Archive for January, 2007

peak-a-boo.jpg

Fallow deer in the Point Reyes National Seashore range from white to spotted to black. Naturally gentle, they are among the few deer that can be easily domesticated, and they are widely raised for meat. The fallow herd was periodically culled by the park until Don Neubacher became superintendent in 1994. He stopped the culling and now claims the herd is becoming too large and must be totally eliminated. (Photo by Janine Warner)

West Marin residents need to start paying attention to how much the administration of the Point Reyes National Seashore has come to reflect ideologically rigid policies of the Bush Administration Park Service
, not to mention the Bush Administration’s belligerent approach to Homeland Security.

Combativeness, ideological zeal, and indifference to public opinion are the hallmarks of this approach. At the National Seashore, it is taking the form of:

• A widely criticized program to slaughter the long-resident white and spotted deer from Asia, which much of the public finds enchanting, on grounds it would be cheaper to eliminate them than to control herd sizes with culling or contraception.

The only public hearing on the pogrom before the National Seashore administration last year approved it was so tightly controlled as to be meaningless. No general discussion, with public debate, was allowed. Supt. Don Neubacher assembled a panel of like-minded folks to present the administration’s point of view. Respected organizations that oppose slaughtering the deer, such as the Humane Society, were noticeably left off his panel.

fawn-follows2.jpg
These fallow deer (originally from the Near East) and axis deer (originally from India and Sri Lanka) have been a part of the Point Reyes ecosystem for 60 years, far longer than the Park Service. (Photo by Janine Warner)

Yet the Neubacher administration talks about the fallow deer as if the growth of its herd is out of control. No it isn’t. The Neubacher administration in 1994 merely stopped the park’s periodic culling.

The park administration in trying to rationalize the pogrom claims that because non-indigenous deer eat acorns and so do indigenous blacktail deer, the wellbeing of the blacktail is being threatened. The claim is typical of the pseudo-environmental malarkey we’ve come to expect from the Bush Interior Department that also claims opening up the Artic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling is environmentally necessary.

100_3096.jpg
Blacktail deer are abundant throughout West Marin as this herd, including a doe who’s found one of my persimmons, bears witness.

There’s no shortage of blacktail deer in and around the park. Yes, a lot of them are dying on and off parkland here. And whose fault is that? Almost entirely motorists, many of whom are among two million visitors a year drawn to West Marin by the Point Reyes National Seashore.

• National Seashore Supt. Don Neubacher’s announced intention to close down the venerable Drake’s Bay Oyster Company when its lease expires in five years.

There may be ranches, not to mention a Coast Guard station, next door, but Neubacher claims the land around the oyster company’s waters is “potential” wilderness and that it would take an act of Congress to keep the oyster company open. If that’s true — and county officials are skeptical — then it’s Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey’s responsibility to take action in Congress.

Like the exotic deer, the oyster company has been on Point Reyes far longer than the park, which opened in 1965. Oyster growing has become part of the Drakes Estero ecoystem, and oysterman Kevin Lunny notes that because oysters filter water, the water is cleaner in his part of the estuary than where oyster growing has ended.

For many visitors to the National Seashore, buying oysters at the oyster company brings them far more pleasure than visitor centers, sandcastle contests, boarded-up ranch buildings, and the Morgan horse stable — not to denigrate any of them but merely to take note of the obvious.

100_944.jpgI’ve never heard Lunny himself say this, but some ranchers on Point Reyes see Supt. Neubacher’s plans to close the oyster company as “payback time.”

They believe that Lunny, who is also a beef rancher, roused the superintendent’s ire two years ago when he helped organize the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association so that ranchers in the park can collectively negotiate their leases with the National Seashore administration. Ranchers I’ve talked with say Neubacher (pictured) reacted bitterly to formation of their association.

One indication of the park administration’s attitude toward the association occurred a year ago when the National Seashore hired a “range ecologist.” No sooner had he arrived than he showed up at an association meeting to introduce himself, say he’d noticed some ranches had fences in need of repair, warned that he would give ranchers one notice to make repairs, and said if they didn’t then hop to it, he would seek to have their leases revoked. Dick Cheney couldn’t have said it better.

(Ironically the Jan. 30 San Francisco Chronicle described in detail the sorry state of Golden Gate National Recreation Area fencing at Crissy Beach. Neubacher administers, along with the National Seashore, part of the GGNRA but not the beach in San Francisco.)

One rancher, who doesn’t agree with the “payback” theory, instead believes the oyster grower’s problems began when Gordon Bennett, chairman of the Marin Unit of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the national Sierra Club, got Neubacher’s ear by becoming part of the park superintendent’s kitchen cabinet. *

With Congress stalling on reviving the Citizens Advisory Commission to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore, the park superintendent has been able to cherry pick whom he listens to. Sometimes the arrangement reminds me of our government’s unstated alliance with the Taliban during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
An environmental fundamentalist, Bennett is the loudest critic of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which he considers equivalent to a 165-foot-high old Buddha in potentially Taliban-pure wilderness. The opposition of Bennett, who lives in Paradise Ranch Estates, to a popular oyster farm founded more than a century ago is perfectly in character.

100_2010.jpg

A major stopover for birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway and a haven for harbor seals, seabirds, and long-legged wading birds, Bolinas Lagoon may completely fill with silt if its channel isn’t dredged and tidal circulation restored. The chairman of the Marin Unit of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club opposes the necessary dredging.

When the nonprofit Marine Mammal Center needed to upgrade its treatment facilities on the Marin Headlands or when people around Bolinas Lagoon hoped to dredge silt from its channel before the lagoon becomes a meadow, Bennett was always there to lend a criticism.

* The term “kitchen cabinet” in its political sense originated in the 1820s during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Jackson abandoned official cabinet meetings and instead took his advice from an informal, kitchen-table cabinet more to his liking. A number of these advisors, such as influential newspaper editors, were chosen because they had a pulpit for defending his policies.

Next week: Bringing the voice of democracy back to the Point Reyes National Seashore delayed by congressional Democrats’ distrust of Bush Administration.

ek_3_1_1.jpg

Nan McEvoy’s olive groves on Red Hill. (Photo by Jim Kravets)


It took 3.5 years of permit hassles, but Marin County supervisors Tuesday finally told Nan McEvoy she can erect a 149-foot-high wind turbine at her olive-oil-producing ranch along the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road.

County planning commissioners had previously rejected the windmill proposal in a 6-to-1 vote. The supervisors, in contrast, unanimously approved it in a modified form.

McEvoy has had to contend with a chorus of neighbors who didn’t like the proposed location (so she moved it) and the proposed height (so she repeatedly lowered it, from 246 feet to 210 to 189 to 149). Ironically, they simultaneously warned about windmills killing raptors. That has been a problem with small wind turbines. The blades spin so fast the birds don’t always see them. A longer blade, which requires a taller tower, spins much slower, making it easy for to birds to see it. Unfortunately, the neighbors didn’t want to see it themselves, and McEvoy agreed to monitor for three years the windmill’s effects on birds.

McEvoy plans to use the 660-killowatt wind turbine to power its oil-pressing plant. [Update, Marin Planning Commission Chairman Wade Holland of Inverness this week said the “sad” fact is that the turbine’s output was ultimately reduced to 250 killowatts. Please see his comment.]

As it happened, one of the times I interviewed McEvoy was back in 1996 just before the County of Marin issued a permit for the plant.

100_07111.jpg
Former Point Reyes Light editor Jim Kravets and his wife Kristan at McEvoy’s Victorian house and its pond during a harvest party. The pagoda at right (with a palm tree behind it) is part of the ranch’s dining room. For her to create this estate in agricultural zoning, the County of Marin required McEvoy to come up with a viable farm operation. She ended up pioneering olive-oil production in the county, exactly the type of result for which the zoning was enacted.


McEvoy, who formerly chaired the board of The San Francisco Chronicle Publishing Company, had bought the 552-acre ranch in 1990 with plans to make it into a country estate.

“I bought this place because I thought it was very pretty,” she told me during an interview at a long table in her immense kitchen, which stands alone as a single building. “The county would not help me [get permits to improve the buildings] unless there was an agricultural purpose. It was then I came up with olives.”

Her parents had raised cows, she said, “and I knew I didn’t want cows. I thought of fruit trees, and from there almost immediately of olives. I had in my head always that an olive tree is a very handsome thing. They have very few pests; they’re very good for cooking; they’re useful.”

“I had been to Italy for cooking classes, and I didn’t think there was much good olive oil around [here].” Having read a cookbook called The Feast of the Olive, McEvoy contacted the author, Maggie Klein, who turned out to live in Oakland.

Klein said that much of the book’s technical information about olive-oil production came from an Italian named Maurizio Castelli, and she arranged for McEvoy (accompanied by an interpreter) to meet him.

ek_1.jpgBefore flying to Italy, however, McEvoy sent Castelli water and soil samples from her ranch, along with weather records, and “he decided, yes, we could do it,” she said.

With a stone wheel of the olive press in the background, ranch consultant Maurizio Castelli shows me his magician’s skills, appearing to hold two cups of olive oil in his hand while balancing a wine glass on one finger. (Photo by Jim Kravets)


The UC Extension Service and others were initially skeptical, fearing the ranch would prove to be too cool, foggy, and windy, but McEvoy demonstrated that not only would olive trees grow well on her Red Hill property, they could produce award-winning olive oil.

By now she has 18,000 olive trees growing on her hills. McEvoy’s success has encouraged other owners of West Marin agricultural land to plant olive trees, and they too use her press.

For several years, I have attended harvest parties at the ranch, hosted by her and (in recent years) her son Nion, chairman and CEO of Chronicle books. The guests have typically been a mix of politicos, ranchers, and members of the press. To say McEvoy has always been “well connected” would be an understatement. Many years ago, it was not uncommon to see her on the arm of Adlai Stevenson.

At a harvest party five or six years ago, I found myself seated next to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who two weeks go became the first woman (not to mention the first Californian and the first Italian-American) Speaker of the House of Representatives. Our conversation alternated between her impressions of Congress, which were pretty dreary at the time, and her husband’s reminiscences of spending time as a youth on Steve and Sharon Doughty’s ranch in Point Reyes Station. Family members then owned the ranch.

McEvoy not so long ago was a director of the American Farmland Trust, a nationwide nonprofit which tries to keep agricultural land in agriculture despite the financial pressures on ranchers and farmers. As most environmentalists here realize, reining in the conversion of agricultural land to residential and commercial development also preserves open space.

The hassles McEvoy just endured to get permission to use alternative energy are symptomatic of the obstacles society puts in the way of all agriculture — even organic, sustainable agriculture.

100_3107_11.jpg
Exotic rat at Point Reyes

This week I shot a rat. With my camera, that is. To be precise, I photographed a roof rat foraging under a flowerpot for stray birdseed. It was a lucky shot, for an instant after I snapped the picture, the rat was gone.

For 30 years, I have been aware of roof rats on this hill, for they have sometimes made themselves known in a particularly disruptive fashion.

It typically happens this way; every few years, a resident of Campolindo Drive turns on the dishwasher only to have soapy water spread across the kitchen floor. (If memory serves, it happened to my late neighbors Ben and Charlotte Glading twice, to my neighbors Dan and Mary Huntsman once, and to me twice.)

Inverness applicance repairman Dave Brast this week explained what’s been going on: “There’s one hose that drains a dishwasher, and usually it goes through a hole in the cabinet wall that separates the dishwasher nook from the space under the kitchen sink. If the sink drain goes through the wall under and behind the sink and if that hole is overly large for the drainpipe (thereby leaving a gap), a rodent can crawl from inside the wall through the gap into the under-sink space and then through the hole in the cabinet wall over to the dishwasher nook…”

(For roof rats to “enter homes and buildings,” The New York Times-owned website About.com notes, “they only need a hole the size of a quarter.”)

Brast further explained, “To do damage by gnawing through the dishwasher drain hose, the rodent can gnaw the portion of the hose under the sink or under or behind the dishwasher.

“I think the hose in the nook is the favorite target because there the rodent is completely protected from being disturbed by cats, dogs and humans….

“In the last few weeks I’ve had to repair two rat-gnawed dishwasher-drain hoses in Bolinas, one at the home of Aggie Murch and the other at the home of Charles and Veronique Fox. The two houses are on opposite sides of the road just a few hundred yards apart. The first gnawing was in the Murch house and days later in the Fox house.

“This made us wonder if it wasn’t the same rat doing the gnawing. After it gnawed through the first hose, it thought, “Well, no more to gnaw here at Murch’s. Guess I’ll mosey on over to Fox’s and see what there is to gnaw there…. Another dishwasher-hose gnawing I remember happened to Herb and Gina Kutchins’ [Inverness Park] dishwasher.”

Why do roof rats do this? “My understanding is that rodents gnaw because they have to,” Brast told me. “If they didn’t, the front teeth, which never stop growing, would get so long the animal wouldn’t be able to open its mouth wide enough to eat.” In short, it’s a dental procedure.

And there are more serious reasons for not wanting roof rats in our kitchens than periodically sudsy floors.

As reflected in their grating scientific name Rattus rattus, roof rats are notorious creatures. I’m reminded of Nabokov naming Lolita’s stepfather “Humbert Humbert” to emphasize that rat’s ugly nature.

“The roof rat… is an introduced species of rat [that is] native to southern Asia,” the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science notes. (Florida has a particular problem with roof rats in citrus groves.) “It was brought to America on the first ships to reach the New World….

“The rat is the same species that carried the bubonic plague around the world [killing half the people in Europe during the late 1340s] and is also the host for murine typhus” in the South.
100_2132_1.jpg

Cats kill roof rat “pups” but seldom the adults. Charlie cat seen here fence sitting belongs to neighbors Jay Haas and Didi Thompson, whose dishwasher has thus far escaped rat damage. Whether Charlie should get the credit, however, is unclear.

Because roof rats (which like to gnaw their way into attics) are arboreal — traveling along branches, utility lines, and fence tops — they seldom fall prey to cats except when the “pups” are young and still “dispersing,” the University of Florida notes.

000_0111.jpgTraps are more effective in controlling roof rats.

Hawks, such as this redtail on my hill, and owls (especially barn owls) are even better, the University of Florida reports.

A female roof rat can have as many as five litters a year of up to eight pups each. And each generation is ready to begin reproducing in three to four months.

For the past two centuries, rats have been a fact of life on every continent but Antarctica.

The so-called Norway rats or “sewer rats” (Rattus norvegicus) are actually native to northern China. They reached Europe and the Americas from Asia much later than roof rats. The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology reports they were inadvertently carried on ships to Europe in the early 1700s and the New World in the 1770s.

“In Asia, Rattus norvegicus was native to forests and brushy areas,” the museum notes. “Today, however, Norway rats find preferred habitat to be alongside the rapid expansion of the human population. Nearly every port city in the world has a substantial population of these rodents.”

I happened to have been reporting for the old San Francisco Examiner back in 1982-83 when the City of San Francisco reconditioned its cable car tracks and — while it was at it — replaced antiquated sewer lines underneath.

A supervising engineer on the sewer project told me at the time that he and another employee had recently gone into a sewer tunnel under Market Street at the edge of the Financial District. The tunnel opened into a large chamber, he said, and as the two of them shone their flashlights around the tiered vault, they saw reflections from eyes of hundreds of rats. The two men beat a hasty retreat. A typical city, the engineer noted, has one rat for every human.

In case you have your own encounter with a representative of the genus rattus and wonder just what species you’re dealing with, the easiest way to distinguish between Norway rats and roof rats is by the length of their tails.

Norway rat tails are shorter than their bodies while the tail of a roof rat is noticeably longer than its body. Norway rats have bald ears. The ears of roof rats are furry. Norway rats are only slightly longer than roof rats; in fact the rattus rattus above would probably measure more than a foot from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail. In general, however, Norway rats are far heftier.

100_3146_1.jpg

Flashing wildlife makes some nature photography possible that would otherwise be difficult at best. *

The results of flashing, however, can be gratifying or frustrating, depending on how one sees things. Flashes often give humans red eye, and I don’t mean conjunctivitis (AKA pink eye). In fact, possums are the species that end up with pink eye in flash photography. Blacktail deer come out with blue eye while raccoon eyes can end up white or green or both.

100_3086.jpg

A blacktail fawn gets “blue eye,” not “red eye,” from being flashed.

(For the edification of readers in other parts of the country, I should note that flash photography can make prairie dog eyes look orange and alligator eyes look red.)

However, the reason flashes — which are often vital for photographing nocturnal wildlife — give these animals’ eyes their various colors is not the same reason flashes can make human eyes look red.

100_2493_4.jpg

The eyeshine of possums is pink.

Among mammals, the iris of the eye expands and contracts to let in the optimum amount of light as conditions become darker or brighter. When a camera flashes, the human iris cannot contract fast enough to keep bright light from reaching the back of the eye; as a result, red blood vessels of the retina reflect light and show up in photos as “red eye.”

Unlike humans, many other mammals, especially nocturnal creatures, have a mirror-like surface, the tapetum lucidum, behind their retinas. The eyeshine of a deer caught in the headlights is a reflection off the tapetum lucidum.

The tapetum lucidum helps nocturnal animals hunt and forage in low light. Here’s how. Light from outside the eye passes through the iris and the retina and then bounces off the tapetum lucidum back through the retina. This magnifies the intensity of the light reaching the rods and cones of the retina, which are what sense light.

However, the color of the tapetum lucidum differs from species to species, which is why rabbits have orange or red eyeshine while dogs are often green or blue.

100_2400_1.jpg
Showing both green and white eyeshine, a raccoon looks through my kitchen door at Nina Howard of Point Reyes Station.

Nor is having a tapetum lucidum an unmixed blessing. As Wikipedia notes, the tapetum lucidum “improves vision in low light conditions but can cause the perceived image to be blurry from the interference of the reflected light.”

And then there are other curiosities. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reports, “Animals in which the views of the two eyes overlap a lot — such as people and owls — have good stereoscopic vision [which helps them gauge distances]. Animals whose vision overlaps less — such as deer and rabbits — have less stereoscopic vision, but they can see more around them.”

Not all animals have round pupils like those of human eyes. In the same way we squint to see more clearly, some animals’ pupils are naturally narrow to sharpen their vision — perhaps somewhat offsetting any blurring their tapetum lucidum might cause.

The pupils of foxes and small cats, for example, are vertical slits, which help these predators notice when any prey is scurrying around off to their sides. The pupils of goats, sheep, and deer are horizontal slits, as can be seen in bright light; this gives them better vertical vision on steep terrain.

100_1480_1.jpg

When I spotted a blacktail doe grazing in the shade of a pine tree outside my bedroom, I opened a window to take a picture. The doe looked up and saw me, but she appeared oblivious to being flashed and went back to grazing. Notice her horizontal pupils.

Surprisingly, wildlife including birds do not usually show any reaction to sporadic flashes — even those directly in their faces— but a quick succession of flashes gets their attention.

* SparselySageAndTimely.com wishes to thank
Inverness Park resident Linda Sturdivant
and three blacktail residents of Point Reyes Station
for posing for this posting.

“By means of water, We [God] gave life to everything” — The Qur’an

My two acres adjoin the land of Point Reyes Station’s venerable Toby Giacomini, and one of the stockponds on his property is only 10 yards from our common fence. Living next to that pond for the last 30 years has been an education. Livestock such as cows and horses have long watered there, of course, but the stockpond also provides habitat for an amazing array of wildlife.

100_3036.jpg
Red-winged blackbirds from a colony that nest at Toby’s Giacomini’s stockpond near my cabin flock in whenever I put out birdseed.


Threatened Western pond turtles have found refuge in Toby’s stockpond. The pond provides a home for newts, frogs, snakes, various fish, and a colorful colony of Red-winged blackbirds.

Deer, foxes, and raccoons frequently drop by for a drink. Badgers — and an occasional coyote — can be found around it.

100_2631_1_1.jpgHere a Great blue heron picks its way through the reeds along the edge of the stockpond.

Among the birds that can be frequently seen hunting for dinner at Toby’s pond are several varieties of duck.

In addition, an occasional goose or two shows up although I’m more likely to spot them overhead.

However, as far as I’m concerned, the true celebrity hunters are the Great blue herons.

Having these long-legged stalkers around the cabin is exciting.

I’ve lived in small, rural towns for 35 years, but I still get a thrill when a heron lands next to my parked car and then goes hunting in the field just below my deck.

100_1133.jpg

Great blue heron on the prowl in my pasture.

For the sake of birds that don’t hang out around the pond, I provide a birdbath on my deck where these living dinosaurs* can drink as well as bathe.

100_3013.jpg

A mourning dove in my birdbath takes a drink while a brown towhee eats seed and waits its turn.

100_2296.jpg
“Well, I’ll be a dirty bird” — George Gobel (1919-91). Splashing wildly, a brown towhee becomes practically submerged in my birdbath while cleaning up.

Although not the only species to bathe on my deck, none do it with more enthusiasm than brown towhees. It so happens that I too like a good soaking now and then, and more than once while half-dozing in the hot tub on my lower deck I‘ve been abruptly awakened by a shower of cold water from a towhee splashing in the birdbath a deck above me.

* Please see Nature’s Two Acres Part II: Living Dinosaurs
Actually Found Around My Cabin

Point Reyes Light publisher Robert Israel Plotkin — a defendant in a federal bankruptcy case growing out of a $77 million Ponzi scheme — will be allowed to keep some money swindled from other people.

That was the word this past week from Plotkin’s lawyer, Robert H. Powsner of Point Reyes Station. Powsner did not reveal how much of his profits from the Ponzi scheme Plotkin can retain, and several of us are now endeavoring to find out the amount. As soon as we do, Powsner’s long and rambling letter will be published in full.

Here is the essence of the case, as this site reported earlier. The Ponzi scheme, which lasted from 1998 to 2003, was investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by the US Attorney’s Office. The ringleaders, Moshe Leichner and Zvi Leichner, are now serving time in prison; a US bankruptcy trustee is trying — so far without success — to get at money the Leichners squirreled away in one Swiss and two Israeli bank accounts; and the Justice Department has warned Moshe and Zvi Leichner they may be deported.

The Leichners’ Ponzi scheme operated under the name Midland Euro, and the US Justice Department notes, “The Leichners told their investors that Midland Euro would invest their funds in foreign currencies which Midland Euro would then trade on the international currency market for profit. Although the terms of the investments tended to vary slightly among victims, generally the Leichners claimed Midland Euro would generate guaranteed monthly profits of between 2% and 4%.”

100_0459.jpgThink of it: “guaranteed” 24% –to-48% cash profits annually in the high-risk foreign-currency-exchange market. How money-hungry does one have to be to fail to notice something suspicious?

CPA Grant Newton, an expert witness hired by the bankruptcy court, explained the swindle this way. The Leichners until 2003 “operated a Ponzi scheme: namely, a phony investment arrangement whereby earlier investors are paid fictitious profits from the funds of later investors.”

A US bankruptcy trustee has reported that in 2004, he “filed over 150 adversary proceedings…. These proceedings seek recovery of funds in excess of $20 million in pre-petition transfers made by [Moshe and Zvi Leichner] to insiders and other parties.”

As Powsner explains it, “Mr. Plotkin [seen here] was one of thousands of passive investors into a huge investment scam. He had never heard of or had any contact with the crooks. He was one of about 150 who were lucky to get paid back — with an investment return — before the crooks were outed.

“Because of a bankruptcy-statute technicality, he could have been liable to pay back the money, and he and 150 or so other investors were sued by the trustee for that.”

Wow! Attorney Powsner actually calls a law requiring repayment of ill-gotten gains merely a “technicality.”

The bankruptcy trustee last summer notified “defendant Robert Israel Plotkin” and his lawyer Powsner their case would come up at a hearing in October, but Powsner now reports they were able to skip the hearing.

“When [Plotkin] asked me to help,” writes Powsner, “I quickly negotiated a settlement (without any hearings or meetings) in which [Plotkin] had to return a portion — and only a portion — of the profits he made.”

Such a deal! There aren’t many lawyers who would brag about helping a client hold onto “fictitious profits [that came] from the funds of later investors,” who had been swindled.

Addendum: Although Powsner has recently justified his untrue statements in unrelated court filings as merely the result of his “forgetfulness,” he wants it known that he won’t begin his 79th year until this fall. This site had erroneously given his current age as 78 when he is, in fact, 77. My apologies to the bad old boy.