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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Containing the New Rush in the Sierras

Air Date: Week of

There's a new rush on in the Sierra Mountain Range. . . but its not gold. It's people. Cy Musiker reports on how environmentalists are working to find common ground with the timber and leisure industries to strike a balance for wilderness preservation and economic growth in this fast growing region in California.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many consider California's Sierra Nevada mountains to be a national treasure, and they certainly provided riches back in the days of the gold rush. Today there's a new rush: the range of tall pines and wild lands is the fastest-growing region of California, and local residents are wary. Some are wary of development; others are concerned that distant environmental regulators and activists will try to choke off the local economy. But instead of pointing fingers, some of these residents are trying to put aside their differences and build a consensus for their future, in what they call the Sierra Nevada Alliance. Cy Musiker reports.

(Meetings, mulled conversation)

MUSIKER: About 100 environmental activists are gathered for seminars on log benches in lakeside campgrounds. Mammoth mountains, alpine spires tower overhead. The keynote address sets the theme for the two days of meetings. Martha Davis led a successful 10-year campaign to save nearby Mono Lake. Now she's working to define a broader challenge: how to protect the environment of the entire Sierra while maintaining a healthy rural economy.

DAVIS: You have to understand the other side's needs, and you've got to find the common ground. It's hard. But you have to come back to the home point. All politics is community.

MUSIKER: That's the focus of this conference and the Alliance. And local environmentalists can best protect the Sierra by forming coalitions with others in the region, especially with traditional adversaries such as loggers, ranchers, or developers.

(Running stream)

LAWRENCE: To me, the real moving force and energy behind a group such as the Sierra Nevada Alliance is the fact that it is our back yard, and the sense that it's being eroded by outside influences over which we have no control.

MUSIKER: Alliance president Andrea Lawrence is the only American ever to win 2 gold medals in Alpine skiing. Now a county supervisor, she considers herself a strong environmentalist. She's also worked as a resort consultant. So Lawrence brings a kind of realpolitik to her environmental goals.

LAWRENCE: Our project is the environment. That's the economy I'm talking about. It means that when we build in our communities, or we design them or we plan them, we plan them with our environment in mind. Industry is changing and social values are changing. Those who are changing with it are going to survive.

(Footfalls, conversation: "These stumps are all pretty well decomposed...")

MUSIKER: We're over 150 miles north of Mammoth, tromping through a thick fir and pine forest around 4,000 feet. It's here in these woods that the changes Lawrence is talking about are starting to take place.

(Bird song)

BLUM: How high would you gauge the lowest branch on this tree to be?

DELASSAUX: The lowest branch is, I'd guess 100 feet.

MUSIKER: Michael Delassaux and Linda Blum are standing under a massive sugar pine 250 high and perhaps 400 years old. Delassaux is a forester with the University of California, Blum a self-described environmental wacko and board member with the Sierra Alliance. The sugar pine is dying now from drought and pine beetles. It's a good test site for a dialogue on forest values.

DELASSAUX: This is the challenge: what do you do with this tree? The sugar pine, as a conifer, is the most valued wood species. I want to say tens of thousands of dollars right here just because of the value of sugar pine boards.

BLUM: I'm going to be arguing really strongly that this tree ought to be marked as a wildlife snag and that it ought to stay here and not be cut down. One thing is, I mean, this one is so large and it will last so long as a snag, that Mike's grandkids ought to be able to come and see this tree. And there's really very, very few examples of what this land used to produce in the way of trees. Not having trees this size in the forest when all we see are the second growth, we lose the concept of what the land is capable of producing.

MUSIKER: Delassaux and Blum may usually disagree, but they've joined in a plan to save the forest with other loggers, timber company executives, and environmentalists. After years of drought the Sierra may be vulnerable to catastrophic fires. So the plan calls for loggers to harvest tinder-dry debris for biomass and chip board, and log white fir, which chokes out other native trees. That would produce jobs and improve the health of the forest. The plan has been soundly criticized by both environmentalists and timber companies from outside the region. But Blum says Sierra communities have to find their own solutions.

BLUM: We have a stake here. We're not trying to make this our playground, which is the stereotype that's very often applied to us. This is our back yard; we live here. And we acknowledge that our neighbors also live here and want to make a living here, but we want to make sure that it's not just a working forest but it's a forest where everything still works.

MUSIKER: This kind of cooperation is a step toward the Alliance's goals but there's still deep distrust among the many interest groups with competing visions for the Sierra. Many loggers and environmentalists still don't trust each other, and there are still bridges to be built with mining interests, many resort operators, and housing developers.

(Brass band plays)

MUSIKER: Back in Mammoth Lakes, while Sierra Alliance members debate eco-politics, the town is packed with Los Angeles vacationers here for a jazz festival. Mammoth Lakes' Chamber of Commerce president, Jeff Modic, helped organize the festival. He wasn't invited to the Sierra Alliance conference just up the road, so he questions their commitment to balancing economics with the environment.

MODIC: Sometimes I wonder if they wouldn't be happier if all the people left the Sierras and left it to the mountain lions and grizzly bears.

MUSIKER: Modic manages lodges for the ski area. He says Sierra businesses recognize that they depend as much on mountain beauty and clean trout streams as on new hotels, housing, and golf courses.

MODIC: If you've walked the Lodestar, which is only, they've just been knocking down some of the trees for the fairways, as a golfer I can tell you that's going to be a very tough course to play because it's trees on all, all around you. And if you drive by it even today you wouldn't even notice that it's there. So -

MUSIKER: On the other hand, it doesn't look like sagebrush and lodgepole pine.

MODIC: No. But we have plenty of that around us. It's - the key is to let neither faction, again the rampant developer, raper of the land that people can envision, versus the wild-eyed extremist environmentalist. There's not really a place for either one of those in our society any more.

(Ball being sliced on golf course. Golfer: "Oh yeah. Oh yeah! You'd love that one.")

MUSIKER: The very conference site at Mammoth Lakes epitomizes the contradictions in a group which wants to support jobs and the environment. These activists are meeting here, after all, because the resort area sets wild alpine vistas next to good roads, fax machines, and an airport. All doorways, which invite more settlers and visitors into a fragile environment.

(Laughter, man's voice: "I know. Believe me, I know.")

MUSIKER: Back at the lake, Alliance members are packing up their tents and coolers, heading home, or off to inspect a clear-cut site after 2 days of meetings. This year-old group is still struggling to frame its vision of a sustainable Sierra environment and economy. They've begun the tough process of breaking down years of distrust between environmentalists and loggers, resort developers, and new settlers, but it will be many more years, if ever, before they can find a vision for the region these parties can agree on. For Living On Earth, I'm Cy Musiker reporting.



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