NEC and EPIC File Complaint Against Mercer-Fraser Co. and U.S. Forest Service Over Unauthorized Use of Public Lands

A debris pile is visible over the fence, near the Big Rock Access Point on the Trinity River. Photo: Gary Falxa.
A debris pile is visible over the fence, near the Big Rock Access Point on the Trinity River. Photo: Gary Falxa.

On June 18, the Northcoast Environmental Center along with the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint against the U.S. Forest Service and Mercer-Fraser Construction Company over the ongoing unauthorized use of public lands for storage.

In a letter to the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the NEC and EPIC provided some background on the land use at the site in question, which is located near the popular Big Rock Access Point on the Trinity River, and explained some of the problems with this use.

The U.S. Forest Service and Mercer-Fraser Co. have been using each other’s land in this area for decades, beginning around 1968. Since then, Mercer-Fraser has utilized Forest Service land to store gravel mining debris, and the Forest Service has used paved portions of Mercer-Fraser’s property as a helipad for firefighting in the area and for performing fitness tests for their wildlands firefighters.

Initially, Mercer-Fraser was issued a series of special use permits from the Forest Service that allowed the company to legally use these public lands for debris storage. However, since approximately 1989, Mercer-Fraser has not had a permit to use this land, and has continued to utilize Forest Service property for company storage without permit or payment.

While Mercer-Fraser has been using Forest Service land for free, they have still been charging the Forest Service a fee for their usage of company property to conduct their firefighting business, which results in an unequal trade-off between the two parties.

In the complaint letter that was sent to the Inspector General, the NEC and EPIC call this a “bum deal” for taxpayers—both because Mercer-Fraser is paid by the Forest Service for the use of their land, and because their debris storage pile negatively impacts the recreational value of the Big Rock River Access Point.

Further complicating this issue, the NEC and EPIC note that Mercer-Fraser seeks to change the land use designation from Commercial Recreational to Industrial, Resource Related and the zone classification from Highway Service Commercial to Heavy Industrial—which would allow the company to further develop at this site, and would open up the possibility of establishing a cannabis extraction facility on the property. Mercer-Fraser has expressed interest in exploring this possibility, despite the fact that it would involve the use of toxic chemicals in close proximity to this popular recreational area.

In a recent Lost Coast Outpost article, Mercer-Fraser president Justin Zabel insisted that this agreement with the Forest Service is not a big deal, and is quoted stating that “it’s not controversial for either one of us.”

However, some would argue that this is controversial, as all other private individuals and companies are required to have a special use permit and pay a yearly fee when operating on public lands. According to a long-time Forest Service employee with knowledge of the situation, “This has only benefited Mercer-Fraser, and provides little or no benefit to the Forest Service.”

In the complaint filed with the Inspector General, the NEC and EPIC ask that a full investigation be made into these violations of the law, and insist that they “resolve the longstanding trespass of public lands” at this site.