The Yuba Goldfields in California’s Central Valley is one of the more bizarre and intriguing landscapes in the state — a swath of moonscape, wetlands, and sagebrush that stretches along both sides of the Yuba River. Huge piles of rock tailings, left by gold dredgers in the early part of the last century, loom over ponds filled with bass and trout and frequented by migrating waterfowl.
This lonely landscape, about 15
miles from Marysville, has only four houses and very few roads. But
life here hasn’t always been peaceful: In 1971, a large
Texas-based conglomerate, Centex, attracted by the
Goldfields’ immense reserves of gravel, began purchasing land
in the region. By 1987, it had acquired 2,600 acres, more than a
quarter of the Goldfields. Gravel is much in demand for roads and
the concrete needed for development.
That same year,
Centex’s subsidiary, Western Aggregates, declared ownership
of a long-used Goldfields road, closing it off and locking the
gates at both ends. The move shut off access to some 5,000 acres of
public land long popular with local fishermen, hunters, and kids
looking for swimming holes. It also meant that a retired
garage-door-opener salesman named Bill Calvert had a hard time
getting to and from his ranch in the Goldfields. The company gave
him a key to one of the gates, but the lock was sometimes jammed
Someone other than Calvert might have sold
the ranch and moved to a less contentious setting. But not Calvert,
who’s now 70, and is described by those who know him as
extremely stubborn, and — at times —
Taking on Western Aggregates meant
confronting its deep-pocketed parent company. "There was no way I
could fight them on my own. I knew I was going to need a lot of
help," Calvert says.
He used his salesman’s charm
to cobble together the Yuba Goldfields Access Coalition, an
alliance that included a sport-hunting group and a watershed
organization based in Nevada City, about 30 miles from the
Goldfields. The group set to work researching the region’s
complicated land ownership, but it also employed less subtle
tactics. Huey Johnson, a former California secretary of Resources
and an early member of the coalition, remembers the evening that
Calvert, hearing that one of Johnson’s friends had been
stopped by a locked gate, stormed out of his house, hopped on his
tractor, and yanked the gate open with a chain. At other times,
Calvert used bolt cutters to get the gates open. "The man is a
tiger," Johnson says.
But what Calvert’s friends saw
as acts of heroism, the mining company considered blatant vandalism
and trespassing. Calvert can’t remember exactly how many
times he was arrested — he thinks maybe six — and he
estimates that there were a total of 50 arrests among the
Goldfields public-access advocates. The Goldfields coalition was
not part of the Sagebrush Rebellion, like the Jarbidge Shovel
Brigade, which tried to open a road into a national forest in
Nevada despite the risk to endangered bull trout, or Utah’s
bulldozer-driving county commissioners, who want to disqualify land
from wilderness protection. There was no ulterior motive, members
say: Simply a desire to get to public and private lands the way
locals had done for years.
As the coalition persisted
— and the arrests multiplied — the mining company
ultimately became so frustrated that it sought a formal court
ruling to declare the main access road, known locally as Hammonton
Road, private. Yuba County – with funding and encouragement
from the Yuba Goldfields Access Coalition — agreed to fight
the company’s claim in court.
In 2002, a state
appellate court settled the issue by declaring that Hammonton Road
was indeed a public road. By that fall, the gates into the
Goldfields had been permanently unlocked.
Calvert’s work has opened the way for a whole new future for
the Goldfields. Deane Swickard, manager of the Bureau of Land
Management’s local field office and an avid outdoorsman, has
begun implementing his own sweeping vision for the 4,600 acres of
public land in the area.
Swickard hopes to stitch the
patchwork of public land into a recreation area. He envisions a
parkway with hiking and bicycling trails, as well as channels for
canoes between the ponds. It will, he hopes, attract visitors from
around Northern and Central California.
Calvert likes the
idea. Last spring, he helped a BLM crew spread clay and gravel over
a five-mile stretch of the potholed access road. Once the road is
made more passable, Swickard wants to bring in a mining company to
haul out piles of gravel from a 500-acre patch of BLM land. In
exchange for the gravel, the agency will require the company to do
some of the initial landscaping for the Goldfields’ first
public trails and canoe routes.
None of this would be
possible without Bill Calvert, says Swickard: "He’s the most
stubborn man I know. He stuck to his guns when everyone, including
myself, the U.S. attorney and the county counsel, were saying that
was a private road out there. As it turned out, he was right, and
everyone else was wrong."
Calvert is ready to start
enjoying the pastoral life he’s been yearning for since he
and his wife, Freda, moved to the Goldfields 30 years ago.
He’s spending more time with his grandchildren, and
he’s finally found the time to raise calves and plant a big
The bolt cutters, he’s happy to note, are in
a corner of his toolshed, gathering dust.