In Paso Robles, nothing ‘Wonderful’ about bulldozing oaks for grapes

North County residents are concerned about a massive removal of oak trees north of Highway 46 West to make way for a vineyard. A stop-work order has been issued by the county to Estate Vineyards LLC.
North County residents are concerned about a massive removal of oak trees north of Highway 46 West to make way for a vineyard. A stop-work order has been issued by the county to Estate Vineyards LLC.

We should not be surprised by the carnage unleashed last week on a hillside of oak trees west of Paso Robles.

It’s merely the next logical step when you turn a voracious industry loose on a relatively unprotected landscape.

As evidenced by the crisis in the Paso Robles groundwater basin, Big Wine — and sometimes Little Wine as well — can’t always be trusted to do the right thing in terms of appreciating natural resources when profits are at stake.

Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen vineyard after vineyard sprout in the open fields of the North County, each new operation sticking its straw into the ground to suck from a declining reservoir of underground water that knows no property lines, each new faceless limited liability corporation stamping its legal footprint in support of its right to tap into what by any reasonable measure is a shared resource.

With that area suffering and other appealing terroir sitting just nearby in the hills to the west, it makes sense why they’d point their bulldozers in that direction.

But when you begin to create vineyards by clear-cutting oak forests in a region named for the iconic California tree, it draws a bit more attention than just smoothing out some weeds on the east side of Highway 101.

“My opinion is that we are beginning to see the cumulative effects of grape planting, and we don’t know the full impact that is creating,” District 1 Supervisor Frank Mecham said Thursday in an interview with The Tribune.

He could have said it more strongly, but Mecham is headed in the right direction, just as he was in supporting a management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Yet his and other voices of reason were not heeded, not within the Board of Supervisors — where his colleagues Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton have played a running game of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” — or by the public at large, where the vote to create a district was resoundingly denied.

Thus, here we are, watching as a multinational corporation, the ironically named The Wonderful Co., under the label of a local winery, Justin Vineyards, begins to strip-mine the North County like it’s an Appalachian coal field.

At the same time, they put up a cheery front on their website, which has an entire section devoted to “social responsibility” where they say, “As an agricultural company, we are deeply committed to protecting and conserving our natural resources.”

As long as it’s a resource you can bottle and sell.

But who’s to stop them? Apparently it’s not illegal to obliterate woodlands on agricultural property like this even though cutting down a single tree requires a permit in some places.

And we already know it’s not illegal to drill wells on your land, especially in an area currently outside the bull’s-eye of the Paso Robles basin red zone.

Now, if this oak forest were sitting in the coastal zone, you can be sure such wanton destruction would not be allowed.

So maybe that’s what we need, a greater regulation of inland property akin to what we do on our shores. It wouldn’t have to be nearly as powerful because the coast is a unique resource, but you get the idea.

One thought is an ordinance banning the removal of stands of old-growth oak trees. Mecham noted this was attempted about 10 years ago and rejected by the agricultural community.

I see no reason why they would be any more inclined to support such regulation today, not with those green and gold hills literally being a source of another type of green and gold.

If anything, they have less reason to cooperate, as Paso Robles wine only continues to grow in esteem. As was noted in another story on Thursday, a recent UC Davis study valued the impact of the local wine industry at $1.9 billion.

That’s nice, but too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.

Despite whatever substantial inertia there might be against action, public opinion can become a powerful force when provided a visible, tangible cause.

Unlike stories of people’s wells going dry, which is essentially invisible to anyone other than the unfortunate, thirsty property owner, this offense was carried out in the great wide open, under the watchful eye of drones and neighbors and news photographers, so that the barren hillsides and rows of trees laid flat like fallen soldiers can be seen and condemned in all their ignominy.

Sometimes you need to put a face on a crisis before you motivate change.

Perhaps the piles of split oak trunks will be that face.