It's a rare warm day in late February, a full month before spring is officially declared, and the pastures are yellow with mustard blossoms, and the Eel River is surging beneath the concrete arches of Fernbridge, the river's sibilance and bright blue color belying the power of its storm-swollen rush. In the gravel parking lot on the Ferndale side of the river, which sits in the shadow of the bridge at the end of Substation Road, a lifted black pickup truck with mud-splattered rims thunders across the potholes, slows and begins a U-turn, finally coming to a stop next to the concrete barriers that bar access to the river.
The barriers, called K-rails, are new, erected by a farmer on Feb. 22 to combat issues with off-roading, trash dumping and stray bullets on the river bar. The teenage boys in the truck are stopped short by the appearance of the barriers. There are five teens squeezed into the double cab of the pickup, farm boys in their buddy's rig trying to make the lunch hour last. The engine rumbles, competing against the steady bass of a pop country song on the radio.
"So four-wheeling is done here?" the driver asks. His co-pilot hides a lighter in a wide, callused palm. Receiving an affirmative, the driver guns the engine and crunches gravel, back to school, or to a different turnout on a different rural road.
The boys weren't the only ones disappointed that day. Word of the K-rails had yet to spread, and more cars appeared, stopped and discharged confused passengers. Some — a young family with a dog and baby, a birder with binoculars — merely shrugged and hopped over to continue their meander on foot. Others, like Rita McInerney, who planned to drive an elderly passenger down to the river for a picnic, evinced a mixture of disappointment and resignation. The end of public access below Fernbridge had been a possibility for a while.
"Truthfully, the last time I was here people were acting so wild and crazy I didn't stay," said McInerney. She and her friend, Kimberly Bailey, recalled going down to the river bar in their younger days to ride ATVs. More recently, though, they'd noticed a different tenor to the crowd recreating by the Eel — wilder, more reckless. They're not alone.
Target shooting is allowed on most public land, as long as shooters remove debris. And the Eel River is public land, albeit a narrow strip of public land, which is neighbored on all sides by private property. With few signs to indicate where private land begins or ends, the sheriff's office and Fish and Wildlife warden spread thin across the region, and an ingrained local culture of using the river bar to shoot, party and offroad, it was perhaps inevitable that bad behavior would go on to impact private property owners.
"It's like a war zone down there," Dorice Miranda told the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors at its Nov. 3 meeting. The Mirandas own a dairy close to the river bar. "We have had many, many animals killed down there. Having employees down there is a no-no. They have bullets whizzing by their heads." Some of Miranda's neighbors joined her at public comment, including fellow farmers John Vevoda, Robert Vevoda and Blake Alexandre, all of whom reported losses of livestock and scared employees due to errant shooting on the river bar. Additional neighbors voiced complaints via letters. The area has long been a traditional gathering place for target shooters, a status so well established that the tiny corner of dirt under the west side of the bridge is marked on Google Earth as a park labeled "River bar Shooting Area." But as use of the area has increased, the courtesy, safety and aim of some of the shooters has decreased to the point that farmers and others using the area fear for their lives.
In an Oct. 1 letter to the Board of Supervisors, Alexandre wrote that his business, Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms, has been "aggressively pursuing" discussion with the county on the topic of "trespassing and unsanctioned sport shooting" for the last three years. In addition to bullets hitting equipment, livestock and narrowly missing employees, trespassers have removed gates and rock barriers to cross Alexandre's field, he wrote.
At the Nov. 3 meeting, Alexandre testified that the situation was "dangerous, extremely dangerous." Shooters standing on the river bar were aiming toward his fields, and the riverbanks, used as makeshift backstops, were insufficient and ill-used. There were targets hanging in the trees, the shattered remains of propane tanks and televisions, occasionally the sound of automatic weapons. He suggested the county create sturdier dirt berms along the river bar, walls that would catch more bullets. One of his employees had made a similar effort, only to reap trouble with the Army Corps of Engineers and California Coastal Commission for disturbing soil next to a protected watershed. So the berms came down and the Alexandres planted trees in a mitigation effort. Off-roaders mowed them down. When an Army Corps field representative visited to view the work, the shooting was in full force, and they "practically had to crawl out of there." (The Journal reached out to the Army Corps of Engineers to confirm this story but didn't hear back as of press deadline.)
"I'm not proposing that we shut it down completely, but if that's our only option because we have no control, we're willing to do that," he warned.
The Board of Supervisors resolved to have county counsel "work with the sheriff and local law enforcement ... to come up with an amicable solution." But in the months since, no such action has been forthcoming. Jeffrey Blanck, counsel for Humboldt County, said in a phone interview that, although his office has been looking into issues with the river bar, many land use issues "got sidetracked on the marijuana ordinance stuff."
Finally, in February, the frustrated farmers brought in the large K-rails, also called Jersey barriers, to the parking lot next to Fernbridge, where a muddy road cuts under the bridge and onto the river bar. Alarms went up on social media. For a few days, the origin of the barriers was a mystery. Some blamed the county. Others blamed Caltrans. Several cited California constitutional laws which mandate access to public waterways, insisting the barriers were illegal. When Alexandre claimed responsibility, many cried foul. But Alexandre says that while he has received a few complaints, the majority of remarks have been thanks from his neighbors.
Really, he said, it's quite simple. It's a matter of private property.
"They're driving on our farmland," he said. "We own that land and we pay taxes on it."
According to a Humboldt County parcel map, Alexandre owns both a swath of farmland hugging the Eel River and a triangle-shaped wedge that extends into the parking lot where his son, who manages the Ferndale farm, erected the K-rails. The property has been in the hands of the Alexandre family for 15 years. Use of that land — for shooting, off-roading, picnicking and partying — stretches back much further.
Alexandre grew up in Ferndale, and was aware of its recreational history, but claimed he couldn't have anticipated how the bad behavior would escalate after he purchased the land. Restricting access, he insisted, was a last resort.
There is a remarkable amount of common ground between all parties in this drama. Neither the farmers, nor the sheriff, nor the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Commission, nor First District Supervisor Rex Bohn appear to support the banning of all firearms on the Eel River; many of those dismayed by the shooting were careful to mention their membership in the National Rifle Association. Alexandre is even torn about posting the "No Trespassing" signs because he believes it will give the sheriff legal grounds to arrest those crossing his property. For decades, a laissez faire attitude toward river bar recreationists seemed to work. But a few bad actors forced the farmer's hand.
Among the staunchest critics of Alexandre's decision are members of a local off-roading club, Lost Coast 4x4s. The group, which meets several times a month to "play" in the mud and sand with their four-wheel drive vehicles, often drove below Fernbridge. They also conduct yearly cleanups of the river bar, hauling trash and abandoned vehicles off the rocks, an event they say will be impeded by the K-rails.
For Carl Brandt, president of the group, the closing of the Fernbridge river access is just the latest development in the annals of dwindling access to public land.
"I've lived here long enough that I've seen every area I used to recreate on closed. I guess I could sit at home in my chair, put some hydraulics on it and use 3-D glasses," he said in a phone interview. Brandt, 70, owns five four-wheel-drive vehicles ("Three are working right now") and a Harley. When he's not working as a security guard at the county welfare office, he's pulling would-be offroaders out of local rivers and the ocean using the winch on his truck. His group, he said, often gets calls from law enforcement and tow companies to help access scenic byways where novices have become stuck.
On March 19, when the group gathered for its monthly meetup, it met, as usual, at Fernbridge. The Lost Coast 4x4 Club is a loosely organized band, made up of locals ranging from young roughnecks to social workers, accountants and retired widows. Their vehicles, too, range from brand-new rigs with giant tires to petite Jeeps. Despite their differences, they seem genial, united by a love of mud, bumps and adventure. Many carry CB radios in their trucks to communicate with one another when they're in rural places with spotty cell phone service. Fortified by a breakfast bought by salesmen from Lithia Chrysler Jeep Dodge, who also brought a couple of 2016 Jeeps for the club to admire, a solid round of jokes and complaints about the K-rails was in order.
"So, are we going to move these today or what?" several members asked Brandt.
"It sucks. It's pitiful. It's a shame that it's come to this," said off-roader Russ Faulkner, who questioned whether claims of injured livestock have been verified. (The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office was unable to confirm whether it has received reports of livestock injured or killed by stray gunfire in the area.)
Many reiterated Brandt's claim that the public had a legal right to access the waterway. Private land ownership along public waterways has always been a complicated business. All navigable rivers are free to public use, a right guaranteed by the very first Act of Congress. The land adjacent to the river, up to the high water mark of the river's banks, where the private property begins, is public property. (Alexandre and his neighbors said that driving on the banks, which they own, is a common practice by off-roaders.) The river itself, and the gravel river bar, are also public property. But in order to use it, the public must first access it, and therein lies the disconnect.
Because the parking lot lies directly below Fernbridge, across which runs State Route 211, many have posited that Alexandre is blocking a Caltrans right-of-way, and that the state should mandate the removal of the K-rails. Eli Rohl, a Caltrans spokesperson, says this is accurate, but only to a degree.
"Since they're not actually obstructing the roadway, it's kind of a gray area," he said. "Normally we have 20 to 30 feet on either side of the highway, but it's a little different with bridges. If there was an earthquake or something we'd be checking the bridge for reasons of public safety. We do have a plan to get there if there's an emergency."
For his part, Alexandre has said he's happy to temporarily move the barriers if Caltrans or another agency that has a right-of-way through his property should need to get through. A better option, he maintains, would be to put in a gate, but he doesn't want to be responsible for erecting or maintaining one.
Do decades of public access grant Brandt and other off-roaders a prescriptive easement? A kind of "squatter's rights" type of legal access, prescriptive easements are usually valid after five years of continuous use of a property by a non-owner. All parties interviewed by the Journal seemed doubtful that such an argument would hold up; a prescriptive easement would have to be pursued in civil court, at any rate. It seems unlikely that the county or anyone else will take up the cause of removing the K-rails.
"Prescriptive easements are complex," Blanck said. "Restricting vehicle access doesn't mean you're restricting total access."
The California Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over the Eel River area, said that they received no coastal development permits regarding the K-rails. But Melissa Kramer, analyst at the commission's Humboldt office, added development is "very broadly defined."
"We're not opposed to efforts to curtail vehicular access to the area because of damage that vehicles can cause to Western Snowy Plover nesting habitat," Kramer said. "If someone were to ask, we could decide whether it would be appropriate to have a shooting range in the river but it's an informal practice. Unfortunately, our jurisdiction only goes so far."
While the public, legally, must have access to public waterways, this does not give people the right to access said waterways through private land. And the Eel River does have a vehicular access point through public land, several miles upstream off East Ferry Road. It's to this spot that the Lost Coast 4x4 Club convoyed after directing glares at the K-rails, cutting through the green delta of the Ferndale bottoms, past a farm and down a bumpy gravel road that swiftly transitions to mud, then to sand. This section of the Eel, which locals refer to as "the Track," bears the evidence of use by recreationists of all kinds, from ruts cut by off-roaders through the mud and marsh, to beer cans and shot-out televisions.
John Vevoda, whose dairy adjoins the Track, shares Alexandre's issues with promiscuous shooters and other bad apples. Of particular concern, he said, is when people shoot off exploding targets. Although the targets are louder than they are destructive, the noise alone has caused heartache for the Vevoda family. Their dogs take off, their cows take off. When the gentle Jerseys are with calf, the stress can cause miscarriages. Last year, two of his herd, panicked by the sound of several exploding targets set off together, ran into some metal fencing, broke their legs and had to be put down. Vevoda also has issues with people leaving trash on his land, driving through his fence and "spinning brodies" in his fields. The river bar has become so trashed and dangerous that his family no longer visits it.
"I don't mind if people go out there and enjoy themselves, but they have to realize that that's private property," he said. "If you want to go down there and enjoy it it's one thing, but pick up your garbage."
Vevoda and others have faithfully reported issues with shooting and exploding targets to the sheriff's office, but solutions to the issue are far from forthcoming.
"The number of shooters going down there has multiplied to the point where it is not sustainable," said Sheriff Downey at the Nov. 3 meeting, adding that he is not in favor of shutting down public access or a ban on shooting.
"It goes against my grain because we're talking about restricting people's recreational use of firearms," Downey said. "I have 4,000 square miles of county. I can't guarantee that we will police all these areas we're talking about. Is there a way to have a cadre of volunteers, trained so they can go down to these areas and contact some of these shooters also?"
On the night of March 24, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office received more than 64 calls about shooting and explosions along the Eel River. In response to our questions about shooting and other issues near Fernbridge, the HCSO referred the Journal back to County Counsel, stating that it is "taking the lead" on issues near Fernbridge.
While the K-rails at Fernbridge may not stop target shooters from simply parking and hopping over with their rifles, it could slow down the illegal dumping which has plagued the area for years, at least near the Alexandre property. Aaron Ostrom, general manager of Pacific Outfitters and leader of the Pac-Out Green Team, a volunteer effort that spends 60 minutes every Saturday cleaning public land, said Fernbridge is a perennial problem area.
"It's pretty horrific compared to our other cleanups," he said, adding that his group visits the area as often as four times a year. "We've got a good idea what to expect: trash left by shooters, appliances, household trash. Those little shooting bays will be completely littered with shotgun shells, brass casings and targets. TVs, Styrofoam, propane. Whatever they can shoot, they shoot down there."
In 2015 the Pac Out Green Team removed five tons of garbage from spots along the Eel River. At one cleanup they filled a 10-yard Dumpster. Ostrom said his organization has asked the Board of Supervisors to put in a Dumpster, but the board refused on the grounds that it would get filled with household garbage. So, instead, the river bar has been filled with household garbage. During one cleanup, Ostrom's crew encountered and repelled a would-be dumper in a sedan in the parking lot that was "so full of garbage the driver could barely squeeze in there."
The Eel River was once the third largest salmon and steelhead producing river in California, and is still the state's third largest watershed. It carries water from coastal mountain snowpack into the Pacific, and its basin helps support coastal redwood groves. Overfishing and erosion have taken their toll on the salmon population, and record drought forced the mighty river underground in 2014. Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, said that while issues with shooting and dumping have garnered public attention lately, they obscure the fact that the watershed is in a state of "pervasive ill health."
"It's hard to untangle the layers of casual abuse," he said, referring to the dumping, erosion from off-roading, and lead contamination from bullets. "I haven't seen a way to engage with it without pissing off the people who don't like the interfering environmentalists. What it's come to is the Alexandres put up Jersey barriers. It's kind of amazing to me how nuts it's had to get for someone to do something.
"The lower Eel is a fucking treasure and we treat it like a ditch," Greacen added. "There's a disconnect between what feels like an acute problem and a thousand tiny cuts, like people driving trucks. At what point do those cuts add up to it bleeding out?"
As with the shooting, illegal dumping falls into a jurisdictional black hole. The region's Fish and Wildlife Game Warden Matt Wells said he faithfully hands out tickets for dumping when he catches people in the act, but the district attorney rarely prosecutes dumpers. And while volunteers like PacOut and Lost Coast 4x4s attempt to bridge the gap, Wells called dumping a "revolving door," with trash landing on the banks of the Eel every day, to wash out to sea.
Without sufficient law enforcement to properly address bad actors, those impacted by the shooting, dumping and brody-ing may have to rely on a cultural shift in the opposite direction. One popular suggestion, recommended by the Fish and Game Commission, has been to put up signs about gun safety, private property and dumping. This suggestion has been met with an equally popular retort.
"We believe placing signage in the area would not work," wrote Bruce and Frances Tjarnstrom, Alexandre's neighbors, to the Board of Supervisors, "It is likely any signs would become handy targets for shooting practice. Also, signage assumes some level of literacy, and that cannot be assumed in this case."