Siskiyou Land Conservancy
Protecting California’s Wild North Coast and Rivers Since 2004

Del Norte is California’s Least Healthy County

That is, at least according to big med’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is apparently ranking counties throughout the country. It’s a business venture for the Foundation, but it provides fodder for contemplation.

Recently Del Norte was down to one physician for the entire county, which figures into the RWJ ranking for access to health care. The survey also looked at obesity, smoking, exercise levels and the teen birth rate.

In addition to the effects of poverty caused primarily by cut-and-run timber liquidation and the decimation of California’s fishing industry, Del Norte’s overall health took an unfortunate dive in 1989 with the opening of Pelican Bay State Prison. Aside from the osmotic impacts of plopping such a horrific example of human cruelty into the middle of a tiny population, the families of some prisoners, and some guards, brought to Del Norte County particularly challenging home and neighborhood impacts that Social Services — and of course the families themselves — have been struggling to overcome ever since.

The bitter irony lies in the abject cleanliness of much of Del Norte County, which correlates with the region’s beauty, sparse population and isolation. But it’s not all milk and honey in our northwesternmost county. To wit:

2001: A spray rig douses lily bulbs during a high wind in the town of Smith River, Del Norte County. Blowing directly into the Smith River Elementary School (background) are the carcinogenic fungicides copper hydroxide and chlorothalonil. Each year bulb growers spray more than 200,000 pounds of pesticides on some 1,500 acres of lily fields that surround the town. Photo by Greg King.


The town of Smith River surrounded by lily bulb fields. Above, the Smith River itself runs toward what is left of the river's estuary after levees and ditches drained the region for agriculture. Photo by Greg King.


Specifically, the RWJ survey stated:

“Poorly ranked counties often had multiple challenges to overcome, including:
  • Two- and three-fold higher rates of premature death, often from preventable conditions.
  • High smoking rates that lead to cancer, heart disease, bronchitis and emphysema.
  • High rates of obesity which can put people at risk for diabetes, disability and heart disease.
  • High unemployment and poverty rates.
  • High numbers of liquor stores and fast-food outlets but few places to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Humboldt County ranked 42nd healthiest out of California’s 56 counties. The survey ranked Siskiyou County second unhealtiest (55th), and Trinity County was fourth unhealthiest. One gets the feeling that, like Del Norte, there are some pretty healthy people in these counties, which see some enviable fitness levels and a rich availability of clean water, air and food.

The North Fork Smith River meets the Middle Fork Smith River at the Del Norte County town of Gasquet (far right). The Siskiyou Mountains are at back-left. Photo by Greg King