Initiatives and Oaks

Initiatives and Oaks

I continue to be shocked at how acrimonious things get when you get between a rich man and his oak! (see the comments on my Letter to the Editor, Napa Register, February 4, 2016) This so-called controversy is never more apparent than when the discussion turns to the importance of watersheds and what keeps them healthy— and in Napa County, this means the oak woodlands and forests. To this end, an Initiative has been proposed for the November 2016 ballot, Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2016

The Initiative states that its purpose is “to protect the water quality, biological productivity, and economic and environmental value of Napa County’s streams, watersheds, wetlands and forests, and to safeguard the public health, safety and welfare of the County’s residents.”

What can be controversial about that?

Well, turns out, to some, a lot! Americans become nutty when we start talking about private property rights—or a rich man and his investment potential. The need to protect the commons, the oaks and forest lands, can bring out the craziness in us. How dare you tell me what to do on my own land!!  Yet, what we do on our own property does have impact on the whole, the Commons. Do we have the right to do something on our land even if it impacts the community, including water quality and quantity? Do those of us wealthy enough to own land have the right to make decisions with implications of this scale? Does wealth trump the environment?

Our watersheds have been invisible to most of us until now. Years ago I learned from my friend Elizabeth about the Atascadero Watershed in Sonoma County, California, the watershed we both lived in. This was the first time I thought seriously about the relationship of the water, land, and me. Watersheds do that, whether we know it or not. They are the veins moving water and life through our lands. When we ignore what keeps them healthy, streams, aquifers, and rivers suffer, and before long even the climate. We create dryness and even deserts.

To protect our watersheds, we have to see the forest for the trees! We have to see how our own piece of earth fits into the larger ecology of the area and its health. That lovely valley oak and its descendents growing on my private property are also part of the oak woodlands and forests which help restore aquifers and prevent erosion. Oak woodlands and forests do not know property boundaries! Unfortunately as investors move into Napa Valley, drawn by its world class wines and investment potential, the trees become something to be removed to plant vineyards. The valley floor is pretty much planted; the hills, which also produce great wines, are the next frontier—the hills that for the most part are still claimed by oak woodlands and forests and the small meadows that are part of that ecology.

We are not a culture that has cared much about the Commons and what the Commons involves. After all, our country was so large that our impact seemed insignificant. Things have changed! We have had an enormous impact by our ignorance and greed.  We cannot count on investment interests in ourselves or others to protect what is Common to us all… our watersheds. It is critically important that we back this Napa County Initiative and think about each other and the land we love. As Aldo Leopold stated, we cannot heal the earth without healing our relationships with each other, and we cannot heal our relationships with each other, without healing our relationship to the earth. Watersheds underscore this.