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Redwoods vs. red wine: Lawsuit aims to block vineyard

Friends of the Gualala River

Friends of the Gualala River say these redwoods are on Artesa Winery's property and reflect the kind of forest that would be converted into a vineyard.

Drawing a line in California's redwood forests, environmental groups have sued to block a winery from building on 173 acres, and sent a message to developers of an even larger, nearby 1,600-acre proposed project.

The smaller battle is over Artesa Winery's plan to grow pinot noir grapes near Annapolis in Sonoma County.

The lawsuit filed Thursday targets California's Department of Forestry -- not Artesa -- and argues that in approving the project it failed to consider the environmental impacts of converting forested areas to an open vineyard. 

Artesa did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but notes on its website that only a few old-growth redwoods are still on the property, which had been a sheep and apple farm. 

The plaintiffs argue that it's not about old-growth trees, but second- and third-growth stands that are rising after decades of logging.

"These are recovering forests, and you need forests to have rivers downstream," Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River, told msnbc.com. "Otherwise you have bowling balls that shunt water and don't allow a slow release."

Without that natural ecosystem, he added, "we're never going to get fish populations back" along the Gualala River, which runs through the local watershed.

A commercial alternative for the property could be to sustainably harvest trees, Poehlmann said, once and if the forest rebounds. 

Other plaintiffs are the Sierra Club's Redwood chapter and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Poehlmann fears an even bigger impact from the proposed Preservation Ranch development, where 1,600 hilltop acres would be cleared for boutique vineyards sold to individuals.

Ken Adelman, California Coastal Records Project

The Preservation Ranch project is on land that includes this 39-acre vineyard. Developers want to open 1,600 hilltop acres across the 20,000-acre property to boutique vineyards.

That project hasn't completed its environmental impact report yet, and the plaintiffs hope their lawsuit will succeed and force agencies to raise the threshold for approving projects like Preservation Ranch.

With the lawsuit, Poehlmann said, "we intend to draw a line to stop further destruction."

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