Robert Eckart: The Nature Walk… To The Bank – September 26, 2010

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Note: last week, the writer told of his frustration at attempting to remove fire-hazard, non-native foliage from along a stretch of abandoned train track near the Eel River, then being accused of a massive subterfuge to restore rail service in a letter signed by various environmental leaders. – Ed.

Intrigued by this event, I decided to dig into what the tomfoolery was all about with this organization called the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). By the way, locals who remember me, before I left for work overseas, will recall that I was a federally licensed financial analyst with Shearson-Lehman Brothers, and did the daily financial reports, live, on AM and FM radio.

After several years I became disenchanted with desk-and-telephone life so I went overseas and worked as liaison between U.S. exchanges and the Russian Commodity Exchange. After this I was tapped to become the resident director for the Russian Science Initiative of Science Applications International Corporation, a think tank in McLean, Virginia. Not that any of this history will buy you a cup of coffee, but it did teach me to think deeply, connect the dots, – and tell the truth.

So I began to dig into Scott Greacen’s letter – trying to get to the bottom of the unprovoked attack on my firefighting volunteers; – and the results of my research from various sources about EPIC yielded the following reported facts:

This organization was formed about 1977 on the donations from frustration that so many of us felt towards the historical and ongoing physical damage to these mountains and rivers by the timber companies.

Through dogged perseverance, EPIC slowly found an effective method for slowing timber harvests by challenging the science of timber harvest plans. The main target of their legal operations was a slick dude from Houston who had deftly outwitted the venerable Murphy family and parted them from, what was at the time, a fairly robust, sustainable and environmentally respectful company called PALCO.

Hurwitz leveraged the theoretical value of the trees, bought Murphy’s company and then issued corporate bonds, twice. He drained the money out and began to cut trees as fast as he could – to pay the interest on the bonds. Nobody stood up to Hurwitz nor his management henchmen –– nobody except for EPIC and a local attorney, William Bertain. A lot of the watershed damage had already been done in previous decades, but when Hurwitz grabbed control – the wildlife and creeks below PALCO holdings suffered incredibly.

To us, the inhabitants, all we could do was donate to EPIC or root Bill Bertain on. The cheekiness and disregard of Hurwitz was deep and deliberate. PALCO turned Freshwater Creek into such a perennial flood zone that homeowners can’t even get insurance for neither love nor money still today. But by the time EPIC became really relevant with its Lilliputian tactics in the 1980s and ’90s, our forests and rivers were screaming in agony.

During this period of forest degradation, EPIC honed its talents and was able, with profits from penalties and settlements, to hire more experienced scientists than could its defendants. In the end, however, the bankruptcy of PALCO was cleverly declared before a massive fraud lawsuit brought by William Bertain was heard. Reportedly, EPIC was nowhere in sight on this endgame, but it claims differently on its website.

Near the end of PALCO’s corporate life, EPIC began to win through out-of-court settlements – one by one, but with increasing velocity – and win BIG. Its self promoted image was one of the righteous environmentalists going after insensitive, sneaky, and most importantly, “rich” businessmen. It wallowed out a rut in this mode of legal attack – and proceeded to beat the bejesus out of all the big name timber companies and the barons that owned them.

Unknown to donors to this non-profit, as well as the general public, (without deep digging,) was the amount of revenue that EPIC was actually generating. It continued to promote an image of “little guy vs. big business” but the revenues from penalties and settlements were, again reportedly, anything but “non profit.”

Allegedly, to keep this large money from showing up on the books, it appears that EPIC began to hide these revenues by paying its lawyers more and more money before the settlements reached its books – as well as spreading it out over to other “legal action non profits.” (This is much the same way an Afghan minister hides his “take” – by kicking it down to his buddies through contrived contracts.)

One of these hapless barons, whose flagship mill still emits stains under our bay, reportedly paid enormous (ENORMOUS) amounts of money to settle such a suit. Very Strong Rumor has it that part of this deal was that EPIC would then leave them alone as a piece of the signed (but court sealed) agreement. Since this agreement document is sealed by the courts, we will never know, (but there are local lawyers in this county who, indeed, do).

In most parts of the world where I have worked, this might be known as “protection money” and usually stays out of the courts. Now, all this has been allegedly accomplished within the Superior Court system, so it is NOT illegal. Therefore, to an environmentalist, it might not seem so heinous, except that it appears that not a single penny of the huge sums EPIC has beaten out of this county and its inhabitants (however checkered their history), has been reinvested into the environment to repair the actual damage.

So, what this looks like is a company which has the walk and talk of environmentalism, but never puts its money where its mouth is by trying to actually right the wrong which it is so keenly and scientifically aware of, nor educate the (primarily) unintending violators. It seems that the lawyers just take all the money and leave the environment to cure itself.

What started out as the poor man’s way to drop a nickel into the bucket and pray for countervailing legal force against local corporate avarice appears to have turned into a scam run by very clever, opportunistic and predatory non-local lawyers. Otherwise, like almost any other self-respecting non profit, EPIC would reinvest it in the healing of the damages or local CEQA education.

Next week: the politics of envirosploitation.

Robert Eckart is chairman of the Fort Seward Fire Safe Council.

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