WASHINGTON, June 10, 2013 – Facebook cofounder Sean Parker made a lot of enemies earlier this month for spending a reported $10 million for what many are calling the trashing of a redwood forest in Big Sur, California. After an investigation by the California Coastal Commission (CCC) and criticism in the media, Parker fired back.
With attendees like California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and state Attorney General Kamala Harris, Parker’s wedding is symbolic of the power and extravagance of Silicon Valley.
The media reports
Parker, co-founder of Facebook and Napster, is reportedly worth $2 billion. In stark contrast to Mark Zuckerberg’s low-key wedding in 2012, Parker turned into what many were calling a ‘groomzilla,’ throwing himself “a wedding fit for a king,” recreating a medieval style celebration in a redwood grove in Big Sur.
According to the CCC investigation prompted by the wedding, violations and illegal acts were being perpetrated in a campground area adjacent to the Post Creek in Big Sur, Monterrey County, California long before the Parker wedding.
An ecologically sensitive area, the campground runs along the Post Creek, home to threatened steelhead trout, and containing a massive ancient redwood grove.
The campground is managed by Ventana Investors, a private company. Ventana runs a high-end 59-room resort with adjacent Spa and restaurant. It also manages a 100-site campground as part of an agreement with the CCC to provide lower-cost accommodations as a condition of expanding its high-end facilities. As part of the agreement Ventana also agreed to maintain a parking area adjacent to trailheads open to the public.
Contrary to the agreement, Ventana closed the campground without seeking the required CCC approval in 2007 and kept the parking space for overflow from the Inn. “Basically, what was supposed to be a facility that people of all incomes — including the general public — could visit had become a high-end resort with no camping or public parking,” said Alexis Madrigal from The Atlantic.
Earlier this year, Ventana contracted with Sean Parker, giving him exclusive use of the campground. Without seeking permits from the CCC, Parker’s team took on a massive building project to give the naturally beautiful forest “Victorian flair and whimsy.”
This included grading of existing roads and campsites to give the appearance of ruins, construction of stone walls, stairways, gateways, and even a pond with a stone bridge over it. Parker also had a number of elevated platforms built close to Post Creek. Potted trees and plants were “partially planted” around the area, as well as lighting, tents, and generators.
According to the CCC report, Parker’s crew did not install erosion control measures when erecting the numerous structured on the campground, and did not employ setbacks to control erosion in the structures built adjacent to the Post Creek.
The crew also increased potential erosion into the Creek by hardscaping and removing vegetation along streams, increasing sedimentation. Sedimentation in streams and coastal waters can increase turbidity, endangering the steelhead trout, which require low in-stream turbidity, and impairing the photosynthetic process of aquatic plants.
Additionally, several structures were built adjacent to the redwood trees in the campground. According to the CCC report, besides the immediate physical damage that may have been done to the trees, if the builders failed to provide adequate buffers from redwood trees, this could impact the trees’ ability to propagate.
After the report, Parker agreed to pay $2.5 million that will reportedly go to improve coastal access and recreation in the area.
On June 6, 2013, Parker wrote to The Atlantic, with his version of the story. In a long email, Parker states important points that were either not reported or misrepresented in the media. For one thing, it appears that Parker consulted with the Save the Redwoods League from early in the planning process. He also claims that he believed he was renting a closed, private campground and was not aware of the campground closure and parking issues between Ventana and the CCC.
On the matter of acquiring the necessary building permits, Parker claims that his “representatives were told by relevant agencies, such as the CCC and Monterey County planning commission, that it was the responsibility of the property owner, not the hotel guest, to obtain any necessary permits.”
As far as taking the necessary precautions to ensure that the environment would not be disrupted, Parker states that he voluntarily “consulted informally [with Save the Redwoods League] on the project from Day 1, sending their Director of Science down to the site to educate our naturalist regarding a plan for work that would be minimally environmentally disruptive to the local redwood and riparian habitats.”
He also states that “by and large” the CCC and other biologists who later inspected the site were satisfied with the measures taken, but “Of course it’s impossible to get everything exactly right at a production of this scale.”
Parker also took issue with the “before” picture provided of the campground. He claims that the picture was actually taken after his crew removed the asphalt that apparently covered a large portion of that area. He also claimed that he spent $4.5—not $10—million on setting up the space for the wedding.
CCC did not comment on the Parker response.
Who’s to blame?
While Parker’s email may be convincing and maybe he was not quite the groomzilla he was made out to be, this wedding raises several questions. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal called it “the new Silicon Valley parable: dream big, privatize the previously public, pay no attention to the rules, build recklessly, enjoy shamelessly, invoke magic, and then pay everybody off.”
Critics seemed to cool off when it was revealed that Mr. Parker consulted with Save the Redwood League and trusted that Ventana would get the necessary permits.
However, the bottom line is that mistakes were made, necessary permits were not obtained, the correct measures were not taken during building, and some harm may have been done to the ancient redwoods and endangered steelhead trout. Even without the structures and plants, it can be argued that 300 guests plus support staff, plus food staff, plus entertainment, plus toilet facilities, plus transportation ina an ecologically sensitive area would cause some kind of environmental damage.
Furthermore, while the CCC was already investigating by May, officials let the construction and wedding go on because “the damage had already been done.”
But Parker arguably did what any environmentally conscious billionaire would do to throw himself a $10 million – no, sorry $4.5 million- wedding, right?
Read the CCC report here
Read Sean Parker’s email here
See pictures of the wedding here
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