Close to Home: The promise of protection for the Atascadero Marsh

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The Sonoma County General Plan’s promise of protection for the Atascadero Marsh is one step closer as county officials consider measures to help make the promise a reality. The challenge is whether we as a community have the foresight and political will to protect one of our most sensitive wetlands against the intense wave of vineyard and winery development while still maintaining a healthy and hearty wine industry.

Sonoma County has the capability to meet this challenge because there are tens of thousands of acres appropriate for growing grapes that are not in sensitive wetlands and we have a community commitment to an environmental ethos that values sustainability and sound planning.

The wetlands zone emanating along either bank of Atascadero Creek in the Sebastopol and Graton area is one of only a handful of freshwater marshes recognized in the general plan as important biotic zones. Wetlands are essential in order to manage floods, reduce pollution, recharge aquifers, and to provide a habitat for the flora and fauna that so enriches the lives of all Sonoma County residents and visitors.

Of particular significance is the prospect of restoring historical populations of endangered salmon and to encourage and nurture new nurseries in a habitat well suited for this purpose. Countless public and private organizations have spent millions of dollars and undertaken Herculean efforts to stave off the extinction of salmon in Sonoma County. Enacting the proposed changes to establish a Biotic Habitat zone in the Atascadero Marsh will support and strengthen community efforts to protect salmon rather than continuing to allow development that undermines these efforts.

The time to act is now, as a series of unfortunate, ill advised and sometimes illegal activities — driven primarily by intense pressure to develop the area into vineyards and wineries, have acted to degrade the Marsh. A permit granted here, an exemption granted there, and soon you have death by a thousand paper cuts unless action is taken.

A study of the Atascadero Marsh area has been initiated, with the assistance of Supervisor Efren Carrillo and at the direction of the Board of Supervisors. The board charged staff to present comprehensive programs for the preservation, restoration and enhancement of the Atascadero Marsh through mechanisms such as land acquisition, zoning restrictions, and public and private conservation easements.

I am pleased to join with the Friends of Atascadero Wetlands, a committed core of citizen activists, in urging local officials to enact the proposed policies so the promise of protection for the Atascadero Marsh is finally realized.

There surely will be those forceful in their opposition to the proposed zoning changes claiming intrusion on property rights and claiming the existence of local, state and federal laws are adeqaute to protect wetlands. But, property rights do not trump protecting our environment and the hard reality is the gaps and loopholes in current wetlands laws are big enough to drive a tractor through.

The proposals under consideration are entirely consistent with the General Plan’s design for this area. The public good that results from the existence of healthy wetlands far outweighs the private profit gained from squeezing more vines into this fragile ecosystem.

In closing, Sonoma County has more than 400 wineries and more than 60,000 acres of vineyards but only a handful of freshwater marshes like the Atascadero Marsh. While vines and wines are well suited for many areas of Sonoma County they do not belong in our wetlands. And, after all is taken into account, the highest and best use of the Atascadero wetlands is as a wetland.

Jeffrey W. Holtzman, a Sebastopol resident, served as a Sonoma County deputy district attorney in the Environmental and Consumer Law Division from 1990-2010. He currently is a 5th District representative to the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

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