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San Francisco Chronicle, February 1, 2009

Political pull helped fix Scouts' dam problem
By Seth Rosenfeld, Chronicle Staff Writer

The Boy Scouts of America's Monterey Bay Area Council operated a summer dam on a pristine river and - despite official warnings - allegedly killed federally protected steelhead trout downstream.

And when state and federal regulators sought to have the council stop using the dam, Scout executives turned to politicians to whom they had given campaign contributions or with whom they had personal ties.

The Scout council avoided fines and quietly secured a favorable settlement agreement that, until now, has obscured a full account of their conduct at Camp Pico Blanco on the Little Sur River, north of the rugged Big Sur coast.

In interviews, Scout officials said they followed the rules in using the dam to create a lake for summertime swimming and boating. They denied seeking special treatment from regulators.

"We are good stewards" of the environment, said Ron Walsh, who was a top official at the camp. "But on the other hand, we recognized the value of the waterfront program to our kids, and we were not just going to sit idly by."

The Chronicle obtained details of the June 2002 fish kill and its aftermath from documents obtained under the California Public Records Act and the federal Freedom of Information Act and in more than two dozen interviews.

The imbroglio at the Scout camp began when state Fish and Game officials sought to halt use of the dam about 12 miles south of Carmel, off Highway 1, because it did not meet environmental standards.

But after the Scouts complained to then-state Sen. Bruce McPherson, R-Santa Cruz, officials agreed to let them continue using the dam.

The Scout council agreed to take precautions to protect the fish. But within weeks, agents of the National Marine Fisheries Service discovered evidence that camp staff had ignored the safeguards and - rushing to fill the lake in hot weather - "dewatered" the river below the dam, killing at least 30 threatened steelhead trout in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Concerned about future violations, the federal officials sought to stop the Scouts from damming the Little Sur until the dam met standards.

Scout executives again resisted, saying they needed to continue using the dam so Boy Scouts could use the lake to earn merit badges.

This time they enlisted help from Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, who had attended the camp as a boy.

Ultimately, the council succeeded: The fisheries service backed off and the Scouts were allowed to continue using the dam on the condition that they substantially improve it.

In interviews, McPherson and Farr confirmed that they had contacted regulators at the request of Scout officials. They denied their actions were related to their personal ties or campaign contributions.

"Camp Pico Blanco is, if not the most, one of the best-recognized Scout camps in the state." said McPherson. "I think that's probably why it got extra attention."

Farr said he had done for the Scouts what he would have done for any constituent. He called the final result "a win-win," good for both the Scouts and the trout.

Pristine watershed

The Little Sur River winds some 23 miles down the slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains in the Los Padres National Forest, passing through private land, including the Scout camp, before emptying into the Pacific. The river "is as close to a pristine watershed as is known to exist" in the area, according to a fisheries service report.

The river is especially important to the steelhead. The report says their numbers in the south central coast area have dwindled from about 4,750 fish in 1965 to about 800 in 2005, because of pollution, erosion that clogs streams and dams that dry up waterways.

Since 1955, the Monterey Bay Scouts had been using the summer dam on the Little Sur. The concrete dam had a spillway about 10 feet wide. Every May, the Scouts blocked the spillway with redwood "flash boards," damming the river and creating a lake.

Thousands of Scouts came from around the state to swim, boat and learn water safety. Each September, the boards were removed. The lake was a source of income to the council, since other councils paid for their Scouts to use it.

For decades the Scouts operated the dam with the state's knowledge.

But in 2001, state and federal wildlife officials began enforcing tougher rules for recreational summer dams. The steelhead had been listed as a threatened species and new laws protecting them had gone into effect.

That July, Jonathan Ambrose, a fisheries service biologist, visited Camp Pico Blanco and told Scout officials that if the dam provided insufficient flow downstream, it could harm the steelhead.

By April 2002, Ron Walsh, the assistant Scout executive at the council, had submitted only an incomplete application to operate the dam that summer. Yet he wanted a permit quickly, so the council could create the lake in time for the camp's traditional Memorial Day opening.

A Fish and Game official, Linda Hanson, told Walsh it was too late: Under the new regulations, the permit would require additional review, records show.

Walsh appealed to other Fish and Game officials, to no avail. In May, according to the records, Hanson explained that a quick turnaround wasn't possible "considering that this would need environmental review, the application was not complete and the site had not been visited."


Then Walsh phoned Hanson again, this time with his attorney on the line. Hanson told them that summer dams around the state also were being examined. The council would have to stop using the dam until it obtained a permit.

"The waterfront was one of the real highlights of the camp," Walsh said in an interview. "We were really between a rock and a hard place."

At this point, the Scouts contacted state Sen. McPherson "to see if he could at least facilitate some discussions" with Fish and Game officials, Walsh said. "We were not trying to get around anything."

Over the years, McPherson had received campaign donations from firms affiliated with men who were active in Scouting: $35,500 from Granite Construction, whose president was David H. Watts, a member of the council board; $5,000 from Chapin Construction, headed by Donald Chapin Jr., a longtime council supporter.

In interviews, both McPherson and the donors said the contributions had nothing to do with the Scouts or their problem at the camp.

McPherson recalled contacting the head of Fish and Game, Robert Hight. "It wasn't a pressure-point discussion that I had with him," McPherson said. "It was more, 'I know that you're in negotiations, can you get to a resolution and get specific as to what's needed and satisfy both parties?' "

A McPherson aide also phoned Fish and Game headquarters in Sacramento, and the agency's legislative office then queried Hanson about the project. She explained that the Scouts had yet to submit a completed application, she wrote.

Hanson held firm when the Scouts' Walsh phoned yet again. "It doesn't matter who you talk to in the department, the answer will be the same," she said, according to the record. "Basically the pressure being applied is asking us to do something we legally cannot do."

Then on June 3 a news story titled "Scouts' Summer Fun Dries Up" appeared in the Monterey Herald in which a council official complained that the state was unfairly forcing them to stop using the dam "at the last minute."

'Any way to fix this?!'

Later that day, Dirk Brazil, a deputy director of the Department of Fish and Game, faxed a copy of the Herald story to Robert Floerke, a Fish and Game manager and Hanson's superior.

"Any way to fix this?!" Brazil wrote on the cover sheet bearing the Director's Office letterhead.

Within weeks, the Scouts' problem was fixed.

Fish and Game reversed course and agreed to let the Scouts use the dam that summer without the standard permit. The department said this would allow the state to study the dam's potential harm to fish.

Hight said in an interview that he recalled nothing about the Pico Blanco issue. "It doesn't ring any bells," he said.

At Fish and Game, "we received political pressure from legislators all the time," said Hight, now a judge in Sacramento. "But we always did the right thing."

Brazil, now deputy Yolo County administrator, said in an interview that he did not recall how he learned of the Herald story. He said he did "lots of problem solving" at the department and that it was not unusual for him to send faxes like the one he sent Floerke, the Fish and Game manager.

"If anything, this was me looking at something in my old backyard and asking a very simple question," said Brazil, who grew up in Monterey County.

According to a federal report, Fish and Game officials were "concerned about the negative publicity."

Floerke recalled that other Scout councils around the state had complied with the new regulations on summer dams, but at Pico Blanco "it was resistance all the way."

He acknowledged that after Fish and Game headquarters intervened, his staff agreed to let the council keep using the dam.

"In a simplistic way, if you look at it, yeah, they backed down," said Floerke, who is now retired.

With the state's permission, the people who ran Camp Pico Blanco on July 8, 2002 began to install the flashboards to dam the Little Sur and create the lake.

The Scouts had promised to fill the lake slowly, ensuring that the river had sufficient flow to allow fish downstream to survive.

But when fisheries service special agent Roy Torres arrived with a video camera to monitor the installation, he discovered that the Scouts did not have a gauge to measure the water flow, as required. Nor had they retained a biologist to help with the installation.

Hot day

One camp staffer told Torres the council planned to take a week to fill the lake. But a Scout parent told Torres the job would be done in just one day, as always. It was a hot day, the parent said, and the Scouts wanted to go swimming.

Meanwhile, a camp staffer told Torres that "he has seen many trout in the river and did not see why there were so many regulations protecting them," according to the agent's report.

The agent explained that steelhead faced extinction and that was why he was videotaping, the report said.

Chastened, camp staff stopped installing the flashboards. The next day, when a state official visited, the lake was only a few inches deep.

The third day

But on the third day - when no state or federal officials were present - the lake was quickly filled to a depth of 6 feet.

When fisheries service Special Agent Thomas Gaffney arrived a few hours later, he found that the stream below the dam had been de-watered, according to a report. Caught among the rocks were 30 freshly killed steelhead, stranded and suffocated.

Gaffney believed more had been killed but had been swiftly devoured by raccoons and birds.

At the camp, Gaffney discovered that the "knife gate" - a slot at the foot of the dam that was supposed to remain open to permit stream flow - had been shut.

During the ensuing investigation, Kenneth W. Allen II, the council's executive, and his assistant, Walsh, failed to fully cooperate, according to a federal report. One Scout official suggested that unknown campers or "renegade" staff had filled the lake too fast.

In interviews, Allen and Walsh denied that any Scout officials failed to cooperate.

"As far as we know, we followed the protocol," Walsh said. "Why the fish died is anybody's guess."

In the end, the fisheries service concluded that the Scout council was responsible for the unauthorized killing of the steelhead: The lake was filled too fast, de-watering the stream and beaching the fish, said a report.

Lawyers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the fisheries service, threatened the Scouts with a fine, which by law could have reached $396,000. They asked the Scouts to stop using the dam until they obtained permits and modified it to meet current standards.

Council leaders protested, saying the dam was "an integral economic and educational feature" of the camp. They then turned to Rep. Farr.

An environmentalist, Farr last year received a Sierra Club award. He sponsored the Big Sur Wilderness and Conservation Act of 2002, which gave permanent protection to federal lands in the area.

As a former boy Scout, Farr also is a staunch supporter of Scouting - and Camp Pico Blanco.

"I was one of the first Scouts when it first opened" in the 1950s, he said in an interview, recalling that he earned his water safety merit badge in the lake created by the dam. "My nickname as a kid was Fisherman Farr," he added.

Scout officials have supported Farr, who had received at least $1,750 in donations from Granite Construction, where council board member Watts was president, and from another board member.

Farr then phoned NOAA on behalf of the Scouts. Assistant General Counsel Michele Kuruc, who was in charge of regional deputies around the country, said she took the call.

"He did certainly recall some of these memories of his own childhood and experiences at the camp," Kuruc said. "And he wanted to talk about that a little bit with me."

Negotiated settlement

Kuruc then phoned Amanda Wheeland, her subordinate handling the case.

"I was told I would be backing down and not be requiring as a condition of settlement that they stop operating the dam," said Wheeland, who has since retired from the agency.

Wheeland added, "They were able, because of who they were, to negotiate a settlement agreement for the interim operation period that not everyone would have been able to get."

Kuruc said the agency's decision was based on many factors. "It wasn't as a result of Rep. Farr's phone call," said Kuruc, who is now with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Program.

Farr denied the Scouts received special treatment. "Our constituents are treated all the same," he said.

In June 2003, the Scouts signed a settlement agreement with the fisheries service. Though it was never made public, The Chronicle obtained a copy.

Instead of a fine, the deal required the council to install a fish ladder; modify the dam's spillway to allow steelhead to migrate upstream; and enhance the stream bed habitat for fish.

The project cost more than $1 million, a council official said.

Although the settlement allowed council officials to operate the dam in the meantime, it required them to retain a qualified expert to monitor use of the dam to prevent fish kills and to educate campers about endangered species.

Scout officials admitted no wrongdoing in the agreement, which also shielded them from bad publicity: Neither the fisheries service nor the Scouts could issue a press release about the 2002 fish kill without letting the other party review it in advance.

The Scouts have complied with the settlement terms, said a fisheries official.

"My own experience of the Scouts is that they taught us to be good stewards of the land," Farr said. "Leave it better than you find it. It's been a motto that I've used in politics ever since. And I think frankly, the way this thing got worked out, it did do that."

© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton