For Strawberry Music Fest, no news is bad news

Gary Linehan, The Union Democrat /

Strawberry Music Festival organizers are "appealing to the court of public opinion" in their efforts to obtain a permit for a Labor Day weekend festival at Camp Mather.Festival co-founder Charlie Cran said Wednesday he was given a verbal denial by the head of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department about a month ago and has received no other information since then.

"They have refused to answer our queries," he said.

Camp Mather is owned and operated by the City and County of San Francisco.

The Strawberry festivals have taken place at Camp Mather since the fall of 1983. A spring festival was added in 1986 and the gatherings have been held there each spring and fall since then.

The 2013 fall festival was cancelled days before opening because of the Rim Fire. Firefighters were able to save the camp, but the surrounding area was scorched, including land within the Stanislaus National Forest.

Fall of 2013 also marked the end of Strawberry's existing five-year lease at Camp Mather. Cran said he attempted to start new contract negotiations with the city in January but park officials "never responded to our inquiries in any way."

Festival managers have been trying since then to get a permit for this fall.

Everyone involved agreed a spring festival, usually held over Memorial Day weekend, was impossible due to the severity of the fire damage in the area.

Chances for a fall festival were dealt a setback when Susan Skalski, supervisor of the Stanislaus National Forest, expressed her opposition to the granting of a permit in a March 5 letter to Recreation and Parks General Manager Phil Ginsburg.

She cited hazardous trees along roads and trails, people camping and sightseeing in closed areas and logging operations as the top factors.

"Because of the numerous opportunities for people being at risk from the numerous hazards created by the Rim Fire as well as the mechanical harvest and transport of logs I am highly concerned forest visitors could be injured," Skalski wrote.

She also cited a forest closure order in the Rim Fire area that would be in effect at least until November, although the Dimond O Campground, on Evergreen Road leading to Camp Mather, and several other forest campgrounds and day-use areas were reopened in mid-April.

The privately owned Evergreen Lodge, adjacent to Camp Mather, is also open, as is the Hetch Hetchy area of Yosemite National Park, which is reached by Evergreen Road.

Camp Mather itself is scheduled to open this summer for use by residents of the city.

Skalski could not be reached directly for comment. The forest's public affairs officer, Rebecca Garcia, said she reached Skalski on the road Thursday to relay questions about the festival.

"She does stand by her letter outlining her safety concerns but she does want it noted that the decision lies squarely with the City of San Francisco," Garcia said.

Water supply is another hurdle facing festival organizers.

Cran said park officials had told him earlier that because of the low snowpack, they were concerned that the camp's Cottonwood Creek water source would not be able to serve the large crowds - up to 7,000 people including families, staff and musicians - who attend the four-day festival.

Cran said he pointed out that Cottonwood Creek is fed by underground springs, not snowpack, and that the festival is willing and able to bring in additional drinking water, as it did three years ago when a water main broke in the camp.

"There's no reason this year should be different than any other year as far as water," he said.

Reached Thursday, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department spokeswoman Sarah Ballard indicated the city would not be changing its position.

"While we have received no formal mitigation proposal from the Strawberry Festival, our responsibility is to ensure there is a safe and reliable source of water for both the event and any emergencies," she said. "Currently there is no feasible solution to accommodate 7,000 people."

The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors got involved on April 7, approving a letter to Ginsburg in support of the festival.

The letter cited the "amazing opportunity for families to enjoy the spectacular landscape and all the camp has to offer," as well as the economic boost the festival gives to businesses along Highway 120 on the way to Camp Mather.

"We feel accommodations can be made to make this festival possible and keep participants safe," states the letter, which was initiated by District 5 Supervisor John Gray and signed by Chairman Evan Royce. "Our board collectively encourages the issuance of a permit for the 2014 Strawberry Music Festival."

Tracie Riggs, deputy Tuolumne County administrator, said Wednesday that she still has heard nothing from San Francisco officials despite several attempts at reaching them.

She said the county is now seeking the support of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a former 10-year mayor of San Francisco.

"The board has taken a very strong stance in support of local businesses affected by the Rim Fire, especially those along Highway 120," Riggs said.

Cran said now that doors to the city appear closed to him, the festival staff is turning to its supporters to reach park representatives, city leaders and other elected officials at the state and national level.

"We're appealing to the court of public opinion," he said. "We're asking for support from all the folks who have been attending for 30 years and know what it's about."

About half of the Strawberry visitors come from the greater San Francisco Bay Area, Cran said. Some guests travel from across the country and internationally.

"We are confident in our ability to inform festival participants of the forest closure and the importance of complying with Forest Service regulations," an open letter on the Strawberry website states. "We are capable of dealing with all of the issues that have been raised and have done so successfully in the past."

Cran said the final decision is in the hands of Ginsburg, former chief of staff to then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, now California's lieutenant governor.

"He's a master politician, the most powerful general manager they've ever had," Cran said. "I think he's hiding behind another agenda that we know nothing about, and they have decided that their agenda is more important than the recovery of the area."

Cran said he was offered use of the site on Columbus Day weekend in October 2015 but nothing for this year.

"We share the U.S. Forest Service's concerns that given the extent of the damage from the Rim Fire, the number of hazardous trees and the large machinery that will be on site to clean up the forest, we cannot safely host 7,000 people at Camp Mather," Ballard said. "The Strawberry Festival is a great tradition and we hope to be able to safely welcome them back next year."

However, Cran said the loss of the festival this fall could spell the end of the long-running event.

Strawberry has received approval for a Rim Fire disaster relief loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, but the production of a festival this fall is a condition to receiving the funds.

"Our loan with the SBA was approved, in part, because Strawberry Music Festival is an essential part of the economic recovery of the Groveland area and Highway 120 corridor businesses," Cran said.

Included in the funding would be refunds to those who bought fall 2013 tickets as well as some operating expenses for the next festival.

"It's a loan, with my house as collateral," Cran said.

He said other festival sites have been considered, but none with much promise.

"I'm not willing to go through this any more," Cran said. "Unless we get an invitation to come back this year, I'm not interested in coming back under these conditions."

11918329
The Union Democrat
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