For Our Land And Our Children

Steve Loe, a now-retired U.S. Forest Service Wildlife biologist for over 25 years, was working on a giant tunnel project near Strawberry Creek in 2014 when he first discovered its dire condition. As part of the project, he evaluated the health of Strawberry Creek to assess potential effects of the tunnel, and was alarmed to see that water levels in the creek had reached their lowest point in ninety years.

The same creek is where Nestlé draws spring water for its Arrowhead bottled water business. Yet, in spite of all-time low water levels and California’s worst drought in centuries, Nestlé went ahead and drew 27 million gallons of water from Strawberry Creek in 2014.

After talking to fellow scientists, who confirmed his concerns, Steve was convinced of the urgency of Strawberry Creek’s plight. He began reaching out to the Forest Service and Nestlé in hopes of both taking swift measures to protect the watershed.

No such action happened. What happened instead was attempts to deny and silence voices like Steve’s. In fact, when he started emailing his former colleagues to ask about the amount of water flowing in Strawberry Creek, one Forest Service staffer even asked co-workers how he could get Steve to stop. Nestlé’s response was to assert that its operations in San Bernardino National Forest were sustainable, and that its permit remains in effect even after expiration, according to Forest Service regulations.

“I asked for meetings with [the Forest Service and Nestlé] and the public and they did not want to have a public meeting,” said Steve.

He began reaching out to other individuals, journalists and conservation groups for help. Momentum began to build as Steve’s concerns struck a nerve with other concerned individuals and groups, who started writing emails, letters and petitions to get the Forest Service to review the long expired permit.

Before long, Nestlé’s expired permit in San Bernardino and the Forest Service’s inaction were publicly exposed by newspapers, prompting the Forest Service to pay attention. In an article written by Ian James from The Desert Sun, who had written multiple investigative articles on the issue, the San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron finally commented that “[now] that it has been brought to my attention that the Nestlé permit has been expired for so long . . . it has gone to the top of the pile in terms of a program of work for our folks to work on.” Such an outcome would not come about if not for individuals like Steve who cared enough to take action.

In October 2015, the Story of Stuff Project, Courage Campaign Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a suit against the Forest Service. In this highly publicized court case, the groups are demanding that the Forest Service conduct an environmental review of Nestlé’s operations in San Bernardino National Forest, and stop Nestlé from further draining the forest before a permit review was completed. As of August 30, 2016, the case is still ongoing.

So far, the fight to stop corporations from taking over public land and water has seen multiple victories. In December 2015, the Forest Service finally announced plans to conduct an environmental review. The California State Water Resources Control Board also announced in May 2016 that it would investigate Nestlé’s water rights.

Indeed, the story of how the issues at San Bernardino came to light is telling of the power of citizen action. Because ordinary citizens like Steve came together and flexed their citizen muscles, they sent a strong message to the Forest Service that could not be ignored.  “[There was a] huge amount of public outcry in the form of petitions, letters, e-mails, congressional contacts, and newspaper articles, [which] showed the public’s desire to protect the environment [and their] concern for their public land,” said Steve. “Nestlé is so powerful that it took everything working just right to get as far as we have gotten.”

Yet, the battle is far from over. Nestlé’s operations in the San Bernardino National Forest remain business-as-usual even today, speaking volumes of the challenges involved in safeguarding public water resources from corporate interests. Through it all, Steve said what keeps him going is the thought of leaving the world a better place for his children and grandchildren.

When asked what advice he would give to other individuals or groups facing corporate threats to water resources in their hometowns, Steve said it is helpful to work closely with like-minded groups, the press and other ally groups with related causes. Finally, it is also important to remain respectful and persevere throughout the process.

“By demonstrating how the public can influence and help protect our public lands, I have hope that it will encourage others to stand up for our public lands and natural resources,” said Steve. “If we let big corporations run this country, we will not have much left for our kids and grandkids.”

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