Choked Valley by Donald Williams

Napa County (population 142,000) is a rural relief valve for the Bay Area’s 7.5 million urban residents, but its burgeoning wine and tourist industry is overwhelming the area’s limited natural resources. Residents increasingly object to the county’s seemingly endless commercialization. The plan to develop Walt Ranch in the hills above Napa is just one more proposal of dozens pending to denaturalize this irreplaceable North Bay landscape.

Previously mostly agricultural, and still harboring vineyards but star-struck by wine fame, increasingly urbanized and touristy Napa Valley now also features music festivals, bike races, cooking classes, art shows and auctions. Now 3.3 million tourists throng its 500 wineries annually. Urban traffic chokes semi-rural Napa Valley.

Astonishingly, the natives are not too restless—at least not enough to disturb county supervisors who, in a county enjoying a $13.3 billion boom from agri-business, appear untroubled by excessive traffic, tourism or water depletion.

Hence, the Walt Ranch proposal: 209 more acres of vines replacing woodlands and chaparral. Though its environmental impact report was subject to scathing professional criticism, Walt Ranch promises “environmental responsibility,” “sustainable stewardship” and “commitment to the greater Napa Valley ecosystem.” But besides threatened trees and water, that ecosystem also includes, inconveniently, neighbors.

Insouciant remarks like “What else should be done with that land?” or “Well, that’s business,” disrespectfully dismiss the fertile idealism that may be the bane of business but the salvation of Napa County. If economic interests continue to trump aesthetic values, and the countryside vanishes, little time will pass before the great Bay Area awakening that wonders, belatedly, “How could they have let this happen to Napa County?”

—Donald Williams