Sidewalks in Rancho

The flaggers were out this morning stopping traffic on Highway 26 where a sidewalk is being constructed between the Rancho Calaveras clubhouse and Driver Road. The crews are making rapid progress. Already there’s a stretch of brand new concrete sidewalk near Driver Road. Interestingly, there was some controversy over this safe-routes-to-school project that will enable children to walk or ride bicycles to nearby Jenny Lind Elementary School. The controversy focused mostly on exactly what route to use. No one said a safe route was a bad idea. But the plan to build a sidewalk stirred emotion. And I can’t help but wonder if that emotion was due, in part, to the deeper symbolism of seeing a sidewalk here, amid the rolling hills.

Really, it is the end of an era. Now that there’s a sidewalk, it’s clear that this is a suburb, an extension of Stockton, really, and not the wild western countryside of our imaginations. I realize that people who’ve gone to urban planning school always recognized that Rancho Calaveras was a suburban housing development. After all, the lots are too small for agriculture, even though a lot of the kids here do 4-H projects. There are no ranchers in Rancho. People here earn their livings by commuting to jobs in the city, or draw retirement pensions. But if you ask people here why they came to Rancho Calaveras, they will say they wanted to “live in the country,” and they are not being ironic.

It is a suburb with great views, which makes it seems country like.  And it is un-city-like in that the infrastructure is lousy, with septic systems, bumpy roads,  and long water lines that are maintenance headaches for Calaveras County Water District. It is an unusual suburb in that its controlling document, called a special plan, bars the construction of stores, gas stations or other services that might make it more convenient to live here. So you’ve got the crumbling infrastructure of a large-lot suburb, some degree of rural isolation, and lots too small for ranching, but without the conveniences of an urban area. For those conveniences, residents must drive to nearby Valley Springs or even to Stockton.

Maybe, just maybe, the new sidewalks being built right now will eventually be connected to bicycle trails that could allow carless Rancho Residents (ie. children, and many of the working poor) to get as far as Valley Springs. Rancho residents already live a suburban lifestyle. Maybe now that there’s a sidewalk, they can also enjoy some of the benefits of suburbs.



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Another cruel financial truth for rural counties


In California, water flows toward money. Money also flows toward money, with the understanding that most of the money and power is concentrated in certain urban regions, especially Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Here’s one way that plays out: When the state government takes actions that can reduce revenues to local governments, state leaders won’t feel much concern if those local governments are out in lightly-populated rural areas with few voters. One of those revenue-reducing actions over the decades has been the otherwise-worthy effort by the state to buy up certain properties that can be managed as wildlife refuges.

Not surprisingly, a lot of that habitat is in rural counties. And once private property becomes state property, then the local county government can no longer collect property tax on it.

Starting in 1949, California’s state government compensated rural counties for such losses by paying with a program dubbed “Payment in Lieu of Taxes.” But then times got tough, costs for other stuff increased, and more than a decade ago, the state government just stopped paying its Payments in Lieu of Taxes. So rural counties coped, in part by laying off employees. The Regional Council of Rural Counties, which advocates on behalf of rural California counties, says the state is about $19 million behind on its obligations under this program.

Now, a bill by State Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) seeks to appropriate money to 36 counties for those unpaid amounts.  The bill, SB 1410, would both get caught up on the $19 million in back payments now due and also allocate $2 million per year to give counties their Payments in Lieu of Taxes in the future.

It is a nice gesture by Wolk and Nielsen. But will it pass? Rural counties are something like 6 percent of California’s population. So if they get treated like the Districts portrayed in The Hunger Games, well there really isn’t much of a political price to pay.

Posted in Alpine County, Amador County, Calaveras County, politics | Leave a comment

Grants, contracts, the Calaveras Sheriff and who pays the piper

Does anybody besides me feel vaguely uneasy that our local law enforcement is gradually becoming more dependent on doing contract work for outside entities?

What I’m talking about are contracts under which the Calaveras Sheriff provides services to various federal agencies. Things like patrolling in national forest areas, or around the lakes like New Hogan and New Melones.  One one level, this seems fine. After all, it is our national government too, and the Sheriff’s Department can use the revenue. It means that they can keep a larger staff available to help out in those all-hands-on-deck situations that occur once in a while.

On the other hand, our local government and the feds are not always in lock step. Medical marijuana is legal according to Calaveras County, for example, while the feds still see it as devil weed.

The problem with having someone other than the local government paying for law enforcement officers is that one can easily see times in human history when it was a very bad thing to have some outside entity paying for the people who have weapons and know how to use them. Read up on Nicolo Machiavelli’s understanding of this. I’d rather have the local law enforcement officers working for me, for all of us here, with no doubts about their loyalty. If we don’t find a way to pay them, somebody else will. And that somebody else could be the government or extremely rich people, or God knows who.

Several such contracts are on Tuesday’s agenda at the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors meeting. They will probably be approved with no discussion. They probably should be. Still, I do hope we find a way to pay for law enforcement on our own.

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Tussle over Calaveras Community Plans

People up here like democracy. When Calaveras County leaders seven years ago invited the various towns, hamlets and sprawling rural communities to come up with their own plans for future growth and development, lots of them acted on the offer. Hundreds of people came to meetings. And they drafted plans.

Now all that democracy is running into economics and bureaucracy.

The idea was to include those community plans in an update of the larger General Plan that guides future land use and development in the county. But due to a variety of factors, including messy politics, the complexities of state environmental and land use laws, and the high cost of paying for all the work, the General Plan update effort that launched those many years ago is not complete.

That’s a problem because the current General Plan is not legally defensible. So if county officials approve a development based on the current flawed plan, then it could be tied up in court. That makes it hard for investors and/or property owners to move forward with projects. So Calaveras County’s Board of Supervisors is currently leaning toward moving fast to get an adequate plan done, even though that means leaving out the community plans. Including all those community plans and complying with state law that requires them to all be consistent with the new General Plan will take a lot of  time and work. And there may be times when what the communities say they want conflicts with what some individual property owners want.

Making it all more challenging, this is an election year. Michael Oliveira and Mike Borean, the candidates challenging incumbent District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway, both say they want the community plans included. And the Calaveras Planning Coalition, which includes groups from a number of parts of the county, is also advocating to include the community plans. The Coalition will hold a public presentation and discussion on that topic 2-4 p.m. May 12 in the main Calaveras County Library, 1299 Gold Hunter Road, San Andreas.

So expect a tussle. And pretty much no matter how the tussle resolves, it is likely to further slow the long-awaited completion of the General Plan update.

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Prosecution of women

Another interesting moment in Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting that I’ve not mentioned yet in writing came during the very first item on the agenda, and not just because of the grim statistics about the 112 cases of sexual assault reported to law enforcement during the 2012-13 fiscal year in Calaveras County, or the many additional cases that come to the attention of the Calaveras Crisis Center. The item was basically a chance for represenatives from the DA’s Office and the Calaveras Crisis Center to do some education about the damage that sexual assaults cause, including the many children that are victims. The board voted unanimously to recognize April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

What caught my attention was a statement by Supervisor Darren Spellman about a non-assault incident in which an adult woman, a dance instructor in Murphys, pleaded guilty to having consensual sex with a 16-year-old boy. The boy himself stood up in court and said he was not harmed. The boy’s parents, however, publicly lobbied to have severe punishment for the dance instructor and said the incident had harmed the entire family.  Spellman used Tuesday’s recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness month to tell the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office that he believes it should more aggressively prosecute adult women who have sex with underage boys.

The dance instructor back in 2011 pleaded guilty to a single count of unlawful sexual intercourse. She was sentenced to probation.

What struck me about the dance instructor case  is that it would appear that prosecutors were weighing the harm done and agreeing to less-severe punishment because of that. They are differentiating people who violently injure children from those who have consensual, non-violent sex with older teens. Spellman, in contrast, equates the two acts and also seemed to feel that women who do wrong with their sexual behavior somehow get a pass while men get harsh treatment.

Making the whole morning even more interesting was the next item on the agenda: Spellman asking his colleagues to honor a Christian anti-abortion group that educates women on the “blessings” of following the “teachings of Jesus.”

Spellman didn’t say so explicitly, but I believe his action on both items grows out of a conservative perspective on women’s sexuality and a belief that it is a dangerous force that must be controlled.

I see things differently. I don’t believe it is necessary or useful to tell women what to do with their bodies. I believe freedom is a good thing and women should have it too. And I believe that the sad evidence indicates that adult men are much more likely to sexually harm girls than adult women are to sexually harm boys.


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Is Red Cross a Christian organization?

During a discussion at Tuesday’s Calaveras County Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Darren Spellman said that Red Cross is a Christian organization.

His comment came during discussion on whether the Board of Supervisors should honor Door of Hope, a Christian anti-abortion group based in San Andreas. Spellman was responding to criticism from fellow Supervisor Merita Callaway, who felt the Board of Supervisors should remain neutral on matters of religion. Spellman noted that the Board had recently honored local Red Cross volunteers, and since Red Cross in his understanding is a Christian organization, that act was the equivalent of recognizing Door of Hope for its work to “assist” women facing unexpected pregnancies.

So what about that Red Cross? Well, in Muslim countries, it is a Red Crescent. And the international and national organizations for Red Cross claim that because the movement has roots in Switzerland (a nation famed for its neutrality) the Red Cross symbol was created by reversing the colors of the Swiss Flag.

Here’s a statement I found today on the American Red Cross website:

“In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Red Cross may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.”

I happen to also serve at times as a Red Cross volunteer. We are trained that we shall not in any way advocate for a particular cultural, religious or political perspective while we are offering aid to those in need. In contrast, the Board of Supervisors resolution recognizing Door of Hope specifically singles out the organization for teaching women about the “blessings” of following the “teachings of Christ.”






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Yard Waste Amnesty

So folks here mostly burn their yard waste these days since the county landfill and other disposal sites charge $4 per cubic yard to dispose it. Disposal used to be free of charge. Problem was that the cost to run the landfill and disposal sites over the years was rising, and elected leaders did not raise the parcel tax that supports those operations. So the county five years ago started the fee and we’ve all been breathing a lot more smoke ever since.

In an effort to reduce the pollution, the Solid Waste Division and Air Pollution Control District are for the second year offering an amnesty period this weekend. Folks can show up  with up to four cubic yards and dispose it without a fee.

I just received the stats for last year’s amnesty, ie. the amount disposed: 85 cubic yards was collected over the 2 day event.  Site Specifics: Rock Creek 45; Red Hill 24 and West Point was 16 cubic yards.

That’s not much in a county of probably more than 10,000 households, each of which yields at least some yard waste, leaves, brush trimmings, etc. County officials hope this year’s amnesty does more.

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More on whether to try to save the Sierra forests

For several years now, national forest managers, private timber land owners, environmentalists, scientists and others have been discussing the woes facing the forests here in the Sierra Nevada. The issues are complex, but for the sake of brevity, it largely comes down to whether we let catastrophic fires destroy the forests. Nobody wants this. Not only are the forests beautiful, but if they burn down it hurts water supplies we all depend on, and also we lose the chance to harvest valuable timber needed for the human economy.

Yet a variety of changes, including shifting climate patterns and the fact that we’ve let a lot of the forests grow dense undergrowth that contributes to fires, mean the odds are against us. An extended drought would make this all even more difficult, and it is extremely expensive to do some of the things that might help, such as using machines and human hand crews to thin overgrown areas and restore water-absorbing meadows.

If a person was to bet on such things as what might eventually make parts of California uninhabitable, then lack of water would have to be high on the list. And if the Sierra forests burn, we’ll get mudslides after rain and snow storms rather than the slowly-released trickle of clean water that healthy forests provide through the summer.

So while it’s great that the feds, the scientists and a few others get together to discuss this, it is unlikely the problem will really be solved unless a lot of the rest of us who live in California also pay attention and push for changes. That’s why everyone should know about the “Sierra Cascades Dialogue Session” in which the future of forests in the Sierra (and the Cascades) is being discussed.  The next session is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 30 in the Lions Gate Hotel in Sacramento. Attendance costs $25 and includes lunch.

And here’s the theme for the April 30 session:  “Exploring the Range of Public Views on Desired Conditions for the Sierra Nevada National Forests”

That’s a long-winded way of saying that the forest folks know that it matters what the rest of us think. They want to hear.  And it would be good for them to know that there’s lots of us who hope to continue living and thriving in California in the future and we want the forests to survive. You can also be specific about the forest conditions you want, ie. whether you want priority set on water production, recreation, timber or other values

To register or for more information, contact Deb Whitall with the Forest Service;;  Phone: 707-562-8823


Posted in Alpine County, Amador County, Calaveras County, Forests, Tuolumne County | Leave a comment

Translating resource-speak

My heart sinks when I get a news release and it’s initially tough to figure out what the heck it’s about.

Here’s the headline to a release I got today:  Collaboration and Facilitation in Natural Resource Management

 Yikes. Long words. All either abstract concepts or very general. “Natural resource” can refer to everything from the Amazon River to an actress who doesn’t wear makeup. And, one of the primary sins of such news releases, nothing in the headline indicates who this is for. Could be for moms and dads debating how much water (a natural resource) to put on the lawn.

So I pray for wisdom and divine guidance. I start reading into the body of the news release. It says: “The Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project’s (SNAMP) University of California Cooperative Extension team will be hosting a workshop on Collaboration and Facilitation in Natural Resource Management on March 26, 2014 in Martell/Jackson, CA.”

Aha, I think. I know who these people are. This might be about not burning the forest down. This could be about getting the feds, who manage a lot of forests around here, to play nice with private property owners, who also own and manage a lot of forests. Maybe environmentalists will even be invited.

My suspicions are confirmed when I read low in the release that Sue Britting, executive director for Sierra Forest Legacy, is guest speaker for the workshop.

There’s a lot of other long words and round-about statements in the press release. It says things about the need to “build a common language to support collaboration,” and to “demonstrate interventions to support success when problems arise.

Why can’t it just say that the feds, the loggers, and environmentalists aren’t getting along well. Because they fight, they miss chances to make things better. To make things better, people have to play fair and understand each other. Somehow, science has to win over prejudice. The forests are burning down and we are not doing enough to stop it. If we use a lot of three-syllable words, we’ll still be talking when the last giant sequoia is incinerated.

Whew. I feel better now.

If you want to go to this workshop, register online at or contact Kim Ingram at 

You can also check the workshop web page at

Posted in Amador County, Calaveras County, Forests | Leave a comment

Muir symposium

On March 22 University of the Pacific will host a day-long symposium that asks this provocative question about the 100 years since the death of conservationist John Muir: What has been saved? What has been lost?

This question is provocative for a variety of reasons. It suggests the idea that in fact something, some small portion of the planet could be “saved,” perhaps by designating it as a national park. These parks are beautiful places, but the designation does nothing to “save” them from the impacts of air pollution, climate change, and growing human population, none of which respect park boundaries. Any saving that has been done is very temporary. In other parts of the world it is easier, perhaps, to see what happens to the animals and timber in national parks once the neighboring human population is large enough and desperate enough to overwhelm security measures. National parks tend to be temporary playgrounds  for a few generations for those with the time and money to get there. Then they become sites for looting by others desperate for resources.

For better or worse, our species, the humans, is having an epoch in which we are dominant. That epoch, like previous epochs in which other species dominated, will someday end. And it seems possible our epoch may be short when compared to the time of dinosaurs, or trilobites. Does the fact that human intervention has created huge dead zones in the oceans mean those areas are lost? Once our epoch ends and we no longer send all those chemicals down rivers, those dead zones will, presumably, be gradually re-colonized by life forms and evolution will resume.

Not that I don’t value Muir’s achievements. I too like to hike in the mountains. I too find them beautiful. I am glad that in my life there have still been places that I find beautiful. But I am part of a species that is incapable of self-regulation. This is not unusual. No species self-regulates. Just like me, all the other humans have desires, and will strive to fulfill them until we can’t. At least so far, the desire for the particular kind of beauty that some humans find in wilderness (whatever that is) has generally lost out to all the other desires.

Here’s a link to learn more about the symposium:

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