Robert Eckart: The Night Letter – September 21, 2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I must admit, I am not a local who has been around a lot lately. My firm has been involved in establishing systems of internet and intranet connectivity to the villages of Afghanistan, in partnership with the former royal family of Afghanistan.

In the last two years I have been downrange four times – leading our multinational team of intrepid believers-in-democracy in the task of bringing physical digital connection to people who are cut off from the world and have a hard time distinguishing between truth and bull.

To a man, we all believe that bringing these folks out of isolation lowers the effect of the extremist’s kool aid. Lately things have gotten gnarly, so, while the Army tries to retake the ground that George Bush let get away, I have sat cooling my heels here in God’s Country.

While waiting for my callup,  I was asked by some local friends in the Southern Humboldt region to help organize a group of volunteers into a Fire Safe Council for Fort Seward. The intent was to bring local awareness and resources to bear on diminishing the continuing threat of wildfire. Our little team of local volunteers found out that training and organizational support is offered and administered by some remarkably talented and committed representatives of CalFire and the Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services.  These guys helped us apply for grant money for weed whacker fuel and disposal fees.

We intended to focus first on removing the fuel from a stretch of neglected railroad right-of-way where lots of kayakers park their cars in high brush – about one quarter mile from a take-out point on the Eel River.  This stretch is covered with several sorts of invasive non native species of plants, all of which were pretty flammable. It is a well known fact that when folks pull in from Highway 101, over steep and twisted mountain roads, their exhausts are hot. The combination of these two conditions is a prelude to disaster in a small community surrounded by more than 600 acres of dry-farmed grassland pasture.

Before we were able to qualify for the grant I called the operator of the railroad and asked if we could, at no cost to the railroad, remove some of the fire hazard growing on the tracks. He gave us a tentative verbal go ahead but asked us to present the plan (and the MOU needed by our insurance company) to the next meeting of the Railroad Authority in Eureka.

So we applied for this volunteer support grant, but the small money available from Cal Fire is not guaranteed – the Fort Seward volunteers had to qualify via an application process and all details – qualifications, certifications, insurance, tax status, and history of accountability are assessed.

The largesse of President Obama has not made it this far down into the world of volunteerism, and our chances are slim for winning this grant, particularly since we were a “new” Fire Safe Council. Consequently, we began to look for other sources of grant funding.

Being a bird watching member of the Green Party and coming from a large family of environmentalists myself, I had noticed that the majority of unkempt growth (and wildfire fuel) in the region of the railroad tracks was non native invasive species. We researched into the grants available and found that there were immediate grant submission dates coming up. We began to work with folks from the Humboldt Area Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Society and a group from the Pacific Coast Joint Venture headed by the illustrious Dr. Sharon Kahara of Humboldt State University.

Dr. Kahara made a trip over to one of the target areas overgrown with invasive species and coached us to make a wildlife study plan, lay a grid, find out  and document what was there. She brought us over to the HQ of Friends of the Dunes to introduce us, but their HQ was temporarily dug up. In any case, we found a local person federally qualified in bird and wildlife census – and plot lines are planned.

On July 23, I stood before the board of the North Coast Railroad Authority and briefly presented our mission and described our intent.  From their questions, it became clear to me in the first three minutes that a couple of the members had no idea of railroad operations –  and perhaps not even ridden a train.

This was a pretty big surprise. Of course you could argue that being asked to make a formal presentation to an operating Railroad Authority Board of Directors about a bunch of volunteers clearing the fire hazard off of one mile of their unused tracks  for free, should have clued me in that something was up.

The surprises were only just beginning, however.  The next night, there was a letter submitted to all the local city governments and the county as well, de facto declaring that my little group of volunteers were really trying to open a rail line for passenger service and implied that any city, county, state, company, person or agency would likely get sued if they helped.

Signing the letter was one Scott Greacen, director of a corporation calling itself the Environmental Protection Information Center or EPIC. (My first thought, when I read this letter as published in several papers, was that they could have been a little less grandiose in choosing their name – but what did I know…)

Although Mr. Greacen’s signature was the only one visible in the newspaper, it was allegedly signed by the directors of several other local environmental groups, including Californians for Alternatives to Toxics [CATS] and Friends of the Eel River [FOER].

Now this was pretty trippy, since I had just received a final contract of acceptance of fiscal sponsorship for CalFire, signed by a guy who identified himself as a director of Friends of Eel River. How could one director be signing a contract with us one day – and another director, from the same company – be threatening to sue us the next?

Later, upon closer inspection, it turned out that the letter Greacen circulated wasn’t really signed; it was just made to look like it “could have” been signed. This seemed pretty lame, well, that and the fact that the letter was so jam packed with self serving misrepresentation!

The author, Scott Greacen, never even tried to call any of us, nor did he apparently check his sources for accuracy. Matter of fact, he was so sure of the righteousness of his position that he sent the letter to eighteen governments without the signature of neither CATS nor FOER. Hey, this was one cocky son of a bee-hatch!

End of part 1. Next week: an EPIC decline.

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

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