Marek Warszawski

Why did city disregard dangers at Camp Fresno – and stick someone else with the bill?

When the trees at Camp Fresno started dying by the hundreds and this city-owned “jewel” in the Sierra Nevada was threatened with closure by the U.S. Forest Service due to the hazardous conditions, Jarrod Deaver sought an answer.

What Deaver got, from a revolving door of directors, assistant directors and managers with the city of Fresno’s Parks, After School, Recreation and Community Services Department, was the runaround.

And now, after disregarding a statewide crisis that killed nearly 150 million trees and failing to ensure the safety of Camp Fresno visitors during the die-off, the city is sticking Deaver and his wife, Jennifer, the camp’s former concessionaire, with a six-figure bill. One that could leave the couple bankrupt.

“It makes me sick,” Jennifer Deaver said, her voice breaking. “Makes me physically ill.”

Owned by the city of Fresno since the 1920s, Camp Fresno has been an affordable mountain getaway for generations of central San Joaquin Valley families. There are 51 one- and two-bedroom cabins, each with bedding and a small kitchen area containing a gas stove. Separate buildings contain bathrooms and showers with hot water. Across a historic wooden bridge, site of numerous weddings, sits a group camp with barracks, a kitchen and dining pavilion called Camp Fresno Junior.

The Deavers, who own the Dinkey Creek Inn & General Store adjacent to Camp Fresno, were the camp’s concessionaire from 2014-18.

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A sign welcomes visitors to Camp Fresno near Dinky Creek on Monday, May 6, 2019. Now without a concessionaire, the opening of the camp is in question as Memorial Day nears. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Despite the rustic accommodations, the setting of Camp Fresno and memories created there embed themselves into those who visit.

“It’s been a beautiful family vacation spot,” said Michelle Julianna of Fresno, a guest since the mid 1970s. “Our kids grew up there. Everybody grew up there. It’s so historical.”

“Our heart and soul has been up at Dinkey Creek,” said Bob Der Matoian, a member of the Armenian fellowship group The Knights of Vartan which has been holding annual get-togethers at Camp Fresno Junior for more than 70 years. “Camp Fresno is such a jewel, and I hope the city realizes that.”

‘It’s a semi-truck’ falling from the sky

By all indications, Camp Fresno has been the furthest thing from anyone’s mind at City Hall. At least that’s been true since 2006, when several community groups bailed out the city with repairs and upgrades necessary to keep the place open.

The cabins, nearly a century old, are dank and drafty, and the existing sewage and water systems were both described as “very poor” in an assessment report conducted for the city by engineering consulting firm Blair, Church & Flynn. The report recommended $2.8 million worth of improvements over the next 10 to 15 years. Hardly any of it has been done.

Instead, the primary focus of those paid to keep Camp Fresno operating, at least since 2017, has been the felling, stacking and removal of hundreds of dead ponderosa pine and sugar pine trees killed by the double whammy of drought and bark beetles. The Sierra National Forest, encompassing 1.3 million acres east of Fresno, was especially hard hit.

But unlike other campgrounds and summer camps in the area, licensed commercial loggers didn’t do the work. It was left almost entirely to the Deavers. Who learned about felling trees from watching videos on YouTube.

“I don’t own that property, the city does,” Jennifer Deaver said. “My job is to keep the place up and running and take care of the guests, not to manhandle a statewide emergency project of 600 dead trees. It’s not like a loaf of bread falling out of the sky, it’s a semi-truck.”

The city has a different version of what took place. After filtering responses to my questions through the city attorney, spokesman Mark Standriff said the Deavers “undertook an amateur tree-cutting operation without permission or notice” and then failed to provide adequate documentation of their expenditures.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How did we report this story?

This story came to the attention of Bee columnist Marek Warszawski in April when he received a certified letter from Jarrod Deaver detailing the situation at Camp Fresno. (Several local politicians, including Fresno Mayor Lee Brand and the entire City Council, also received the letter.)

The reporting included numerous phone and in-person interviews with Jarrod and Jennifer Deaver, plus phone calls to former Camp Fresno concessionaire Dennis Beard, U.S. Forest Service personnel and longtime Camp Fresno visitors. The columnist also reviewed email correspondence between the Deavers and the city of Fresno and the Sierra National Forest as well as the Deavers’ concessionaire contract and receipts for their logging expenses. He read a report by an engineering consulting group that assessed the camp’s conditions and did internet research on how other cities and public agencies dealt with the statewide tree die-off. He made an initial phone call to the city’s PARCS Department to learn the current status of Camp Fresno, which prompted a reply from city spokesman Mark Standriff. Days prior to publication, the reporter emailed several questions to Standriff. The most pertinent answers were included in the story.

“The City has taken appropriate responsibility for Camp Fresno,” Standriff said in email. “The prior concessionaire is attempting to shield itself from responsibility for its failure to pay contractually-required concession and improvement fees, and for misleading the City about tree cutting operations.”

The Deavers deny this. They say PARCS staff was apprised of what they were doing at every step. However, proving or disproving who said what will prove difficult, in no small part due to the constant turnover in department management. The most recent PARCS director, Parvin Neloms Jr., lasted barely a year and his departure was never explained.

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Former Camp Fresno concessionaire Jarrod Deaver stands near a dead tree that had fallen into a cabin, at the campground on Monday, May 6, 2019. Deaver and his wife Jennifer removed many marked trees on their own in 2017 to get the camp operational. Instead of receiving money back from the city of Fresno for their work, they got a bill. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

In February 2017, Jarrod Deaver received a phone call from the Sierra National Forest informing him that unless approximately 600 dead trees marked with blue spray paint were cut down, the camp would not open that summer due to the safety hazard they pose. (Located on national forest land, Camp Fresno operates under a special-use permit.)

Deaver contacted the PARCS Department to inform city offiicals of the situation, thinking they would offer assistance and advice. Instead, he said, the response was nonchalant and noncommittal.

A week later, the city offered $30,000 for tree removal, which Deaver knew wouldn’t come close to covering a several hundred thousand dollar project.

“Do what you’ve got to do (to get the camp open),” he said. “That’s what they told me.”

‘They worked from morning till night’

Feeling they didn’t have a choice and lacked the authority to close the camp, the Deavers went about satisfying the Forest Service mandate. Which meant dropping all other projects – including taking care of their primary business – to concentrate on dropping trees.

The Deavers have no experience with logging or tree removal. They had to rent the necessary equipment, at their own expense, and enlist family members and friends capable of handling a chainsaw. Forest Service personnel provided pointers. And they watched how-to videos.

The work took more than three months. By the time it was over, 585 trees had been felled. Trees that Deaver did not feel comfortable touching, because they were too large or stood too close to buildings or other infrastructure, were left standing.

“They worked from morning till night to get camp ready, and by God they got it open,” Julianna said. “(Jarrod) and Jennifer are the hardest working hosts I’ve had in 40 years.”

To handle some 18 troublesome trees that required an expert, the Deavers brought in Huntington Lake Tree Service. The bill came out to $10,200, or roughly $550 per tree. The Deavers paid the bill and were reimbursed by the city.

But when it came time for the Deavers to recoup the expenses and labor for the trees they felled, the city refused to pay. Even though the Deavers billed at a bargain price of $275 per tree – about half what a commercial logger would charge and a quarter what Caltrans, PG&E and Southern California Edison were paying at the time.

‘City of Fresno is responsible’

The Deavers’ contract with the city stipulates the concessionaire is responsible for tree maintenance. However, the document does not in any way account for the massive die-off that prompted then-Gov. Brown to declare a state of emergency.

Besides, Camp Fresno generates about $50,000 in annual revenues. How can the city justify making someone else foot a bill that runs well into six figures for tree removal on city property?

The answer is, “They can’t.” But that’s precisely what city officials are attempting to do.

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Dead felled trees litter the grounds at Camp Fresno on Monday, May 6, 2019. Former concessionaires Jarrod and Jennifer Deaver removed many marked trees on their own in 2017 to get the camp operational. Instead of receiving money back from the city of Fresno for their work, they got a bill. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Fresno’s special-use permit with the Forest Service is clear. Two separate clauses state “the holder” (i.e. the city) is ultimately responsible to maintain “acceptable” standards for safety and orderliness.

“We were working with Jarrod (on the dead trees) because Jarrod is the concessionaire,” said Elaine Locke, special use permit officer for the Sierra National Forest. “But according to the permit, the city of Fresno is responsible. Having the camp safe before it opens is their responsibility.”

Other cities didn’t operate like this. San Francisco owns 350-acre Camp Mather, located in Groveland outside Yosemite National Park. When 1,500 trees at Camp Mather died from the bark beetle infestation, the city reportedly secured $667,000 in bonds from an urban forestry program on top of $933,000 from its parks department budget to pay for the job.

Wonder why Fresno has some of the worst parks of any city its size? Look no further than what happened at Camp Fresno. Other cities would kill to own a summer camp at 5,700-foot elevation next to a popular destination for camping, fishing and granite-carved swimming holes. Fresno owns one and neglects its care.

Little wonder why parks have become such a hot-button issue – one that isn’t going away.

‘There’s something fishy going on’

Why didn’t Fresno try to find grant monies for tree removal, or at least bring the matter before the City Council?

“We asked that same question in one of our meetings,” Jarrod Deaver said. “That’s when (administrative manager) Karen Norris replied, ‘We wouldn’t go to the City Council for that.’”

Gee, wonder why. Perhaps it’s because members of the City Council would start asking questions about Camp Fresno. Such as, what has the PARCS Department done with all the capital improvement fund money that’s tacked on to every cabin rental?

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A blue mark from the U.S. Forest Service denotes a dead tree needing to be removed near a cabin at Camp Fresno on Monday, May 6, 2019. Former concessionaires Jarrod and Jennifer Deaver removed many marked trees on their own in 2017 to get the camp operational. Instead of receiving money back from the city of Fresno for their work, they got a bill. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

“There’s something fishy going on. I feel it,” Julianna said. “It seems like they’re collecting money from Camp Fresno but not spending it on Camp Fresno.”

The city denies this. In an email, Standriff claimed all revenue is reinvested back into the camp. (This will require additional sleuthing.)

By 2018, the relationship between the Deavers and the city had deteriorated. Financially strapped from all the money and labor they invested, the Deavers shorted the city about $83,000 in payments owed for the 2017 and ’18 seasons.

The Deavers say they were more than willing to pay what they owe, just as soon as the city pays their $173,640 invoice for the tree removal project.

“We were just trying to recoup some expenses and pay some bills – that’s it,” Jarrod Deaver said. “We thought that was a damn good price for all the work we did.”

The city didn’t see it that way. On Nov. 18, 2018, deputy city attorney John Hastrup sent the Deavers a letter telling them their concessionaire contract had been terminated due to breach of payment and demanding the money owed.

According to Standriff, city staff will operate Camp Fresno this summer before a new concessionaire is found for 2020 and beyond. (Strangely, there is no mention of Camp Fresno on the PARCS Department web page.)

Tree fall remains an issue

However, there are problems with that plan. For one, the camp was not properly winterized after the city terminated its contract with the Deavers before one of the heaviest snowfall years in recent memory. There could be significant damage to infrastructure.

Second, hundreds of dead trees remain standing – and even those that remain alive are susceptible to Mother Nature. During the spring, a massive pine tree blew over in a windstorm and fell onto a shower house, piercing the roof. That green tree also uprooted a dead tree that, as of last week, was leaning against a cabin. Then last week, another green tree toppled and pierced a cabin roof.

Despite these dangerous conditions, city staff brought kids to Camp Fresno on a recent weekend for what is called “winter camp,” according to eyewitnesses and photos. (In his email, Standriff said this happened once.)

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A dead tree leans against a cabit at Camp Fresno on Monday, May 6, 2019. Former concessionaires Jarrod and Jennifer Deaver removed many marked trees on their own in 2017 to get the camp operational. Instead of receiving money back from the city of Fresno for their work, they got a bill. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Now the Forest Service has gotten involved. According to Locke, the special-use permit officer, Camp Fresno will not be allowed to open until all the hazard trees still standing are removed. Which will probably put a crimp in the city’s plans to have the camp open for Memorial Day weekend.

“Safety for the public is No. 1,” Locke said. “That’s our absolute priority over everything else.”

The city seems to have a different priority. On May 3, the Deavers received a bill for $114,076.17. The bill indicates that clearing and hauling away all the trees felled by the Deavers will cost $150,000.

The Deavers cannot pay (“We’re broke,” Jennifer said), strenuously disagree they owe the city money and are considering legal options. Because of their financial difficulties, they may not be able to open the Dinkey Creek Inn & General Store this summer, which would inconvenience hundreds.

No response to certified letter

In April, the Deavers sent certified letters detailing the situation at Camp Fresno to Mayor Lee Brand, all seven City Councilmembers, Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, Congressman Tom McClintock and myself.

“You’re the only person who called us back,” Jarrod Deaver said.

The Deavers believe the city ignored the problems at Camp Fresno and is now trying to blame them for its own inaction. For example, city staff are supposed to conduct preseason and postseason inspections – inspections they say were ignored or glossed over during the height of the tree die-off. In addition, the Deavers claim they were asked to perform tasks that fell outside of their contracted duties.

But most of all, they feel they did the city a big favor by keeping the camp open and wound up being scapegoated.

“It just sucks because we’re just common, easy people doing a job for the city of Fresno,” Jarrod Deaver said. “I don’t want a key to the city or anything. I just want someone to stand up and say, ‘We didn’t know how bad it was up here. Thanks for what you did. Thanks for nobody getting killed on our property or causing us another lawsuit.’ But you don’t get any of that.”

Nope. You get a bill for $114,076.17.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
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