Winemakers and grape growers in California's Santa Barbara County are on heightened alert after reports circulated that members of Earth First!, a radical environmental organization, have advocated acts of sabotage against several wineries in retaliation for cutting down native oak trees to clear space for vineyards.
Santa Barbara County has recently undergone rapid changes, as numerous wineries have purchased former ranch land there and transformed it into newly planted vineyards. Their projects have prompted loud outcries from local residents who are opposed to extensive cutting of oak trees and dismayed at the appearance of miles of uninterrupted stakes and new vines.
Earth First!, which has taken an interest in the Santa Barbara developments, is an international network of autonomous local groups that advocate measures such as property damage to promote their viewpoints on environmental conservation. The organization has been linked indirectly to the Earth Liberation Front -- the group that claimed responsibility for an October 1998 fire in Vail that caused extensive damage to a ski resort planning further expansion. It also took credit for a December 1998 arson attack against U.S. Forest Industries in Medford, Oregon.
Contrary to some media reports, Earth First! has not issued any threats directly to wineries, grape growers or farm-related organizations in the state. Rather, the concern arose when North American Research, a consulting firm whose clients include mining and timber companies, discovered an article in the Earth First! Journal about the situation in Santa Barbara. The article was highly critical of Kendall-Jackson Winery's land-clearing practices and stated that Earth First! was opposed to the removal of any oaks in the area. It concluded: "And if K-J doesn't remove their newly planted grapevines and irrigation pipes in a prompt and orderly fashion, perhaps some brave midnight warriors will have to do it themselves the old-fashioned way."
The article did not specifically state that the group was targeting other wineries for actions, but it did list recent vineyard developers in the area and the number of oaks they had cut down. These included Fess Parker, Beringer Estates, Firestone, Sutter Home, Premiere Partners and Zaca Mesa. A map of their locations was included with the article, followed by a statement in small print: "The identification and exact locations of these vineyards is not intended to encourage the strategic destruction of any equipment on site."
North American Research passed this information on to one of California's county farm bureaus and the message subsequently made its way to the state farm bureau. "We received no communication from Earth First! directly or indirectly, as far as I'm aware," said Dave Kranz, spokesperson for the California Farm Bureau. "In a roundabout way, we got an e-mail from a firm on the north coast of California that monitors the publications of radical environmental groups."North American Research is headed by Barry Clausen, author of "Walking on the Edge: How I Infiltrated Earth First!," the story of his investigation of the group's activities on behalf of a mining company.
The bureau sent the information on to the Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara county bureaus, and from there it went out to many wineries. Local law enforcement officials were also notified. "Since these are the same people who torched Vail, the cops are taking this a little more seriously than they would otherwise," commented James Caudill, spokesperson for Kendall-Jackson.
Media outlets picked up on the story after the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department issued an internal memo advising heightened security at all local wineries, and the memo became public. "We have been asking officers to spend a little extra time at the wineries," said a spokesperson for the department. "We are still investigating if the threats are real or not."
Nonetheless, many Santa Barbara wine properties are taking security precautions. "We're taking it seriously," said Tor Kenward, vice president of winery communications for Beringer, adding that the wine company has tried to work around trees when developing its vineyards.
"All of us are moderately doing what you'd expect; we are reviewing security at our vineyards and at the wineries," said Caudill. He added, "Many of these vineyards are remote areas with expensive equipment, such as tractors, and we have to be careful."
Other wine growing regions -- such as Sonoma, which has a law protecting valley oak trees -- seem less concerned. "The growers arent losing sleep, but are appreciative of the notice to take extra precautions," said Judy James, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. "No one has hired security guards or anything yet."
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