When do trees become a forest? According to a California winemaker who wants to clear cut 154 acres of redwoods and Douglas firs to make way for grapevines, not until they’re more than 50-years-old and 100 feet tall.
Demand for cooler climate wines, like pinot noir, has grown over the past decade. As climate change causes California’s interior valleys to heat up, vineyards have begun to eyeball the cooler regions of Northern California and Southern Oregon–coincidentally the same limited regions where redwoods flourish.
Redwood trees are one of the most unique and revered tree species on the planet. They can grow to massive heights, bigger than any other tree, and some have been alive for more than 2,000 years. That’s why environmental groups were flabbergasted when California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, approved a Spanish-owned winery’s plan to raze nearly 200 acres in order to plant a new vineyard.
The winery claims that because the area was clear-cut more than 50 years ago, and most of the redwoods on the site are less than 100 feet tall, it’s not a forest and shouldn’t have the same protections as old-growth forests.
According to Chris Poehlmann, president of a small organization called Friends of the Gualala River, age is no excuse for decimating thousands of trees on the property. ‘[T]he trees provide wildlife habitat and stabilize the soil against erosion, which has been a major problem for streams in the area that once harbored runs of salmon and steelhead trout,’ Poehlmann told NPR.
CalFire calls that an exaggeration, stating that their own lengthy review process found the development project would not significantly damage the environment. Still, it’s hard to deny that clear-cutting the redwoods would be a profitable move for the winery. They’d make money from selling the lumber, and then make money from the wine in years to come.
A coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club’s Redwood Chapter and The Center for Biological Diversity, are suing CalFire for what they say is excessive leniency on proposals by developers to level trees.
If history is any indication of the future, the outcome is bleak at best. From 1979 to 2006, 25 conversions of forest to agriculture occurred in Sonoma County at an average rate of 21 acres per year, according to county officials.
Update: We’ve had many requests from readers who want to know the name of the winery involved. According to NPR and Friends of the Gualala River, the would-be developer is Artesa Vineyards and Winery, which is owned by the Spanish Codorniu Group.
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