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The Faces of Southern Sierra Activism

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]by Joel Caldwell

In late September 2018 I traveled the length of California’s southern Sierra Nevada mountains photographing and interviewing environmental justice activists for California Wilderness Coalition (CalWild), in partnership with Peak Design. CalWild is a grassroots organization that builds coalitions to support permanent protection for California’s wild places, lobbying Congress to designate federal lands and waters as wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers, respectively. A tough job in today’s political environment.

The southern Sierra Nevada is an iconic landscape of high granite peaks, rugged river canyons, forests of giant sequoias, and foothills clothed in oaks and grasslands. Some of the public lands in this magnificent region have been protected with the establishment of the Kings Canyon-Sequoia National Park, Giant Sequoia National Monument, expansive wilderness areas on National Forest lands, and wild and scenic rivers like the Kern and Kings Rivers. Most of the water from this region flows downhill from these wild rivers to the southern Central Valley, where it is used to grow crops and provide drinking water to local communities.

I often think of California as the country’s leader on environmental policy, especially as it pertains to climate change. What I found in the foothills of the Sierras and the Central Valley—the “Breadbasket of the World”—was a community struggling with ideology, a widening gap between rich and poor, and a literal “reaping of what had been sown” after decades of unsustainable agricultural practices. Water rights are fraught, oversold, and often left unfulfilled after years of declining rainfall. At a time when the impoverished population of the Central Valley struggles for access to clean drinking water, industrial agriculture giants squeeze ever more profits by drilling deeper wells and planting more water-intensive pistachios and almonds.

Ray Gutteriez from Cold Springs Rancheria holds out black oak acorns, a staple crop of local tribes. “All oaks in the same area will put out acorns at the same time. I think it’s because they root graft. ‘Everybody is doing good? Let’s put out acorns!’”

California—the world’s fifth largest economy with an estimated GDP of over $2.5 billion—is struggling to decide what to prioritize: it’s role as agricultural superpower, or the basic needs of its nearly 40 million citizens. While this conflict plays out, the dire implications of climate change are sinking in. There is an uptick in heatwaves, persistent drought, epic wildfires, and an overall increase in temperature by two degrees since the beginning of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, federal budget cuts and recurring government shutdowns have reduced the ability of federal agencies to manage and protect these lands, and resulted in National Forest road and campground closures. And the Trump Administration is pushing for more logging and even considered eliminating the Giant Sequoia National Monument, which was established by President Clinton 18 years ago. In 2017, CalWild and their allies helped rally to defend this Monument (and six others in California), which are still subject to the lingering effects of President Trump’s national monument review.  

But in spite of all these challenges and in a time of record divisiveness, the diverse group of activists that I met on my tour of the foothills and valley kindled hope in my heart. These are the people who recognize the problem we all face and find themselves unable to sit by and do nothing.[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

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WildPlaces | Working to connect kids to nature in California’s poorest county

Mehmet McMillan from Wildspaces
Mehmet McMillan from WildPlaces. “Our mission is to change the mindset of the people, to create a thinking, feeling population who see their decisions through nature’s lens, with a renewed reverence for the natural world.”

It is a warm night in late September when I land at Fresno Yosemite International Airport. I had booked a compact rental car but somehow end up with a Ford F150 and drive the ninety minutes to Springville, California. The sprawling Wildplaces compound is located at the base of Grand Sequoia National Monument, along the Middlefork of the Tule River. It serves as home and office of WildPlaces director and founder Mehmet McMillan, as well as a temple of sorts, a place to revel in the glory of nature.

I spend two nights here, sleeping in an outdoor bedroom and getting to know McMillan and his partner, Xavier “Chico” Garza, and their guest Cipaccihuatl, a traditional Aztec healer visiting from Mexico City. I arrive too late to partake in the sweat lodge ceremony that Cipaccihuatl held the evening before, but I do experience her full moon song. Chico chants prayers morning and night in a room adjoining the common area. These people are so deeply united by their love of the natural world, and intent, as Chico puts it, on “creating a value creation society”—in which change starts with the individual, spreads to the community, and eventually grows to encompass the “sanctity of all life, the sanctity of nature.”

McMillan is in his early fifties. He is less overtly spiritual, more the activist type. We catch up the first morning in his office on the compound. He is staining a table, occasionally pausing to roll cigarettes. He tells me about the years he spent traveling the world with Greenpeace as an early, direct-action volunteer and how this led to WildPlaces. “Our mission is to change the mindset of the people, to create a thinking, feeling population who see their decisions through nature’s lens, with a renewed reverence for the natural world,” he tells me. With a team of volunteers, McMillan works to restore natural places that have been damaged by human activities. His main objective, however, is to simply connect people to nature, to offer hope for the future. “We took this free resource [public lands] and got people onto it. Thousands of kids—ninety-five percent of whom had never been up here [Giant Sequoia], even though they could see it from their homes. We just want to get kids into the outdoors and get out of the way and let Nature do her work.”

One in four people live in poverty in Tulare County, making it California’s poorest, according to the California Budget and Policy Center. “That’s why I put it on the ground here, because it’s the poorest, and our funding has come through because there is this huge geographic need.” What McMillan is trying to do with WildPlaces is both direct action—restoring places damaged by human activities and planting giant sequoia trees—and social justice. “I don’t have the answers to youth unemployment, incarceration rates, or the lack of outdoor programming and the arts.” But what he does know is the power of nature: “Nature is the best medicine we have.”

Community Water Center |  Unsafe Drinking Water in the San Joaquin Valley

Cristobal Chavez from Community Water Center
In 2015 the Community Water Center tested the water coming from Cristobal Chavez’s new well. It was off the charts for nitrates—four times the safe drinking limit. “We didn’t know the water was contaminated,” says Chavez.

From WildPlaces, I head twenty miles east to East Porterville—considered the epicenter of California’s historic drought—to meet with Ryan Jensen of Community Water Center. It was here, back in 2014, that three hundred wells ran dry (2,000 total in greater Tulare County). I jump in the car with Jensen and we head to the home of Cristobal Chavez, a clean drinking water activist who has been working with Community Water Center since discovering that his family’s water was contaminated. The views out the window as we drive are a study in contrast. On the left we pass leafy green, irrigated orchards. On the right, the bone-dry lots of prefabricated homes.

Community Water Center, an environmental justice non-profit, has been working in the San Joaquin Valley for over ten years. “Here you have a perfect storm of source water contamination, communities who don’t have the resources or capacity to deal with these problems, and an unresponsive leadership,” Jensen explains. As we travel through miles of irrigated agriculture, he tells me that cows outnumber people in many of the surrounding counties and that groundwater is contaminated with nitrates from fertilizer and pesticide residues. Ninety percent of local communities depend upon that very same groundwater as their sole source of drinking water.

When you’re dealing with disadvantaged communities and latino farm workers you have the added complication of language barriers, which makes it difficult for people to engage with their local elected officials—from the water board all the way up to the state assembly. “Community Water Center builds the capacity of community members to assert their rights and engage with decision makers so that they can have safe drinking water and leadership that is responsive to their needs,” Jensen tells me.

The Central Valley typically receives a huge amount of water in the form of runoff from the Sierra each spring and summer. During the historic drought—from 2014 to 2017—farmers didn’t get their surface water deliveries and California had no regulation of groundwater resources on the books. So farmers drilled deeper and more powerful wells to make up for the loss of surface water, further depleting the aquifers. In East Porterville, the Tule River ran dry two years in a row. The aquifer was not recharged. Wells dried up.

“Initially there was no response from the government. Finally the governor sent in the Department of Water Resources and gave them a mandate to build a water system out to East Porterville, hooking up as many people as possible,” explains Jensen as we drive north. “That’s great for East Porterville, but it was also the low hanging fruit. Most folks live far away from any public water system, so their only option is to drill a deeper well. There are very few public funds that can assist in drilling wells on private property.”

We find Mr. Chavez in front of his barn, sitting at a table in the shade of an expansive willow tree. Chickens, goats, and dogs drift around in the late summer heat. Chavez’s property is dry—like all the unirrigated land we passed on the drive out—but an effort has been made to landscape the yard. “I was a truck driver in L.A. for twenty-six years,” he tells me. “My wife and I bought this place in 1991 and planned to retire here. In 2003 I had a bad back injury, couldn’t drive anymore, so we moved up here and now we raise goats, cows, and chickens.”

In 2014, the Chavez’s family well, like many others, ran dry. “We didn’t want to lose our water. I’m a foster dad and have six kids. We can’t move because the kids couldn’t come with us—can’t go nowhere.” Chavez had no other option than to drill a deeper well. “I paid $15,000 for a deeper well. They were supposed to go down two hundred and fifty feet, but they only went ninety.” Just deep enough for water to flow.

In 2015 the Community Water Center tested the water coming from Chavez’s new well. It was off the charts for nitrates—four times the safe drinking limit. “We didn’t know the water was contaminated,” says Chavez. “Could have been even worse before the new well and we were drinking it all this time.” Now the Chavez family is receiving deliveries of bottled water from Tulare County, but it’s nowhere near enough. “After eight or nine months they stopped the bottled water program. So we bought it all ourselves. When we did get back on, the deliveries were cut in half because of limited funding. And we have to be here personally when they come to deliver, but that’s not always possible.”

In 2018, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund failed to pass. This would have set up a recurring annual fund by placing small surcharges on Californian’s water bills and a mill levy tax on nitrate fertilizer production and dairy operations. It would have generated $140 million dollars annually. “That’s the scale of the problem,” says Jensen. “It would have filled two huge funding gaps: operations and maintenance of public water systems, and private homes dependent on domestic wells.” Currently there is no funding to subsidize the cost of treating contaminated drinking water.

Even if “Big Ag” stopped using nitrate-based fertilizer today, there is the issue of legacy contaminants. Some people think it would take up to 120 years to clear nitrate contaminants from the aquifer. “At the level of contamination of the Chavez’s family well, there is no in-house treatment certified to reduce the nitrates to a safe level,” Says Jensen.

Before leaving, Chavez takes us into his barn to show us his horse and goat. Grabbing two plastic cups, he expertly fills them with warm milk straight from the udder. He mixes in some powdered chocolate and we click cups and drink. Chavez rests against the barn door, looking out over his property. “When I bought this place, I thought it was enough,” he says. “Now everything has changed.”

Since 2014, Chavez has been working with Community Water Center, traveling to Sacramento to speak to elected officials. He’s also testified to the water board about his experience. “On the last day of the state assembly [2018], we did get a commitment from the state Democratic Party to prioritize a sustainable drinking water fund in 2019” Jensen tells me as we drive back to Porterville. “We will be there waiting for them on the first day of the next session. We’re not going away until this problem is solved.”

The Dinkey Collaborative / Tribal Engagement in the management of a rapidly changing forest

Chip Ashley, The Dinkey Collaborative
Chip Ashley, a lifelong defender of the Sierra Nevada. “120 million trees died up here,” he tells me. “The Forest Service was working on a Forest Plan Revision but in light of all the tree mortality, the plan had to be completely scrapped.”

I’m in Watts Valley, two hours north of Porterville, sitting in Chip Ashley’s living room with Jared Aldern and Ray Gutteriez. These three men are involved in The Dinkey Collaborative, a Forest Landscape Restoration Program covering 154,000 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada. Aldern is historical ecologist, recently retired from a career in academia and tribal government—the same tribe that Gutteriez works for currently, Cold Springs Rancheria. We are having a freewheeling discussion about forests and the cultural implication of how they’re managed. Ashley—a lifelong lover and defender of the Sierra Nevada—is telling me about the state of the Sierra National Forest just out his window to the east. “120  million trees died up here,” he tells me. “The Forest Service was working on a Forest Plan Revision but in light of all the tree mortality, the plan had to be completely scrapped.”

Misguided forest management practices over the past century, including heavy-handed fire suppression, has created a dense and largely homogeneous forest. CalWild is organizing with smaller community groups to inform influential Forest Service staff on topics like this, leveraging local voices to create changes in management decisions. “Thanks to fire suppression, you have a lot of trees competing with each other,” Ashley explains. “In a drought, more competition means more death.” Additionally, this “clear cut and regeneration” method of management has drastically altered the overall makeup of the forest. “We have a lot more trees now and far fewer big trees,” says Aldern. “The big trees were all cut down—sugar pines and ponderosas—and the second growth came in thick.”

In a huge departure from previous management strategies, The Dinkey Collaborative recognizes fire as the dominant ecological process influencing the ecosystem. They are working on a plan to promote resiliency through the use of prescribed burns, mechanical thinning, and general watershed improvements. The hope is to restore a heterogeneous, fire-adapted forest that is resilient to insect and disease, climate change, drought, invasive species, and air pollution.

We leave Ashley’s house, piling into his old Isuzu Trooper, and drive into the Forest. Climbing into the Sierra Nevada, the topic of conversation shifts to tribal engagement in the Sierra National Forest. “The native community has so much wisdom but they speak in a way that makes the Forest Service uncomfortable. So we are not heard,” Gutteriez says. “ My goal has been to learn to speak in a way that gets us heard.” Gutteriez is a Mono Indian. His tribe managed the Forest with fire long before the Forest Service arrived.

Black oaks are of particular importance to the tribes, producing an acorn that has long been their staple grain. However, these oak trees don’t grow as tall as pine trees and they aren’t shade tolerant, so when the pines grow tall, the black oak produces fewer acorns. After years of fire suppression, the oak groves have been mostly crowded out. “With all this beetle kill we’re actually seeing black oaks come back. This is an opportunity to engage with the local tribal communities and get fire back into the landscape.”

Reaching the top of a rise, Ashley pulls the vehicle into a turnout. We’ve climbed several thousand feet, passing countless dead or dying pine trees standing darkly against the sky. Getting out, we walk through knee high grass, the sun setting over our shoulders. The forest here is open, uncrowded. Gutteriez approaches me, two handfuls of acorns held in his open palms. “All oaks in the same area will put out acorns at the same time. I think it’s because they root graft. “Everybody is doing good? Let’s put out acorns!”

Standing in this grove of  black oaks in the Sierra Nevada, I’m made aware of the incompleteness of our understanding of natural systems. It strikes me as an argument for designing our forest management plans with a healthy dose of humility and tolerance for natural phenomena, as well as the importance of receiving input from all interested parties, especially tribal communities, the original stewards of the forest.  

Temperance Flat Dam Proposal | The hardest working water in America

Steve Evans, CalWild's Wild Rivers Director.
According to Steve Evans—CalWild’s Wild Rivers Director—the proposed Temperance Flat Dam is “costly, produces little water, drowns the spectacular San Joaquin River Gorge, and costs taxpayers billions of dollars.”

I am fifteen miles north of Fresno, hiking through the San Joaquin River Gorge Recreation Area with Anita Lodge. “They’re trying to build the third tallest dam in the United States right here,” she tells me, gesturing upstream to Millerton Lake. The proposed Temperance Flat Dam would be built within sight of the existing Friant Dam—right in the middle of Millerton Lake, which would shrink it to little more than a puddle—creating a new reservoir twice the size. “Where we’re standing, we’d be completely underwater.” Lodge says over her shoulder. I look across the beautiful, boulder strewn drainage. The river runs choppily through the bottom, the imposing mass of Table Mountain in the distance. All this—gone. Additionally, two hydroelectric power houses would be removed and the Kerckhoff Dam would need to be dismantled. Lodge stops, huffing and puffing slightly from the climb, looks at me. “And that’s on the San Joaquin River, which already has nine major dams and numerous others.”

The San Joaquin River has been called the “hardest working water in America”. The water flows out of the Sierra Nevada, through the Southern California Edison projects and into Florence Lake. Then it comes down through the PG&E projects before reaching the spot where I’m standing now. “This water is used and used and used,” says Lodge, looking down at the river. “Before they built Friant in ‘41, they had already built big dams—Grand Coulee and Hoover. They had the technology, but chose not to do it here because it didn’t make any sense.”

To be clear, Lodge has much at stake. In the 1860s her great great grandfather was deer hunting in the area, bumped into a miner, and ended up trading his rifle for a gold claim. The mine was one of the biggest producers in the area and the family has lived on the property ever since.

When Friant was completed in 1942,  Millerton Lake flooded a portion of the family property. “It cut our property in half. So, they gave us more land further up the hill. My dad built the adobe home that I live in now at the high water mark of the current reservoir.” If they build the dam, the Lodge family would be forced to relocate a second time.

So who wants this dam? According to Lodge, it’s mostly water districts—‘Big Ag’. “A handful of people will make an awful lot of money off of this water if they ever build this thing,” says Lodge. The San Joaquin River Gorge Recreation Area and adjacent public lands are some of the last, undeveloped places in the foothills of the western slope of the Sierras. It’s crucial, protected wildlife habitat that has no access by motor vehicles and is home to more than twenty-four sensitive, threatened, or endangered species.

Lodge is skeptical of water legislation in the state of California. Four years ago, at the height of the drought, Proposition One passed overwhelmingly. “It had a lot of really good stuff, but also a lot of bad,” she says. In order to get it on the ballot, a compromise was struck that provided $2.5 billion for water storage. That’s how they got the dam builders behind it. “Out front, it’s water for disadvantaged communities, but on the back side it’s building canals to deliver more water to non-irrigated land in California to grow more almonds.”

Stepping off the path, we ease our way down a steep pitch, eventually lowering ourselves from boulder to boulder into the top of the Millerton Caves. Relatively unknown, this system of granite caves is nearly a mile long, and was sculpted over thousands of years by an underground stream. “There’s a nearly religious belief in the San Joaquin Valley that more dams means more water,” Lodge says, her voice echoing up to me from deeper in the cave. In the seventy-five years that the Friant Dam has existed, the water has only exceeded the storage capacity of Millerton lake five times. So why build a larger reservoir?

Anita Lodge in Millerton Caves
Anita Lodge at an entrance to Millerton Caves, which would be submerged if the Temperance Flat Dam is built. Popular with spelunkers, it is a unique and notable example of a cave carved out of granite bedrock.

CalWild recently declared the San Joaquin River Gorge to be one of the top five most threatened wild places in California. It’s a strange situation. Farmers, environmentalists, politicians—everyone seems to have a different idea of what should be done with the water that flows through the gorge. Even the federal government can’t make up its mind. While the Trump administration’s Bureau of Reclamation continues to push for the proposed Temperance Flat Dam, the Bureau of Land Management recommends a stretch of river just upstream from the Millerton Caves for National Wild & Scenic River status. One agency suggests drowning the gorge under a reservoir, while another bestows its greatest degree of protection upon it.

According to Steve Evans—CalWild’s Wild Rivers Director—the proposed dam is “costly, produces little water, drowns the spectacular San Joaquin River Gorge, and costs taxpayers billions of dollars.” Best case scenario—on a high water year—the new dam would increase water storage by a paltry 1%. “The San Joaquin is a fully appropriated river,” Evans tells me, noting that the river often runs dry just downstream of Fresno. Dams aren’t magic; they don’t create more water. It’s estimated that the state has over-allocated water rights in the San Joaquin River basin to the tune of 861% already.

If you can’t make more water, you have to start using what you have more sustainably. The Central Valley seems to be in a state of denial, still unwilling to make the necessary tough decisions. The Lodge family is once again faced with the prospect of losing their land to the unquenchable thirst of industrial agriculture. And this is a drop in the bucket when compared to the loss felt by Native Americans who still have no water rights and continue to see their cultural history drowned beneath short-sighted and ecologically unsound water practices.

Mehmet McMillan in the elements.
Mehmet McMillan in the elements.

The environmental predicament in the Central Valley serves as a case study—a microcosm—of how we, as a species, understand life and our role within the natural world. How do we correct environmental damage and mitigate further destruction? Do we continue to put band-aids on the problem, pouring billions into dubious construction projects unlikely to benefit those in need? Do we hold out for some future technological solution to our ever-worsening problems? Or, do we shift the paradigm to include all species, to recognize the intrinsic value and rights of all living things? Can we find balance and harmony by reevaluating our self-designated position of supremacy within the ecosystem?

There is hope for the Central Valley. These activists, nature lovers, and social justice advocates are hardworking, clear thinking, and passionate—but somehow a greater degree of cohesiveness must be fostered. Just as economic drivers unite people in the destruction of the environment—intentionally or otherwise—those of us who care to see it protected must unite. The restoration of the planet will require a profound shift in human consciousness. This is only possible if we achieve greater organization and band together as a powerful force for sustainability.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]