(Note: Deep thanks to Tamra Lucid for her questions – this gives a deeper dive on what we do here at the Ecology Center. Please read and then consider joining us as a Mountain Patron – Andy and Arielle)
The Battle to Save Mt. Shasta:
Interview with Dr. Arielle Halpern and Andy Fusso
Remember when everyone seemed to be waiting for news from Standing Rock? Two years ago the militarized police response to Standing Rock began. The mass media began talking about Water Protectors and their slogan Mni Wiconi – Water is Life. Then began our national sojourn into America’s political shadow. Standing Rock seems very far away. But Water Protectors struggled before Standing Rock and they continue the struggle today, from Camp Anishinaabek in Michigan to the Water Protectors Sacred Run, a protest happening right now in Nevada.In California, fire and water are the big worries. How can we ensure having enough fresh water? How can we avoid out of control wildfires? The water part of it seems simple: don’t poison the water. But it’s never been easy to stop big industry from contaminating for profit, now more than ever with the new administration rolling back regulations. As for fire, what if I told you that California’s recent crisis represents only a fraction of the acreage burned yearly before the practice of suppressing fires? Is fire the best way to fight fire?
To answer these questions we have Dr. Arielle Halpern and Andy Fusso of the Mt. Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center. They have a great deal of information to share about the serious threats facing the Mt. Shasta area, from developers, fracking, and Crystal Geyser.They provide an example of how to fight for the environment that local communities anywhere can emulate. There’s more hope in their report from the front lines than you might expect. Ways that any reader can help address these important issues can be found in this interview.
We also talk about their lives before they became Water Protectors. Arielle toured as an actress. Andy tells us about the early days of Burning Man. I’m honored to interview them for Reality Sandwich. If you care about California please consider supporting Mt. Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center’s Patreon.
Tamra Lucid: What is the mission of the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center? How and when did it begin?
Andy: Mount Shasta is a 14,180-foot (4,322 meter) stratovolcano in northern California near the Oregon border. Our mission is simple: we live at the base of an incredible mountain, as a community of people inspired to honor, protect and restore its surrounding landscape (or Bioregion).
The Ecology Center started thirty years ago. We came together to stop plans to build ski-condominiums on top of the most pristine meadows and springs high on the mountain. It was a terrible idea. Ten years later, we won that battle.
The Bioregionalism movement emphasizes harmony between human culture and the natural environment; it was one of the influences that inspired us. Though we collaborate and stay aware of broad planetary issues, our work is primarily local – and there’s plenty to do here for a small but feisty grassroots organization.
We protect people from fire by promoting best forest management practices, help keep our public lands public and accessible to both locals and visitors, and safeguard our pristine water sources and wildlife – there’s a list, and always more to add.
A lot of what we do is community education, understanding the facts and making sure we focus on what’s true and important locally. Well researched and solid environmental knowledge is basic to our work; at the same time, there are spiritual values which connect us all. You can feel something very special, just by looking up at Mount Shasta.
We respect and appreciate the culture of our local indigenous tribes. Visitors come here from around the world, seeking inspiration. It’s an amazing place.
Dr. Halpern is creating innovative new fire and forestry programs with broad community involvement. We seek to understand and interact with people who may or may not always agree with us, while staying true to core values. As a starting point: if your house burns down, that’s a bad thing – we can all agree.
This question is for Dr. Arielle Halpern regarding her quote, “We need to change our relationship with fire. We don’t have to fear it, we can work with it.” How do we do that? Is there anything our readers can do?
Arielle: Fire is a natural ecosystem process in the United States. In California, wildfires have increased in scale and severity for the past several years. That’s due to many conditions: fire suppression, climate change, changes in patterns of rain and snowfall, and an increased number of people living in communities in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).
The modern fire suppression period began around 1910. Before that time, between 5.6 and 13 million acres burned in California every year. Thus far in 2018, 1.4 million acres have burned in the state; it’s the worst wildfire year we’ve seen. It’s important to understand that fire is a perfectly natural process that has shaped the ecosystems and cultures of California and will continue to do so.
So, people can be proactive about accepting the facts. First and foremost: know where you live. Educate yourself on the flora and fire history around your home. That will foster appreciation of the natural environment (rural or urban) where you live, and also tell you a lot about how fire will behave near your community.
Familiarity reduces fear. Developing defensible space around your home and valued assets is another important part of changing this relationship and reducing fear. If the area around your home is properly “firescaped”, you will avert a sizable amount of danger if a wildfire moves through your area.
Firescaping means reducing fuels around your property, maintaining ingress and egress routes. Participating in your local fire safe council or a prescribed burn association is another wonderful way to reduce fear around fire.
Prescribed fire is an old practice that has a deep history in California’s biocultural landscape. Fire will not burn where there is no fuel. The most efficient way to remove fuel is through the targeted application of fire in prepared areas where that is possible, and through other techniques such as clearing brush and easily flammable materials near around your home.
Tell us about the long fight to stop geothermal-fracking near Medicine Lake.
Andy: Medicine Lake Highlands, 30 miles northeast of Mount Shasta, feeds the Fall River Springs, the largest spring system in California. Its volcanic aquifer stores more water than all the state’s surface reservoirs. These clean, clear waters flow downstream to literally millions of people. Incredibly, the geothermal industry has long wanted to bring hydraulic fracking and development there. In 1998 the federal Bureau of Land Management illegally renewed 26 leases for this purpose, covering 66 square miles in a designated Native American Cultural District.
So, along with a coalition of groups including the Pit River Tribe, Native Coalition and Medicine Lake Citizens, and represented by the Stanford Law clinic, we’ve been challenging their plans to drill 9,000 feet (almost 2 miles) into the aquifer and inject toxic chemicals into the ground and this water supply. That’s particularly insane given the sensitive hydrology and seismic risks in the area. It’s not even clear there is any economically viable resource there – the cost of producing this power is quite prohibitive.
Most recently, in 2017 the federal District Court in Sacramento denied the 40-year extensions of these leases, and now the BLM has appealed this decision to the Ninth Circuit Court. That court ruled favorably on three previous occasions, so our legal team remains optimistic.
Yes, this continues to be a long and drawn out struggle. It’s not only important here, it concerns everyone in California who drinks water!
What’s going on with Crystal Geyser water company in the area?
Andy: Together with several local tribes and citizens’ groups, we’re in several big fights with the water bottling industry. They’re happening on three fronts – in the cities of Mt. Shasta, Weed, and McCloud.
In Mt. Shasta, in 2013 we suddenly saw a picture in the local paper – the first we’d all heard about a deal with Otsuka Pharmaceuticals/Crystal Geyser. Smiling local officials were cutting ribbons in front of a building Dannon had shuttered three years earlier. Dannon was a nightmare – there were major noise, traffic and lighting issues, and their operation had seriously depleted nearby residential wells.
Crystal Geyser thought they could just start operating right away, but our local citizens came together to demand an environmental review (EIR). The plant is just outside Mt. Shasta city limits, in Siskiyou County jurisdiction. in December 2017 the county approved a flawed EIR which failed to address local concerns. In March 2018 the Mt. Shasta City Council approved an industrial waste discharge permit by a 3-2 vote.
The citizens’ group (which has now become its own nonprofit organization, with our full support) and the Winnemum Wintu Tribe have filed legal challenges demanding real environmental review and protections. These suits may be heard next year.
In the City of Weed, there’s a dispute about who owns the city’s historic water supply. The lumber company, Roseburg Forest Products, decided to take it over so they could sell a quarter of the town’s water supply more profitably to Crystal Geyser. Originally a company town, Weed (named for mill founder Abner Weed, just to clarify!) incorporated in 1961. The town took 2.0 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water from Beaughan Springs for 50 years, under a $1 per year contract with the mill.
When the contract expired in June 2016, Roseburg forced the city to start paying $97,500 per year for only 1.5 cfs of water. A provision in the new contract says the town also has to drill another well, at an estimated cost of over $2 million.
Citizens found a 1982 document showing the previous mill owners had actually assigned these water rights to the city. Roseburg and Crystal Geyser responded by filing a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), personally against 9 people for opposing the water grab. They wanted to silence any protest, by making each person pay thousands of dollars in legal costs. The court threw it out, but the companies appealed. Rights to the city’s water are still undetermined, and the battle continues.
In the unincorporated town of McCloud, back in 2009 Nestle abandoned plans to build a 1 million square foot bottling plant at their former mill site. Since then, new investors bought the mill, and have positive plans for sustainable development. However, another group purchased adjoining land, and their new proposal for water bottling is now before the local services district. They are only a development group with no water bottling experience – so clearly, there will be more to this story once we learn who is really behind this.
Mount Shasta has fantastic water. It comes off the mountain through volcanic aquifers, and can take 50 years to emerge from mountain springs. It’s no wonder the bottling companies are attracted. Still, these multinational corporations absolutely refuse to tell us how much water they’ll take. Without that basic information, environmental reviews are meaningless jokes.
Internationally – just think about how much energy it takes to send water, which weighs over 8 pounds per gallon, all the way around the world to Japan. And that doesn’t even get into the massive harm done by plastic bottle manufacturing, waste and pollution. It’s really simple: instead of bottled water, people need clean, local publicly owned water supplies, wherever they are in the world.
What new challenges is Mt. Shasta facing under Trump’s administration?
Andy: As a nonprofit, we can’t endorse or oppose candidates, which is how it should be. People in the federal agencies managing so much of our nearby land have always had to consider many different stakeholder perspectives, not just ours. That’s not new.
Still, it can’t be easy to work for the federal government these days. I’d imagine it’s particularly difficult for the many professional, ethical and serious people who value public lands and believe in established science. Regardless of politics, they’ve had to shift resources massively, away from accommodating visitors towards fighting fires. That’s bad for everyone.
It is very alarming what is happening on the national level. We value good relationships, and can find lots of common ground around sensible land stewardship and reducing fire dangers. At the same time, we must all strongly resist ideas for giving away our public lands and their resources. It’s so important to hold these lands in trust for future generations, and also not turn them into expensive theme parks – families need the outdoors, they’ve already paid taxes.
History gives us context. The Winnemum Wintu tribe once included 14,000 people, yet today their population is only about 150. Most of their ancestral lands have been submerged behind Shasta Dam since 1945.
Today we are gearing up to join the tribe, and really anyone who pays taxes, in a new fight against raising that dam. Despite recent “fake news”, this isn’t a done deal. It’s a boondoggle that violates California law and would waste at least $1.4 billion in taxpayer money. The numbers don’t even come close to meeting long-established federal financial criteria; taxpayers will never recover the costs. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to oppose it, you just have to know basic math!
Thousands of homes around the lake have burned this year, and others remain at risk from forest fires. Local people need help – it’s insane to let southern California water interests just throw away that much money.
Here, we often come up against long-standing beliefs, that people just have to wait until some big corporation, whether a timber company or a water bottler, comes to save us from poverty. Leveraged buyouts in the 1990s reduced forest employment. Yet ever since, there’s been huge resistance to new economic opportunities, whether that means fiber optics or cannabis.
Some people only want a return to the past, which of course won’t happen. For us, protecting the mountain also means looking forward, and developing a regenerative economy.
After a long struggle, the four o