The Sierra National Forest in California features some of the most iconic wild places in the central Sierra Nevada. In 2017, the Forest Service released a draft plan for the Forest that recommended no new wilderness. Thousands of people commented on the plan urging additional protection for wild places. Due to extensive drought-induced tree mortality, the Forest Service released a revised draft plan in 2019, with major reductions in the amount of wild and scenic river miles. The public will have the opportunity to critique this obviously flawed process and object to the reduction in mileage when the Forest Service releases the Sierra Forest Final Plan Revision sometime in the summer of 2020. In addition to outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation, many of these wild places provide refuge and critical migration corridors necessary for plants and animals to survive climate change. CalWild advocates for the protection of the following wild places in the Sierra Forest Plan:
Devil Gulch-Ferguson Ridge (47,000 acres) – Located in Mariposa County, this unusually large and undeveloped low elevation area includes the South Fork Merced Wild & Scenic River and is contiguous to Yosemite National Park and contains ecosystems under-represented in the wilderness system. The area possesses an extremely rare example of undisturbed Ponderosa pine forest in the Bishop Creek Research Natural Area. It also includes the unique ecology of the Devil’s Peak Botanical Area, which supports three rare plants. The roadless nature of the area contributes to the high biotic integrity of the South Fork Merced. The Hite Cove Trail along the South Fork features one of the most spectacular wildflower displays in the central Sierra. The MiWuk Indians gather traditional materials in this area for basket weaving.
Monarch Wilderness Addition (43,500 acres) – Located in Fresno County, this potential wilderness addition straddles the Sequoia and Sierra National Forests. This large low elevation addition to the Monarch Wilderness is split by the Kings River, which forms one of the deepest canyons in North America. The addition would nearly double the size of the existing Monarch Wilderness and would facilitate the migration of wildlife and plant species in response to climate change by connecting foothill areas at 1,000 feet elevation with the 14,000-foot peaks of the adjacent Kings Canyon National Park. The area supports ecosystems under-represented in the system, including oak woodlands and Giant Sequoia groves. These diverse habitats support Pacific fisher, slender salamanders, and mountain yellow-legged frogs. The Kings River National Recreation Trail follows the Kings River into the potential wilderness addition. Rich in historical and Native American cultural values, the river is also a popular destination for whitewater rafting and is famed for its wild trout fishery. The roadless area contributes to the high biotic integrity of the Kings River.
Dinkey Lakes Wilderness Additions (25,500 acres) – Comprising four separate units located in Fresno County, these potential additions would nearly double the size of the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness. The additions reach down to 7,000 feet, which would diversify the ecosystems and vegetation protected in the wilderness, as well as provide important migration corridors for animals and plants in reaction to climate change. Boundaries for these additions can be drawn to avoid conflicts with existing legal OHV trails. The additions include many small lakes, meadows, streams, and trails that lead into the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness. The Bear Mountain addition includes the spectacular Dinkey Dome and upper Dinkey Creek, which tumbles down a series of smooth granite chutes and plunge pools. This area attracts expert kayakers, rock climbers, hikers, equestrians, anglers, and hunters. Old growth red fir and mixed conifers provide habitat for Pacific fish, pine marten, and spotted owl. The area is culturally sensitive and is of special interest to local Native Americans.
Sycamore Springs Wilderness (17,650 acres) – Located in Fresno County, this low elevation area encompasses the lower segments of Dinkey Creek. The area supports mixed oak, savanna and foothill pine ecosystems that are rare in the wilderness system. Outstanding scenic features include the many waterfalls, rock chutes, and plunge pools formed by Dinkey Creek, as well as the highly visible rock formations of the Patterson Bluffs, Indian Rock, and Black Rock in higher portions of the area. Virtually trail-less, the area offers truly wild recreation opportunities, including whitewater kayaking for experts, canyoneering, hiking, fishing, and hunting. Rich in cultural and historical values, the area is of special interest to local Native Americans.
Ansel Adams Wilderness Addition – San Joaquin River (37,000 acres) – Located in Fresno and Madera Counties, this addition to the Ansel Adams Wilderness encompasses the rugged canyon of the San Joaquin River downstream of Mammoth Pool Reservoir. The addition would extend the existing wilderness down to 2,400 feet in elevation, providing critical migration corridors for plants and animals. The addition includes nearly 16 miles of the San Joaquin River determined eligible by the Forest Service for Wild & Scenic River protection due to its outstanding scenic and recreation values flow. The historic French Trail, a route used by Native Americans and early miners and traders, traverses much of the San Joaquin’s canyon slope and enjoys three-season accessibility. The trail is an important component of the 73-mile San Joaquin River Trail, which will ultimately connect Millerton Reservoir with Devil’s Postpile National Monument. The area is culturally sensitive and is of special interest to local Native Americans.
Ansel Adams Wilderness Addition – Raymond Mtn. (9,000 acres) – This potential addition to the Ansel Adams Wilderness is directly adjacent to wilderness in Yosemite National Park. It encompasses the unprotected southern slope of the South Fork Merced Wild & Scenic River near Mt. Raymond. In addition to the wild South Fork, the area includes several large lakes, streams, meadows and rich old growth conifer and fir forests. Six trails cross through the area, including the Iron Creek Trail, which provides access to the South Fork and Yosemite Park. This roadless area contributes to the high biotic integrity of the South Fork Merced Wild & Scenic River. The area is culturally sensitive and is of special interest to local Native Americans.
Wild and Scenic Rivers
The Sierra Forest plan revision process began in 2012 with wild and scenic eligibility findings from the 1990s. This includes 48 miles of the upper San Joaquin River (and its North and Middle Forks) determined eligible and suitable for Wild and Scenic River protection and 12 miles of the Kings River as eligible.
The Sierra Forest draft plan revision released in 2016 identified an astounding 690 miles of additional streams and rivers on the Forest eligible for Wild and Scenic River protection (not including the segments of the San Joaquin and Kings found eligible in the 1990s).
The 2019 draft plan reduced eligible rivers from 690 miles to just 35.5 miles. CalWild is investigating how and why the agency reduced the miles of eligible rivers and streams by 94% between 2016 and 2019.
Here are descriptions of eligible rivers and streams identified by the Forest Service and additional waterways that CalWild believes is eligible on the Sierra National Forest:
Upper San Joaquin River, North Fork, Middle Fork (48 miles total), Madera County – From the 10,000-foot crest of the Sierra Nevada, the North and Middle Forks of the San Joaquin River flow west to their confluence, creating the main stem of the San Joaquin. The main stem then continues west through a spectacular canyon with sheer granite walls and domes, with a background of majestic peaks in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. This rare stretch of free flowing river ends at Mammoth Pool Reservoir. About 50 miles of the upper San Joaquin and its North and Middle Forks, all within the Ansel Adams Wilderness upstream of Mammoth Pool, were determined eligible in the 1991 Sierra Forest Plan. The Plan recommended 48 miles for designation, leaving the lower two miles of the main stem available for possible future expansion of Mammoth Pool Reservoir. The Middle Fork recommendation includes segments of the upper river on the Inyo National Forest and within Devil’s Postpile National Monument. The outstandingly remarkable values of the recommended segments include scenery (waterfalls, deep rocky canyons, spectacular granite domes and walls, high snowy peaks of the Ansel Adams Wilderness), recreation (hiking, fishing, camping, over a wide elevation change), fish (self-sustaining native trout, including golden trout), wildlife (peregrine falcon habitat, summer range for deer), geology (deep narrow meta-volcanic and granite rock canyons, basalt post-piles), and culture (the trans-Sierra French Trail used by Indians and miners). The 2019 Draft Sierra Plan Revision endorses this 48 mile recommendation but claims that the lower two miles of the main stem is not eligible, even though it was found eligible in 1991 and it shares the same outstanding scenery and other values of the recommended segment upstream.
Lower San Joaquin River (22.8 miles), Madera and Fresno Counties – Below Mammoth Pool Dam, the lower San Joaquin River has carved a tremendously deep canyon. The river is broken into three segments divided by two water resource facilities (Mammoth Pool Powerhouse and Redinger Reservoir). Even with flows modified by upstream dams, the Forest Service in the 2016 evaluation found these three segments to be free flowing and to possess outstanding scenery (deep canyon with steep granite walls and domes) and recreation values (diverse recreation opportunities, including class VI-V whitewater, fishing, hiking, and scenic waterfalls). CalWild believes that the segments also have outstanding cultural value associated with the French Trail (the same trans-Sierra route used by Native Americans and miners that make the upper segments eligible). Unfortunately, the 2019 draft plan revision claims that these three segments have no outstanding values.
Upper South Fork San Joaquin River (17 miles), Fresno County – From its source at Martha Lake in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, the upper South Fork flows northeast into the John Muir WildSierra Forest to Florence Lake Reservoir. The upper South Fork is eligible due to its outstandingly remarkable scenery (distinctive glaciated canyon), recreation (wilderness-based recreation with outstanding scenery), wildlife (Peregrine falcon habitat), geology (classic glaciated valley/peaks, granite gorge with domes), and culture (Native American traditional use areas, trans-Sierra trail). The upper South Fork’s eligibility was originally determined in the 1991 Sierra Forest Plan and confirmed in the 2019 draft plan revision.
Lower South Fork San Joaquin River (28 miles), Madera and Fresno Counties – The 2019 draft plan revision claimed that the lower South Fork San Joaquin River below Florence Lake Dam has no outstandingly remarkable values. And yet, the wild and scenic river evaluation conducted in 2016 found that the lower South Fork possesses outstanding scenery and geology values identical to the upper segment. CalWild also believes that the lower South Fork possesses outstanding cultural value associated with the Mono Trail Traditional Cultural Property (an important trans-Sierra trail used by Native Americans) that includes Mono Hot Springs on the lower South Fork segment. Most of the lower South Fork San Joaquin River is located in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Upper Mono Creek (13.4 miles) & Hopkins Creek (3.7 miles), Fresno County – From its source in the John Muir Wilderness to Lake Thomas Edison Reservoir, upper Mono Creek is eligible due to outstanding cultural/prehistory values associated with the Mono Trail Traditional Cultural Property. This rich cultural district stretches from the Mammoth area on the Inyo Forest to Mono Hot Springs, and is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to the cultural (prehistory) outstanding value, the 2016 evaluation identified several additional values, including scenery, recreation, wildlife, and geology. Mono Creek’s tributary, Hopkins Creek, is eligible in the 2019 plan due to its outstanding wildlife. The creek supports large populations of endangered Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and habitat connectivity that enables population expansion and increased genetic diversity.
Lower Mono Creek (6.2 miles), Fresno County – The Forest Service claims in the 2019 draft plan revision that lower Mono Creek from Vermillion Valley Dam (which creates Lake Thomas Edison) to its confluence with the South Fork San Joaquin is not eligible because it possesses no outstanding values. And yet, a portion of the lower creek is located within the Mono Trail Traditional Cultural Property. The Forest Service’s 2016 evaluation confirmed the lower creek’s outstanding cultural value. Most of lower Mono Creek is located within the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Granite Creek (22.8 miles), Fresno County – Flowing from the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Granite Creek is a major tributary of the North Fork San Joaquin River. The 2016 draft plan found 15.6 miles of the East and West Forks Granite Creek eligible, but only 2 miles of the 7.2 mile long main stem were determined eligible. Outstanding values identified in the 2016 draft include geology (glaciated landscape with significant and unique glacial landforms as spectacular as Yosemite National Park), history (a significant World War II era tungsten mine), and prehistory (a prehistoric trans-Sierra trade corridor eligible for the National Register of Historic Places). The 2019 draft plan capriciously determined that none of these values are eligible. CalWild believes all 22.8 miles of the East Fork, West Fork, and the main stem of Granite Creek to its confluence with the North Fork San Joaquin River are eligible due to outstanding scenic, recreation, geology, history and prehistory values. As a major tributary of the North Fork, the eligibility of Granite Creek complements the agency recommended North Fork. More importantly, it would foreclose on a speculative hydroelectric project proposed in 1979 that included dams not only on all three forks of Granite Creek, but also on the North Fork San Joaquin and other tributaries.
California Creek (1.8 miles) & Nelder Creeks (1.9 miles), Madera County – These creeks are eligible due to their outstanding scenery, recreation, and botany associated with the Nelder Giant Sequoia Grove. The Nelder Grove National Recreation Trail and other trails offer access through a unique landscape with exemplary scenery. In addition to Giant Sequoias, two sensitive plant species are found along the creeks – western waterfan lichen (Petigera gowardii) and mountain lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium montanum). Unfortunately, the Forest Service limited eligibility for these creeks to just the short segments within the Nelder Grove Historic Area, ignoring its own guidelines to take a watershed approach for wild and scenic evaluations.
East Fork Big Creek (3 miles), Fresno County – Located entirely in the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness, the East Fork Big Creek has outstanding wildlife value. The creek supports large populations of threatened Yosemite toad, including the southernmost and largest know populations of Yosemite toad on the Sierra National Forest. The 2016 evaluation found 4.6 miles of the creek to be eligible and identified scenery and geology as outstanding values.
Owl Creek (2.3 miles), Madera County – A short segment of Owl Creek is eligible due to its outstandingly remarkable botany values. Three sensitive plants are found along and in the creek, including Rawson’s flaming trumpet (Collomia rawsoniana), Brook pocket moss (Fissidens aphelotaxifolius), and western waterfan lichen (Petigera gowardii).
Jose Creek (4.7 miles), Fresno County – Located in the mid-elevations of the Sierra Forest, Jose Creek is eligible due to its outstanding wildlife value. The creek supports the only known population of sensitive foothill yellow-legged frog in the Sierra Forest and is one of the only handful of populations in the southern Sierra Nevada. Foothill yellow-legged frogs in the southern Sierra Nevada were recently listed as a state endangered species by the California Fish and Game Commission.
Kings River (12 miles), Fresno County – From the 13,000+ foot crest of the Sierra Nevada, the Kings River flows west through Kings Canyon National Park and the Sierra National Forest, carving one of the deepest canyons in North America. In 1987, Congress added 81 miles of the Kings River and its Middle and South Forks to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. But the lower 12 miles of the Kings River above Pine Flat Reservoir was left unprotected due to a proposal by a local irrigation district to build the controversial Rodgers Crossing Dam. Instead, Congress established a special management area surrounding the 12 mile unprotected segment of the Kings and reserved to itself the authority to authorize a dam in the future. In the 1991 Sierra Forest Plan, the Forest Service determined the lower 12 miles of the Kings River to be eligible, due to its outstandingly remarkable scenery, recreation, fish, wildlife, geology, history/culture, and science/education values. This eligibility finding provides a modicum of protection for the Kings from possible renewal of the dam project. While carving downward through its spectacular 13,000 foot deep canyon, the Kings River exposes some of the best remnants of pre-batholithic (non-granitic) rock on the Sierra’s western slope. The river is a state designated Wild Trout Stream and fish biologists consider it to be the finest freestone (non-limestone) trout river in the state. The lower canyon provides crucial winter range for two major deer herds, as well as habitat for bald eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon prairie falcon, willow flycatcher, and a host of other bird species. Visitors come from all over California to raft and kayak the river’s class III-IV rapids and fish for its wild trout. Several campgrounds provide excellent base camps to explore the river and to hike the Kings River National Recreation Trail. The river canyon includes many Native American cultural sites and remnants of the longest logging flume in the world (built in 1889). The Kings River is an important outdoor laboratory and classroom used by many colleges and youth groups.
Dinkey Creek (4.7 miles), Fresno County – Dinkey Creek flows for more than 30 miles from its source in the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness to its confluence with the North Fork Kings River. Unfortunately, the 2019 Sierra Draft Plan only found two short disjunct segments of Dinkey Creek totaling 4.7 miles to be eligible due to outstanding recreation and history/cultural values. This is a retreat from the Forest Service’s 2016 evaluation, which determined the upper 15 miles of Dinkey Creek to be eligible. CalWild believes that the entire creek should be eligible due to its outstanding scenery, recreation, wildlife, geology, history, cultural, and ecological values. Dinkey Creek’s scenery is quite diverse, ranging from the sub-alpine stream flowing past glacier-carved lakes in the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness, past the folded and ancient rock formations of the Dinkey Creek Roof Pendant Geological Area, into a deep granite canyon dominated by Dinkey Dome and a long series of “teacup” waterfalls and slides, to the rugged lower canyons flowing through pine forests and oak woodlands. Dinkey Creek drops more than 8,400 feet in elevation from its source to the North Fork confluence, transecting four plant communities that support 800 species of plants (including three rare plants) and diverse habitat supporting more than 121 bird species, including peregrine falcon, California spotted owl, northern goshawk, great gray owl, bald eagle, and willow flycatcher. Old growth forests along the creek provide critical habitat for the sensitive Pacific fisher and American martin. The lower portion of the creek provides important winter range for deer. Dinkey Creek is a recreational wonderland, attracting visitors from all over the state and the world. From hiking in the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness, exploring the unique geology of the Dinkey Creek Roof Pendant Geological Area, climbing the challenging granite walls of Dinkey Dome, to kayaking the creek’s class IV-V rapids, Dinkey Creek has it all. One expert kayaker stated that Dinkey Creek “has become a marquee destination for both out of state and local paddlers.” Generations of Fresnans and people from far beyond the region have camped at Forest Service and organizational camps on the middle segment of Dinkey Creek for decades. The unique Dinkey Creek truss bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the middle segment is rich in Native American cultural history. In recognition of all these outstanding values, CalWild believes that all 31 miles of Dinkey Creek should be found eligible for protection.
Iron Creek (4.1 miles), Madera County – From its headwaters at Iron Lakes at the foot of Iron Mountain, Iron Creek flows north to its confluence with the South Fork Merced Wild and Scenic River. The Forest Service’s 2016 evaluation found that the creek flows through a unique diversity of landscapes, but that the creek’s landforms and vegetation are similar to the outstanding scenery of the South Fork. As a result, the 2016 evaluation determined Iron Creek to be eligible due to its outstanding scenery, but the 2019 Draft Plan claims the creek is ineligible because it has no outstanding values. Adding Iron Creek as a Wild and Scenic tributary of the South Fork Merced would also complement the river’s protected status and high biotic integrity.
Bishop Creek (1.7 miles), Mariposa County – North of Wawona, Bishop Creek flows out of Yosemite National Park into the Sierra National Forest and the creek’s confluence with the South Fork Merced Wild and Scenic River. The creek’s watershed was designated a Research Natural Area by the Forest Service due to its rare and undisturbed Ponderosa pine forest. The creek was heavily occupied by Native Americans and possesses cultural sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. In 1851, the Mariposa Battalion established its basecamp along Bishop Creek before entering Yosemite Valley. The Forest Service’s 2016 evaluation found that Bishop Creek has outstanding cultural value due to its “early archaic occupation” but said nothing about the creek’s ecological value as a Ponderosa pine Research Natural Area. The 2019 Draft Plan identified no outstanding values for the creek and claimed that it is ineligible. Adding Bishop Creek as a Wild and Scenic tributary of the South Fork Merced would also complement the river’s protected status and high biotic integrity.