Saving the Sierra, tale by tale

  • Catherine Stifter, left, and jesikah maria ross find interesting tales everywhere they look in the Sierra


NAMES: jesikah maria ross, Catherine Stifter

PROJECT: Saving the Sierra: Voices of Conservation in Action

RÉSUMÉ EXCERPTS: Stifter: Two Peabody awards for independent radio productions; firefighter, EMT, and water truck driver for North San Juan volunteer fire department; lives off the grid in solar-powered cabin.
ross: UNICEF youth radio project in Ethiopia; community media projects in South Africa, Mexico and Ireland; first street demonstration in Mexico City against U.S. support of Contras in Nicaragua.

THEY SAY: ross: “We’re graciously stubborn about putting a spotlight on the Sierra Nevada.”
Stifter: “I hate it when I hear something I agree with and it’s Rush Limbaugh.”

Jesikah maria ross’ hair erupts in henna-red spikes as she pulls on a headset, pokes a microphone at Roger Lessman and nods across the room to Catherine Stifter: Let the interview begin.

“What does conservation mean to you?” Stifter asks Lessman. The narrative that follows is about life in the Sierra Nevada for a Truckee, Calif., resort developer with 2,500 acres in the alpine valleys just north of Lake Tahoe.

Roaming the backwoods and urban outposts of these California mountains, ross, 42, (who spells her name without capital letters, on the grounds that she’s “not a capitalist”) and Stifter, 50, are collecting scores of stories from wilderness hikers, county commissioners, forest rangers and developers like Lessman. Their tales are more than picturesque chronicles of people whose voices are seldom heard. Broadcast on National Public Radio, through an interactive Web site and at community events, they are a gentle means to an ambitious end: saving the Sierra Nevada.

Stifter and ross believe these stories can not only connect the Sierra’s 2 million residents to one another and to the places they love; the tales can also awaken the millions of people who live outside the mountain range to the issues that threaten it. “The more we celebrate what people are doing in the Sierra, the more people will understand and be moved by it,” says ross.

The two women concocted their project in the waist-deep waters of the Yuba River on the Sierra’s western slope. They have similar career backgrounds — Stifter’s mostly in radio, ross’ in video — and share an appreciation for people with dirt-level connections to their homes. Wading among the Yuba’s granite boulders, they traded secrets about their favorite haunts. And they confided their fears for the Sierra, whose population is expected to triple by 2040. With urban sprawl and air pollution already oozing up the foothills and into the mountains that span 400 miles along the California-Nevada border, Stifter and ross decided to coax people into getting involved by documenting local stories.

They are an unlikely pair. Ross has rings on five fingers and six in her ears. Stifter wears a wedding band and a single pair of simple earrings made from recycled glass. She was a Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow at her rural Minnesota high school, while ross was a gymkhana queen who held the shot put record at her Southern California high school.

“She’s academic; I dropped out,” says Stifter.

“She’s intuitive; I’m a trained community cultural developer,” says ross.

They don’t quite finish one another’s sentences, but they share a quirky compatibility. Both drive VW Golfs fueled by biodiesel. A glance from ross is all Stifter needs to know she has enough words from a subject.

During a recording break at Piper’s Patisserie, they caffeine up and mull over what they are actually saving. Not Truckee or Lake Tahoe. Not the California spotted owl, the 69 Sierra species at risk, or any of the other icons that drive the typical environmental battles.

Stifter and ross are saving stories of life in these mountains — logging and mining, rafting and backpacking, teaching, trading and just getting by. Hearing the twang of a rancher, the lilt of a Maidu Indian, the awe of a teenager who has hiked Mount Whitney, listeners will respond, and maybe even take action, Stifter says.

Part conservation activism, part grassroots organizing, this project doesn’t fit into any of the usual boxes. Conventional conservation is all about “science, numbers, and blah blah blah,” says Stifter, faking a snore into her curried chicken. “All that cool cucumber factoidal information — that’s not us,” says ross.

Neither is objective journalism. “We spill our guts about who we are and what we’re doing to get people to participate,” she says.

Ross and Stifter are betting their high-tech recording equipment that the voices of real people talking passionately about what they know will trigger something deep within their radio and Internet audiences. “If you don’t drop the pebbles, you don’t have ripples,” says Stifter. “That’s what we’re doing: dropping rocks.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Plumas County, California.

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