By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Passionate speakers on both sides of the Lake Earl issue shared their concerns last night with the agency ultimately responsible for the lakes future.

With the understanding that no definite decision would be made until the public have their say, the California Department of Fish and Game conducted the first in a series of public hearings about developing a Lake Earl management plan.

Its easy to take a side here and go all out. I want to point out though, there needs to be a balance between these sides, said Blake Alexander, a dairy farmer operating near the lake.

More than 100 people crowded the chambers of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors to witness or participate in the hearing.

Of the approximately 20 people who got up to speak, the majority said they favored managing the lake at an eight-foot level or above. Others, who say their land is flooded if the lake rises above four feet, wanted assurance their land would be protected or bought out.

Farm and residential land and wildlife habitat can absolutely not exist in the same space. You need to mitigate flooding of private land by not flooding it anymore or buy it up so its not private anymore, said Bill Erikson, owner of oceanfront property near the lake.

Before the hearing started, Fish and Game officials hung large sheets of paper at the front of the room. One sheet, stretching nearly 15 feet across was used to categorize the audiences concerns as they spoke. Another sheet listed Fish and Games objectives for the lakes management plan.

Specifically, the focus for developing a management plan is to optimize conditions for a wide variety of plants and animals with an emphasis on wetland and water-associated wildlife, as stated by Fish and Game.

More than 10 members of the public spoke out in support of the focus on wildlife. Some said it could be achieved best by keeping the lake at the four-foot level, others said wildlife cant thrive without higher lake levels and fluctuations.

The best goal is investigating a way for it to become a naturally fluctuating lagoon. If nationwide campaigns had not occurred, people would never know the beauty of a wood duck, or the silence of the redwoods.

I believe that, had local sentiment prevailed, every one of our redwoods would have been cut down and milled. I support keeping the lagoon as natural as possible, said Susan Calla.

Arguments circulated through the audience about what a natural state for the lake is. Farmers have used shovels to break the sandbar between the lagoon and the ocean since the 1870s.

Descendants of those farmers, and a small segment of the Tolowa Indian population, claim natives have always broken the lake to keep it below four feet.

Biologists and environmentalists say Lake Earl is an ancient remnant of when the Smith River flowed there and emptied into the ocean there. In addition, they say technically, Lake Earl is not a lake, but a lagoon designed by nature to fill and drain as the sandbar breaks and reforms.

Our whole point is wetlands are considered the most productive land in the world and California has lost more than any other state - so lets keep what we can, said environmentalist Joe Gartland.

But lets see a category up there about private property, said Helen Ferguson, referring to the large sheet of concerns on the wall. Fergusons family has owned land and ranched near the lake for several generations.

Fish and Game already owns most of the land covered by the lagoon and has proposed to buy out remaining private properties near the lake.

What about people who dont want to sell? asked Ferguson.

Public comments regarding the development of a Lake Earl management plan will be accepted for the next 60 days.

Karen Kovaks of Fish and Game said there will also be two other opportunities during plan development to make comments. She can be reached at 707-441-5789.