Will Parrish: Jared Huffman — CalTrans Errand Boy


“I think this is the district in the state that can and should serve up a real environmental leader in a time of great need and urgency — and that’s why I’m running.” — US. RepJared Huffman (D-San Rafael), 2006

Last week, the US Congressional representative for California’s North Coast, a former Natural Resources Defense Council attorney named Jared Huffman, threw the full weight of his legislative power behind the most environmentally destructive project in the recent history of Mendocino County, the California Department of Transportation’s Willits Bypass. This more than $300 million project, as presently designed, requires the largest filling in of wetlands in northern California in more than 50 years.

Huffman’s intervention came as the Bypass was in major crisis. The US Army Corps of Engineers had suspended most of the Bypass’ construction on June 20th, due to CalTrans’ brazen non-compliance with its construction permit authorized under the Clean Water Act. The costs of delay were mounting, as was Big Orange’s embarrassment at having the project delayed on environmental grounds, following month after month of environmental protests.

The longer the project was delayed, the greater the chances that CalTrans would have to reduce the project’s environmental impact, exactly as opponents of the project have been calling for.

On the morning of July 9th, Huffman released a statement announcing that “my staff and I have been in almost daily contact with both [CalTrans and the Army Corps] over the past three weeks urging resolution of the permit compliance problem. I have personally met with and had multiple phone calls with officials from both agencies, and today I convened an emergency conference call that included the key leaders from both agencies as well as my predecessor and colleague, Representative Thompson.”

Later that day, the Army Corps and CalTrans announced they had reached an agreement allowing Bypass construction to restart. Under the terms of the suspension, CalTrans had been required to compensate for its delay in enacting “mitigation” for environmental damage, either by creating new wetlands or by reducing the project’s size. As part of the settlement, though, CalTrans simply has to promise to “create” and “enhance” new wetlands at some point, without bothering to specify where or how.

In other words, Huffman and Thompson applied pressure, and the Army Corps caved. The Corps essentially got nothing out of the agreement; nothing, that is, other than more promises from CalTrans to remedy the enormous damage it has caused to Little Lake Valley.

What does CalTrans claim it will do? “Establish wetlands” to make up for the destroyed ones. These “wetlands establishment areas” are to be located in areas of Little Lake Valley that are already wetlands. This so-called “mitigation construction” is based on excavation of an estimated 266,000 cubic yards of soil, which will wreak even greater harm on the valley’s streams and floodplains. It’s much like mitigating for rainforest destruction under the guise of “establishing” new rainforest by cutting down even more rainforest, then claiming credit for replacing it with “new rainforest.”

Two weeks ago in the AVA, I predicted that the Army Corps’ suspension would soon be lifted, noting that it is “always wise to err on the side of assuming that a regulatory agency will buckle under political pressure.” I then made the following mistaken claim: “One thing working in Bypass opponents’ favor, however, is that the current Congressional representative for this district, Jared Huffman, is somewhat less friendly to the Bypass than was his predecessor, Mike Thompson. It is unlikely that Huffman will pressure the Corps to allow the project to resume in the way Thompson would have.”

Huffman had been winking at the Bypass opposition for several months. He claimed early on that if CalTrans got out of compliance with its mitigation requirements, that he would “stand shoulder to shoulder” with members of Save Our Little Lake Valley to address the problem. On May 21st, he sent a letter to CalTrans higher-ups on May 21st asking them to justify their stance that reducing the northern interchange is infeasible.

The Bypass has been under construction since March 2013. Most of the overall damage is done. As of this writing, though, only about 10 percent of the wetlands filling has taken place. By simply replacing the project’s massive and unnecessary northern interchange with a roundabout – a roundabout that would handle 50 percent less traffic than that on Highway 20 in Nice – it remains possible to scuttle a large portion of the wetlands destruction. All that would be required is a change-work order from CalTrans. Perhaps all that would be required to enact the change-work order would be the right kind of pressure from Jared Huffman.

In these United States, the role of elected representatives is primarily to carry out the legislative agendas of their wealthy sponsors. For all of its flaws, the Occupy Movement did much to bring this basic fact of Euro-American politics into the frame of public consciousness. An increasing sub-set of the wealthy sponsors is made up of wealthy environmentalists, who overwhelmingly support Democrats. Organized labor also exerts an important, but ever-diminishing, influence on the legislative agenda of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing.

With respect to organized labor, Operating Engineers Union Local 3, who perform Willits Bypass construction work on behalf of the massive construction corporations that CalTrans has hired out, are Huffman’s 13th largest career donor, according to the web site Open Secrets. They have kicked in more than $14,000 to Huffman’s campaigns for Assembly and Congress.

The Operating Engineers have a major stake in the Bypass, and it is reasonable to speculate that they applied pressure on Huffman to get the Bypass restarted. After all, the same union even went so far as to pay to haul 50 or so of its workers in from as far away from Fresno to stage a series of “Build The Bypass” rallies at the corner of Highway 101 and Highway 20 in March 2013. This astroturf campaign came about after environmentalists’ early success at staving off the start of construction.

In contrast, Huffman’s support base includes a great number of wealthy environmentalists. They have championed him throughout his career as both a California State Assemblyman and a US Congressman as he has placed himself at the center, for example, of the US’s narrow policy debates concerning climate change. Huffman is a strong proponent of “cap and trade” legislation, which represents an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming without cutting too heavily into the profits of the rich and powerful.

Some of these individuals might be inclined to sympathize with Willits Bypass opponents. A big part of the issue withJared Huffman, though, is geography. Although our Congressional rep’s district encompasses five counties, roughly 90% of his campaign donations in 2012 election came from only one of those counties: ultra-wealthy Marin County. Most of the rest came from Sonoma County. Very little came from the hinterlands of the north: Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte.

The underlying reason for that is the history of capitalist development in California, whereby San Francisco is the dominant capitalist city lying at the center of California’s extractive economy. The great city, as geographer Gray Brechin described it in his wonderful and definitive bookImperial San Francisco, is where California’s commerce and industry were born in the 1850s. As the capitalist markets expanded, SF developed a surrounding archipelago of towns that acted in a cooperative but subordinate role, including most of Mendocino County, serving essentially as colonies in unequal market-exchange relations, and allowing the city to drain the wealth and resources of the less advanced areas.

So, we end up with a situation like the CalTrans Bypass. Caltrans knows how to play a small town and a rural county. They have appropriated nearly $300 million dollars to fix a small traffic problem in Willits, including the cost of mitigation (now almost $90 million). The Democrats get to toss their union supporters a bone. The environment of Little Lake Valley gets trashed. The wealthy enviros of Marin are too far away to notice or care. After all, the Army Corps of Engineers and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board claim the whole thing is a wash as far as the environment goes.

Save Our Little Lake Valley typically has a few grand in the till, which is used to maintain a web site, print fliers, and pay for food at events. The Willits Environmental Center scrapes together enough money to keep its office open and occasionally file lawsuits.

Another wrinkle has to do with one of the wealthiest of all San Francisco dynasties: the Fishers, best known as the family that operates The Gap retail clothing chain, as well as a far flung real estate empire. Altogether, the Fishers are worth an estimated $9 billion. One of the private equity firms of which the Fishers are majority owners, named Sansome Partners, owns Mendocino Redwood Company and Humboldt Redwood Company.

The Fishers have been among Huffman’s most generous financial backers throughout his political career (including donating $10,000 to his campaign for Congress). When Huffman worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) as one of its primary staff lawyers in California, a member of the Fisher clan – Robert Fisher – was the NRDC’s vice chairman.

Mendocino Redwood Company owns roughly 10 percent of private land in Mendocino County. Its subsidiary, Mendocino Forest Products Co., has a contract with CalTrans to provide over 900,000 cubic yards of soil from its abandoned mill site north of Willits to dump upon the Little Lake Valley wetlands.

The agreement with CalTrans is a notable one for MRC. CalTrans is removing roughly 40 percent of the soil from an industrial zoned site, which Mendocino Forest Products has acknowledged increases the usable area of the site for future profitable activity there.

(Contact Will Parrish at wparrish@riseup.net.)