The list of offenses the Westbrook family, owners of Reservation Ranch, has been accused of is lengthy and involves, among other things, dumping manure, trash and cow carcasses into the Smith River estuary. They’ve also been cited for diverting water from the Smith, California’s only major undamned river, without a permit or regard for the creatures dependent upon the area’s habitats. Such wildlife includes Roosevelt Elk, waterfowl and endangered Coho Salmon. Additionally the Westbrook family – some of the more prominent of Del Norte’s timber barons – has blocked public access to the ocean and sloughs adjacent to the Smith. This information came to public attention as various state and federal agencies, including California Coastal Commission, the California State Water Resources Control Board, the State Lands Commissions and National Marine Fisheries Services began serving violation notices.
In response, the Westbrooks put the 1,668-acre Reservation Ranch on the market with an asking price of $12,950,000 and boasting a dyke system, excellent water rights, three wells, a main water pump from the Smith River, and an abundance of wildlife, including trophy salmon.
Reservation Ranch is, of course, on the unceded lands of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and the heart of the original 40,000-acre Smith River Indian Reservation. The tribe recently launched an effort to reclaim this historically stolen land, but time is short – rumors of a buyer are already circulating. Whether potential buyers know the full history and current status of Reservation Ranch is unclear, as is the resolving of the Westbrook’s myriad violations, which together could reach into millions of dollars of fines.
An Oct. 18, 2013 obituary for patriarch Hank Westbrook says that the Westbrooks were one of the first Euro-American families to settle in Del Norte County in the 1850s. Following a Great Flood in 1964, Hank decided to expand beyond his family’s dairy farm.
“Before ’64, he was a sleepy little farmer, but for some reason he decided to go global at that point,” said his son, Henry “Hal” Westbrook IV. “At that point he wasn’t satisfied with being a dairy farmer in Smith River.” Within 10 years, Westbrook’s working circle expanded from Smith River to several mills, log yards and wood product facilities in Northern California and Southern Oregon; offices in Alaska and Japan; 80 logging trucks, more than 100 pieces of logging equipment, helicopters, dozers, more than a 1,000 employees — you name it. Westbrook had become a well-known timber baron, a force to be reckoned with. Dan Brattain, who directed the Westbrooks’ timber operations at one point, said that they were contributing 80 percent of the Port Orford cedar in the industry, exporting most of it as whole logs to Japan.
The obituary also notes, “When Hank Westbrook disagreed with something, such as a levy on the Smith River… he often took matters into his own hands.” In the context of the glowing obituary, this independent spirit is cheered. Unfortunately the actual legacy of Reservation Ranch is of great harm done. Whether some of the wrongs of 160 years of colonization can and will be corrected remains to be seen.
As we wait for the story to unfold in the legal landscape, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation is seeking help to return this unceded property back to their rightful ownership and “to work towards the long overdue environmental and tribal justice this land and watershed deserves.” Supporters can take action by signing the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation’s petition to have their lands returned.