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Fool's errand

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The angiosperms (flowering plants) emerged on planet Earth during the Cretaceous Period about 130 million years ago. Poor, stoic Charles Darwin described them as an “abominable mystery” because they exploded into 240,000 living species, that belong to 453 families, that quickly went global.

They were enigmatic to him because they spread so quickly and lacked any known precursors, thus contradicting his theory of evolution. He also failed to explain the origin of life, the Cambrian Explosion and the rapid emergence of the human neocortex, the physiological birthplace of civilization.

These are important factors in the drama that is playing out in the Spring Mountain AVA above St. Helena. The mixed-evergreen forest (nearly all angiosperms) has been evolving for over 100 million years. The forest is the result of a highly complex, integrated ecosystem involving flora, fauna and environmental factors.

All of this began to change when (circa 1880) Jacob and Frederick Beringer planted 40 acres of grape vines on the lower flank of Spring Mountain. The wine industry was in its infancy and the 40-acre planting raised few, if any, concerns.

Fast forward to 2018. According to the latest wine-related data, Spring Mt. AVA consists of approximately 1,100 acres of vineyards and 24 wineries. One winery website arrogantly boasts that the steeper slopes of the mountain produce the finest wines possible.

Of course, there is no mention of the systematic destruction of the native habitat and disrupted water and nutrient cycles.

The first step of the neo-vintners destructive plans was to log, slash and burn all native plants. These include Douglas fir, several species of oak, manzanita, madrone, California Bay, two maple species, buckeye, many herbaceous plants and grasses.

 The most obvious result of this practice is the loss of the forest canopy, but the real damage is at ground level. By stripping the canopy the complex soil profile has been irreparably damaged. Exposure to direct sunlight and the elements overheats and parches the essential duff (litterfall) zone. Duff is composed of fallen leaves, needles, twigs, bark, seeds, fir cones, acorns etc.

Forest “humus” is located just below the litterfall layer in the soil profile. Humus significantly affects the bulk density of the soil and contributes to its retention of moisture and nutrients, especially nitrogen and carbon.

Humus also serves the purpose of being a huge sponge. A healthy mixed-evergreen forest can absorb several inches of rain without significant runoff. The water is held in suspension and then percolates slowly into the topsoil layer, down to the subsoil layer and eventually down to the aquifer. This is nature’s way of avoiding destructive soil erosion while replenishing the aquifer.

All of the above environmental and organic processes are terminated when the forest canopy is removed. Essentially, viticulturists have peeled off the epidermis and dermis layers of soil in order to plant grape vines. There is little or no duff or humus beneath grape vines. With the destruction of the natural “nutrient cycle,” vintners are using artificial fertilizers that can leach into streams and local reservoirs. They have also been forced to install drip irrigation systems to prevent vines from dying in the desiccated soil.

In 1971 when we moved to our home near Boyson Lane, York Creek ran clear after all but a few major storms. Currently, after nearly every rain event, the Creek runs chocolate brown in color.

The steeper slopes have been heavily terraced and water is diverted directly into York Creek, precluding any possibility of deep percolation. Thus, Spring Mountain duff, humus and topsoil are being washed into the Napa River. Soil scientists claim that it takes Mother Nature 1,000 years to make one inch of topsoil, so readers can do the math. The York Creek streambed has been damaged by siltation and no longer supports native trout and steelhead populations.

As for the so-called “sustained water table;” previous wells in the Dean York Lane, Palmer Drive and Fir Hill area were typically drilled down to about 150 feet. One of those on Fir Hill has failed and the last one I am aware off Dean York Lane had to be drilled to 400 feet to locate water.

Biological ignorance, unbridled greed and “worshiping the almighty dollar” (John Muir) have trumped the healthy environmental stewardship necessary to protect the most important ecosystem in Napa County. Ergo, elite millionaire Napa Valley vintners are selling wine for $1,000 per bottle (made with hillside grapes) while the “mixed-evergreen forest” is being systematically destroyed.

Trying to subvert 100 million years of God’s creative power, for crass, commercial gain, is little more than a fool’s errand with probable results that will not be favorable to Napa County residents.

The only “biologically correct” solution is to simply ban all future forest removal above the Valley floor. Hopefully Measure “C” will be a small step in preventing further destruction of the oak-woodland habitat in the hills above Napa Valley.

Lowell H. Young

St. Helena

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