The Independent online edition
23 May 2005

Monterey Pine Forest: The golf, the bad and the ugly
Plans by the actor Clint Eastwood to develop a golf course in the Monterey pine forest are being strenuously resisted by environmentalists.

Andrew Gumbel reports

22 April 2005

 Drive south along the Pacific Coast Highway past Monterey, and you can just about imagine you are entering one of the world's great unspoiled forests. The road rises from the flat strawberry fields of Watsonville, and offers just a few tantalising glimpses of Monterey's pastel-coloured townhouses before plunging into thick stands of Monterey pines, a rare but greatly prized species that grows in abundance here but in very few other places on the planet.

The pines thrive on the steepening landscape, the fertile soil, and the atmospheric coastal fogs that roll in off the deep-blue Pacific and keep the temperatures cool, even in mid-summer. But the sensation of untouched beauty is no more than an illusion.

For more than half a century, the Monterey peninsula has been famous not for its natural landscapes but for the Pebble Beach golf resort that spreads among the trees and extends up to the lip of the low-rise cliffs above the ocean.

The only road into Pebble Beach is private, and costs each visiting vehicle $8.50 (£4.45) for admission. The 17-mile drive around the resort is sold as a tourist attraction, but in reality it offers a faintly depressing tour of what golf, retirement homes, fancy, country-club style restaurants and the financial ambitions of property developers can do to what would otherwise be one of the highlights of California's already spectacular coastline.

While golf enthusiasts flock to Pebble Beach for its major international tournaments and revel in the man-made rearrangement of its natural landscapes, environmentalists have spent the past few decades quietly mourning the intrusion of greens, bunkers and club houses on their beloved Del Monte forest. And now the mourning has turned to rampant activism. Last month, the Pebble Beach Company persuaded the Monterey County board of supervisors to give its approval to a major expansion of the resort, including an eighth 18-hole golf course, a resort complex with 160 visitor suites, residential and employee housing, an equestrian centre and a driving range.

The problem with the plan is that it will involve chopping down about 17,000 more Monterey pines, increase tourist traffic and generally augment what is already a less than tender human imprint on the landscape.

David Dilworth, of the group Helping Our Peninsula's Environment (Hope), calls the plan a "slow-motion ecological train-wreck" and has just filed suit arguing that it breaks a slew of state and federal environmental protection laws.

But Mr Dilworth has powerful enemies. The Pebble Beach Company is a consortium co-owned by Arnold Palmer, the former champion golfer, Peter Ueberroth, the sports entrepreneur most famous outside the United States for running the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as an aggressive, for-profit venture, and Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry himself, who knows a thing or two about blowing away irritating adversaries, both on the big screen and off.

Mr Eastwood and his friends have been planning and promoting the Pebble Beach expansion since they bought the company six years ago, and have proved characteristically canny about accentuating the positive in a project that environmentalists see little or nothing to be positive about.

The consortium realised very early on that the expansion, with all its complexities of mixed use and environmental impact, risked running into a barrage of regulatory obstacles with the county authorities.

So, five years ago, it submitted a ballot initiative to Monterey County voters effectively overriding the county's planning regulations and allowing the Pebble Beach Company itself to decide how to carve up the 150 acres of forest it wants to chop down.

Mr Eastwood, in particular, showed no hesitation in using his star power to sell the measure to voters, appearing in a flurry of campaign advertisements in which the plan was touted, intriguingly, as a means to preserve the forest, not destroy it. The consortium pledged, in exchange for the trees it intended to cut down, to set aside several hundred other acres of forest as untouchable, now or at any time in the future.

In fact, the company called its project the Del Monte Forest Preservation and Development Plan, insinuating, rather cleverly, that development and preservation were somehow two sides of the same coin. The voters were duly charmed, passed the ballot initiative by something close to a two-thirds majority, and the environmentalists resigned themselves to grim defeat.

But as it turned out, the showdown was only just beginning. The golf craze of the late 1990s - fuelled by a booming economy and the irresistible rise of Tiger Woods - suddenly hit a ceiling as the stock market tanked, boom turned to at least a modest bust and the attacks of 11 September took the wind out of everyone's entrepreneurial sails.

Mr Eastwood and his friends also sensed another potential adversary looming over the horizon in the form of the Coastal Commission, a California authority set up in the 1970s with the express purpose of making sure developers could not simply steamroller weak local county authorities and stomp all over the state's most precious natural assets.

At first they tried, with only limited success, to use their political contacts to influence appointments to the 12-member commission. Then Mr Eastwood, in particular, fell back on his Hollywood charisma and attended a series of town meetings to make sure the bulk of the local community would be behind him. That would not, in itself, be enough to trump the authority of the Coastal Commission, but it would certainly put extra pressure on them.

The project itself was tinkered with over and over, a few dozen acres, more or less, set aside for preservation, a few handfuls of visitor suites, more or less, attached to the building plan. The principals put as human a face as possible on the whole process; at one point Mr Ueberroth even told an official meeting: "I am not a developer."

By the beginning of this year, the Pebble Beach Company decided it was ready and submitted the plan to the Monterey County board. On 15 March, the board duly rolled over and voted in favour, despite a bundle of letters from the Coastal Commission and other regulatory bodies warning them that the project may not be in compliance with a number of environmental protection laws.

Mr Dilworth, for one, took the county's vote as a declaration of war. In his lawsuit, filed last week, he accused the board of supervisors of failing to abide by their environmental obligations.

And, in addition to the pine trees themselves, he found three other rare species that he argued would be endangered by the project: a type of orchid, a type of cypress tree, and the California red-legged frog, made famous by Mark Twain in an essay he wrote about seeing them in California's gold country (The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County), where they are now extinct.

The Pebble Beach Company appears more bemused than threatened by these accusations. Across the United States, environmentalists have often clung to the Endangered Species Act and the protections it affords as the only instrument they have to prevent large-scale development in wilderness areas. In return, they are often accused of caring more about red-legged frogs, say, than about human beings.

Sure enough, Mr Eastwood and his friends have blasted their opponents for being anti-development in general, and they argued that their vision for Pebble Beach's future is a lot less damaging than a bigger project envisaged by the company's previous owners, a Japanese consortium, who did not think to propose protecting other parts of the Del Monte forest as a quid pro quo.

Mr Eastwood is no amateur at this game. He lives in the picture-postcard town of Carmel, just south of Pebble Beach, and has considerable business interests of his own in the area. Back in the 1980s, he became so enraged when the Carmel town council turned down his request to turn his restaurant, the Hog's Breath Inn, into an office and shopping complex, that he ran for mayor, swept into office thanks to his unbeatable name recognition and promptly fired the town's planning commission.

Mr Eastwood's passion for golf off-screen mirrors his attraction to firearms on-screen: another of his manoeuvres was to build himself a private course in the hills behind Pebble Beach and get the county authorities to give him access to the considerable water supply he needed to water his greens.

Residents of Carmel Valley, directly below his hillside Tehama Golf Club, point out that while his sprinklers keep the grass just so, they are all on water rationing during the dry summer months.

The struggle over Pebble Beach is far from over. The main obstacle, as ever, remains the Coastal Commission, which is the final arbiter on the matter. In a letter to the Monterey County board, the Commission listed not three but 19 species of endangered plants threatened by the project.

It said the county's interpretation of its environmental obligations was "contrary to law, common sense, the county's own local coastal program and numerous commission and local government actions in other areas on California's coast".

Those are not the words of an agency about to go all starry-eyed over the wishes of an Oscar-winning film maker. On this particular occasion, it is going to take more than a six-shooter to make Clint's day.