Earlier this week, I wrote about a report that the California Coastal Commission released about its interactions with Sean Parker over his wedding in a Redwood grove in Big Sur. From the language and photographs in the report, I came to some pretty harsh conclusions about the whole affair.
After the post was published, Parker wrote to me with a spirited defense of the wedding. He provided some details, which have reduced the boiling of my blood to a simmer. His whole email is reprinted below, but these are the key new facts, as I see them. One, Parker "consulted informally" with the Save the Redwoods League early in the process, so he wasn't building blindly. Two, according to Parker, the photograph of the gorgeous grove that was included in the CCC report as a "before" photograph was actually taken after Parker's crew had cleaned it up and gotten rid of a lot of the asphalt that had been laid down at the site. Three, his payment of $2.5 million was voluntary and "consistent with the kind of conservation work I'm already doing."
I attempted to reach the CCC to confirm these details, but have not heard back. You can read the staff report they issued here [pdf].
I can't say I agree that there is nothing extravagant about doing $4.5 million in site preparation, but I can say that at least it wasn't quite the know-nothing bigfooting that it appeared to be. Like I said in my original post, I don't really care that rich people spend insane amounts of money on their weddings; I just don't want everyone and everything else to get trampled along the way.
Here's a lightly edited version of the email that Parker sent me presenting his side of the story.
I read your article with a great deal of sadness and dismay.
First and foremost is that nobody goes out of their way to get married in a redwood forest unless they really love redwood forests. Getting married beneath an old growth redwood tree has been a dream shared by me and my wife for a long time. We spent two years hiking redwood groves, both public and private, in order to locate the perfect spot for our wedding. We needed to find private land that had been previously developed ("disturbed land" in CCC vernacular) so that there would be minimal environmental impact. When we found the Ventana campground site it was not exactly in pristine shape -- the natural ground cover was gone and it had been paved over with black asphalt! The pictures in the CCC report probably show what the site looked like after I removed (or covered) all the black asphalt (which I found appalling) using either bulldozers or just by spreading dirt and forest brush around the area. It is also possible that this area had been cleared as a camping "pad" for an RV or mobile home. Regardless, an undisturbed forest would not be dirt or asphalt, it would be covered in vegetation of some sort.
Second, my foundation has only two primary missions, one is cancer research (specifically cancer immunotherapy), and the other is conservation. I have begun a program of "conservation buying" - that is where I locate private land that needs to be protected, buy it with my own funds, and then donate it to someone like state parks or non-profits to maintain it for the public benefit. I spend quite a bit of my foundation's money on conservation related projects. To that end, I had previously been a major donor to the Save the Redwoods League.
I needed help finding a forest to host the event. Finding a forest with some old growth redwood trees that can accommodate 300 people is no easy task. I enlisted the help of Save the Redwoods to identify the site, and they suggested the Ventana campground precisely because it was private property and not public land, and it was owned and operated by a hospitality business (a hotel) and had previously been used for events. You mention that I "privatized the previously public." There is no sense is which this was public land. The only issue with the campground was that it had been closed to campers for several years due to fire and other issues. The Ventana has an active contractual obligation with the CCC to keep the campground open on a for-profit basis. Given that I was just renting the (already closed) campground for a short time, I could not have possibly known about this issue, and my wedding did not prolong the closure of the campground in any way.
The Save the Redwoods League actually consulted informally 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. This is something I chose to do entirely of my own volition and without any pressure from government agencies. (This took place winter of last year.) At this point we had no issues with the CCC or any other agency, I just wanted everything to be as authentic as possible and I didn't want to disrupt the natural habitat. I only knew to do this because I had an existing understanding of forest restoration via my conservation work and I also have an appreciation for what a natural redwood forest should look like because of my time spent hiking around redwood forests. We want to crazy lengths to ensure that nothing in the forest was harmed during the construction process. We used fabric liners to protect the ground from our landscaping work. We avoided planting directly in the soil, instead we brought in potted plants. Contrary to media reports, no redwood trees were harmed by the wedding or construction. (At least none that I'm aware of.)
While we made some mistakes, by and large the biologists who were sent out to the site (by the CCC and others) were happy with the measures we'd taken. Of course it's impossible to get everything exactly right at a production of this scale. Keep in mind when we found it, the campground was full of black asphalt roads, picnic tables, and all kinds of other man-made structures.
Everything we built was designed to be dismantled and removed after the wedding. I inquired about the need for permits early in the process and was informed that, due to the temporary nature of the construction, no such permit would be required. The CCC and Monterey County both offer some sort of exemptions for temporary events. Almost all the structures you see were designed to be temporary--they were actually built off-site and then reassembled on the topsoil of the campground. There is no mortar inside them, so they will just come apart like legos and get carried off. My original agreement with Ventana provided for me to restore the property to the condition in which I had found it, which was anything but perfect. The campground was missing all the normal sorrel leaf ground cover and other foliage. All the the greenery that you see in my photographs had to be brought in by me since the campground had been totally stripped of any vegetation when I found it. My goal was to leave the property in much better condition than when I found it.
More importantly, because I was just renting the site from a hotel, my 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.
How can a hotel guest paying a hotel to host their wedding be in a position to legally apply for permits covering a property that they do not own? There was neither an obligation, contractual or otherwise, nor any legal way for me to apply for permits.
You should also be aware that the $2.5 million was not, strictly speaking, a "fine" for any particular violation. We conceded to pay a $1 million into the CCC's conservation fund, and then work together to deploy a minimum of an additional $1.5 million in charitable contributions to help the Monterey/Big Sur area. This is all work that is consistent with the kind of conservation work I'm already doing. We have some great ideas about how to provide affordable (read: free) camping by bussing under-privileged kids and other groups into the Big Sur area for a free camping experience that they would get to have otherwise. Keep in mind, this is a minimum contribution, I am open to giving much more as the conservation projects develop.
The vision behind this wedding was to integrate with nature as much as possible, to bring out the natural beauty of the site while incorporating the kinds of things that one would need at a wedding. We did as much landscaping as possible using native species (ferns, sorrel ground cover, forget-me-not flowers), and everything was placed in potted plants with mulch around them so as not to plant or introduce foreign species into the forest. We used no invasive species.
There were no "ruined castles" built in the forest. The only stonework were walkways for the guests and walls that served as barriers between the different areas. I don't know where all this talk of castles and towers and things came from. The stonework is actually hollow (filled with bird wire) so that it can be removed quickly.
We had a very specific aesthetic vision for this event that was subtle, tasteful, and carefully orchestrated. Everything we did was an homage to nature, to the natural redwood environment which I call "God's cathedral." We wanted the forest to speak for itself, but we had to build the basic minimum features to make the campground safe and viable for a wedding.
Finally, you mention that what we did was "extravagant" yet none of the usual tasteless crap that rich people do at their weddings was present here -- no ice sculptures, no caviar, no pop stars hired to sing their hits songs, etc. This is why your article and so many other articles have been so deeply offensive. Maybe I will be allowed to release some photos of the event at some point so you can see first hand what we created rather than just speculating based on what else has been published in the press. All of the numbers that have been released were total fabrications (this $9 million number of instance) and are WAY off base. I will say, against my better instinct to tell you, that we spent roughly $4.5 million on prepping the site and big part of that was restoring the forest floor (I should say, covering the forest floor with plants) since it had been paved over in black asphalt or cleared by bulldozers before we ever laid eyes on the campground.