How to get rural people to stand proud and tall

  • Passing the baton: David Brower and Andrea Lawrence in the Sierra

    Ed Marston

It usually takes something substantial - a dam or the earth's 5 billion people - to annoy David Brower. But just credit him with having founded the Sierra Club and watch the scowl form.

The annoyance is part vanity. The Sierra Club is now 103; Brower is a youthful 83.

His reaction is also part discomfort, because he is its founder. Before Brower, the Sierra Club protected California's Sierra Nevada Range. Period. Brower's fights against dams in the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument thrust him and his reinvented Sierra Club onto the national stage.

The nation gained a strong force for conservation; the Sierra lost an elite, upper-class regional group focused on Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, a string of national forests, Lake Tahoe, Mono Lake, Owens Lake and the rest of the immense range.

On July 21, this vacuum drew Brower to the tiny town of Lee Vining on the eastern slope of the Sierra. He was there to participate in the second annual meeting of a struggling newborn: the Sierra Nevada Alliance.

Brower, a generous man, said that while the nation needs a national Sierra Club, it also needs a group to protect California's mountains. He gave the alliance his blessing.

The group traces back only a few years, to a 1991 series of articles by Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee. "The Sierra in Peril" said the 460-mile-long range was being dismembered by recreation, subdivisions, logging, grazing, water diversions, fires and mining.

A Pulitzer went to Knudson for showing that the chain of mountains was dying. And his articles inspired a diverse group to found the Sierra Nevada Alliance. But the membership turned out to be too diverse. Beset by different perspectives, it split between national groups based in San Francisco and local activists living in the Sierra's small towns. The nationals walked, leaving the locals in command of a diminished entity with few resources.

Its major asset is its president, Andrea Lawrence, an athlete who participated in three Olympics and owns two gold medals. Racing downhill on a couple of boards while dodging obstacles was good training for a county supervisor of remote, rural Mono County, on the eastern edge of the Sierra in the Great Basin.

Supervisors - commissioners in the rest of the West - are the West's most powerful local elected officials. It's a tough position usually held by good old boys born breathing politics. But even though wise-use and commodity interests threw everything they had against her in the last election, Andrea Lawrence is in her fourth term.

For four days of most weeks she worries about roads, the mill levy, privatization of public lands and prayer in schools. On the fifth, sixth and seventh days she is president, visionary and the source of courage for the alliance - a group modeled roughly along the lines of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The Sierra's plights keep the alliance and its grass-roots groups busy. Foothills on the west side of the Sierra fall to subdivisions as residents of the hot, flat Central Valley push east toward higher ground. While the west side is wet with people, the east side is in the Sierra's population rain shadow. There are few east-west roads through the range, and the Great Basin side of the Sierra is shielded from suburbanization. But massive water diversions to Los Angeles and to irrigated lowlands and intense logging and grazing and damming put the east side, too, under pressure.

Most environmental news from around the Sierra falls into three categories: bad, worse and terrible. And not only the land is under siege. The 60 or so activists at the meeting live in small, conservative towns, isolated from each other by distance and geography.

So the mood of the meeting should have been grim. Instead, it was almost giddy. The activists were a bit like soldiers on leave, out of danger for the moment, and with buddies.

Their day-to-day experiences were dramatized by the meeting's major ceremony: the conferring of two "Character Building" awards. One went to Jane Baxter of Posey, the founder of a small outfit called Range Watch. The other went to Linda Blum of Quincy, a member of the Quincy Library Group.

Technically, Jane Baxter's award should have gone to those who are actually building her character: the cattlemen whose federal grazing allotments she inspects, the staff of the Sequoia National Forest, and local officials in her county. The cattlemen do what they can to make her life miserable while most Forest Service officials treat her as a non-person. County inspectors make sure her bed and breakfast is the cleanest and safest in California. She says that if she walks outside holding a hammer, some inspector or other is soon on the scene to see if she has the right permit.

She earned this attention by pointing out forcefully, and with documentation, that the Sequoia National Forest's streams and grasslands are in degraded shape because of bad grazing practices.

Linda Blum is having her character built by the editor of her local paper and the Women in Timber representative. They routinely accuse her in print of being responsible for throwing various families out of work, putting others on welfare or rendering them suicidal. Blum said that when an unemployed logging truck driver recently killed himself, she lived in terror of being blamed for his death. To top it off, because she is active in the consensus-seeking Quincy Library Group, she is viewed with suspicion by some environmentalists.

Baxter and Blum won the awards, but almost everyone gathered on the shore of June Lake could recount similar stories. Nevertheless, the meeting wasn't about getting the enemy. As organized by Lawrence, it was all about isolated and embattled rural activists emerging from their bunkers to join land managers, extractive interests, rural people and national environmentalists at the tables where decisions are made.

Susan Carpenter, a longtime organizer of consensus efforts, spent the entire second day of the meeting drilling the group in negotiating without losing one's principles or objectives. She got little help from Brower. "Every time I compromised, I lost. Every time I didn't compromise, I won," he told the activists.

Carpenter pointed out that it was Brower who laid the foundation for consensus. "Your victories have been numerous and great; they are the reason the environmental movement has power. But now that we have power, we have a responsibility to bring everyone along with us."

The day spent on process followed a day in which speakers described issues facing the Sierra. Martha Davis of the Mono Lake Committee - which saved the lake from death by aridity - told of busing inner city youths the 300 miles from Los Angeles so they could see Mono Lake and the aqueduct that diverts water away from it to Los Angeles. Back home, with help from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the youngsters distribute water-saving toilets to save a landscape they now see as part of their community.

Davis said the Mono Lake Committee reciprocates. It wants to save Mono Lake, but not at the expense of Angelenos. So it helps the city replace the water it once took from the lake.

Mono Lake is one of the Sierra's few success stories. Los Angeles has been ordered to cut its diversions until the lake rises to a life-sustaining level. That was expected to take many years, but this winter's immense snowpack is raising the lake faster than believed possible. It is becoming less salty, the brine shrimp and the insects and birds are thriving, and streams that were dry for years are running bankful into the eerie-looking lake.

As if the runoff weren't enough, Mono Lake gets a transfusion each Labor Day weekend when cyclists fill vials at the LA Department of Water and Power and pedal 300 miles to dump the water into the lake.

The Mono Lake Committee is changing the Sierra's physical landscape. Bob Meacher, a Plumas County supervisor, wants to change the economic landscape by forcing money to flow uphill from cities and irrigated valleys to mountainous areas.

He told the group that hydroelectric generators, irrigators and cities each year use $1 billion in Sierra water. Meacher wants to take back some of that $1 billion to restore grasslands and forests.

Some at the meeting said there is a certain sick justice in the destruction of the Sierra's watersheds by grazing, logging and fire suppression. The Sierra has been plundered of its water, and now the watershed that provides the water is being destroyed by rural residents who have little stake in its preservation.

To provide for sustainability, Meacher and University of California, Berkeley, professor Larry Ruth spoke of changing the relationship between cities and Sierra Nevada communities. "What we need is a capitalistic approach to water, with reinvestment," Meacher said, "not a colonialist approach."

Investing in watersheds has a Sierra precedent. Pacific Gas and Electric, beset by dirt flowing into its reservoirs, decided several years ago to invest in forest health in Plumas County to reduce erosion. The Quincy Library Group wants to extend the PG&E approach to fire prevention. The group argues that the cost of removing fuel loads would be much cheaper than the total cost of destructive 50,000-acre fires. And it would provide well-paid jobs for loggers and others.

Andrea Lawrence says Mono Lake has shown her what restoration and consensus can achieve. She says that when the Mono Lake Committee began working to save the lake 17 years ago, locals were either indifferent or hostile. The few dabs of private land in the county are owned by Los Angeles, so most people are the city's tenants. In effect, Mono County residents were a colonial people, living without economic opportunity in a dying landscape.

Those who formed the Mono Lake Committee in the late 1970s, Lawrence says, moved in unobtrusively and went to work. Now that they have won, she says, the community takes great pride in the lake.

"A few years ago we dedicated a Forest Service visitor center. After the ceremony, I heard a long-time resident say to his wife: "I've looked at that lake for years, and until now I never realized how beautiful it was."

"When they revitalized those streams flowing into Mono Lake, they revitalized the community. The old timers - you'd think they saved the lake. They stand up so proud and tall." n

Ed Marston is the publisher of High Country News.

The Sierra Nevada Alliance can be reached at Box 2118, Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546 (619/934-4546).

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