Kin to the Earth: Aldaron Laird

Author: Jennifer Kalt, Humboldt Baykeeper

Aldaron Laird crossing a snow melt swollen Canyon Creek tributary on a log, June 2010. Photo: Don Allan.
Aldaron Laird crossing a snow melt swollen Canyon Creek tributary on a log, June 2010. Photo: Don Allan.

Aldaron Laird is well-known as a local sea level rise expert and environmental consultant, but his career began long before rising seas became a concern. I first began working with him on the Humboldt Bay King Tides Initiative in 2011, when he suggested that it would be a good way to turn the public’s attention to the bay during the annual extreme high tides that will soon be the norm.

An avid kayaker, hiker, and photographer, Laird is also known for his extensive knowledge of historical ecology and the complex regulatory framework that governs environmental protection and restoration. He is a long-time proponent of the Public Trust Doctrine, the ancient law adopted by California in 1850 that declared that no one can own the seashore, the air, the oceans, or navigable waterways—these public trust resources belong to all of us.

Laird began his environmental career as a tree planter after graduating from Humboldt State University in 1978. He was a founding member of the Northcoast Reinhabitation Group, a natural resources/forestry contracting and consulting firm based in Blue Lake. Among the Group’s work was some of the first watershed restoration projects in the Redwood Creek expansion area of Redwood National Park in the late 1970s. They also planted millions of trees in Humboldt and Trinity Counties to reverse the damage done by clearcutting, logging roads, and landslides.

According to Don Allan, one of Aldaron’s greatest professional accomplishments was the idea to create a restoration manual to help streamline permitting for restoration projects. “Everyone who works in fisheries restoration knows the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s California Salmonid Stream Habitat Restoration Manual. But very few people know that it was Aldaron’s brain-child,” he said. The project was handed over to CDFW in 1989. Now in its 4th edition, it is widely used throughout California.

Laird served for 20 years as a public official, although he never ran a campaign since he was unopposed in every election. As an Arcata Planning Commissioner from 1996 to 2006, he led the effort to incorporate policies protecting public trust lands into the city’s General Plan. These policies were designed to protect and enhance coastal areas below the mean high tide line and the waters of Humboldt Bay for the use and enjoyment of the people of California—including former tidelands converted to grazed or farmed wetlands.

Aldaron Laird in the glow of a campfire in the Trinity Alps. Photo: Riley Quarles.
Aldaron Laird in the glow of a campfire in the Trinity Alps. Photo: Riley Quarles.

The Public Trust Doctrine also applies to the beds of navigable lakes and rivers, which are owned by the people of California up to the ordinary high water mark. Aquatic ecologist Darren Mierau said that Laird had a big hand in bringing attention to the gravel mining reclamation plans developed for the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers in the Central Valley, which were being destroyed reach by reach with each passing year. Laird proposed and developed plans to integrate wetland and waterfowl habitat into mining reclamation plan designs.

Aldaron was the primary author of the 2004 Habitat Conservation Plan for the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District—the first California water district to have such a plan. This 50-year conservation plan outlines measures to minimize the District’s impacts to protected salmonids in the Mad River. In 2007, he became a Director of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, which supplies drinking water for 88,000 residents in seven cities and unincorporated communities. He was instrumental in the District’s “Tap the Mad” campaign to promote tap water instead of bottled water.

In 2013, under a grant from the State Coastal Conservancy, Aldaron completed a 102-mile survey of the Humboldt Bay shoreline—almost entirely on foot or by kayak—to assess areas most vulnerable to sea level rise. Christy Laird described her husband’s project as not just a labor of science, but a labor of love regarding Humboldt Bay. The resulting map of the bay’s most vulnerable shoreline is used in current sea level rise planning efforts. The project also culminated in a 2014 photography exhibit at Eureka’s Morris Graves Museum, Aldaron’s Walkabout: An Artistic and Scientific Exploration of Humboldt Bay.

The Elk River Estuary Enhancement Project in Eureka is another major effort being led by Laird. One of the larger restoration projects around Humboldt Bay, it will restore over 100 acres of salt marsh, riparian habitat, and slough channels supporting eelgrass habitat, along with a one-mile extension of the California Coastal Trail.

Laird’s work has brought much-needed attention to Humboldt Bay, particularly the hazards of failing to plan for higher sea level as the bay rises to reclaim most of its historic footprint. Laird is currently working with Humboldt County, with funding from the Ocean Protection Council and Coastal Commission, to coordinate meetings in the low-lying communities of King Salmon, Fields Landing, and Fairhaven to discuss how best to plan for sea level rise.

His commitment to education and outreach about sea level rise includes engaging HSU students in classrooms, field trips, and projects. Laird recently inspired the formation of HSU’s fledgling Sea Level Rise Initiative to coordinate research, train future generations of planners and scientists, and provide an institutional home for Aldaron’s legacy to ensure that coordinated efforts related to sea level rise assessment and planning in Humboldt Bay continue well into the future.

Professor Laurie Richmond said, “If Aldaron Laird were not here in Humboldt County—developing research projects and continuing to work with planners and interests groups throughout the county—I honestly do not think that we would be anywhere near where we are at in terms of understanding and planning for the risks of sea level rise in our community.”