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Good Environmental News from the Eastern Sierra:

Looking back on 2006, there is indeed some positive environmental news even in the face of all the “global warming” gloom and doom of fracturing ice sheets and drowning polar bears.  Topping my “green whoopee ‘06” list is the restoration of 63 miles of the Owens River.  The river ran dry in 1913 when William Mulholland and associates opened the L.A. aqueduct, diverting the water to Southern California.  In a brief speech that included a mistaken reference to the “Eastern Sahara” instead of the Eastern Sierra (a Freudian slip if ever there were one!), on December 6 L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pushed a button to open the floodgates and restore the river.  The amount of water involved is not great, about $3 million worth a year, but the environmental impact will be enormous as native fauna and flora will once again re-inhabit the valley floor, hopefully for a at least a couple of million years into the future.  The lower Owens River is only a half-day’s drive from Santa Monica.

While the west slope’s Yosemite Valley (whose Half Dome graces the newly released California quarter coin) may be the Sierra’s crown jewel, nothing in my opinion can surpass the sheer mass and grandeur of the Eastern Sierra – over 200 miles of uninterrupted high country and the largest contiguous mountain chain in the Lower 48.  With stunning, snow capped peaks above 14,000 feet on both sides, the Owens Valley is the deepest valley in North America.  L.A.’s acquisition of Owens River water rights a hundred years ago was contentious, at times even being referred to as the “rape of the Owens Valley.”  But it is important to note that the battle was not over water conservation, but development.  L.A. won and become urban; the Owens Valley “lost” and today much of its landscape approximates that which greeted Joseph Walker and his band of 40 men where they were the first non-Native Americans to visit the valley in 1833.

2006 provides another curious link to the Sierras and their lack of development despite proximity to California’s 36 million residents.  For some years I had been hearing buzz around Mammoth that Bob Tanner, operator of the Reds Meadow Pack Station near Mammoth, is the “man who saved the Central Sierra.”  Last summer I contacted Tanner and joined him for breakfast at his Mulehouse Restaurant next to Devil’s Post Pile National Monument. Tanner has operated the pack station for decades.  In his seventies, he walks with a cane but is sharp and provides a lucid living history of Sierra backcountry.

Seems that in the late ‘60’s the Nixon Administration had allocated funds to survey the construction of a Trans-Sierra Highway, a four-lane link between Fresno and Mammoth that would have bisected the heart of the Sierras.  This was not about skiers reaching Mammoth Mountain, but about Central Valley agriculture finding a much quicker route to the eastern markets.

“Is it true? Are you the one who stopped the Trans-Sierra Highway?”

“I wish,” replied Tanner.  “If I had the clout to stop a federal highway project, do you think I would be running mules?”

“Who then, was behind the change of policy?”

“It was Governor Reagan’s State Secretary of Resources, ‘Ike’ Livermore.  He was both an executive of Pacific Lumber and a leader in the Sierra Club.  You wouldn’t find someone like that today.  Ike loved the Sierras and he used his personal relationship with Reagan to get Reagan to get Nixon to stop the highway project.  Looking back, it was a much bigger decision today than it seemed at the time,” notes Tanner.

To make the announcement of the cancellation, Reagan’s staff decided to hold one of the more unusual press events in the history of the governor’s office.  On July 24, 1972, Tanner’s Reds Meadow Pack Station marshaled over 100 head of stock and took Reagan, his entourage and about 50 members of the media on a three-hour ride to the high country’s remote Summit Meadow where Reagan announced the proposed highway’s cancellation.  Indeed, on the wall of Tanner’s Mulehouse Restaurant is a personal letter from then-Governor Reagan thanking Tanner for making the press event possible.  Referring to the horse Tanner provided, the governor said: “As I recall, her name is ‘Lady’ and indeed she is.”Largely unsung for his accomplishments, Norman Banks “Ike” Livermore is credited with the creation of Redwood National Park, saving one of the last wild rivers in California by stopping the Dos Rios Dam and stopping the Trans-Sierra Highway.  Livermore died in San Rafael at the age of 95 on December 5, 2006, by coincidence one day before the Lower Owens River began flowing again.

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