Struggling town's golden goose

Crescent City: First, the tidal wave came and the logging industry left. But now this California hamlet may have found a path to prosperity.

April 28, 2001|By Bettina Boxall | Bettina Boxall,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. - These are the facts in this hiccup of a town on California's far north coast: Most tourists drive through as fast as they can, while Aleutian Canada geese love the place. More and more of the once nearly extinct wildfowl return every year for a leisurely spring visit.

Recognizing that, the Del Norte County town is trying to turn the Aleutian into the goose that lays the golden egg of ecotourism.

To the extent that Crescent City is known at all, it's as the home of Pelican Bay State Prison. It is also, by the description of its boosters, a town of neither charm nor beauty.

So ecotourism is not the first thing that comes to mind when driving down U.S. 101 past squat, empty storefronts.

But when you live in a community that never completely recovered from a 1964 tidal wave, where the old logging economy is long departed and the new economy never arrived, you get creative. And what Crescent City has is an appealingly remote setting and a very rare type of goose. Taking a lesson from San Juan Capistrano and its swallows, a local economic development group three years ago started the annual spring Aleutian Goose Festival, inviting birders to come, spend money and celebrate the survival of a small subspecies of Canada goose that was nearly eaten off the planet by foxes.

At the end of March, more than 200 people arrived for goose viewing, lectures and natural history tours.

Just a few days earlier, the Aleutian had been removed from the federal endangered species list, where it had been since the list's inception. The birds' recovery makes for an unusual success story, one in which ambivalent Crescent City has played a tangible role.

A big reason the sturdy little goose decided to adopt the area is its dairy farms. In the spring, when the Aleutians are looking for a place to fatten up for the three-day, transoceanic flight to their Aleutian Islands breeding grounds, the local pastureland is rich and lush with new grass.

For four to six weeks every spring, 30,000 Aleutian geese, more than three-quarters of the entire population, stop at Crescent City to feast.

That has not gone unnoticed by the dairy farmers. "It's like having 1,200 cows fly around, alighting in everybody's pasture," says Helen Ferguson, whose husband, Brian, is president of the local farm bureau.

Counting grass eaten by the wildfowl, extra fertilizer it takes to perk up the fields after they leave and labor necessary to chase the birds from pastureland, the dairy operators estimate that the big spring goose visit costs them more than $200,000 every year.

The farmers try to contain pasture damage by hazing the geese - using all-terrain vehicles to drive the birds onto nearby state land or fields that the farmers have relinquished to the Aleutians.

But the hazing, permitted by the federal government, works only partially. "We have three or four people chasing geese all day, and we're losing the battle," says Blake Alexandre, one of the area's biggest dairy farmers.

He and his wife, Stephanie, started their 3,600-head dairy operation nine years ago, about the same time the Aleutian goose population began its rapid growth.

At first, recalled Stephanie Alexandre, "It was neat. They weren't here for long, and there weren't very many at the time."

Now things are more complicated. "It's a love-hate relationship with the geese," she said.

A few years ago the Alexandres worked out a deal with the state.

They let the geese feed undisturbed on a strip of their pastureland next to the state park. The state lets the dairy use about 230 acres of parkland for pasture on which the geese are also allowed.

Despite that, the Alexandres say hungry Aleutians are costing them more than $50,000 a year.

"Obviously, it's not sustainable. It's got to be fixed," Blake Alexandre says.

And if it isn't? "We'll chase the geese out of this community."

The birds have spread out somewhat. Some stop along the Oregon coast, and this spring a band of thousands fattened up around Humboldt Bay, south of Crescent City.

But Dennis Woolington, a supervisory wildlife biologist at the San Joaquin Valley refuges where the geese winter, says Crescent City remains critical to the Aleutians.

"For continued population growth, that area is the key," he says.

State park and fish and game officials say most of the state acreage adjacent to the dairy lands is not suitable for producing the kind of grass the geese favor.

Neither the state nor the federal wildlife agency is going to pay the dairies for crop loss, biologists say, because that would be a precedent that would bankrupt the departments.

The kind of conservation easements used around Central Valley bird refuges - in which farmers have sold development rights to the government and agreed to grow wildfowl-friendly crops - haven't caught on in Crescent City.

And although the birds' removal from the endangered species list will make it easier to ruffle their feathers - and in a few years perhaps hunt some - local state park Superintendent Rick Sermon predicts that the goose festival will place "political pressure on farmers to not chase" the geese away.

The event attracts a growing number of nature lovers. A local restaurant-bakery sells a cookie in the shape of a goose. The festival fills up local motels, and Del Norte County officials see the Aleutian celebration as the gosling of regional ecotourism.

Nearly three-quarters of the sparsely populated county is public land, most of it federal. There is fishing for steelhead and salmon, kayaking and hiking. There are redwoods and a ruggedly beautiful coastline. "The whole idea is to get that upper-end tourist," says Martha McClure, a county supervisor. "When you dig a little bit, you realize this is a pretty interesting place."

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