Who Needs Trees When You Can Have Grapes? Timber to Vineyard Conversions

Northern California’s wine industry is growing, as California wineries stretch up from Napa, through Sonoma, and into Mendocino and other Northern California counties. Wine is big business, and every time I go to the City, it seems like I see a new vineyard underway. Other forms of commercial agriculture here are not terribly viable, a mixture of climate, complex transport issues, and soil conditions. Wine, however, can be made profitable, whether a vineyard is operating as a winery or selling grapes to wineries for use in their own vintages.

The growing wine industry is closely tied with tourism, as well; wine tours are touted across Northern California, numerous tourism agencies promote the wine industry alongside their other work, and scores of people visit Northern California for wine tastings, vineyard tours, and other wine-related activities. California is famous for its wines, which are served on tables all over the world, including at the President’s inaugural dinner, and some very fine wines are made in this region.

California is also famous for its environmentalism, and the wine industry illustrates some fascinating clashes between industry and environmental concerns. Vineyards notoriously polluted rivers throughout the Anderson Valley with garbage and agricultural runoff historically, for example, giving way under pressure to tighter pollution controls. There was a time when the Navarro was choked with algae, the result of floods of fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals, and today, it runs much clearer and cleaner, after a concerted community effort to get wineries to clean up their act. Similar efforts in locations like Sonoma have shamed wineries for leaving garbage by waterways, for destroying watersheds, for engaging in other environmentally unfriendly activities.

But the wine industry isn’t completely environmentally friendly; it still has a lot of work to do, even with improvements in standards and practices. One of the most glaring problems is the timber to vineyard conversion, where wineries take formerly wooded land, clearcut it, strip the brush, and install grapes. This is not a small problem; over 380 acres in Mendocino County have been submitted to timber to vineyard conversions since 1973, and that’s just the permits we know about.

The review process for conversions is highly erratic; some conversions require permission, others do not, and in permit applications, wineries do not necessarily need to disclose the full volume of the acreage they plan to convert. The historical focus has been on conversions involving timber of economic value, where the concern is not environmental, but economic. Conversion of land with valuable trees means fewer valuable trees to sell. Agencies charged with stewarding forests in California are primarily concerned with forests as a monetary resource, not as an environmental one, and thus the true scale of timber to vineyard conversion is hard to estimate, despite proposals to integrate more environmental concerns into permit applications and reviews.

A small sampling of the problems with timber to vineyard conversions:

Deforestation of watershed lands for vineyard development has increased water temperature and sediment loading, and decreased instream flows, all of which degrade habitat and aggravate the existing impairment of coho and steelhead. Long term vineyard operation on these lands in turn increases runoff of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals into these streams, further degrading water quality and fish habitat…ongoing elimination of forest land in this area from forest-to-vineyard conversion activities has restricted the already-truncated range of the northern spotted owl, both through direct loss of existing forest land and the increased fragmentation of remaining forest habitat.

Some conversions have an impact on endangered or threatened species, either by eliminating habitat or, as discussed above, by breaking up habitat such that it is functionally useless. It threatens topsoil, which takes centuries to build up in the rich, layered deposits that occur in forests, which can wash away in a single rainy season when a carelessly-installed vineyard is put in place with no measures to control erosion. Agricultural runoff is an ongoing problem even with tighter pollution controls, and it contributes not just to fish kills in the rivers, but also in the ocean, because rivers have to end up somewhere.

Vineyards are also tremendous water hogs. Northern California is prone to drought conditions and has limited water supplies. Dedicating water to vineyards puts communities at risks, and strips our rivers and lakes of needed water supplies. Especially in the winter, when vineyards spray to prevent frost damage, water waste can be considerable, and it’s justified because the industry brings in so much money.

And, of course, timber to vineyard conversion takes wild spaces away. Northern California was once heavily forested. Between the timber industry and development, our forests have shrunk considerably, but there are still some substantial stretches of forested land, some impressive stands of trees, some of which are quite old. Our trees are rather lovely; people do come from all over the world to look at them, so from a purely tourist-oriented perspective, it’s important to consider keeping them intact. Our trees are also very valuable, an economic reason to retain forests. And, of course, those of us who live here ought to have a say in what our surroundings look like. I’d rather look at redwoods than vineyards, I’d rather live next door to a forest than a source of pollutants, some of which exacerbate my asthma to a considerable degree.

With the decline of the timber industry has come an uptick in timber to vineyard conversions, which come not just with vineyards, but also of course facilities. Wineries require substantial infrastructure, including housing for workers, storage facilities, crush pads. Roads. The development of a vineyard can have a profound impact on the surrounding environment, and vineyards contribute directly to sprawl. As a vineyard grows, housing and businesses sprout up around it, sometimes in remote areas. People want to live next to vineyards because they think it’s romantic, and luxury housing developments pop up in what was once beautiful open space and forested land. Once settled in, there’s no going back, and another little piece of California’s natural beauty is chipped away for the benefit of the wine industry.

Tighter checks on timber to vineyard conversions are clearly necessary, including detailed environmental impact reviews and careful evaluation by government agencies with social and environmental concerns, not just economic ones. The question shouldn’t be whether a vineyard will destroy potentially economically useful timberland, but whether a vineyard will have an adverse social and environmental impact.