Camp Mather is in Stanislaus National Forest, which remains partially closed following last year’s devastating Rim Fire that burned more than 400 square miles of the area.
The Recreation and Park Department, which manages Camp Mather, told festival President Charlie Cran on Thursday that it will not be issuing a permit for the festival due to damage to the camp’s water supply and safety concerns, among other reasons.
And while the camp was not scorched in the fire and is expected to reopen this summer in time for its 90th anniversary, Rec and Park is worried about capacity issues related to the festival.
“While we now know that the camp will be able to safely open in time for the summer camp season and its weekly 600-person operating capacity, significant concerns remain about whether the camp can safely accommodate the Strawberry Festival and its over 7,000 guests,” the letter from Rec and Park general managerPhil Ginsburg said.
Festival organizers have said that not receiving a permit would not only disappoint thousands of attendees for whom the event is a tradition, but it will also devastate a local economy that’s already reeling from the effects of the Rim Fire, drought and government shutdown last fall.
As of Sunday, festival organizers had not read Ginsburg’s letter and declined to comment on the decision, but said they remain hopeful they can alleviate The City’s concerns, according to Jodi Barnett, director of operations for the festival.
“We feel we deserve the ability to discuss our mitigations regardless of a final decision being made,” Barnett said.
The Strawberry Music Festival has taken place at Camp Mather since 1983. The four-day festival evolved out of a lack of music festivals of its kind at the time, according to Cran.
About 850 staff essentially “create a town” for the event, Cran said. Music is primarily Americana, mixing in some bluegrass and world music. Staff hires about 25 bands for the main stage, and sets up a few other stages as well.
“There’s a strong Strawberry community,” Cran said. “It’s generations of families. Kids come as little kids, grow up and have their own families and come back.”
Some attendees have even written to The City in hopes of garnering support for a permit.
“We Strawberrians are a vast community, a rich extended family that shares this love of ‘The Strawberry Way!’” B.Z. Smith, a self-proclaimed Strawberry Storyteller since the first festival, said in a letter to city officials.
“You’ll never meet a gentler, more conscious-living group of people gathered, working together, playing together in peace with full attention and intention to care for this place that we all love: Camp Mather,” Smith wrote.
The festival traditionally takes place twice a year, over Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Organizers decided this past winter to not hold this year’s Memorial Day festival, which for the past five years has seen rain or snow, according to Cran. In the fall, as the Rim Fire raged, the event was for the first time canceled on a Labor Day weekend without being rescheduled, Cran said. Previously, the fall festival was postponed in 1987 and 1996 due to fires in the area.
Last year’s cancellation did come with a cost, as ticket buyers were entitled to refunds. Tickets range from $65 for a one-day pass for a non-camping adult to $200 for an adult camper attending all four days.
To help facilitate refunds, staff secured disaster-relief funding available to victims of the Rim Fire via the U.S. Small Business Administration, Barnett said.
However, the $800,000 loan was approved in January on the condition that a permit would be provided for the fall festival, according to Barnett. Without the permit, she said, organizers will not receive the loan.
Rec and Park has given the green light to reopen Camp Mather this year, where hundreds of people visit weekly over 11 weeks in summer.
But following concerns about overcrowding expressed by Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski, Rec and Park decided to deny the festival’s permit for Labor Day weekend.
Forest restoration, including hazardous-tree removal and road maintenance, has been ongoing but 150 acres remain closed. The presence of hazardous trees along roads and trails, recreation sites and private land, along with cleanup crews, has the potential to be dangerous for festival attendees, said Skalski.
“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,” said Sarah Ballard, a Rec and Park spokeswoman.
Rec and Park staff also expressed concerns over a lack of potable water for campers at the festival. An engineering and facility assessment of Camp Mather’s 2.6-mile raw-water pipeline has determined the infrastructure needs nearly $1.3 million in restoration, which the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will undertake after the 2014 season.
Temporary repairs to the system will only support water delivery to the camp from its Cottonwood Creek spring source for its 600 weekly visitors.
The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors and festival organizers contend that while they share safety concerns, they are committed to mitigating any potential issues and have done so in the past.
Festival organizers assert that Strawberry festivals have been held twice before during a forest closure, and would actively enforce festival boundaries through safety and security crews and by communicating with its customers on the terms of the forest closure and penalties for noncompliance
A condition of the permit for the fall festival, for example, could include language that prohibits dispersed camping, said Evan Royce, the Board of Supervisors’ chairman. Deputy County Administrator Tracie Riggs echoed that there are “sufficient resources” to ensure there would be no dispersed camping.
“We have some procedures in place that we would employ,” said Barnett, the festival operations director, including to add forest restriction information with tickets, reaching out to guests on the phone and via the festival’s website and Facebook page, and using a radio station that broadcasts throughout the festival to help ensure attendees were aware of the restrictions.
Additionally, event organizers say they can have potable water trucked in from a bulk supplier as well as reduce water usage on site.
“While we are ready to employ these methods, if we are given the opportunity to mitigate a potentially inadequate water supply, we will continue our research and develop our plan fully,” said Barnett.
However, Rec and Park said it has not received an official proposal from event organizers regarding the water supply.
“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,” Ballard said. “Currently, there is no feasible solution to accommodate 7,000 people.”
Ballard emphasized that The City values the semi-annual festival and looks forward to continuing the beloved tradition in the future.
“We hope to be able to safely welcome them back next year,” Ballard said.