, steep cliffs and flowery headlands, as well as whales, sea lions and pelicans galore, a place as spectacular as almost any on the California Coast. If, however, you look toward the town, you see chain link fence and signs warning danger and contamination.

We have been told for decades not to worry about this, the contamination, yet all the evidence contradicts this, above all the poison in the ponds left behind when the old mill buildings were taken down, leaving behind acres of contaminated earth and in these ponds a deadly cocktail of PCBs and dioxins, lead, petroleum and an array of toxic byproducts.

Is the danger real, then, and will the fencing protect us?  Dr. John Balmes, a physician scientist at UCSF and UC Berkeley speaking to a 2019 conference in Caspar, told us otherwise. Dioxins, for example are the “most toxic chemicals that we know of.” They are “reproductive toxicants and carcinogens.” This is “well established” and leaving things as they are, Professor Balmes concluded, “is unacceptable.”

Alas, today, the toxins remain, and the latest owners of the headlands, the California and Western Railroad (the tourist Skunk Train) are in court arguing that they are in no way obliged to follow the rules, to clean up the mess they’ve inherited; indeed, that they, allegedly as a railroad, need not follow the state’s regulations concerning the environment (CEQA, California Environmental Quality Act, etc.). And while the public remains in the dark as far as legal issues are concerned, the “railroad” clearly has development in mind. Never mind the rules, why not a resort hotel, upscale housing, a theme park to attract, apparently, train lovers?

What we see in Fort Bragg today is the remnant of more than a hundred years of timber milling, most of it done by the Union Lumber company. Union Lumber, whose owners, the Johnson family of San Francisco, had by 1885 built an empire in Mendocino County including what became one of the largest timber mills in the world, with a railroad connecting the deforestation of the interior with the coastal mill. Thousands worked in this mill; their toil has been romanticized, but work was seasonal, dangerous and often deadly. The disabling injuries, disease and poverty, cut lives short – hospital records tell the story. The town’s people got clouds of black smoke, air that made the Fort Bragg stink and backyards, playgrounds and school playing fields contaminated with fly ash.

By mid-twentieth century, however, the forest was increasingly depleted, the mill owners began to downsize its operations until in 1969, the Johnsons sold their empire (158,000 acres of redwood timberland and the Fort Bragg mill) to the Boise Cascade Corporation. Four years later Georgia Pacific, the giant paper products subsidiary of the Koch billionaire brothers’ Koch Industries, bought the mill and the headlands.

Whatever Georgia Pacific had in mind in buying the mill, clean-up was not part of it. So, when the mill was finally shut down in 2002, the town was left adjacent to an ecological nightmare. The final handoff was from GP to the California and Western Railroad, an organization with limited resources, apparently a bargain basement deal (done more or less in secret) of questionable legality.

In the years since PG bought the mill, citizen scientists have sounded the alarm – again and again and there have been popular initiatives, even to this day, though thus far none sustainable. City Councils, of various persuasions, have come and gone, each kicking the can down the road, never with clear perspectives, nearly all with at least a foot in the “develop it” camp. It’s true, of course, that Fort Bragg, a poor town of 7000 plus, has never had the funds to buy the property and clean it (estimated $25 million for clean-up alone). Yet it’s also true it never tried to hold those who did, above all GP, accountable.

Is it too late for a solution that might benefit the citizenry of Fort Bragg, while heading off a looming disaster? That is, sea level rise and the erosion over time of the headlands or catastrophe, an earthquake or tsunami contaminating that part of the coast, poisoning miles of shoreline and spilling into the sea, a deadly spill that would kill most everything in its path.

GP should never have been allowed to sell without a proper cleanup, and it and Koch Industries still have the money to do it. Moreover, if the town’s politicians have been compliant at best, complicit at worst, their word should not be the last. The State of California has power and enormous resources, as does the Coastal Commission as well as a host of other agencies and our legislators, all pledged, they say, to a meaningful response to climate crisis. It’s never too late to do the right thing.

The challenge is to get the town and its headlands in step with the rest of the coast and so much of the world and think open land, restoration, reforestation, rewilding, a wildlife corridor, pristine beaches, with recreation and education as a priority joining the immediate needs of the citizenry today with the fate of our earth.

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An abbreviated version of this appeared in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Cal Winslow is the author of Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919. He can be reached at cwinslow@mcn.org