The Changing Sierra — Land&People

The Sierra Nevada, which reaches to 14,495 feet, is the tallest range in the Lower 48, and at 400 miles it is the longest. The Spaniards, who knew it from its gentler western side, named it sierra, "sawblade," and nevada, "snowy." For the Anglos, arriving at its sheer eastern escarpment, that jagged whiteness was even more daunting. They had crossed the Great American Desert only to encounter this rampart of rock and snow, the last great obstacle to Manifest Destiny and exploration of the West. The saga of the wagon trains played out its last chapter in these mountains as the Donner Party, trapped by storms, resorted to cannibalism.

If the range stands as an imposing granite monument to the end of the frontier, it also marks the beginning of a new way of looking at the American landscape. The environmental movement, which had its first center of power somewhere in the vicinity of Walden Pond, found its second here in the Sierra. John Muir, the Thoreau of the West, was enthralled by the range. Muir loved the Sierra for itself, for its light, for its vistas, for the exhilaration of its thin air, for its wildness, not just for its board-feet of timber.

Convinced that the true worth of wilderness is spiritual, not economic, Muir did battle with the great forester Gifford Pinchot, dean of the utilitarian school of conservation that had sprung up in the East–a split that still marks the environmental movement today.

Muir became the principal advocate for federal control of Yosemite, the incomparable valley hidden in the center of the range. He defeated the proponents of state control, and Yosemite became de facto our first national park. Muir also founded the Sierra Club, which would become the prototypic modern conservation organization. He and his colleagues prepared the ground for a flowering of preservation movements in the West.

My first memories are of the Sierra high country. My father, David Brower, first executive director of the Sierra Club–"Muir reincarnate," journalists would call him–took his children early to the mountains. He had been shaped by the Sierra. As one of the foremost rock climbers of his generation, he had spent his youth making first ascents throughout the range. He returned often to the peaks that were his source of inspiration, bringing along his four kids and imprinting us with the mountains. We came to know the huge Jeffrey pines of the middle elevations, their bark smelling of vanilla. The glassy shine of glacier polish on granite domes. The alpine meadows and high tarns. Snowcones, each cupful of crystals scooped from a snowbank, then dusted with powdered lemonade. Bouldering in the talus slopes above camp, my father pointing out good handholds and footholds, talking us up the face of the rock.

What is remarkable about the High Sierra is how little any of this has changed. It is testimony to the passion and foresight of preservationists like Muir that these peaks, save for a rockfall or two, look exactly as they did to me as a boy in the 1950s, to my father in the 1920s as he enjoyed virgin views from summits he was first to reach, to the Donner Party as they struggled through the range, and to the Paiutes and Miwoks as they traded over its passes.

This is no longer true of the lower Sierra. There the population doubled between 1970 and 1990, with most of that increase coming in the western foothills. The 1990 Sierra population–650,000–is projected to triple by 2040 and quadruple in the western foothills.

The Inviting Land

"It wasn't a surprise," poet and foothills resident Gary Snyder told me. "Way back in '69 or '70, I wrote a sort of environmental manifesto called Four Changes, and I said this was what's going to happen. Still, seeing it happening before your very eyes is more intense than just theorizing that it's going to happen."

If the Sierra has a poet laureate, it is Snyder, Pulitzer Prize winner and veteran of many a Sierra conservation skirmish.

"The Indians loved the foothills too," he reminded me. "The Sierra up to the 4,000-foot elevation is a very attractive place to people. There was more Indian population in that zone than there was on the valley floor. It's cooler in the summer, and not bad in the winter–and it's up above the tule fog level.

"The Indians didn't like the winter tule fog any more than anybody else does. And they preferred acorns from the black oak–acorn flour was their main staple–which doesn't grow down on the valley floor, it grows in the foothills. People still prefer the climate zone of the foothills today." After spending most of the 1960s in a Zen monastery in Japan, Snyder moved in 1970 to the foothills.

"I built my place that summer in a wooded area on the northern edge of Nevada County, in a community of people with intentions similar to mine, which were to keep the parcels wild and to live very simply. Since then I've watched Nevada County go from something like 35,000 people to close to 90,000 today.

"All of us in my area, San Juan Ridge, have been very conscious of forestry issues on public lands–keeping an eye on Forest Service policies and the logging practices of the timber industry. But what we've been forced to recognize as the biggest agent of change and ecological damage has been the continuing growth of subdivisions and housing and the influx of population."

The growth has its hot spots–in the north along the Highway I-80 corridor between Sacramento and Reno, and in the Fresno area to the south. The pressure comes not just from hordes of new residents but from recreational visitors–the throng that planners call "shadow population."

"There's probably no other rural region in the country that has the kind of exposure the Sierra does to metropolitan areas," Jim Sayer of the Sierra Business Council told me. "It's evident to anyone who looks at a map that you have the Sierra cheek by jowl with Sacramento and Reno and the Bay Area and all the budding population centers of the Central Valley. It's so easy for people to get to the Sierra compared with almost any other rural region in the U. S. The number of recreational visit days is booming. The last figures we have are from 1995, and we had 38,750,000 recreational visit days that year. You're just seeing enormous demands on the region."

The Changing Political Landscape

"The foothill counties have a slightly older and more affluent population since the retirees have flooded in," says Snyder. "It's changed the political landscape. Two decades ago, county politics was dominated by real-estate developers and resource producers, old families involved with mining or the timber industry. The 1970s back-to-the-land cohort bumped heads with these people. We started launching environmental initiatives to bring about smart growth, and were shot down by the old-timers every time. They wanted free property rights. They wanted to develop their land however they wanted.

"They went ahead and did that–subdivided and sold their land, which brought in a new population, retirees in many cases. The sociology changed. The new people started voting more environmentally. They had quality-of-life in mind. Now the old-timers are saying, 'These newcomers, they don't understand how we live in this county! They're all voting for this environmental stuff!' It's paradoxical, because the environmental vote in the Sierra counties is now a coalition of conservative land-loving old ranchers, plus the counter-culture back-to-the-land people, who have grown up and taken a certain amount of power, plus the environmentally minded retirees."

The poet, contemplating this assortment of odd bedfellows, laughs merrily.

Placer County is a good example of this paradoxical new dynamic. Placer, the Sierra's fastest-growing county, happens also to be one of the most conservative–yet the county's citizens and leadership, in collaboration with nonprofits, including the Sierra Business Council, are in the process of creating Placer Legacy, a program to protect open space, working landscapes, habitat, and community buffers. Collaborative work in identifying areas for protection began in 1997. By 2000 a framework was in place and a split measure went on the ballot. Citizens were asked to vote Placer Legacy up or down, then to approve a tax measure funding it.

"The final vote on the open space program was 56 to 44 percent yes," says Jim Sayer of the SBC, "and then the tax measure got creamed 72 to 28 percent. The county's electorate liked the idea of Placer Legacy. They did not want their tax dollars to pay for it.

"What's been really fascinating," Sayer goes on, "is that in most places you'd see the politicians turn tail and run, but the leadership of Placer County has said, 'No, we think this is really important, we're going to keep moving forward.' They've been trying to find ways to provide funding from other sources. They've been doing a lot of grant writing."

If the first problem in the new Sierra is population, then the second is its landownership pattern, the "checkerboard" that vexes the advocates of smart growth. The checkerboard is a vestige of the 19th century, when the transcontinental railroad was awarded every other square-mile section within 20 miles of the tracks. Most of those sections now belong to timber companies.

Such fragmented ownership makes it difficult now for the Forest Service to manage the public sections, but the real danger, many think, lies in the future of the private sections. As more people move into the Sierra, the timber business grows increasingly difficult–problems of trespass, regulatory obstacles, and citizen movements trying to stop the harvest of trees.

"If it becomes really uneconomical to manage that land for timber," warns Dave Sutton, director of TPL's Sierra Nevada program, "then there's a potential for a big shift. There are already a lot of people out there offering to buy this 640-acre parcel from the timber company, or that 640-acre parcel. Right now, you can split it into four 160s–timber zoning allows that. If you start to disperse it over a lot of different individual landowners, you're in trouble. Someone asks for a variance here, a variance there. 'Let me put just one unit on my 160,' one guy asks, and then his neighbor wants the same. Once you split it up into 40s or smaller, any hope for habitat-scale connectivity is not viable. Because you end up with domesticated pets going wild, exotic species of flora and fauna. And once you've got people mixed up in the woods, it becomes almost impossible to manage fire."

"The best analogy is from the book The Perfect Storm," says Jim Sayer of the Sierra Business Council. "You have eight or ten trends and impacts intersecting right now, in one big mountain range that matters to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. What we try to do at SBC is to get good information and bring people together in a collaborative way in order to identify the problems facing the region and figure out how to deal with them. We're working with communities on visioning processes. We're working with a broad coalition, including TPL, to create a Sierra Nevada Conservancy. The Sierra really needs a conservancy that would channel state resources into conservation projects. One of the things we keep reminding people is that the Sierra makes up 20 percent of California's landmass and provides 60 percent of the state's water, yet at present only 1 percent of the state's conservation resources go to the Sierra. We need to change that."

Pieces of the Growth Puzzle

The Sierra Business Council is eight years old and has a staff of 15–a big outfit for the Sierra, where funding is sparse and the nonprofit sector underdeveloped.

"We started in 1994, with the recognition that there really is a kind of submerged voice of business- people who know that if the Sierra gets trashed, then its economy will be trashed, too," Sayer goes on. "We've been trying to get across the idea that there is a very simple nexus between three kinds of capital–social capital, financial capital, and natural capital. This concept has resonated with many businesspeople, who stepped forward and wanted to be part of the solution. They were tired of seeing people grabbing for each other's throats. They wanted to see a different approach to problem-solving in the Sierra–one that acknowledged the importance of all three kinds of capital, rather than just the financial bottom line."

The town of Truckee is at the apex of the I-80 development corridor, an intrusion of the new foothill demographics into the high country. Perry Norris of the Truckee Donner Land Trust is one of those trying to steer that growth.

"We had a general plan in Truckee in 1966," Norris says. "When that plan was adopted, nobody envisioned that we'd have more golf courses up here than ski areas. No one anticipated this kind of boom-town growth, so there wasn't any kind of pacing mechanism in that general plan."

Truckee's general plan is now undergoing revision, and Norris is working to insert pacing mechanisms. His land trust holds conservation easements, accepts donations of land, and is working to create a trail system through Truckee and the new developments the town is spawning. "Our strength is in our neutrality," he says. "We work with the town and the developer to maximize open space and ensure public recreation opportunities. We can't outbid developers. Prices in Truckee are now up to $20,000 an acre. So we're trying to identify pieces of land that nobody is really interested in developing now, but in 10, 25, even 50 years down the road, are going to be eyed by developers. We're aggressively trying to buy those while they're affordable."

Dave Sutton believes that TPL, working in concert with the local trusts of the Sierra-Cascade Land Trust Council, allied nonprofits like SBC, and local, state, and federal public agencies, has a 10- or 15-year window in which to consolidate and reintegrate landownership in the checkerboard, make fee and easement acquisitions, engineer a shift in public attitude, and get the framework for smart growth in place.

"It's a monumental undertaking, no doubt about it," Dave Sutton says. "If there weren't so much at stake, we probably wouldn't do it, because the costs, the upfront effort, the uncertainty of success, are all huge. We don't know what the solution is, but we have some ideas. We know that it involves working with the Forest Service, with local communities, and with Sierra Pacific Industries, a timber company that is the state's largest private landholder, and with whom we've had an excellent working relationship for more than 12 years."

To Bob Kirkwood, whose Bella Vista Foundation is assisting TPL in land acquisition, I suggested that the task ahead was herculean, and the window of opportunity small. "Well, you could have said that at the time when people started worrying about overdevelopment in the Tahoe Basin, or along the coast," he answered. "But you've got to begin sometime. Maybe it would have been better if this consciousness had started up 20, 30 years ago, but it didn't. Now the time has come."

Snyder regards the work of the trusts and nonprofits as indispensable but feels that small Sierra landowners like himself should bear more responsi-bility for the region's future.

"I think private landowners should take the bit in their teeth," says Snyder. "Do their own fire-safe clearing around their places. Reduce fire hazard and become ecologically more aware. Learn real-estate stuff, land trust stuff, easement stuff. Become engaged with the issues and learn the language. The more recent urban arrivals, who don't want to have any more logging in the national forest, have to understand that a zero-cut initiative will never fly in this country. Given what we know about the overload of fuel in the forests, it's not even a good idea. I guess what I'm arguing for is a less polarized version of living in the country, one that is more hands-on and practical."

If there is agreement on what the Sierra's salvation will require, it seems to be this: It will take unholy alliances and strange bedfellows. The spirit of the old forester Pinchot, up there in the heavenly pines, and the spirit of the old preservationist Muir must somehow be made to shake hands.

Kenneth Brower is an environmental writer who lives in Berkeley, California. He is the author of The Starship and the Canoe, Wake of the Whale, A Song for Satawal, and many other books.