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What Can Be Done to Preserve the Land?

[whitespace] By Shepherd Bliss

IN THE WAKE of intense development on vineyard property, many individuals and groups are already actively working to preserve our natural resources. A new Sonoma County Watershed Protection Alliance--composed of concerned citizens, groups, and grape growers--has come together to craft an appropriate response to the rapid expansion of the wine industry.

Over a dozen groups have been active in the WPA, under the leadership of the Sierra Club and Sonoma County Conservation Action. Other groups have a singular concern, like Friends of Twin Valley, which challenges Gallo, and Graton Alliance to Stop Pollution, or GASP, which opposes the Associated Vintage Group's massive expansion.

The WPA includes members of groups with a focus on a place or a natural resource , like Friends of the Russian River, the Blucher Creek Watershed Council, the Rural Alliance, and the Cunningham Marsh Preservation Committee. The California Native Plant Society focuses on plants, the Audubon Society tends to be concerned with birds, and Community Alliance with Family Farmers offers an agricultural voice. What unites these diverse groups is their alarm over hillside vineyard expansion and a larger concern with local watersheds and how development damages them.

Advocating organic wines from smaller wineries, some activists are considering campaigns to boycott wines whose producers harm the environment. Premium wineries may be especially vulnerable to such tactics because of the industry's carefully cultivated image.

Some vineyardists are listening to and meeting with the community to consider an ordinance that would protect hillsides. In November, they invited WPA members on an educational tour of vineyards. Since December, representatives of the wine industry, conservationists, and community groups have been meeting to write an ordinance to present to the Board of Supervisors. If agreement can be reached, this could be the best solution. Mike Reilly is the only member of the board who has advocated such an ordinance to date. Another approach would be to bring an ordinance before voters on the November ballot.

The soul of Sonoma County is at stake in the pending hillside-vineyard battles. Resistance is mounting in a population that has affection for this county's rolling hills, diverse trees, gentle landscape, and small farms. People are learning to distinguish between vineyards and native wildlands. While still green and picturesque, vineyards lack the natural resources, richness, biodiversity, and integrity of the forests that they replace.

With so much liquid gold in the hills, modern diggers with sophisticated tools can be expected to prospect. Protracted timber wars to the north over the corporate plunder of natural resources provide one model for local challenges.

It remains to be seen how much and what kinds of resistance developers will meet from the people of Sonoma County in this land-use struggle that will determine our economic, environmental, agricultural, and cultural future.

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From the January 22-28, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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