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State OKs forest-to-vineyard plan in Sonoma County

By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

State forestry officials on Tuesday approved a controversial timber-to-vineyard conversion project in northwest Sonoma County, following through with a decision expected months ago.

A 146-acre timber-to-vineyard conversion on a 324-acre site, from the grass area to the redwood/ fir stand in the background, by Artesa Winery's proposed Fairfax Estate, on the outskirts of Annapolis. (Kent Porter / PD)

The decision on what is considered the largest timber-to-vineyard project in state history clears the most significant regulatory hurdle facing Artesa Vineyards and Winery.

The Napa-based vintner, owned by Spanish wine giant Grupo Codorniu, wants to turn 116 acres into chardonnay and pinot noir vineyards on 324 acres of second-growth forestland, former orchards and grazed meadows just east of Annapolis. An additional 30 acres would be cleared for a reservoir, roads and a corporation yard.

The project has been on the drawing board for more than a decade and under state review since 2009.

Bill Snyder, a deputy director at Cal Fire, the state forestry and firefighting agency, signed off on the plans Tuesday, certifying a lengthy environmental impact report that he called a “well-written document.”

Artesa spokesman Sam Singer said company officials were pleased with the decision and were looking forward to advancing the project.

The approval came over the objections of a number of environmental groups, Indian tribes and some neighbors, who have voiced concerns about harm to water, wildlife, archaeological sites and disturbance of the rural landscape.

A Sonoma County supervisor and two state lawmakers had urged Cal Fire to hold off on a decision, calling for another round of public input on the project.

Opponents say safeguards and habitat reserves proposed by Artesa to protect biological and cultural resources are not sufficient.

And they express broader concern about the practice of clearing forest for wine grapes, pushing back at the reach of the region’s top-grossing crop into untilled parts of the county.

“The no-brainer issue is, should we be cutting down our forestlands when there are alternatives for where we put vineyards?” said Chris Poehlmann, president of The Friends of Gualala River, one of three environmental groups considering suing over the project. The other two are the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.

A coalition of tribes, including the Kashia Pomo of nearby Stewarts Point Rancheria, is exploring its legal options, sources said.

Noise from the Artesa operation remains a concern at the neighboring Starcross Community, but an attorney for the monastic order said litigation was not in the works.

Discussions involving Cal Fire, Artesa, the tribes and Starcross were factors in pushing back the final decision by three months.

Singer said company officials believe the project will hold up in court and the plan “meets and or exceeds all the requirements of the state and sound environmental practices.”

The project is one of two high-profile proposals aiming to clear forestlands for vineyards in a remote corner of the county. The other project, put forward by state pension giant CalPERS, would be 12 times larger, clearing up to 1,769 acres for vineyards across a total of 19,652 acres. It is just north of Artesa.

Unlike Artesa, CalPERS’ project, known as Preservation Ranch, is subject to county rules governing timber conversions and is working its way through a county-led review. Artesa’s original application predated the 2006 county rules, making its conversion subject only to state approval.

Artesa still needs to clear two more hurdles. The first is approval of its logging plan, a step overseen by Cal Fire officials in Santa Rosa. The largely procedural decision is expected in the next few weeks.

Artesa also must secure a vineyard development permit from the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. The rules governing such permits recently were updated to govern projects calling for tree removal on hillsides and ridgetops.

Artesa officials have said they intend to comply with the updated rules, which are aimed to control water runoff and limit erosion.

Given the additional state and county approvals, Artesa could begin work this summer. Under the county vineyard development rules, work this year would have to be completed by Oct. 15.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.





3 Responses to “State OKs forest-to-vineyard plan in Sonoma County”

  1. Jack R says:

    It appears that the corporate defenders are already out doing there thing here.

    Artesa is a corporation based in Napa County.

    It is owned by Grupo Codornui, a Spanish Corporation based in Madrid.

    Do you really think these guys have the well-being of Annapolis and Sonoma County in their business plan? It’s about profits, pure and simple.

    Cutting down Redwood trees to plant wine grapes seems like a crazy scheme that would happen only in a futuristic-apocalyptic movie like “Idiocracy.” But it’s true; they’re really going to do this.

    The statistic cited above that “there are more trees than 100 years ago” is misleading and clearly written by someone out to defend this monstrous plan. Most of America’s forests had been almost completely wiped out by the early 1900s; so if you are saying we have more than nothing, you are technically right. But it doesn’t mean we have healthy forests. This is particularly true when you study California Redwood forests. These are fragile and sensitive forests that play an important part in our coastal ecosystems. They are also a national heritage. Cutting these beautiful trees down to plant Pinot Noir is criminal. No one needs to drink Pinot Noir this badly. Wine is a luxury, not a necessity of life.

    Do you really think we have enough forests in the world? Do you really think the environment is fine? Do you really think multinational corporations need more profits at the expense of our local treasures and communities? Come on people!!! This is insane.

    BOYCOTT ARTESA!!!

    BOYCOTT GRUPO CODORNIU!!!

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  2. Canthisbe says:

    “The no-brainer issue is, should we be cutting down our forestlands when there are alternatives for where we put vineyards? said Chris Poehlmann, president of The Friends of Gualala River, one of three environmental groups considering suing over the project”.

    If the nobrainer decision factor is alternative places to grow things, then we should be putting in more vineyards because there are more alternative places for forestlands.

    More trees than there were 100 years ago? It’s true! Protection and responsible harvesting are the reasons behind the success story. The numbers are in.
    In the United States, which contains 8 percent of the world’s forests, there are more trees than there were 100 years ago. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Forest growth nationally has exceeded harvest since the 1940s. By 1997, forest growth exceeded harvest by 42 percent and the volume of forest growth was 380 percent greater than it had been in 1920.”

    http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/stories/more-trees-than-there-were-100-years-ago-its-true

    The Friends of Gualala River [is] one of three environmental groups considering suing over the project. The other two are the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.

    Why don’t they take their legal suit funds and buy up some forest lands and keep their new forestlands however they want?

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  3. Skippy says:

    Excellent news!
    More economic activity is a good thing, and Annapolis is pretty but depressed.
    Glad the State is coming to its senses re: development.
    The first rule of economics is the same as in Nature.
    Grow or die. Stasis is not an option.

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