What’s Public Testimony Worth?

A few things have changed in politics since the days of the Roman Senate and Assemblies. Assassinations of one’s opponents are generally rare. And the chance that a great orator can move an assembled body to vote in a particular way, as Cicero could, is next to nil. But that’s about it. The same motivations, the same drama, the same hubris are alive and well.

Cicero in the Roman Senate accusing Catiline of conspiracy, October 21, 63 BC. Painting by Cesare Maccari, 1889.

If the California Legislature, the California Coastal Commission, the San Diego Board of Supervisors, and the San Diego County Planning Commission have taught me anything, it’s this – commissioners, politicians, and board members typically endure, rather than embrace, public testimony. And sometimes, with obvious contempt or boredom, they disappear into a back corridor during the process. After being mostly consumed by her phone, former San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar walked away while citizens were offering testimony against a proposed development during a June 26, 2019, board meeting – a development Gaspar and the board later voted to approve.

Such behavior reveals a fatal flaw in our republic – public representatives often have their minds made up prior to public hearings. Like environmental impact reports (EIRs) that have become treatises of Orwellian doublespeak in order to mask the harm projects will cause, public testimony is just another constraint on power that politicians, developers, and public agencies have learned to hobble in pursuit of self-interest.

This realization dawned on me after I naively thought that if I presented the science to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors after the 2003 Cedar Fire, the board would incorporate that science into policy. Not only did that not happen, but the board approved policy that was contrary to the science. Our testimony accomplished one thing, however. It helped the California Chaparral Institute establish legal standing to challenge the policy in court. We did, and won, saving 300 square miles of habitat the county intended to clear. The entire adventure was serialized by the Independent Voter Network.

In 2019, our testimony and comment letters allowed us again to challenge bad public policy, this time the Otay Ranch development in southern San Diego County. Besides pointing out the threat to native habitat, we argued the development was unsafe because it was being placed within a dangerous wildfire corridor. When the county superviors ignored the science again and voted to approve, with the unfortunate support of the local Cal Fire chief, we were ready. This was the same June 26th board meeting Supervisor Gaspar walked away from.

Along with our partners, Preserve Wild Santee and the Center for Biological Diversity, we filed suit against the project. The California Attorney General’s office also filed motions in support of our case, writing, “… the County of San Diego’s EIRs repeatedly underplay the severity of the wildfire risk, concluding despite all scientific evidence to the contrary that the introduction of structures and people will not increase wildfire risks.”

Having the state attorney general’s office in our corner is a definite plus. However, their support for wildfire science is at odds with their defense of Cal Fire in our lawsuit challenging the department’s unscientific approach to wildfire risk – clearing a half million acres of habitat per year.

Clearing Coastal Habitat

Always hopeful that facts can prevail, earlier this month (July 8) we offered a well-documented comment letter and oral testimony to the California Coastal Commission that pointed out major errors in staff reports that supported two large habitat clearance plans (under the guise of fire protection) along the coast of San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties.

One glaring error in the reports, and one that provided the primary support for the plans, was the persistent misconception about past fire suppression, claiming that natural habitat nearly everywhere is an unnaturally dense, unsightly mess growing out of control. This condition is supposed to have been created by extinguishing past fires that proponents claim would have kept the unruly growth in check. The recommended solution: habitats need to be cleared, mowed, logged, and/or sprayed with herbicide to remove the offending plant life – all in the name of forest or ecological health, neither of which was ever defined.

The fire suppression/plant growth narrative has been so successfully embedded into the public’s mind, it is unquestionably repeated as fact. It appears in nearly every media article about every wildfire regardless of ecosystem type, supported by well-worn quotes from agency representatives, fire managers, and scientists who should know better.

For California’s coastal habitats, the science clearly contradicts the fire suppression narrative in the Coastal Commission reports. The natural fire return interval for the coastal region targeted by the proposed clearance plans is approximately 135 years. For example, despite claims to the contrary, the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire in Santa Cruz County that burned through Big Basin Redwood State Park was a perfectly natural event. The last fire in the area was in 1904, well within the normal range.

To the uninformed eye, a burned forest looks like a disaster, which was how the CZU Fire was incorrectly characterized by those in favor of the plans. However, if one visits Big Basin Redwood State Park today, the explosion of life is astounding.

Humans react emotionally to immediate events rather than taking time to understand the remarkable regenerative power of long term ecological processes. The policy consequences of such impatience can result in (and finance) significant environmental harm.

Coast redwoods sprout back above Gold Gulch, Empire Grade, three months after CZU Lightning Complex Fire. Photo: Dustin Mulvaney.

Ten out of eleven public speakers testified against the plans before the Coastal Commission. Most pointed out that the underlying reports had misrepresented the region’s fire regimes, along with a number of other problems.

Dr. Dan Silver – Endangered Habitats League
Pamela Hetherington – Environmental Center of San Diego
Karen Makei – Loma Prieta Sierra Club, San Mateo County
Bret Hall – California Native Plant Program, UC Santa Cruz
Dr. Jennifer Normoyle – Loma Prieta Sierra Club, San Mateo County
Richard Halsey – California Chaparral Institute
Dr. Georgia Goldfarb – Los Angeles County
Patty Healy – Malibu Coalition for Slow Growth
Kristen Sandel – Santa Cruz
Dr. Susan Lessin – Loma Prieta Sierra Club, San Mateo County

After public testimony, staff and others supportive of the plans were allowed to rebut what was said during testimony. As is standard practice, those who testified were not allowed to respond.

What were the commissioners’ responses to the near unanimous testimony questioning the science in the supporting plans? The public’s input was ignored and several commissioners repeated the misconception about fire suppression during their own comments. Not one commissioner asked a single question of staff or the agencies supporting the plans to reflect on why so many public comments contradicted the main assumptions underlying the habitat clearance plans.

At that, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the plans.

The experience reminded us of a 2009 San Diego County Planning Commission meeting where commissioners were considering another large habitat clearance plan. All the written comments and public testimony expressed opposition. However, in this case, the commission chair did verbally acknowledge the public’s input and mentioned that no speakers were in support of the plan.

We resurrected an edited recording of the meeting we assembled shortly afterwards. It’s quite interesting to hear and is a testament to how the fire/habitat clearance controversy hasn’t changed much over the years.

Names change, game remains the same. An interesting flashback to the San Diego County Planning Commission meeting in 2009 where there was unanimous public opposition to a plan to clear 300 square miles of habitat under the guise of fire protection. The commission ignored the testimony and approved the plan anyway. We eventually challenged it in court and won.

The North/South Schism

Interestingly, after public testimony on the two proposed clearance plans, Coastal Commission staff repeated several times how the planning areas in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties were different than southern California in that they needed more fire (a contradiction of the science). No one mentioned southern California in public testimony, nor was it in the reports, so it is unclear why the region kept being brought up.

However, the “we-are-not-like-LA” non sequitur is something we have frequently encountered when giving presentations north of Los Angeles. It’s likely a reflection of the historic, not-so-subtle cultural bias in the north against anything originating south of Ventura. Unfortunately, the bias isn’t just a minor social cliché. The bias threatens chaparral in the northern part of the state because it prevents people from recognizing the important role chaparral plays in supporting the state’s biodiversity, and accepting the fact that increasing fire frequencies are a danger to the system, just like they have been in southern California for a very long time.

Clearing Habitat Across the State

We also testified earlier this month during a hearing of the California Assembly’s Committee on Natural Resources. This time we were questioning a bill (SB 456), providing suggestions for improvement. Our testimony did garner a significant response, but it was mostly composed of deflections and logical fallacies. Both the authoring senator and a supporting fire official provided anecdotes about how they had seen devastating fires and therefore knew what policy was best. None of the actual concerns in our testimony or letter were addressed.

The committee passed the bill unanimously.

The Wrong Question

You’ve probably noticed a pattern here. We have consistently failed to influence public representatives to vote for Nature.

So, in attempting to answer the question raised at the beginning of this article, “what’s public testimony worth?” I found myself coming up with a list of lame answers focusing on platitudes about civic involvement. After all, I don’t want to discourage people from participating in their government.

It was then that I realized I was asking the wrong question.

The question we need to ask ourselves as advocates for Nature is, “Am I having a good time doing this?”

Seriously.

Because if you’re spending countless hours offering public testimony, writing comment letters, and interacting with public representatives with the sole purpose of fostering change (i.e. results), the most likely consequence you’ll face is burnout. The continual frustration, the rejection, the negativity, will eventually drag you into the abyss of cynicism. Which, by the way, is exactly what the opposition would like to see.

You can’t let that happen to you. We can’t afford to have that happen to you. And our fellow mortals, as John Muir referred to all the plants and animals we share this earth with, desperately need you to be their voice.

Therefore, we must accept the fact that we can’t control the actions of bureaucrats who stare at us with glazed eyes while we pour my hearts out, share the facts, and offer inspired solutions. We do not have the financial resources to influence politicians who pretend to listen to us, then vote in order to remain employed. We can’t make people care like we do. We can’t control the reactions of anyone.

But we can rejoice in what we can control; our own reactions, emotions, and the art we create – art as defined as the product of our creative energies, be it sculpture, a beautiful photograph, a well-crafted letter, or a moving speech.

It’s hard to do this in the face of rejection and loss. But the alternative of being pulled into the abyss, being controlled by the actions of others, does not serve us.

How does one push back and regain control of one’s spinning mind and turn away from those sometimes overwhelming feelings of despair? It will be different for everyone. But for me, I go to stories with a lesson, stories that I’ve discovered over the years, mostly from Nature. They recenter me. It just takes practice.

Remembering the wise chipmunk I met on Colby Pass in the Sierra Nevada several summers ago is one of my favorites. He scurried in front of me, one switchback at a time, stopping to rest at each bend. By the looks of his behavior, I was pretty sure he celebrated the moment. Then off he went again. The wisdom he offered? Set achievable goals. Be happy when you reach them. When you do, achieving the pass, the vision, will take care of itself.

Celebrate your art, your curiosity, your love of seeking knowledge. Embrace the process and the things you can control. Laugh. Be proud of what you have created. The results? Meh.

Testifying for the Fun of It

  1. Enjoy Yourself. Go into the process to express your unique view, a view no one else has. Speak your truth. Be proud of your 3 minute speech, two-page comment letter, or your march down a street carrying a sign. It’s all tremendously energizing. It’s fun. And by all means, once you’re done, leave it. Do not let your mind spin round and round about what you might have forgotten to say or how you said it. You likely did a lot better than you think. Remember the chipmunk.
  2. Rally the Troops. Your participation can help motivate others to do the same. Numbers matter.
  3. Counter the Opposition. Cynical bureaucrats and politicians can often pull off destructive things because they know most of the citizenry is not paying attention. And they know how to take advantage this. California State Parks is pulling off an incredibly destructive clearance project at Rancho Cuyamaca in San Diego County because no one noticed the emergency exemption they filed to do so. Cal Fire began a comment period for their Vegetation Treatment Program over the holidays. Get up there and let them know what they are doing is wrong – that’s an important achievement and it makes others think.
  4. Establish Legal Standing. You can’t challenge a destructive project in court unless you establish legal standing by testifying and submitting comment letters. We know not everyone has the ability to file a lawsuit, but you can offer your legal standing to a group that does. Legal standing has been the primary reason we submit comment letters and testify. We are fully aware our comments will likely be ignored, so we make sure to craft an excellent letter with all the points we want to raise in the courtroom. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) empower citizens to do this. Take advantage of your power. We’ve done this and a lot of native habitat has been protected as a consequence.
  5. Start Little Chatter. Social change starts as little chatter over the kitchen table. Then in small groups. Then in big rallies. Then on the streets. Start a little chatter. Testifying to protect Nature can be the beginning of that chatter.

Tips

Here’s some good, practical tips on giving public testimony. But the most important thing to remember is to enjoy yourself.

One of our favorite tips – Remember, people don’t care what you know (and they will forget the details you worked so hard to communicate anyway), unless they know how much you care (and they will always remember how you made the feel). Show them how much you care.

Having fun speaking our truth – protesting human-caused climate change in Santa Barbara, CA.

10 Comments on “What’s Public Testimony Worth?

  1. This is wonderful, Rick! I would add that it can be very inspiring to see what others in allied efforts are doing. Reading Suzanne Simard’s recent book ‘Saving the Mother Tree’ is a good start. I think you would find much there to uplift you. Also, spend a minute with DamNation, an excellent doc on rewilding rivers (https://youtu.be/laTIbNVDQN8). Thanks for all you do. You are an inspiration.

  2. Rick, congratulations your thoughts are similar to those of a time-honored hero:

    One final paragraph of advice. Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast… a part time crusader, a half hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much. I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators.
    I promise you this – we will outlive the bastards.
    Edward Abbey

  3. Thanks Rick,
    This is very wise stuff. I have thought for a long time that you are a wise guy.
    I’ll see if I can follow your advice. I need to be glad I’m here to step up and inform people of the gnarly facts.
    And after I get back home, I can sit outside and enjoy nature’s show in the canyon and feel I did my part for its survival.
    Kay Stewart

  4. As someone who testified multiple times before California legislative committees and the Coastal Commission about the harm to public health and the environment from wood burning beach fires, I appreciate your commentary. Staff reports usually signal fait accompli, and staff are often highly partisan. It can be discouraging and then, maybe once, you get lucky and it feels worth it… https://www.facebook.com/fxpeters/videos/10153803674959375

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