As with so many of Mendocino County-based backwoods cannabis proprietors, Stuart Bewley's journey to the rugged hills and gullies of Bell Springs and west Laytonville began during the 1970s. In that heady time, young idealists flocked to the remote and disjointed terrain of California's northern coastal mountains, in collective pursuit of a better life in a better place. Desperate to earn a living, some of the more entrepreneurial members of their sub-culture soon developed breakthrough techniques for cultivation of sinsemilla, fostering what has budded out into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Bewley followed a different — but oddly parallel — track to California's remote hinterlands. In the mid-'70s, he and a friend were busy mixing wine, fruit juice and carbonated water in washtubs at Santa Cruz beach parties, thus laying the ground for an idiosyncratic beverage brand called California Wine Coolers — which Bewley co-founded. The brand became a ubiquitous fad, one that rose and fell at roughly the same time — and nearly as quickly — as parachute pants and heavy metal “hair” bands. In 1985, California Wine Coolers stood as the sixth largest producer among all domestic wine companies.
That year, Bewley and his partner made a well-time sale of the brand for a whopping (reported) $146 million. Still in his 30s, Bewley invested some of his newfound riches in a 14,000-acre swath of firs, oak savannah, and oak woodlands in far northern Mendocino County, known as Adanac Ranch.
Today, piling more improbability on an already odd resume, Bewley is at the center of a debate about the future of Mendocino County's legalizing “medical” cannabis industry, particularly when it comes to a debate about prohibiting cultivation on the county's 914,000 acres of rangeland.
So far, the county's planning commission and some of its supervisors have drawn a firm line against allowing new rangeland grows.
On January 15th, the Mendocino County Planning Commission voted 5-2 to recommend that the Board of Supervisors adopt the restriction, while continuing to allow existing rangeland growers who can prove they were cultivating prior to January 1, 2016 to obtain permits to grow up to 99 plants per ownership. “When it gets to the Board, I will support a ban on new cultivation in rangeland,” 2nd District Supervisor John McCowen told the AVA. “The proposed ban is a significant mitigation that will protect oak woodlands and other relatively intact habitats from invasive activities.”
In a strange turn, Bewley — a man who was, by all accounts, an outsider to the cannabis industry only a few years ago — has been the county's most vocal opponent of these protections.
Bewley developed five grow sites on his Adanac Ranch property last year. His future intentions on the property are unclear. But he has spoken adamantly in favor of full-on rangeland cultivation at Planning Commission meetings, and he and his business associates have also plied the planning commissioners with numerous comment letters taking the same position.
William Bewley, the son of the multi-millionaire Stuart, as an example, wrote a letter appealing to the commissioners on the basis of financial hardship [sic] if rangeland cultivation is not permitted. The state's legalization of recreational marijuana last year had “ushered in an opportunity for land owners and ranchers to diversify their sources of income at a time when making ends meet can be a serious challenge,” he stated.
Proponents of strong environmental protections see these arguments as part of a thinly-veiled push to turn a quick and hefty profit from marijuana cultivation, even at the expense of the county's oak woodlands. They say that opening up rangelands to cultivation risks subdividing and developing a vast area, with attendant economic and cultural upheaval. Many point to the experience of southern Humboldt County, where the bulldozer armies of the night are scraping the hills to make road cuts and roads, install building pads, impound waterways, and clear-cut hills in three-acre swaths known up there as “dozer-grows” — all to create growing sites on remote mountainous terrain where no previous development has occurred. Meanwhile, many cannabis growers fear that opening up rangeland cultivation will allow large, well-funded competitors like Bewley to drive out and swallow up the area’s smaller growers, a marijuana version of the grape shake-out a few years ago.
Among the most vocal opponents of Bewley's growing operations, and of his campaign to overturn the rangeland growing ban, is someone who is neither a cannabis grower nor an “environmentalist” in the traditional sense of the term: Laytonville rancher Chris Brennan. He owns a 3,000-acre ranch next door to Bewley's on Bell Springs Road. “The Adanac Ranch is one of the best wildlife habitats we have in Mendocino County,” Brennan says. “I don't want to see it broken up, and I don't want to see it destroyed.”
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In Mendocino County, the history of marijuana cultivation began, ironically, with a social movement that rejected greed as a fundamental principle. Seeking to free themselves from the easy conformity of a life devoted to material gain, the original back-to-the-landers started out by cultivating modest amounts of the non-toxic, mind-altering substance that made them feel happy, whereas others grew no weed at all. In those more innocent early days, getting rich was the furthest thing from most growers' minds — whatever their other foibles may have been. (Although it certainly helped them make their mortgage payjments.)
The history of Mendocino County's effort to regulate marijuana cultivation, on the other hand, dates to 2010. The Board of Supervisors enacted the “9.31 permit program,” which provided “a means for medical marijuana cultivators to be clearly in compliance with state and local law while protecting the public peace, health, and safety, including the environment,” a report from the County Department of Agriculture states. This program ran aground in 2012, when the US Department of Justice essentially ordered the County to shut down the 9.31 program or face possible charges of enabling a federal felony: pot cultivation.
A holding pattern remained until the State enacted the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which took effect January 1, 2016, creating a comprehensive state license and regulatory framework for medical marijuana growing. The law gives counties wide latitude to determine their own cannabis regulations. In Mendocino County, a May 2016 “urgency ordinance” allowed people to grow up to 99 plants on a 10-acre parcel with a permit from the Sheriff’s Office. Up to 50 plants can be grown on 5 acres with a permit.
The ordinance was adopted until the County could create a permanent ordinance, a process that is now nearly complete. The Supervisors are set to vote on the permanent ordinance this month, and it will take effect on June 30th, 2017.
At its January 19th meeting, the Planning Commission recommended to the Supervisors a version of the oak woodland protection ordinance suggested by the Willits Environmental Center (WEC), as well as an expanded grading ordinance that would take effect prior to issuing new cultivation permits starting on new year, 2020. The Commission also recommended no new permits in so-called RR2 zoning districts (rural residential, two-acre parcels or smaller). The ordinance would cap the maximum size for an outdoor grow at 10,000 square feet.
WEC's Ellen Drell says she supports the vast majority of the measures the Planning Commission has recommended. “In a way, these measures are very protective of local growers who are here,” she says. “It doesn't pit them against a flood of new people coming into the county. It doesn't swing wide open the doors to new cultivation all over the county. And a lot of growers understand that.”
In a letter to the County Planning Commission, Kate Marianchild, Ukiah-based author of the popular naturalist tract Secrets of the Oak Woodlands, echoed many of Drell's sentiments. She also expanded on the importance of protecting oak woodlands, which she says are among the most biologically diverse ecosystem types. In her travels, she has determined that “Mendocino County may have the most acreage and the vastest expanses of pristine oak woodlands in all of California,” most of which are on the county's vast rangeland acreage.
Bewley and his business associates, on the other hand, submitted several comments to the planning commissioners, under a variety of guises. In fact, nearly everyone else who commented in favor of rangeland cannabis cultivation were individuals who works for a business Bewley owns, such as his vineyard west of Laytonville and his forest carbon trading venture, Carbon Storage Solutions, LLC (a business registered with the California Secretary of State under Bewley's name).
Bewley's vineyard has recently been the subject of a string of favorable, not to say fawning, newspaper articles. One, authored by former Willits Mayor Holly Madrigal, appeared in the bioregional farming publication Word of Mouth Magazine. A March 24, 2016 New York Times article called “California Grapes That Flourish In Splendid Isolation” states that Bewley's “environmentalism extends to the creatures on the ranch. He grooms the hillsides to make sure that silt and other materials don’t clog the four salmon streams through which coho, king and steelhead swim from the Eel River to spawn.”
The favorable press for Bewley's vineyard operation has dovetailed with statements he has made to the Mendocino County Planning Commission about the ecologically superior means by which he intends to grow rangeland cannabis. But a review of documents from the State Water Resources Control Board and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reveal that the characterizations of his fish-friendly approach to growing wine-grapes are, at best, half-truths.
From 2001 to 2004, NMFS enforcement officers singled out Bewley's vineyard — known as Alder Springs Vineyard — for in-depth study regarding the water quality impact of clear-cutting and bulldozing previously forested land to create a cash crop. It was published in 2005, under the title “Monitoring Sediment Delivery to Streams Following Vineyard Development From Forested Lands, and the Effects on Steelhead Trout.”
According to the report, Bewley's removal of roughly 133 acres of forest to create his vineyard — much of which is located on hillslopes with 6 to 8 degree gradients — resulted in “hillslope failures and surface water runoff [that] delivered substantial volumes of sediment to the streams during the 2002-02 and 2002-03 winter rainy seasons.” The erosion came after Bewley deep ripped the soil on his property — like most big-time grape growers — to a depth of 24 inches, to install the vineyard where the forest had once stood. Roughly 20% of the steelhead living in the impacted streams died in each of those years due to the increased volume of suspended sediment, the report states.
Stacey Li, a co-author of the report, said in an interview that Bewley was, in a sense, not actually the target of the NMFS investigation. Rather, the agency was attempting to send a message to the California Board of Forestry concerning the inadequacy of its rules governing forest conversions. Bewley had received a timber harvest permit from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection; yet, his forest-to-vineyard “conversion” still caused a considerable sediment damage to streams.
Eventually, Bewley did spend nearly a million dollars on erosion control measures on his property. “In terms of whether he set out to be a good environmental steward, it's sort of hard to tell given the circumstances,” Li says. “He may have been scared the feds were going to nail him, or he may not have. He does have a showcase vineyard. The bad news is that what he's done was still not enough to keep a significant volume of sediment from washing into the streams and impacting salmonids.”
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board finalized a civil liability complaint against Bewley in 2006. The complaint notes that Water Board staff “observed highly turbid storm water runoff flowing” from Bewley's property in 2002, resulting from “logging, grubbing, road construction/reconstruction, burning, and extensive grading and land recontouring, often on very steep and unstable slopes without adequate erosion control measures.”
It continues, “Poor grading activities resulted in a landslide, which also discharged the turbid waters into the receiving waters. Regional Water Board staff also observed diesel leaking from the Discharger's diesel tank truck and heavy equipment and discharging diesel into watercourses at two locations.”
The North Coast Water Board's executive officer ordered that Bewley create a long-term erosion control plan in June 2002, among other requirements. He initially failed to comply, resulting in a fine of $140,000, according to the Water Board's complaint.
Bewley was not immediately available for comment as this issue of the AVA goes to press. We will publish part two of this story next week.