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What Does It Take To Turn a Former Lumber Mill Into a Public Park?

coast of fort bragg
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When Marie Jones, Fort Bragg’s Community Development Director, was growing up in this small coastal city in Mendocino County, California, she couldn’t see stars in the night sky. That's because the stars were no competition for the blazing yellow lights of the Georgia-Pacific lumber mill, three miles north of Marie’s childhood home. Another thing that Marie and her fellow Fort Bragg residents couldn’t see was the coastline, for the sprawling mill and its towering stacks of redwood logs and lumber obliterated the view. In its last days, the mill ran 24/7, its biomass/wood-burning power plant spewing smoke and its machinery creating a considerable din. And yet the Georgia-Pacific mill had provided economic sustenance to this city of 7,000 people with as many as 2,000 steady jobs.  

big logs on truckbed fort bragg
Lumber trucks in Fort Bragg  |  Courtesy of Rigler Creative​

This mill, which was founded in 1885 by Charles Russell Johnson and which Georgia-Pacific acquired in 1972, had dominated the local economy for more than a century. And for more than a century, the mill’s very location on the coastline meant that there was no public access to the coast. For generations, no one in Fort Bragg had ever been granted access to their own ocean. Even the mill workers, whose place of employment was situated on the coast, could see the ocean only through the filter of wood smoke, industrial noise, heavy equipment and massive corridors of stacked logs and lumber. Consequently, if you lived in Fort Bragg and wished to experience a peaceful, quiet, and unobstructed view of the sea, you had to get in a car and drive three miles north to Cleone.

And then, in 2002, the Georgia-Pacific mill closed down. It would be 13 years and millions of dollars later until the former mill site was transformed into what Fort Bragg considers its crown jewel, Noyo Headlands Park. Thanks to Marie Jones, the City of Fort Bragg, Georgia-Pacific, a team of experts, and a host of agencies, groups, and nonprofits, the citizenry of Fort Bragg now not only see their own ocean, they walk along their very own spectacular coastline on a new segment of the California Coastal Trail. And Fort Bragg, which in the days of Georgia-Pacific had little to recommend itself to tourists, has now become a bona fide tourist destination.

What does it take to turn a former lumber mill into a public park with a Coastal Trail, and why does it take more than a decade and many millions of dollars to do it?

It all started, according to Marie Jones, with a survey that she, as Fort Bragg’s Community Development Director, put out to the community in 2004. In the survey, the people of Fort Bragg were able to choose what they would most like to see done with the former mill site. They were asked to rank a list of possible choices from most favorite to least favorite. “And the number one thing that all the people who participated in the survey ranked was…a coastal trail,” Marie said. “Thousands of people voted for it.”

The next step was to raise money to buy the property. It took seven years, but in 2009, with the help of the California Coastal Conservancy, which gave Fort Bragg 4.25 million dollars, the city acquired 35 acres from Georgia-Pacific. In turn, Georgia-Pacific donated some 50 additional acres to the city, worth 5 million dollars.

Once the city acquired the property, said Marie, the planning process began, along with additional fundraising and grant applications “to do the design, engineering, environmental review, and construct the project.” There was also cleanup to be done on the land. Georgia Pacific, said Marie, “did a lot of extra work in order for the property transfer to happen in a timely manner. The mill site was under what’s known as a cleanup order from the State [of California’s] Department of Toxic Substances Control. They’re the organization that oversees all cleanup of contaminated properties in California. Part of the Coastal Trail property did have some ash on it, and some of that ash was contaminated with dioxin. Georgia-Pacific basically stepped up their remediation activities and focused on that part of the mill site first.”

The cleanup process took off in 2007 and started with Georgia-Pacific’s site-wide sampling of soil, water, and sediment to assess any areas of contamination, “especially,” said Marie, “in areas that are likely to have contamination releases. Such as near buildings where there was equipment [and where] there might be petroleum products. Or any fueling stations. Or the truck-washing station. Those were all sampled very extensively, [along with] any areas where contaminants are likely to become sediment-borne and become part of the sediment. [Thus] all the wetlands were sampled extensively.” Samples were tested for the presence of heavy metals, petrochemicals, TPH, dioxins and PCBs.

As an additional safeguard, the Department of Toxic Substances Control did what’s called paired samplings, meaning they took random samples of [Georgia-Pacific’s] samples and tested those independently in their own lab.

georgia pacific site
Georgia-Pacific mill site | Courtesy of Rigler Creative

After the site testing came the toxicology studies, which reported on whether each substance was at a toxic level for mammals, fish, birds or plant life as opposed to being below or at so-called ‘screening level,’ which means a level that is detectable but considered to be non-hazardous.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected things uncovered in our team’s research for this piece was finding out that dioxin is basically everywhere. “There’s nowhere in the State of California that you can go that doesn’t have dioxin,” said Marie. “It is everywhere, because any time you burn something, you release dioxin. So whether you’re burning a cigarette and smoking it, or having a barbeque and eating it, or having a fire on the beach, you’re creating dioxin through those events when the smoke goes up into the air and goes back down to the ground.”

Robin des Bois, a French environmental group, agrees. According to a report in The Guardian, they “tested the fumes associated with the two-hour grilling of four steaks, four turkey cuts and eight sausages over a barbecue, and…counted far greater doses of polychlorinated compounds, known as dioxins, than would be permissible at the outlet of a commercial incinerator chimney. In fact, levels approached those associated with smoking 20,000 cigarettes…[Dioxins] pour from rubbish-burning incinerators, garden bonfires, forest fires and the family fireplace. Dioxins also dissolve in fat, and tend to accumulate in beef, dairy products, pork, milk, chicken, fish and eggs.”

It’s no wonder that the ash found on parts of the Georgia-Pacific site, where there had been a biomass power plant, contained dioxin. “The question is,” said Marie, “is the concentration a sufficient one to be above screening level or above background noise, and if it is sufficiently above that, is it sufficiently high enough to cause a biological concern, or an increased risk of cancer or reproductive harm?”

If a level is sufficiently high, next comes the feasibility study, which, according to Marie, “looks at all the possible ways that you can remove the material, whatever it is.” The Department of Toxic Substance Control decides which is the best way to do it. “For 97% of the site,” said Marie, “the preferred remedial solution has been to remove the contaminant and haul it off site and take it to the landfill.” That is, a regular landfill; nothing was serious enough to require the use of a toxic landfill.

Another area of cleanup was the removal of petrochemical contamination. This cleanup occurred via a fascinating process called land farming, in which horse manure and fertilizer was trucked in and spread out over the contaminated soil. The resultant microbial growth literally ate the petrochemicals and broke them down into harmless substances. A similar method called biosparging was used for some of the site’s groundwater that was contaminated by petrochemicals, in which oxygen was added to the water and caused the growth of petrochemical-eating bacteria.

To date, “about 97 percent of the [400-acre former mill] site…has been cleaned up to a level that doesn’t require any land-use restrictions,” said Marie. “In other words, any use that could be zoned on that property is acceptable to the Department of Toxic Substances Control.”

noyo headlands park
Noyo Headlands Park | Still from "California Coastal Trail"

The design of the trail has been another long and involved process. Marie Jones began by walking the future site of the park with groups of 40 to 50 Fort Bragg citizens at a time, asking their opinions as to what they wanted to see in the park and what type of trail they envisioned. Parallel to that, her planning department received input from a number of different groups, organizations, and agencies, from Native American tribes to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They all had different issues that they needed addressed or different areas that needed to be protected,” she said, which “resulted in fencing in various locations and signage and changing in how the trail was constructed so as not to impact cultural resources or archeological resources.”

Aside from aesthetic, cultural, and biological concerns, the design and engineering teams had to address a considerable threat in the form of storm water coming off the former mill site’s vast areas of asphalt, which was upstream from the proposed trail. Thus they constructed a series of earthen structures called bioswales and berms, the former described as “fancy ditches” by Jones, and the latter as sort of like tiny, one and a half-foot-high dams. These bioswales and berms are what prevent the Coastal Trail from literally washing away after a rainstorm.

After all the cleanup, planning, design, engineering, and construction, the northern part of the Coastal Trail in Noyo Headlands Park officially opened on January 31, 2015. The southern part of the Trail followed almost a year later, on December 1, 2015. This so-called Phase 1 of the Noyo Headlands Park Coastal Trail “created 4.5 miles of trail on 82 acres of the old Georgia-Pacific mill site, restored over 20 acres of land to its former natural beauty, and provided three restrooms, two parking lots, 14 interpretive signs, two welcome plazas, and several unique benches designed by local artists.”

After all the years and all the countless hours of labor, Marie Jones’s enthusiasm for the trail is unwavering. “Being a planner in a community can be a challenge, because you’re required to review development projects…that not everybody likes. The Coastal Trail is something that everybody likes. Every time I go out there, so many people are smiling.”

What does “so many” people mean in terms of numbers? Anywhere from 7,000 to 13,000 people in a single day, which is what Marie’s staff ascertained by counting visitors on two different days. 13,000 visited on the Saturday of a three-day weekend, and 7,000 visited on a cold and windy Friday of a regular two-day weekend. These are impressive figures for a city whose entire population is 7,000 people. 

There is no doubt that Noyo Headlands Park, with its spectacular section of the California Coastal Trail, has been transformational for the people of Fort Bragg. 

“For people who live here,” said Marie, “it gives us a place to go and see our neighbors and walk and get exercise or ride our bikes and get a great workout, or jog, and have a natural experience without having to get in a car and drive. You can literally walk to it.

“For our community as a tourist destination, it’s also been super huge. I mean, it has put Fort Bragg on the map…When we had the mill operating, we didn’t get very many tourists. Of course, then we had a lot more jobs in industry... Now those jobs are all gone, and that is a big adjustment for our community…And I wouldn’t say that it’s been an adjustment that’s been at all easy. But at least we do have the tourist-based service jobs so that people can have some employment.”

For Marie Jones and the city of Fort Bragg, Noyo Headlands Park and its portion of the California Coastal Trail is just the beginning. “I do want to be clear,” said Marie, “that we’re not finished. That’s just one-quarter of the site, the Coastal Trail. We still have 300 other acres…and we’re looking at rezoning the remainder of the site for a mix of uses.

“About an additional 60 acres of the site would be dedicated to open space. About 70 acres would be dedicated to a future planning process. The remainder, which is probably less than 30% of the site, would be zoned for…a mixed development of open space, parkland, industrial, commercial, and housing…We have a world-famous brewery called the North Coast Brewery, and they’re interested in expanding out on the site. We have a couple of other local businesses that are also interested in expanding out on the site, including the Skunk Train.” The plan is attract business and even more jobs to Fort Bragg while creating affordable multi-family housing for all.

Clearly, transforming the former mill site into a beautiful park has given the citizens of Fort Bragg not only a view of their own ocean, but also the promise of a prosperous future.

Noyo Headlands Park | Still from "California Coastal Trail"

Top Image: Noyo Headlands Park | Still from "California Coastal Trail"

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