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The Fort Bragg Mill Site


For the last dozen years, the Fort Bragg Mill site has been little more than 415 acres of “off limits” shoreline on the town’s western face. Every 4th of July, one can enjoy one evening of fireworks arcing over the Noyo Headlands. For the rest of the year, it is just that now barren stretch of deserted property one sees out of the corner of one’s eye as he or she drives by. One result of “planning fatigue”, as one former participant of the Noyo Headlands Unified Design Group put it, is that “some people have even given up commenting on what might become of the site.” As for the current owners, Charles and David Koch (more about them later), it is but a “nonperforming asset.” A mill that once employed 2,000 locals would never make payroll again. However, there are developments that will substantially affect the disposition of the mill site.

But what has the situation been like since the mill fully shut down in 2002? Ask anyone who had worked at the Mill what it felt like when the plant was closed. “It felt like a kick to the gut,” one retired worker said. A longtime Fort Bragg merchant says it was like a death in the family. At the time of shutting down the plant, as reported in the Los Angeles Times (Justin Pritchard, September 1, 2002), the paid workforce was only about 100 workers. That does not sound like much. But even at a drastically reduced level, the mill still accounted for about $31 million in economic benefit to the immediate area, according to a Fort Bragg banker, Tom Becker. Clearly, the reign of King Timber was over. It had been over for some time. Fort Bragg, by all accounts a once a prosperous union, “blue-collar town”, had become a place where those who grew up in the area could not afford to stay. Indeed, since 2000, the city of Fort Bragg’s population has increased less than 4percent, to just shy of 7300 residents, far below the population increases for California as a whole. Without some major economic development, the growth in population would remain anemic.

Like so many historic industrial sites in America, the story of the rise and fall of the Fort Bragg Mill is a record of expropriation, exploitation, and exportation of resources and profits. That is not to say that there were no benefits for those who worked at the plant and raised their families in Mendocino County. There certainly were benefits. Mendocino and Fort Bragg residents could make a good living wage, raise their families, and have a sense of community. But beneath that tranquil state, the long-term effects of the present state of decay were gathering momentum. King Timber’s exploitation of the forest resources would deal a major blow to the economic health and future prospects of Fort Bragg and Mendocino County.

History as Precedent 

The record of expropriation and exploitation is at least as old as the early 19th Century Russian fur trade settlements, such as Fort Ross. Once they had fairly effectively driven the sea otter (the first local resource to be depleted) to near extinction, they withdrew. Except for the decimated sea otter population, however, the Russians left little by way of permanent impact on the region. The real and sustained advance of “Manifest Destiny” soon followed with the arrival of land hungry American settlers. In order to contain and pacify the Native American peoples of the immediate area, a 25,000 acre Indian Reservation was established in 1856 that extended from the Noyo harbor to Ten Mile River. A military post was established the following year (1857) within the boundaries of the reservation on land for the ostensible purpose of protecting the Native Americans from the settlers and to “maintain” order. The military post site was to become the city of Fort Bragg. At the time, given the sometimes chaotic rush for land on frontiers, few saw the economic potential of the reservation land. At least one would-be timber baron, a Mr. McPherson, did see the potential for exploiting the redwood forests and the available anchorages of Soldier Bay and Noyo Harbor for shipment. He was granted a mill site inside the newly established Indian Reservation in 1856. So much for the rights granted to the displaced Native Americans. And so too was the beginning of a 150 year depletion of the major natural resource of the region — -timber. Further embedding the long cycle of expropriation and exploitation, once the military post was abandoned, the remaining 300 or so Native Americans, by this time reduced in numbers by disease and subject to outright exploitation and violence, were forcibly marched to Round Valley. One can only guess what life might have been like for the Native Americans at Noyo had they not been forcibly removed. However, powerful economic forces were in play and the land, their land, was too precious to leave in their hands. Can it be acknowledged, when the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is written and submitted, that the expropriation and exploitation of the once reservation land in the 1860s was a key factor in lead up to the present issues of what is to become of the Fort Bragg Mill Site.

Fast forward to 1885. Charles Russell Johnson, future Lumber Baron of Mendocino, buys into a Mill Creek operation that was to become Union Lumber. Within four years (1889), the Town of Fort Bragg was incorporated, with Mr. Johnson as the first mayor. Building lots of 100’ by 150’ could be had for $100 by the mill workers. America was entering the ‘Gilded Age’. There was no thought that the environment, the forests especially, could not withstand the endless cycles of expropriation, exploitation and extraction. For the next 100 or so years, it could truly be said that Fort Bragg was a company town. So long as the ancient giant redwood and Douglass fir trees could be hauled to the mill, there was a healthy workforce to sustain the local economy. By 1969, however, the mill was no longer under the control of the Johnson family. Union Lumber Company was sold to Boise Cascade. The advent of the timber and lumber industry’s collapse was about to become manifest. The age of corporate mergers and consolidation has also in full flower.

Just four years after purchase of the Union Lumber Company, Boise Cascade was sold to Georgia Pacific in 1973. For the next two decades, Georgia Pacific struggled to make a profit at its Fort Bragg Mill. The year 1994, according to the company, was the only year it made a profit. Georgia Pacific blamed a number of factors for this reversal of fortune. It was the dwindling supply of large trees to mill, as if the trees themselves could simply decide to bulk themselves up to satisfy the supply demands of the mill. It was depressed prices, as if the markets were conspiring to undercut their dollar growth projections. It was the onerous burden of government regulations. It was synthetics, i.e. plastic composite decking. It was the union based wage structure. For an industry that had spawned up to 900 mills between 1852 and 1996 in Mendocino County alone, the term collapse certainly applies. By 2001 only 10 mills continued to operate in the county. Today, it is even less than 10 and they rely upon a supply of logs the majority of which hardly exceed 16 inches in diameter. At the end of this 150 year period of exploitation of the forest, what remains of a timber and lumber industry in Mendocino County is largely in the hands of small land owners, Mendocino Redwood Company, and private non-profits, such as the Redwood Forests Forever Initiative at Usal Forest. The phrase “sustainable practices” is now the stated goal of what remains of the industry.

With the acquisition of Georgia Pacific (December, 2005) by Koch Industries, a privately held conglomerate (84% owned by David and Charles Koch) the stage has been set for the ultimate disposition of the Fort Bragg Mill Site. Georgia Pacific, headquartered in Atlanta Georgia, does business in 27 states. Its products are found in almost every kitchen and bathroom in America. We know Georgia Pacific by brand name products made at its pulp mills throughout the south — -think “Angel Soft” and “Quilted Northern” toilet tissues, “Mardi Gras” and “Sparkle” paper towels, “Soft and Gentle,” “So Dry,” “Dixie” paper plates, and “Vanity Fair” napkins. Today, managing 175 million acres of forest, much of it single crop soft pine suitable for pulp mills, Georgia Pacific’s sales reportedly exceed $24 billion. To insure that they remain free of “interference” to their interests, the Koch brothers have spent at least $75,000,000 lobbying for free market capitalism, opposing low carbon fuel initiatives, denying Global Warming, and supporting a far right conservative agenda and candidates like Scott Walker (Wisconsin). In short, Koch Industries, and its subsidiary Georgia Pacific, is a force not to be taken lightly. They are, admittedly, a profit oriented multinational conglomerate and have every right to promote their businesses and advocate policies they deem beneficial to their business plan and profit objectives.

The Present Status of Planning 

Where does all this lead with respect to Georgia Pacific’s (GP) activity and ownership of the Fort Bragg Mill site? To date, the company has spent in excess of $34 million on cleanup remediation to remove toxic hazards on the 415 acre parcel. The total cleanup cost continues to mount. To possibly limit its cost of remediation on November 11, 2012, Georgia Pacific sued Office Max (which had acquired Boise Cascade) which in turn sued the City of Fort Bragg to recover what it terms as “response costs.” The allegation is that storm runoff from Fort Bragg’s downtown district has contributed to the polluting of the site. Since the City of Fort Bragg does not have deep pockets, which municipality these days does, the suit is both a distraction for the city and could retard the settlement of outstanding issues in resolving the is disposition of the site?

The City of Fort Bragg has achieved some progress in developing the site. To date, according to 4th Supervisor Dan Gjerde, the City of Fort Bragg has acquired “just under100 of the 415 acres. The city’s property (is) largely for bluff top trail and parkland, including the connecting of McKirricher State Park to the north with Soldier Bay and Noyo to the south. About 12 acres has been identified for the future Noyo Center for Science and Education.” There also seems to be a general understanding that the Mill Pond portion of the property, 35 acres in extent, will revert to open land and riparian corridor once the dam is removed and the toxic issues are dealt with. The city may also acquire some additional parkland, a “Mini Central Park” as Mr. Gjerde calls it. When all is said and done, however, Georgia Pacific will still control/own about 270 acres for private development.

What might this blend of public/private space look like when the proposed “build-out” date is reached in 2030? To begin with, the City has taken on the responsibility of developing most, if not all, of the park-like features of the site. The Coastal Conservancy and State Park Proposition 84 funds are to be used to develop the coastal trail. The remaining 270 acres will be left to the private owners to develop. Georgia Pacific may sell the property to private investors (For tax purposes the County lists the value at a little over $39,000,000. Whether it is GP or another investment group, it is almost certain that the plan will be to build “high end” residences for retirees or second home owners. The city has insists that vacation homes are not permitted within city limits. The high end market profile, as evidenced in the site plan, envisions 520 residential units on small, medium, and large parcels) 450 hotel rooms, and commercial/industrial space. A private, for-profit venture almost certainly implies a push for upscale amenities (boutique hotel, chi-chi retail outlets, and eco-tourist related venues?) Again, the city has given guidance that a golf course is not desirable. If such a scenario were to become end result, an all-but-exclusive “compound” for the well-to-do could become a reality, at the expense of local real estate, retail, and needs interests of the community at-large. Yes, the trails and parklands will indeed be open to the public. But if history is any guide, the more common pattern is for the up-scale part of town to become more like a preserve for the privileged, while the ordinary citizen is left to feel somewhat alienated from the common space.

There are other factors to consider as well in the ultimate planning and formation of agreements to “build-out” the Mill Site. Government services will be burdened by the influx of new residents and visitors. The increased costs of police, fire protection, potable water, sewage, waste water, road improvements, and the like are not spelled out in detail in the site plan. Indeed, perhaps they cannot be given definite form at this stage. But at some point, the citizens of the city will have to face such consequences. Additionally, the site plan does not provide comment about the need for affordable housing for local residents. Nor does the plan articulate what kind of jobs is implied for the 777 additional workers. Is the additional workforce to be well-paid light industrial, technology and renewable energy related, and such? Or, is it the case that what is likely to be the reality is more low-wage, low-skilled service-sector jobs — -hotel clerks and maids, retail clerks, landscape services, fix-it people, short-order cooks, and the like? All these concerns are briefly noted in the draft Environmental Impact Report. The terminology “potential high impact” keeps coming up in the document. The Notice of Preparation of a draft EIR also gives notice of the potential for retail businesses and hotels in the core of Fort Bragg to lose business to a new private development at the Mill Site. Mendocino County is well aware of the concerns other area towns have had to face (Ukiah and Willits for example) when outside business enterprises are attracted to the periphery of the core business area.

The Near-term Prospects

The Noyo Headlands Unified Design Group plan has effectively been shelved. The City Site Plan continues to be revised and clarified, especially as land for parks and trails is resolved, the Mill Pond toxic issues are dealt with, and light industrial enterprises express interest in the site, such as Mendocino Brewing Company’s plan to utilize part of Drying Shed #4 progresses.

But in the end the fate of this prime real estate, which has been the subject of so much exploitation and extraction of profit over at least 150 years, will be the profit motive of private developers. The City of Fort Bragg acknowledged this explicitly in 2004 by resolution (Resolution #2733-2004). This city council document states, in part, “whereas, the City recognizes that Georgia Pacific has the right to sell the Mill Site to any interested buyer without any input from or consideration to the City, its citizens or other interested parties…” As for Georgia Pacific, it has formally withdrawn from the joint planning process.

Some will say that the ultimate leverage that citizens have to influence the outcome hinges on two things, water and the California Coastal Commission. Water availability will be part of the final EIR. The City insists that Georgia Pacific must rely on its own water rights and storage for the plan to move forward. Having this stated, what then is the meaning of the language in the 2004 resolution that “adequate supplies of potable water will be available to serve long-term build-out of the Mill Site.”? This includes sewage and waste water treatment. It is reasonable to believe that water will become an issue at some point in the negotiations to develop the Mill site.

The final barrier that private developers may face is the re-zoning of the property. One result of the creation of Sea Ranch, an exclusive enclave for the rich on the coast, was the creation of the California Coastal Commission. Most landowners with property on the sea side of Highway 1 have chaffed over the years at the stringent regulations, if not outright denial of development, imposed by the Commission. The Commission has indeed tended to serve the interests of the general public over private, for-profit ventures. The thesis that we began with was one of expropriation, exploitation, and exportation. As such, the Fort Bragg Mill Site deserves a chance to end this cycle of short-sightedness. The property could be developed with more attention to the real and expressed needs of the citizens of the town and county, avoiding the pitfalls of expropriation by outside interests for whom the prime objective, the only important objective, is profit. That can be accomplished, in part, by the Site Plan and the EIR report with completed, giving more attention to the unanticipated consequences that could entail. The potential deterioration of the local merchant and hotel trade core of the city is one such possible consequence. The added tax and fee burden on city and county taxpayers and rate payers for new infrastructure and services is another. The change in “qualify of life” factors, congestion, noise, a whole host of impacts needs more attention. Marie Jones, Community Development Director, points out that the City General Plan requires a new development to be revenue neutral. Indeed the city itself may well be able to avoid paying for new infrastructure and the like. That being said, added costs to residences and businesses will no doubt be incurred as a natural outcome of growth of infrastructure.

One thing that can definitely serve to insure the best possible outcome for the Fort Bragg Mill Site is the active participation on the part of more ordinary citizens, the very people who are recognized as “stakeholders”. The City of Fort Bragg has indeed been open about the planning process. Anyone can attend city council meetings, scoping sessions, planning sessions, and presentations of both the Specific Plan and the environmental impact report (EIR) meetings. Open governance is the key to effectively influencing the process of planning and disposition of the Mill Site. My own current experience in reaching out to Dan Gjerde, 4th District Supervisor, and Marie Jones, Fort Bragg Community Development Director has been most encouraging, especially since my knowledge at the outset was, and remains, limited. I thank them.

The day is not that far off when Georgia Pacific, ala Koch Industries, makes a business decision to resolve the status of its “nonperforming asset”. How interested the private developer is in breaking the 150 year long cycle of expropriation, exploitation will be put to the test. The often conflicting motivations of profit over the needs of the local citizens may be the key to either a good or poor outcome. In order to develop the Mill Site to its full potential deep pockets will be required. The interests of the people who live in Fort Bragg and Mendocino also need to be a good part of the equation. That is where citizen participation enters the picture. If it matters to you, then you need to become involved. Finally, Georgia Pacific and Office Max could begin to re-engage by dropping the City from the lawsuit and for Georgia Pacific to re-enter the planning process with the City and its citizens. Neither step is an impediment to Georgia Pacific achieving its goals as the primary owner of the property acreage in question.

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