Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Arcata’s Measure A, the Open Space, Parks, and Trails Special Tax measure, hits the ballot at a peculiar point in history. The $37-per-parcel annual tax arrives amid a raging pandemic that has hobbled the economy, and an economic scenario that could hurt its chances among newly expense-conscious voters.
But backers think this is the perfect time to pivot Arcata’s natural assets to a future-friendly footing via a force-multiplying funding source.
Measure A’s estimated $175,000 annual revenue would improve existing parks and trails, leverage grant funding by showing community buy-in, and help expand and protect Arcata’s natural areas with new acquisitions and easements.
The measure has been incubating for years, and was shaped by extensive scoping. After circulating among Arcata’s environmentally oriented citizen advisory committees, it was the subject of a January survey of 246 Arcata voters, then finalized, approved and later endorsed by the City Council during public hearings.
The survey found wide approval of Arcata’s natural resource management and direction, and majority support for doing more via a tax. But, concluded surveyors, “That support is relatively soft.”
Some 61 percent of voters saw some or great need for more open space funding. Voters under age 50 support such a tax by more than the two-thirds majority needed for approval. So do Democrats (78 percent) and Independents (74 percent), though Republicans oppose it by a mirror-image majority (78 percent).
“The role of the Arcata Community Forest Management Plan was to fully cover the costs of managing trails, access, maintenance and improvements,” contends the official “Argument Against Measure A” – written by two non-Arcata residents – on the county Office of Elections website. “If that model is no longer functional, we should have a more involved conversation as to why it is not before burdening city residents with an additional and unnecessary tax in a time when essential services are being slashed.”
“No more taxes!” commented a surveyee. “Most funds [are] used for planning or administration and not for what it is intended.”
“They already have enough money to protect open space, they don’t need any more,” said another respondent.
Similar sentiments have been voiced about Measure F, the other parcel tax benefitting the Arcata Fire District, with which Measure A shares the ballot.
But to supporters, Measure A is about building on what’s been accomplished, and meeting the future head-on via a solid environmental and economic footing.
“Existing funds from sustainable timber harvesting will continue to be responsibly utilized for community forest stewardship,” reads the rebuttal to opponents. “But the forest alone was never intended to be overly burdened to fund all parks, open spaces, urban, regional, neighborhood and coastal access trails, habitat protection and maintenance efforts that span from the agricultural landscapes of the Arcata Bottom, Humboldt Bay, the Mad River and the forested hillsides.”
The list of projects that would be funded is long, spans all of Arcata’s natural holdings and beyond, and lets Arcata nimbly pounce on new opportunities as they arise.
“It’s a combination of priorities and targets of opportunity,” said Michael Furniss, Measure A supporter and member of Arcata’s Forest Management Committee. Opportunities to acquire environmentally valuable assets in areas neighboring existing holdings “often pass by because we don’t have the money,” he said.
Some choice eco-parcels require up-front “seed money” for things like appraisals and toxic testing, which could be quickly funded.
More and more, Arcata must compete with developers who would remake wildlands for profit rather than environmental and recreational values. “Land competition, speculation and the prospect of urban encroachment threaten our open spaces more than ever,” is how the Argument in Favor of Measure A puts it.
As COVID-19 changed everything, an unanticipated consequence was a huge influx in pandemic-driven eco-tourists using the Arcata Community Forest. City planners have also stressed that the area will be attractive to those to those fleeing the climate change heat from points south.
“People are coming here,” Furniss said. “We’re a climate refuge and a pandemic refuge.” Some visitors who discover recreational opportunities will want to stay and invest. Without the right combination of facilities and protections, he said, “this place is going to fill right in, and we don’t want that.”
What we do want, according to the voter survey, is protecting creeks and habitat, and continuing to expedite the return of wildlife. Climate friendliness, preservation, education and recreation are big wants, say voters.
Down the list of desires – but still substantially supported – are expanding the Arcata Community Forest (ACF) and building new trails, with lowest priorities being play field expansion, protection of agricultural lands and Mad River access.
Projects line up coarsely with the survey’s findings. Trails through town, to the Mad River and Blue Lake via the Annie & Mary Trail are listed, as are new trails in the ACF and Redwood Park.
Funds will animate a range of plans, policies and projects bettering parks, natural areas, open spaces, trails, creeks and waterways. A portfolio of plans developed during public process – the General Plan, Climate Action Plan, Parks Master Plan, Open Space Protection Program, Western Greenbelt, Forest Management Plan and Creek and Wetlands Plan – will have new teeth to lock in Arcata’s environmental aspirations.
That robust foundation is the best shot we have at armoring Arcata against the vagaries of the future, say backers, while positioning it as an”adventure town.” That marketing feature has worked well for places like Bellingham, Wash. and Moab, Utah, among many other U.S. towns.
“If we revitalize our outdoor options now, it will make the whole town more appealing,” said Zoie Andre, one of two Arcata High School seniors working on Measure A’s outreach effort. “It’s well worth the money, and will benefit everyone in town.”
It’s not that the current paradigm is broken, Andre said. It’s a proven model on which to build at what could be an inflection point. Measure A funding will help insulate the sustainably managed forest from financial pressure to harvest.
“We can’t rely on the forest to supply all the funds for parks, open spaces, trails and other projects,” she said. “There really is a need for a supplement.”
“People are turning to the outdoors for things to do,” said fellow advocate Vivian Gerstein. “It’s more relevant than ever and cross-generational. It’s for everyone.”
Funds would be held in a discrete Open Space, Parks, and Trails Special Tax Fund, with Arcata’s finance director reporting annually on revenue and expenditures, and the status of funded projects.
Read the text of Measure A, plus pro and con arguments at humboldtgov.org.