The Struggle Between Conservation and Exploitation in Napa Valley

Posted on March 8, 2018 by Ridgway Hall

Book Review

Your favorite wine regions? Napa Valley is probably somewhere on your list. Ever since at least 1976, when Napa chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon won a blind taste testing in Paris, Napa’s vineyards have been producing large quantities of these and other wines, and business has been booming. The number of wineries in the roughly 25-mile-long Napa Valley, once just a handful, is now over 400. This is because the climate, soil and weather are uniquely suited to the production of wine grapes. In 1968, recognizing the importance of protecting the character of the valley, the county established the first agricultural preserve in the country, restricting the land use to farming and related activities.

But bucolic places where money can be made are attractive. Located northwest of San Francisco between two sets of mountains and bisected by the Napa River, Napa Valley has experienced rapid development and new building. This has resulted in habitat destruction, such as the cutting of thousands of century-old oaks, erosion, and pollution of the river (once home to salmon and steelhead, but no more) and the traffic, noise and dust of construction. Development is proceeding at a rate that threatens to destroy the natural beauty of the area that brought people there in the first place.  Not surprisingly, there has been pushback from conservationists and other residents who are not part of the wine industry.

This struggle between developers and those who want to preserve the valley’s pastoral charm is the subject of an excellent new book by James Conaway entitled Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity (Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $26). (Disclosure: I read and provided comments on an early draft of the book). This is the third book in a trilogy which began in 1990 with Conaway’s Napa: The Story of an American Eden, a New York Times best seller describing the 19th century origins of winemaking in the Napa Valley and its rediscovery starting in the 1960s.  This was followed in 2003 with The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land and the Battle for Napa Valley.  It described the growing conflicts between winery owners, some of them by now-absentee corporations and investors eager to reap profits, and the local citizens and environmentalists who were becoming increasingly upset by the destructive results.

Napa at Last Light recaps the past and then brings this struggle current, including a hotly contested vote on a proposed woodland protection ordinance on the county ballot for June.  Conaway has traveled throughout the Napa region for more than 30 years getting to know the people, their values and concerns. As a result, the book is far more than just a chronology of events.  You get to know several generations of grape growers and winemakers along with the county officials and a variety of other residents and their families, the circumstances that brought them there, their hopes for the future and their interactions.  You meet winery owners who care a lot about preservation, have donated funds to protect fragile land and carried out streambank restoration efforts.

What is going on in the Napa Valley is a microcosm of conflicts over land use that are being played out across the country. The corrosive influence of money, and the power and abuses it brings, is never far from the surface. Nor is the philosophic struggle between those who believe they should be able to do whatever they want with their land, and those who believe they are part of a community in which what one person does with his or her land may adversely affect others.  It’s freedom vs regulation. Napa at Last Light is a timely and thoughtful portrayal of critical issues we are familiar with and will be dealing with for the foreseeable future. It’s also a great read.

 

Note: Ridge Hall has written a more extensive review of this book in the March-April issue of The Environmental Forum published by the Environmental Law Institute.