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Dinkey Creek

The long work of designating a wild river – Dinkey Creek

By Steve Evans, CalWild Wild Rivers Director

Thirty years ago, a handful of local activists in Fresno calling itself the Dinkey Alliance, produced a 14 page report making the case that Dinkey Creek, a major tributary of the Kings River on the Sierra National Forest, is eligible for National Wild and Scenic River protection. The report was submitted to the Forest Service, which was in the process of completing its final plan for the Sierra Forest. In response to the report, the Forest Service promised to study the stream for its Wild and Scenic potential.

More than a quarter of a century later, the Forest Service finally fulfilled its commitment to study Dinkey Creek in a systematic inventory of streams and rivers on the Sierra Forest for potential Wild and Scenic River eligibility. The inventory was included in the 2016 draft Sierra Forest Plan. The draft plan found the upper 15.6 miles of Dinkey Creek, from its source in the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness to a point a few miles downstream of the McKinley Grove Road (Strawberry Meadow) to be eligible due to its outstandingly remarkable scenery, recreation, geology, history, and prehistory values. The lower 15+ miles of the creek were not determined eligible.

Although appreciative of the Forest Service finding of more than 15 miles of Dinkey Creek as eligible, CalWild and other conservation groups felt that the agency’s assessment of Dinkey Creek’s outstanding values was flawed. In particular, less than a mile of the stream was determined by the Forest Service to possess an outstandingly remarkable recreation value, despite the fact that the stream is a recreation destination for thousands of people from all over California, hosts the second largest Forest Service campground on the Forest and is home to two organizational camps, and enjoys international fame as a marquee destination for expert whitewater kayakers. The draft plan provided little explanation as to why the lower 15 miles of Dinkey Creek from Strawberry Meadow to its confluence with the North Fork Kings River was ineligible due to a supposed lack of outstanding values.

So CalWild and its allies, including American Whitewater, got to work. CalWild alone submitted 10 pages of detailed and footnoted comments, complete with pictures and maps, documenting the eligibility of all of 30+ miles of Dinkey Creek. American Whitewater mobilized its cadre of expert whitewater kayakers to extol the unique whitewater virtues of  Dinkey Creek. The creek’s eligibility was also supported by hundreds of public comments in response to the initial draft plan.

When the Forest Service produced a revised draft Sierra Forest Plan in September 2019, we were shocked to find that the eligible segments of Dinkey Creek had shrunk from 15.6 miles to 4.7 miles. Our detailed comments in regard to Dinkey’s whitewater kayaking and other outstandingly remarkable recreation values had been ignored.

Wild and Scenic River Inventories and Interim Protection of Eligible Streams

Wild and Scenic River eligibility is important. An agency-identified eligible stream is more likely to be included in future legislation as a proposed Wild and Scenic River. In addition, the Forest Service is required to administratively protect the free-flowing character, outstandingly remarkable values, and tentative Wild, Scenic, and/or Recreational classification of eligible streams. For Dinkey Creek, an eligibility finding for all 30+ miles of the stream would be useful to discourage further speculation about building a large water storage dam on Dinkey Creek. The stream has been threatened several times in the past with hydroelectric and water storage projects, none of which have penciled out economically. In addition, an eligibility finding for the entire creek would ensure administrative protection of its free flowing character, outstandingly remarkable values, and tentative Wild, Scenic, and Recreational classification of its various segments.

The Forest Service is required to conduct a systematic inventory of potentially wild and scenic rivers in the Forest Planning process. The agency has detailed guidelines to assist in the identification of outstandingly remarkable scenery, recreation, fish, wildlife, geology, history, cultural, or other values (often botany or ecology). River values must be located on the river or its corridor, contribute substantially to the functioning of the river ecosystem, or be river-dependent or owe their location or existence to the presence of the river.

To be considered outstandingly remarkable, a river-related value must be unique, rare, or exemplary feature that is significant when compared with similar values from other rivers at a regional or national scale. In addition, the Forest Service’s guidelines encourage agency professionals to “Consider the entire river system, including the interrelationship between the main stem and its tributaries and their associated ecosystems which may contain outstandingly remarkable values.”

Forest Service resource experts use their best professional judgement as to whether a specific value is outstandingly remarkable. The agency criteria for outstandingly remarkable recreation values includes:

Recreational opportunities are high quality and attract, or have the potential to attract, visitors from throughout or beyond the region of comparison; or the recreational opportunities are unique or are within the region. River-related recreational opportunities include, but are not limited to, sightseeing, interpretation, wildlife observation, camping, photography hiking, fishing, hunting, or boating. The river may provide settings for national or regional use or competitive events.

The “region of comparison” criteria may be a contributing factor in the mis-analysis of potential outstanding values. The guidelines allow the agency to identify a different region of comparison for every value, ranging from the Forest to a bioregion (such as the Sierra Nevada bioregion), to the entire state or nation. For outstanding recreation values, the Sierra Forest chose the Sierra Nevada Range as the region of comparison. But it is not clear whether the Forest Service considers adjacent gateway communities such as Merced and Fresno, which are definitely located in the Central Valley, as art of the Sierra Nevada region. Although the full administrative record for this process is not yet available to the public, this is where we think the Sierra Forest’s assessment went sideways, not only for Dinkey Creek, but for many other streams on the Forest as well.

Where the Dinkey Creek Eligibility Analysis Went Wrong

Even before the eligible miles of Dinkey Creek shrank from 15.6 to 4.7 miles between the 2016 and 2019 draft plans, the only segment of Dinkey Creek found to possess outstanding recreation values was the .7 mile segment of the creek that flows through the Dinkey Creek Roof Pendant Geology Area. The Forest Service apparently felt that the unique geology of this short segment was sufficient to attract visitors from beyond the Sierra Nevada Range region. We agree (see our article about visiting the Dinkey Creek Geological Area here LINK ) but we also believe that the geology-focused recreation values of this Dinkey Creek segment complements the other recreation values of the rest of the stream.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of the agency’s misinterpretation of the “exemplary” part of the eligibility criteria, is the mistaken notion that there can only be one stream or one stream segment found eligible for a specific value. This misinterpretation may have caused the nearly 80% reduction in eligible mileage for Dinkey Creek (broken into a .7 mile eligible segment and a unconnected 4 mile eligible segment further downstream), as well as an alarming overall reduction for the entire Sierra Forest from more than 633 eligible miles in the 2016 draft to only 35.5 eligible miles in the 2019 draft.

Particularly for Dinkey Creek, it appeared that the Forest Service ignored the fact that expert kayakers come from all of the world to run Dinkey Creek’s class IV-V whitewater. A simple internet search will confirm dozens of blogs and posts by expert kayakers who paddle Dinkey Creek every spring season. American Whitewater describes Dinkey’s Creek’s upper whitewater run as “an amazing section of paddling…” According to expert kayaker and professional photographer, Darin McQuoid, the once rarely paddled lower Dinky Creek run “has become a marquee destination for out of state boaters and local paddlers.” This certainly constitutes an outstandingly remarkable recreation value.

The Forest Service’s eligibility findings for Dinkey Creek also ignored the diversity of recreation opportunities provided by Dinkey Creek, including the popular trail route that follows the creek into the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness (representing 30% of all permits for entering the wilderness), several class 5.6+ rock climbing routes on Dinkey Dome, and the huge popularity of the Dinkey Creek Recreation Area as a major river-oriented recreation destination for camping, hiking, swimming, and fishing on the Sierra Forest. The Dinkey Creek Campground is the Sierra Forest’s 2nd largest campground. The campground segment is also a popular day use area and it’s home to the rustic Dinkey Creek Resort, the City of Fresno’s family camp, and Camp El-O-Win (one of the few remaining all girls summer camp in the entire Sierra Nevada).

Dinkey Creek Kayaking Photo by Darin McQuoid

In February 2020, CalWild, American Whitewater, and local conservationists met with Sierra Forest personnel to discuss the problems with the Dinkey Creek eligibility findings. Attending the meeting was Peter Malkin, an expert kayaker who emigrated from Russia to California because of its outstanding whitewater opportunities, including Dinkey Creek. Proof positive that whitewater kayaking on Dinkey Creek is an outstandingly remarkable value since it attracts visitors from far beyond the Sierra Nevada region.

Visitor Use Data

Since meeting with the Forest Service early in 2020, CalWild has researched visitor data for the Forest Service’s giant Dinkey Creek Campground. In 2018, thousands of people enjoyed the Dinkey Creek Campground. Of the nearly 1,500 campsite reservations and day use parking permits, only about 1% of the reservations came from the Sierra Nevada region. Not surprisingly, about 60% of the campsite reservations originated from the Fresno and the Central Valley. About 38% of the reservations originated from southern California, the central coast, and the bay area.

Similar recreation data from Camp El-O-Win for 2017-2019 show that 12% of summer camp participants come from the Sierra Nevada region, 75% from the Central Valley (from Fresno to Bakersfield), and 14% from other regions in California and from out of state. This visitor data clearly proves that Dinkey Creek possesses “high quality” recreation opportunities that attract visitors from beyond the Sierra Nevada region.

The final Sierra Forest Plan is expected to be released for public review sometime early in 2021. Based on the input and data we’ve provided the Forest Service, we expect positive changes in the eligibility finding for Dinkey Creek and many other streams on the Sierra Forest. If there are no changes to the WSR inventory in the final plan or the changes are insufficient, we will pursue the Forest Plan objection process to secure a positive eligibility finding for all of Dinkey Creek as well as improvements in the overall Wild and Scenic River eligibility inventory for the Sierra Forest.

Objection Process May Be Dinkey Creek’s Last Hope

The 2012 Forest Plan Rule established a formal objection process for the public to exercise their right to administrative relief for plan decisions they may feel are illegal or are unsupported by the public record. Objections are a pre-decisional administrative review process. A final forest plan is accompanied by a draft Record of Decision (ROD), which includes the decisions of the Forest Supervisor as to how many areas (if any) are to be recommended for wilderness protection and how many miles of eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers were inventoried and therefore will be provided interim protection.

The objection is filed in response to the draft ROD. This objection process is essentially a negotiation between interested parties and the Regional Forester (or his/her designee), who acts as a reviewing officer of the Forest Supervisor’s draft ROD decisions. Although conservationists will never get everything they want via the objection process, it does provide one last opportunity to advocate and secure protection for eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers and other wild places.

The participation of CalWild, Mono Lake Committee, Friends of the Inyo and other conservation groups and activists in the objection process for the draft ROD for final Inyo Forest Plan in 2019 led to an increase of eligible river mileage from 129.1 miles to 265.4 miles. This included agreement by the Regional Forester and ultimately, the Inyo Forest Supervisor, that the lower segments of Lee Vining, Rush, and Mill Creeks that  flow into Mono Lake in the federally designated Mono Lake National Forest Scenic Area, are Wild and Scenic eligible.

Hopefully, the Forest Service will review our detailed comments and recreational visitor data for Dinkey Creek and conclude that all of the stream is eligible for Wild and Scenic River protection due to its outstanding recreation and many other values. But CalWild and its allies are prepared to use the objection process if needed to protect the creek, the roadless areas through which it flows, and other wild places.

We hope to see improvements in the final Sierra and Sequoia Forest Plans when they are released for public review in 2021, not only with the Wild and Scenic eligibility inventory, but also in regard to recommendations to protect roadless areas as wilderness. Regardless what the final plan says, we will continue to advocate for the Wild and Scenic eligibility of Dinkey Creek and many other rivers and streams and protection of the roadless watersheds through which they flow.