Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

World of Hurt



Tuesday was a black, black day for the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency in charge of the 10-years-dead railroad tracks between Humboldt County and the Bay Area. It was the day when all the players who have been amassing in opposition to the authority's quixotic mission finally laid down their cards. To brag just a little, Tuesday was the day that we forecast way back in July, when we published a cover story on the many impossible contradictions that have kept the authority afloat these many years, and which were starting to burble to the surface back then. (See "The Squeeze," July 5, 2007).

The contradictions are many, but the main one is this: When did/does the authority plan to restore rail service to Humboldt Bay? The answer is/was astonishingly variable. If the audience was the California Transportation Commission, who last year wanted proof that the railroad was a financially viable proposition, the answer was four years — by 2011. If the audience was that subset of the Humboldt County community who believes that a revived railroad is the only possible solution to all our economic ills, the answer was the same — by 2011. If the audience was that subset of the Humboldt County community who would like to put the railroad right-of-way to immediate use by building a pedestrian trail upon a section of it, the answer was the same — 2011.

If, on the other hand, the audience was the citizenry on the south end of the line, the congested town whose communities those hypothetical trains will pass through, the answer was quite different. The answer in those cases was: maybe in 20 years, or possibly never. And all the other contradictions flowed from that one. How much business could the railroad be expected to do? A massive amount of business, or not much business at all. How much would it cost? Unknown. What will the environmental impact be? We'll think about that later.

Things have been due to snap. So on Tuesday, everyone declared war on the hapless railroad authority at the same time. They did so by piling on to a lawsuit that has been filed against the NCRA by the city of Novato. The county of Marin voted 4-0 to join in the lawsuit. Five environmental groups — including our Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of the Eel and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, along with two Marin County groups — petitioned the court to join.

"The NCRA goes up to Humboldt and says that people can't have a trail around Humboldt Bay, because the trains are going to be back in 2009," Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold told the Journal after the meeting, referring to an even more optimistic recovery date bandied about by NCRA board member Charles Ollivier. "And then they come down to Marin and say they don't have any plans to go up there."

If the charges in the lawsuit can be summed up in a phrase, it is that the railroad authority's weaselishness on these many topics has bordered on the illegal. It charges violations of California's good government laws (the Brown Act) as well as its environmental laws (the California Environmental Quality Act). It charges dirty financial dealings. It goes to trial on Dec. 12. (You can download a copy of an early petition in the suit at the NCJ Blogthing — ncjournal.wordpress.com. It lays out the case pretty well, in clean language.)

Does the lawsuit have a chance? Who knows? There's a whole lot of legal firepower going into it, in any case. Marin County's attorneys will now be lending their support, as will the environmental orgs. But win or lose — that's hardly the point, at this stage.

What matters now is that the authority has irretrievably pissed off not only the richest county in the United States of America, but also several high-powered environmental organizations. The Novato lawsuit is just round one, and in the long run it doesn't really matter whether NCRA opponents win or lose. Since the NCRA is a public entity, ultimately a creature of the state of California, the next round of the battle will take place in the California legislature. And it's there that the authority no longer has a country.

Small government Republicans have always scorned the NCRA as a useless, money-sucking government boondoggle. Gov. Schwarzenegger recently vetoed a bill that would have provided it with a piddling $5 million. State agencies have always seen it as hopeless, but were forced to coddle it because Democrats in the legislature have always humored their North Coast colleagues, who have in turn humored the oddball local constituencies that have kept the candles burning for the railroad's glorious return. But now that the enviros and Marinite Democrats have come out big against the NCRA, what's its base? Whether the final cut is delivered in court or in Sacramento, the railroad is a dead letter. Strike that: It's been dead for years, but people are finally rolling up their sleeves to bury its zombie corpse.

It's happening from the bottom-up, too. Apparently, the local wine-and-cheese crowd was extremely fired up by our publisher's excursion onto the tracks between Eureka and Arcata a couple of weeks ago (see "Off the Pavement," Nov. 8). Arcata man-about-town Rondal Snodgrass has organized a public work day to clean up the tracks and make them fit for hiking. No telling whether they've actually got the proper permission or not, but they're saying that the first "Critical Mass Trail Gathering" will take place on Saturday, Dec. 15. They say people will be meeting at 10 a.m. at various locations along the tracks — Eureka's Target store, Bracut and the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center. Snodgrass says that you're supposed to bring clippers and weed whackers.

Field notes: Willits is the new Garberville. Only bigger and even cooler. Ten years ago the tweakers owned the town. Now they seem to have been banished. Someone flipped some sort of switch while I wasn't looking, transforming my bombed-out hometown into a bustling, vibrant place, with pubs, restaurants, cafes, bookstores, cool little shops, a boss skate park. My old high school pals took over the downtown Willits Mall — always better known as "the Morgue" — and sank what looks to be a million dollars into it, transforming it into a big old-fashioned mercantile store. I reveled in it all for a day or so, then we split to spend a weekend off the grid way out in the hills between Laytonville and the coast.

Post-Thanksgiving is definitely the tail end of the season, but my father-in-law's place was absolutely riddled with mushrooms of every description. Under the oaks, under the madrone and manzanita, under the Doug firs, the redwoods — the whole forest floor was coming up shrooms. I hadn't been out since the matsutake craze first hit the North Coast, about 12 years previous, but I was ready to try my hand. I had been primed by a visit to the annual mushroom expo at Redwood Acres the weekend previous.

Fortunately, my host's library was stocked with the two essential mushroom field guides — Mushrooms Demystifiedand All The Rain Promises And More, both by Santa Cruz area fungus guru David Arora. (Delightfully engrossing and witty, Arora's books are a surefire Xmas hit, even for those who are not normally given to woods-traipsing.) A couple of hours of study and it was off to the woods.

There were several species of bolete, all past their prime. Too bad. I found a patch of butter boletes — reportedly tasty — as well as a beautiful red-pored fellow that I took to be a vomit-inducing Satan's Bolete. There was a whole bevy of corals that had gone dingy and unidentifiable with age. The amanitas I found were fresh and hardy, some still in their eggs. I'm almost positive they were specimens of the edible and delicious coccora mushroom, but I didn't feel like betting my life on it.

Instead, I contented myself with collecting some of the shrimp russulas — R. xerampelina— that formed a fine ground cover underneath my father-in-law's Douglas fir stands. The shrimp russula is difficult to mistake, having the uncharacteristic pithy stem shared by all the russulas, as well as a red-to-purple cap and a blush of rose on the stalk. They savor of shellfish, even raw. We sauteed a passel of them and put them over baked potatoes. A fully satisfactory holiday, all the way around.

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