Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Fall of the Great

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The North Coast Railroad Authority and the Humboldt Bay District last week got the final big thumbs-down on their ... ummm, creative scheme to juke the California Transportation Commission out of a cool $20 mil. The idea, you'll remember, was that the railroad authority would snatch the cash to open up the dead tracks around Humboldt Bay and down to the Van Duzen, whereupon, theoretically, the gravel fields in the south county would yield their fruit to the international market. Ship it up to the Port of Humboldt Bay, ship it out to the world. Felicitously, and completely coincidentally, we're sure, the scheme would effectively cock-block the trail activists who are clamoring to put the public right of way to use after 10 long years of rot.

It would have been a beautiful thing, but the state funds in question were earmarked for "trade corridors of national significance," and the applicants didn't even bother to pretend that the ol' Samoa-to-South Fork run really qualifies. Also: The grant required matching funds, and the applicants didn't have matching funds. Also: The grant gave preference to projects that would reduce air pollution, and the applicants didn't bother to make the difficult case that their project would. Also: The transportation commission thought that the applicants' hyper-accelerated timeline for building the thing was, in true railroad fashion, downright kooky.

So: No go. They put the stake in the thing last week.

But the Gravel X-Press was only one part of the proposal — the bigger part. What about the other part? The Bay District was part of the original deal, too, so it wound its own bit of pork into the plan. The entrance to Humboldt Bay is currently plagued by a natural process known as "shoaling" — for reasons no one's quite certain of, the mouth of the bay is always filling up with sand, making passage in and out difficult. A modest amount of the $20 million was to go sorting out that problem, which at least has the advantage of being real. When the gravel train went down, it took the shoaling down with it.

But there may yet be hope. Lately the Bay District has jettisoned the railroad albatross, at least in this matter, and they've reapproached the transportation commission to look at their piece of the thing on its own merits. There remains a chance that some of the money awarded to other projects during this cycle might be returned to the CTC, say if the successful applicants around the state are unwilling or unable to move forward with their plans. In that case, said Bay District Commissioner Mike Wilson, the district may be well poised to pull down some cash for the shoaling project.

"It's my understanding, based on the report given by our CEO at our last meeting, that the district has the potential to avail of some funding if it's freed up," Wilson said Tuesday. CEO Dave Hull has been talking to folks in Sacramento, Wilson said, and the transportation commission has indicated that it is well aware of the problems at the entrance to the bay.

Unlike the gravel train, a solution to the shoaling problem would likely meet the state's project guidelines, at least to some reasonable degree. If our gasoline and raw logs aren't able to come in by barge, as they currently do, they'll have to come in by truck. The pulp mill moves a bit of its product out by ship; if there's no ship, that bit will have to go by barge. What's more, the Bay District isn't really asking for that much cash.

Which really makes you wonder why the district hitched itself to the chronically inept railroad authority in the first place.

I only metAileen Figueroa once, when I wrote a story about Yurok youth reclaiming their language two years ago. She was 92 years old at the time, and it seemed like she was right about four and a half feet tall. The conference we were at lasted several hours, over two days, and if I recall correctly she spoke barely a word. But from the moment she entered the room until the moment she left it, her presence commanded the place. She inspired awe.

Figueroa died last Friday at the age of 95, and reading the press release I realized that even though she was a historical figure here in the county, I really only knew a tiny piece of her story. She was one of the last native speakers of the Yurok language, and she worked generously and tirelessly to reawaken the language of her people. She was tutor not only to the students at the American Indian Academy in McKinleyville, but to the linguists at UC Berkeley and, really, to just about anyone who took a serious interest. She was a master basket weaver.

These things I knew. The part I missed was that she was also a founder of the Westhaven Volunteer Fire Department and a mainstay at that organization's annual Blackberry Festival. And that at least some of the children of Westhaven remember her for her great flock of geese, which she would shoo up and down the road.

She was one of the last of her kind — one of the direct bridges to a time and a people and a way of life that was taken away by force, leaving a vacancy in the life of this county forever. Her passing is an immense loss to her family, to her tribe, and to everyone who holds Humboldt County dear.

There will be an all-night memorial service for Aileen Figueroa at the Westhaven Fire Department (446 6th Avenue, Westhaven) this weekend, from 7 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday. "All singers and drummers are invited to honor her," the press release says. Services will be held on Saturday, April 19, at 11 a.m. at the McKinleyville High School Main Gym. It will be followed by a reception at Trinidad Town Hall. For information on how to contribute to her family, write drvigil@hotmail.com. To donate to the Aileen Figueroa- Jessie Exline Scholarship Fund for Language Preservation, you may send checks to the Yurok Elder Wisdom Preservation Project, 788 S. Westhaven Drive, Trinidad, Calif., 95570.

In the meantime, go to the home page of UC Berkeley's Yurok Language Project (linguistics.berkeley.edu/~yurok/). The project has posted a nice tribute to Figueroa, and if you click on the "Audio Dictionary" link you can listen to Figueroa and other members of her generation speaking some of the old words of this place.

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