Two Visions Clash on North Coast

Times Staff Writer

To Mel Berti, local butcher and politician, the looming recall election is the most important vote in Humboldt County history -- a watershed event to preserve a fading way of life on California’s northern coast.

Not the October recall vote on Gov. Gray Davis. More important to Berti and many others here is the effort to recall Humboldt County Dist. Atty. Paul V. Gallegos. Earlier this year, Gallegos rocked the Humboldt establishment with two acts: He sued the area’s biggest lumber company and eased the county’s standards on medical marijuana.

“Four years of this guy as D.A. will be our ruination,” said Berti, the 64-year-old mayor of Fortuna and one of the recall leaders. The effort was launched after Gallegos filed his lawsuit against Pacific Lumber Co., charging the county’s biggest private employer with massive fraud in its timber harvest reports.


Such strong sentiments are commonplace here, where the Gallegos recall is being viewed as a test of just how much the North Coast has changed.

In a region once dominated by the timber, mining and fishing industries, the political balance may be tipping with the arrival of retirees seeking real estate bargains and of eco-sensitive young families attracted by the liberal milieu surrounding Humboldt State University.

Gallegos, a 41-year-old USC graduate who moved here nine years ago with his attorney wife and their young family, is philosophical about the recall battle.

“This community is going through birthing pains and is trying to decide what it stands for, where it is going to go,” Gallegos said last week after the opening court hearing in People vs. Pacific Lumber Co. “For one reason or another, I seem to be the symbol of that struggle.”

A hearing was held Monday in a courtroom packed with local environmental activists, who support the case against Pacific Lumber. Humboldt Superior Court Judge Christopher Wilson deferred ruling on a motion to dismiss the case until he could review voluminous briefs filed by both sides.

To indicate the interest in the recall effort, petition sponsors say they have more than 11,000 signatures, significantly more than the 8,441 gathered in the county to recall the governor.


However, sponsors believe they need to gather at least 15,000 signatures before submitting them for certification, probably late this month. If they reach their goal, as expected, the recall election may not be held until March.

“What’s going on in Humboldt County,” said Steve Hackett, economics professor at Humboldt State, “is indicative of what is going on across the West -- a transition from logging, agriculture and mining to more diversified, service-type economies. It is not so much that the attitudes of people here have changed as it is that attitudes of people who are moving here are different.”

Marcia Tauber, a San Francisco Bay Area lawyer who moved here three years ago and owns a computer store on the Arcata downtown square, personifies this change. Tauber, 52, said she was attracted by schools for her high school-age children and the town’s liberal politics. She ardently supports Gallegos and the lawsuit alleging fraud by Pacific Lumber, the historical power here.

“People who have lived here their entire lives,” Tauber said, “have a different relationship with the timber industry than those of us who came here by choice.”

Most people think that the Gallegos vote, if it occurs, will be very close.

Environmentalists and advocates of marijuana legalization, strong in southern Humboldt County, are expected to back Gallegos.

Marijuana advocates were delighted when he increased the number of plants permitted to medical card holders from two to 99, matching the highest levels permitted by any California county.

Tauber points to a recent charity art auction staged in Arcata by the North Coast Environmental Center as an example of the depth of support in the college town. Although several local politicians attended, Tauber said, Gallegos was the only one to receive a standing ovation.

Longtime residents, ranchers and loggers tend to support the recall.

“We’ve drawn a line in the sand,” said Robin Arkley Sr., 78, a retired timber company owner who launched the recall. “It’s us versus them.”

But the emotional effort has also divided families, including Arkley’s. His son, Rob Arkley Jr., the wealthy owner of a Eureka securities business, supports Gallegos and opposes the recall.

Although he remains friendly with his father and shares some of his father’s conservative values, the younger Arkley, who was one of the main contributors to Gallegos’ campaign, characterizes the recall as an ill-advised last stand by a defeated ideology.

“To be honest,” said Arkley Jr., a generous benefactor of local civic projects, including a new harborside promenade and a petting zoo in Eureka, “people like my dad and Pacific Lumber should step aside and keep their mouths shut, since they all sat by and watched our town and area devolve.

“It wasn’t until I came along that anything has happened,” he said. “It’s all about power and the way things used to be. Who wants to run a sinking ship?”

When the recall campaign begins in earnest, it promises to be a no-holds-barred affair.

Early radio spots produced by recall supporters have attempted to tar the district attorney for his association with Assistant Dist. Atty. Timothy Stoen, whom Gallegos hired and put in charge of the Pacific Lumber case.

As a young attorney in Mendocino County and San Francisco, Stoen was a member of the People’s Temple congregation headed by Jim Jones, who later presided over the Jonestown, Guyana, mass suicide.

“Stoen was Jim Jones’ right-hand man,” said a recall organizer, Rick Brazeau.

Another recall supporter distributed a statement in which Stoen entreats Jones -- referring to Jones as “the most compassionate, honest and courageous human being the world contains” -- to sleep with Stoen’s then-wife and father a child on his behalf.

Stoen, who later broke with Jones and became one of his fiercest critics, acknowledged having signed the statement in 1972. But he described its use against him in the recall effort as “a pretty cheap shot. I’m disappointed they would stoop that low.”

Gallegos said he is fully aware of Stoen’s background with Jones, including the loss of Stoen’s 7-year-old son in the massacre.

“Tim Stoen has Jim Jones in his background,” said Gallegos. “He has paid a terrible price for his mistakes. But he is an ethical, highly competent attorney, and I think he is an asset to the community.”

The lawsuit against Pacific Lumber, based largely on research provided by local environmental groups, contends that the former family business, now owned by Houston-based Maxxam Corp., intentionally deceived state agencies about its timber-cutting plans, resulting in massive landslide and flooding damage to local streams and farms.

The suit says Pacific Lumber was able to sidestep restrictions established by the historic 1999 Headwaters agreement, which set aside a 7,500-acre stand of ancient redwoods for the public trust.

Pacific Lumber, which employs 800 people here, has taken no official stand on the recall. But in a recent letter to employees that is displayed alongside the recall petition in several local businesses, Pacific Lumber’s chief executive, Robert E. Manne, comes about as close as possible to endorsing the effort.

Under the heading “What You Can Do” in the five-page letter about the lawsuit, Manne urges workers to: “Talk to your friends, relatives, neighbors and clerks where you shop -- tell them what’s really going on here. Register to vote, participate in the political process to achieve change, and make your voice heard to elected officials and newspaper editors.”