Since the advent of the modern propaganda industry during the era of World War I, paid propaganda shills have become a fixture of large capital projects and national endeavors of virtually every sort. The shills’ methods may vary, but their function is invariably the same. Redefine facts and sow confusion. Try to pass off the downsides of a given project — destruction of ecosystems, killing of innocent civilians, thinly-veiled class war, public health hazards, squandering of public funds, or what-have-you — as a necessary evil or as uncontroversial common sense.
To that end, no shill in the North Coast region has been more active in recent years, nor had a tougher assignment on his desk, than CalTrans' public relations man for both Mendocino and Lake County, the ineffable Phil Frisbie, Jr.
I'll always fondly remember meeting Phil in person. The date was February 25, 2013. The occasion: opening day of Willits Bypass construction. Years of laborious negotiations with the Army Corps of Engineers, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, and various other regulatory agencies to secure the necessary environmental permits, coupled with a large degree of political arm-twisting, had led up to this moment.
The day Big Orange had been waiting for had finally arrived!
In a meadow adjacent to East Hill Road, a Posi-Track (small excavator) cleaved shrubs and small trees from the moist soils of this historic Haehl Creek floodplain. An automated post driver followed close behind, vibrating t-posts into the ground. I approached Phil, who was clad in a construction helmet that bore the words “Public Information” on the sides. He was already being aggressively questioned by a local Willits resident, who wanted to know if CalTrans had completed pre-construction migratory bird surveys of the area, as required under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the California Environmental Quality Act. and other elements of statutory environmental law.
Phil said in no uncertain terms that CalTrans had completed the surveys. If we wanted to know any details, he said, such as which agency approved the surveys and when, we would have to file a California Public Records Act request.
(A video of this conversation is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1vefywI3Zs.)
Roughly 15 minutes later, Bypass opponents located bird nests in the fencing job's narrow swath. Two people sat down in front of the Posi-Track, blockading it. A Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist arrived on the scene. She called off further work. CalTrans and their fencing sub-contractor went home.
As it turned out, CalTrans had not even established a protocol for conducting bird surveys, let alone conducted any actual surveys. Construction was effectively delayed for nearly a month while CalTrans imported biologists from various reaches of Northern California to generate some data about local bird activity.
There was only one sphere of makeshift reality in which Big Orange had conducted the required surveys, a world to which I had just become introduced much more vividly than before: the imaginary world of Phil Frisbie, Jr. (and, by extension, that of his CalTrans bosses).
CalTrans' Online Comment Aliases
My faded recollection of reading Phil Frisbie, Jr.'s posts on the Willits Bypass Project News (Caltrans) website, including early classics that appear under headers such as the “The Bypass will improve fisheries” (March 23, 2013) and “the bypass is good for the children” (March 20, 2013), is of breezing through them with a smirk on my face that sometimes oozed into a chuckle. Mundane drivel written by a public relations flak is inevitable and, in its own way, soothing.
Yet, when I first conceived the idea of writing this piece, I felt a sense of dread. To present Phil Frisbie, Jr.'s lies and dissembling in useful historical and political context would mean digesting Phil Frisbie, Jr.'s online oeuvre again, as well as combing through his quotations in various local newspapers and his attempted rebuttals to my AVA articles, which he has posted periodically on this fine publication's on-line comments feature. It's the sort of feeling you get upon arriving home after a few days of decompressing at a favored getaway, only to discover that your neighbor didn't walk the dogs and your carpet and furnishings are now laden with excrement. You know that the several hours you'll spend dealing with the mess may cause you to vomit.
That was before I discovered a piece of news that neatly encapsulates everything I've ever attempted to convey about the Willits Bypass. My sense of duty as a reporter for “America's Last Newspaper” kicked in. I knew that if I didn't report this exciting news, and provide details regarding Phil Frisbie, Jr's involvement in it, nobody else would!
Since April 2013, a CalTrans employee or contractor has incessantly harassed online Willits Bypass critics under the Facebook and message board pseudonym “Engr Rules” (a cryptonym, I assume, that refers in some way to this individual's ecstatic worship of those employed in the engineering field). All the while, said individual has represented himself as “a consulting engineer who has knowledge of all aspects of the project,” but is not employed by CalTrans.
Engr Rules revealed his apparent employment for CalTrans after he lost his way crossing a river difficult and dangerous to ford, then naively wandered into the enemy encampment. On June 28th, he logged onto the Anderson Valley Advertiser message board and posted a rebuttal to my article of that week, entitled “Bypass Stopped — For Now.” His post consisted of several mostly inaccurate factual claims he labeled as “corrections,” after which he admonished me that, “It’s obvious you don’t research facts.” (The full exchange is at: https://www.theava.com/archives/32647.)
Taking up Engr Rules' suggestion, I decided to research my first fact: Engr Rules' IP address and location. It is as follows: 126.96.36.199, registered with the California Department of Transportation, State of California, 1120 N Street MS 20, Sacramento, CA 95814.
The fact that Engr Rules has crafted most of his Facebook and message board screeds during normal business hours raises the specter that California's hapless taxpayers have collectively paid this individual god-knows-how-many-thousands-of-dollars in the past year-and-a-half to sit in a State Transportation Department office building, the soft blue glow of Facebook and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat Online flickering across his face, as he spews childish insults at anyone who deigns to criticize the most destructive and wasteful project seen 'round these parts in recent memory, and issues devotional paeans to the necessity of graduate-level engineering training for registering an opinion about the world's affairs.
Here are some examples of Engr Rules' Facebook offerings in the last 16 months (courtesy of Julia Dakin): “what a moron” … “these people are so stooped” … “you're a smacktard who started a bypass FB group with zero knowledge of the subject” … “Sara Grusky is an idiot” … “Dumb and Dumber don't realize, I assume that 40 acres of wet meadow required for the bypass have already been filled” [referring to a picture of yours truly and attorney Omar Figueroa on the Ukiah Courthouse steps] … “If anyone is going to the council meeting, could they please tell that biddy [Willits City Councilmember] Madge [Strong] that it is indeed too late.”
Going After The Troublemakers, Not The Trouble
This seemingly run-of-the-mill story regarding a CalTrans employee's soporific conduct takes on politically significant dimensions when you consider that the California State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee released a report on Thursday, July 31st, detailing how Caltrans systematically sought to silence engineers who voiced concerns about cost overruns or construction defects on the new Bay Bridge eastern span, forcing eight of them from the project.
As State Senator Mark DeSaulnier put it, “There is a culture [at CalTrans] that doesn't like to be criticized — ever. As a worker told me: Caltrans goes after the troublemakers, not the trouble.”
This report is best read in tandem with one published in February by the California State Transportation Agency based on an external review of CalTrans' operations. The heavily critical report makes note of Big Orange's “insular culture based on project development.” It notes that CalTrans functions like a large engineering corporation, though it is underwritten by taxpayers.
To wit: In recent weeks, a brand-new Facebook character named “Daniel Manning” began posting salient criticisms of CalTrans' Willits Bypass mitigation plans (a boondoggle even greater than the Bypass itself, in the eyes of this author), all based on publicly available documents.
At first, EngrRules was convinced that “Daniel Manning” was Ukiah-based CalTrans nemesis Julia Dakin. Then, he somehow decided that the individual works for CalTrans — possibly in the same building as he does! “Treason and traitor come to mind,” a now-totally unhinged EngrRules wrote upon learning the news.
CalTrans' Conference Room Guest Account
As Engr Rules ramped up his online harassment of “Daniel Manning,” Julia Dakin revealed on Facebook that Engr Rules uses a CalTrans server. She posted a photo of the IP address Engr Rules used on the AVA message board in response to my article.
Into the fray stepped Phil Frisbie, Jr.
Phil generated a theory. Just because Engr Rules was using the CalTrans server in his AVA message board post, Phil mused, does not necessarily mean this person is a CalTrans employee! As Phil's theory went (and bear with him here, please), this individual might have issued the post whilst sitting in a conference room at CalTrans' headquarters, where he was logged onto the CalTrans WiFi “guest” account.
The possibility that Engr Rules was sitting in the parking lot pirating CalTrans' Internet hookup does not seem to have been far off in Phil's mind.
A few hours later, Phil apparently returned to his senses. He posted the following summary of actions he had taken in response to Dakin's post: “all Caltrans staff and consultants working on the bypass have been refreshed [sic] that I am the only person who can officially post to social media about the Willits Bypass Project. Anyone else is violating Caltrans policy, and if found out will be dealt with by their supervisor. Phil at Caltrans.”
(The affectation of intimacy is important for Phil. He always signs his missives in a manner akin to a neighborhood hardware store clerk sending you a quote on materials.)
This incident is in keeping with Phil's formula for dealing with bad news, a sort of E=MC2 applied to the realm of public relations crisis response. The moment CalTrans gets hit with a permit violation, or damages another archeological site, or causes mud to wash into a waterway, or enforces a policy of denying food and water to a protester occupying a tree or construction equipment, or underestimates the cost of its mitigation plan by $26.1 million, or has the project suspended due to Clean Water Act violations, or gets criticized by a politician… Phil unfailingly springs forward with the following narrative: “We're out in front. We're taking care of it. You can trust us. We care more about this than anyone!”
Take Phil's handling of the news last September that CalTrans had damaged the Little Lake Pomo archeological site CA-MEN-3571, which the Sherwood Valley Rancheria has nominated for the National Register of Historic Places due to its likely association with the historic village of Yami. In the previous four months, CalTrans had excavated 10 inches of soil there, installed roughly 1,400 wick drains, and piled three feet of fill atop it.
“Here’s what we know so far: nothing has been removed except for a core sample used in originally identifying the site,” Phil wrote. “Caltrans works hard statewide to protect cultural resources on all our projects. Our employees are upset by this disturbance since they work so hard, and go to such great lengths, in their effort to ensure this does not happen. For this project, there are six cultural monitors working alongside active construction, with authority to temporarily halt work if required, to protect cultural resources.”
Granted, Sherwood Valley had to insist repeatedly that CalTrans allow the tribal monitors to be present, and Big Orange went to virtually no lengths at all to prevent damage to archeological sites until Sherwood Valley hired a seasoned and competent archeologist named Lee Clauss, who knew the legal hooks and technical jargon necessary to move CalTrans toward compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act's process for consultation with First Nations people.
As Clauss told me last year: “I’ve reviewed and commented on behalf of tribal communities as part of more than 3,000 projects. Those run the gamut from the east coast to the west coast and include nearly every federal agency you can think of. And I’ve never encountered an agency that is as arrogant, as apathetic, as recalcitrant [as CalTrans].”
In March 2013, the Water Board's lone inspector for CalTrans projects in all of the North Coast counties found an opening in his schedule to make stops along the Willits Bypass route. He cited CalTrans with numerous violations for failing to follow statewide practices designed to prevent sediment runoff into creeks in six different areas across Little Lake Valley. In that case, Phil had to dig a bit deeper than usual to generate an upbeat response to the Water Board's cavils.
“We have always worked closely with the Water Board, and this Notice of Violation gives us the opportunity to come back into compliance,” Phil offered.
All of these things are entirely unsurprising when set against the backdrop of a $300 million-plus, four-lane Interstate 5-sized freeway that will handle less traffic than the stretch of Talmage Road east of Highway 101 near Ukiah, with all of the intellectual integrity that peddling such a boondoggle entails.
It bears repeating that CalTrans has sold its highly destructive six-mile boondoggle around Willits to government regulators and elected officials based on fantasies about increasing population and traffic figures. CalTrans arbitrarily established so-called “Level of Service C” as the Willits Bypass' traffic goal. “Level of Service” is a Caltrans rubric that guides decisions regarding how many lanes are needed in the new roadway to accommodate the amount of traffic projected to use it. If traffic volumes are above a certain level, it becomes necessary based on established policy to build a four-lane freeway that achieves the “level of service” in question.
We’re now more than two decades on from CalTrans' early traffic projections, and Willits traffic has remained flat or even declined somewhat. Yet, because of the falsified traffic data, and because “Level of Service C” is the stated goal for the Willits Bypass, CalTrans’ honchos were able to exclude from consideration all two-lane options for rerouting traffic.
The Bypass' approvals were also based in large part on Caltrans’ erroneous claim that a 4-lane freeway was required by the Federal Highway Administration to meet the “purpose and need” of the project. Willits-based petroleum engineer Rich Estabrook discovered last year via a Public Records request that this claim was false.
Another massive contradiction of the project involves the matter of draining, compacting, filling in, driving heavy machinery upon, stripping trees and vegetation from, and/or installing viaducts on nearly 90 acres of federally protected wetlands in the area that historically comprises the seasonal body of water for which Little Lake Valley was named.
CalTrans has pledged to “mitigate for” 82.05 acres of destroyed wetlands and “other waters of the US” via a combination of “wetlands creation” and “wetlands enhancement.” This “mitigation plan,” however, centers on the excavation of 266,000 cubic yards of topsoil. This figure is courtesy of a document the Army Corps provided last year. This amount of soil is enough to create a fairly large earthen dam (this kind of structure is the Army Corps’ specialty), or, if you prefer, a berm on which to lay asphalt for a typical freeway segment of, say, six miles in length (that being CalTrans’ specialty, except for the “modest-sized” part).
Apologists for the Bypass rush to point out aspects of the mitigation plan that may be beneficial. For example, bridges are slated to be built over creeks so that cattle cross over them, rather than trampling the creek banks, compacting the soil, and pooping in the water. Jane Hicks, the Army Corps’ chief regulator, stated it well in a June 2011 story in the California Farm Bureau newspaper Ag Alert:
“Caltrans has purchased properties that are mostly wetlands for their wetland mitigation, and that’s a problem for the Corps because that puts us in a position where we are asked to replace wetlands with new wetlands. What we asked Caltrans to do is get us involved while they are looking at properties so that we can tell them if there are wetlands on them already, or what the potential would be for wetland establishment on those properties. That did not happen in this project; they went out and bought properties that were already wetlands, and so how do we give them wetland creation or establishment credit on properties that are existing wetlands?”
Being that the Bypass has depended on factual invention at virtually every stage, it stands to reason that those who criticize Bypass opponents' claims about the project accuse them of doing the same thing. Fabrication is, after all, a favored tactic of their camp. The most common accusation is the claim that the Bypass entails the largest filling in of wetlands in Northern California in the last 50 years is made-up or, in Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen's words, “a mythology that Save Our Little Lake Valley has developed to sell the public.”
As the argument goes, both Redwood Shores and Farm Island in the San Francisco Bay were much larger wetland fills. The filling of these projects, though, was complete prior to the 1960s. Bair Island was filled by Leslie Salt Corporation, the Bay Area's largest landowner of the time (now owned by agribusiness giant Cargill), before the Redwood Shores housing development was built. Farm Island was used for actual farming before the housing developments.
Helping The Environment
Phil's most oft-used narrative is as follows: Far from harming the environment, the Bypass is actually helping it! Given that modern environmental law is founded on such concepts as “no net loss of wetlands,” one hears this same argument with respect to all sorts of environmentally destructive projects nowadays. As a condition for official approval, environmental quality review documents require project applicants to indicate that their project will have “no significant environmental impact” according to numerous criteria. Although no project ever has significant environmental impact, according to these documents, somehow the world's environmental health continues to diminish at an alarming rate.
This line of thinking is typified by an hilariously campy video on the Willits Bypass Project News site edited so that a CalTrans fisheries biologist appears to be saying that CalTrans may be responsible for the recovery of endangered Coho salmon. Phil Frisbie, Jr. posted and, apparently, edited this video in March 2013.
Given that I have made a habit of pointing out all the ways in which the Willits Bypass is trashing a good portion of Little Lake Valley's environment, including the lands on which it is conducting “mitigation,” Phil has occasionally issued responses to my pieces. My narrative, after all, runs directly counter to his own. For example, in the case of my March 5th AVA piece, entitled “California's Water Pathology,” Phil was exercised that I made reference to how Bypass construction has caused sediment to build up in creeks and water temperatures to increase, with potentially disastrous consequences for fish.
“Caltrans is not filling in or heating waterways,” Phil wrote. “In fact, Caltrans will be planting native vegetation along miles of streams which have been degraded by a century of human activities, and installing fencing to prevent grazing cattle from continuing to damage these streams. The water quality for fish will be greatly improved by these and other mitigation measures.”
An intrepid traveler through the byways of ancient history can venture back to last March, or to a few sections earlier in this article, and read about how the Water Board popped CalTrans a full year earlier for causing sediment levels to increase in numerous areas of Little Lake Valley due to improper erosion control measures and violating a prescription on removing trees from riparian areas during the rainy season.
Roughly a week after Phil asserted that CalTrans was not filling in waterways with sediment, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board released documentation regarding the large volume of mud that had washed into Upper Haehl Creek from the areas Caltrans’ contractors had denuded and resculpted. For 11 straight days, sediment levels were more than 20% greater than normal “background” levels, thereby interrupting the spawning activity of threatened and endangered salmonids that had been documented in these reaches of Haehl Creek.
Roughly a month later, Save Our Little Lake Valley posted photos from the sediment disaster to its Facebook page. A seemingly exasperated Phil Frisbie denounced the pictures as “old news.”
It is true that CalTrans is excluding cattle from various riparian areas in Little Lake Valley. But the overall ecological impact of CalTrans' mitigation plan, which centers on “creating wetlands” in various stretches of Little Lake Valley, may be decidedly negative.
A 2004 UCLA study reviewed wetlands impact projects in the Los Angeles basin authorized between 1991 and 2002 to determine how well they were mitigated. The study could not review a large number of the permits because many critical regulatory documents could not be found. Among the study team’s various alarming conclusions was that 58% of the mitigations were failures by current standards of wetlands function.
Meanwhile, the federal government’s General Accounting Office criticized the Corps of Engineers in 2005 for failing to follow up on permitted projects to ensure the required wetlands mitigation measures were actually being done as required. The Corps responded by issuing new mandates to the regulatory groups responsible for issuing permits. But, in the case of the Willits Bypass, the Corps was subject to direct political pressure from Congressman Mike Thompson (a legacy that has now been assumed by Congressman Jared Huffman) to conform the Corps’ mitigation standards to CalTrans' requirements for building the Willits Bypass.
Some of the most ecologically significant areas of the CalTrans mitigation properties lie adjacent to Davis and Outlet Creeks on the north end of Little Lake Valley. These “uplands” are parts of natural levees, or slightly higher areas of ground, where sediment has been deposited by floodwaters across geologic time. They are inches to a few feet above the surrounding wetlands. They are a natural feature of many dynamic wetlands and flood plains, and as such add richness and diversity to the landscape, including ecological niches for soil, wildlife, and trees.
The final draft of Caltrans’ Mitigation Monitoring Plan entails scraping off the top layers of soil in these uplands with backhoes or other heavy machinery so that water will collect in pools in the adjacent area. The water that Caltrans’ “new wetlands” would capture typically drains into Davis and Outlet creeks, helping to maintain their flow rates. The areas that Caltrans plans to make concave feature a number of mature valley oak trees, which would be flooded and destroyed by the “new wetlands.”
Essentially, CalTrans intends to take ecologically valuable areas that are already part of functioning wetlands, scrape away layers of soil, and then claim by virtue of the water collecting in the newly concave areas that they have created wetlands.
The Bypass is being built. The possibility of downsizing, which many environmentalists have pressed for, is fading. It remains long past time, however, that State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier's committee investigates the culture of hubris and corruption — the imaginary world of Phil Frisbie, Jr. and his CalTrans District 1 cohorts — that has given rise to so much absurdity and destruction.