Another View: Saving Placer’s great park and us

By: Kevin Hanley /Guest Columnist
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On Dec. 12, the Placer County Board of Supervisors passed a ”resolution supporting a river canyon-based recreation area in the Auburn State Recreation Area.” As I read the various whereas clauses in the resolution, I couldn’t help thinking about a classic skit from late night comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL) circa 1976. To gently mock the staid national news anchors of the day who in the previous year kept giving repetitive updates that the deathbed-bound “Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was still alive,” Chevy Chase, the fake news anchor for SNL’s “Weekend Update,” announced each week, “This breaking news just in, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.” It became a running gag on the show. 
When I served on the city council for Auburn, the “Endurance Capital of the World,” I strongly supported and still do the eventual expansion of recreational activities for residents and visitors in the beautiful 30,000-acre Auburn State Recreation Area (ASRA). As the North and Middle Forks of the American River come together, this is special area, a precious gold mine and asset for those who enjoy our God-given natural landscapes. Although the federal Bureau of Reclamation owns most of the 30,000-acre area and certain aspects are managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, this is Placer’s great park.
But there is a problem with the county supervisors’ resolution. It literally misses the forest for the trees. Their resolution fails to identify the real, here-and-now threat to our great park and us. Its main focus is opposing “a reservoir [that] threatens to destroy the robust, river-based recreation economy as we have today.” Seriously, is the going-nowhere, long dead Auburn Dam the big threat facing our foothill communities? Really? The federal government has been out of the dam building business for decades, is flat broke with a rapidly escalating $20 trillion debt and there is as much chance that Congress will appropriate money to build an Auburn Dam as President Trump deciding to stop his daily tweets. As we have known for practically forever, not only is “Generalissimo Francisco still dead,” but the “Auburn Dam is still dead.” No Lazarus moment for the Auburn Dam is coming.
Let’s ride a zip-line back to reality. The key to protecting public safety is to focus on real threats and to take action. Government needs to shake off its bureaucratic lethargy and act with urgency. The 2017 wildfire season in California was the most destructive one on record. A total of 8,775 fires have burned 1,358,448 acres, including five of the 20 most destructive wild land-urban interface fires in the state’s history. The fires in Sonoma-Napa destroyed over 8,900 structures and killed 44 people. The fires in Ventura-Los Angeles forced the evacuation of 212,000 people. The reverberations continue as mudslides kill.
And yet, our local government officials seem oblivious to this here-and-now threat to our communities. The unmanaged 30,000 acres in ASRA are tinder. With sufficient wind and low humidity, the people who live and work in Auburn, Colfax and Foresthill face an existential threat. A catastrophic fire will turn the pine and oaks hillsides into blackened ash and then mud when the rains come. Wildlife will flee. Renewable biomass energy will go up in smoke. But the federal government won’t appropriate adequate funds to thin the overgrown and unhealthy forests. California State Parks is updating their general plan for ASRA, which could significant boost visitor visits over 1 million but this will result in an even more dangerous firetrap for those in the canyon if no forest thinning occurs. And with more than 400,000 acres in Placer County owned by the irresponsible federal government, I’ve asked the Board of Supervisors over and over for the last four years to help get legislation through the U.S. Senate to harness the private sector to create healthy forests. They have refused to act. I’ve asked the Board of Supervisors to publicly release the $75,000 taxpayer-financed study on how best to organize 19 fire protection districts. They have refused to act.
Winston Churchill said, “ponder, then act.” I call upon the board chairman of Placer County and the mayors of Auburn and Colfax to convene a series of public meetings with the participation of all the fire districts, fire safe councils, state and federal officials and all interested parties to craft a comprehensive local, state and federal action plan to save Auburn, Colfax, Foresthill and all the foothill-Sierra areas of Placer County. The time for action is now. 
Kevin Hanley is a former Mayor of Auburn and serves on the Greater Auburn Area Fire Safe Council.