Connecting with 'Crow's Range'
Ken Pirie reviews Crow's Range: An Environmental History of the Sierra Nevada by David Beesley
I feel a personal connection to the Sierra Nevada, something that remains with me up here in Oregon, attesting to its allure and ability to burn a lasting impression into all who visit the “Range of Light,” as John Muir called it. I was married in a meadow high in the Sierras, a deeply memorable place framed with views of the Matterhorn on Yosemite’s northern fringe, old growth Jeffrey Pine and thick stands of aspen scarred with the lonely graffiti of long-ago Basque shepherds. We spent a long honeymoon making our way south along the eastern range, poking into the high country and returning to incredible campsites in the lee of incomparable granite walls. We return whenever possible.
With such a lasting bond, I am an advocate for the lasting protection of the Sierra Nevada, so I was drawn to the concise history that is Crow's Range: An Environmental History of the Sierra Nevada by David Beesley describing “…the interaction of human beings with the natural environment over time.” American fiction writers (my favorites are John Steinbeck or Wallace Stegner) have explored this relationship eloquently—but ‘environmental history’ as a closely defined field of study is a fairly emergent academic subject.
This book is intended as a simple chronological overview of the various human impacts on the Sierras, perhaps as a teaser to lure readers into further exploration of specific episodes, made easier by an exhaustive bibliography and endnotes. The massive scale of California’s dominant geomorphic feature, covering several climatic zones, would seem to defy attempts at anything more than such a cursory examination.
The constant theme of Beesley’s summary is change in the landscape and in human attitudes towards it. As Gary Snyder—the Sierra Nevada’s "poet laureate"—once wrote, “Streams and mountains never stay the same.” As Beesley suggests in an evocative description of the typical lives of the original Miwok native inhabitants, a place like Yosemite was a paradise, but one that was shaped by human hands long before European contact, modified to suit their very real subsistence needs. The natives believed in a shared existence, close to nature—something that may be culturally impossible for us to truly understand.
To the natives, the Sierra Nevadas were not a wilderness—this is a Western conceit borne from guilt at our acquisitive European ancestors’ abuse of wild lands and natives. Peoples such as the Yurok, whose creation story inspired this book’s title, practiced excellent ‘planning,’ choosing village sites for best access to water, food, firewood and minimizing fire and flood danger. They found that carefully managed fire was good for the health of the landscape. But as one native remarked about Europeans imposing their fire suppression tactics: “The white man sure ruined this country. It’s turned back to wilderness…the timber and brush now take all the water.”
And after gold miners ruined virtually every Sierra river, timber cutters moved into giant Sequoia groves and hordes of what John Muir termed “hoofed locusts” cropped lush meadows into dust, Californian natives effectively fell to the same genocidal fate as other American Indians.
Beesley focuses a large portion of the book on the impacts of gold mining. The famed Gold Rush of the ‘49ers perhaps had the most impact on the Sierran landscape, and that frenzy precipitated many subsequent impacts—timber logged for sluices and flumes, rapid rivers dammed and instant boomtowns established overnight. Beesley explains that the frantic mining had huge impacts on rivers and valley bottoms. He writes, “…in a geologic blink of an eye, a billion years of California river processes were transformed.”
But the fertile paradise that other settlers found in the central lowlands proved to be a more consistent and politically powerful source of ‘gold.’ In fact, it was the valley farmers fighting the miners over excessive manipulation of their water sources that led to the first examples of environmental regulation in California. The state has since proven to be a national leader in such regulation, right up to current rules on auto emissions which far exceed federal standards.
But as Beesley proves, the state was far from committed to conservation in the late 1800s and needed federal prodding and designation of ‘national reserves’ to overcome the influence of money on the management of the Sierras.
Protecting the big Sequoia groves was the focus of early land conservation efforts. Even though John Muir’s first job in the Sierras was operating a sawmill in Yosemite, early conservationists quickly grew appalled at the pace of logging, with a third of the original timber felled in the first 20 years after the Gold Rush. By the 1880s, 60 percent of the Tahoe/Truckee area had been cut. As the Truckee Tribune editorialized in 1878:
“If in some old cathedral, there was a picture painted and framed by an angel…the world would be shocked were some man to take off and sell the marvelous frame. But Tahoe is a picture rarer than ever glittered on cathedral walls..and yet they are cutting away her frame and bearing it away. Have we no pride to stop the work?”
These concerns, the first examples of a public backlash to the abuse of California’s scenic wildlands, led to the creation of the three Sierran national parks (Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon) and eventually to the establishment of the larger national forest system.
There was an early recognition of the value of tourism—there were Yosemite tourists as early as 1856—but there were concerns about the impacts from the rush to build carnival-like “attractions” such as golf courses, railroads, hotels in the national park—which was set aside in 1865 and further defined in 1890—without specific provisions for protection of nature. Early advisors such as the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted advocated limits to tourism, saying it should be secondary to natural preservation.
The Sierra Club was formed explicitly to help guide the management of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, but it soon found it needed to adopt a more adversarial role when the U.S. Forest Service shifted from its pre-WWII custodial role into policies of intensive “resource” management. As part of the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service aimed to clear the Sierras of what it termed ‘decadent’ old growth in favor of monocultural plantations.
John Muir’s early battles over the damming of Hetch Hetchy valley to provide water for San Francisco also laid the groundwork for later activism. As the venerable conservationist stated: “The battle we have fought, and are still fighting, for the forests is a part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it.” David Brower took up the fight in the 1960s, leading the Sierra Club in battles against logging and ski resort development and pushing for wilderness designations of the areas buttressing the national parks.
These conflicts were critical episodes in the development of a national environmental movement. The Sierra Club, and the many similar groups it inspired, now find themselves embroiled in conservation battles across the continent. Beesley’s book ends with discussion of recent environmental controversies, such as the debate over whether to dismantle Hetch Hetchy. He makes it clear that the changes in this magnificent mountain range will continue and the depth of our passion for the Sierras ensures that there will be conflicts over the appropriate use of public land for a long time.
This book is not as provocative or intellectually profound as the writings of landscape historians such as William Cronon. Its academic leanings lead to some assumptions of the reader’s knowledge, with fairly technical terms such as “lithic” or “Nisenan” going unexplained. A closer edit would have eliminated repeated quotes and character introductions and I found myself skipping acronym-heavy sections on forest management in favor of well-written passages telling the stories of major environmental struggles in the Sierras.
But Beesley has succeeded admirably in presenting a solid summary of humanity’s use of the Sierra Nevada, providing in effect a ‘hiking guide’ for those of us who wish to delve deeper into the sagas and controversies of our long relationship with ‘Crow’s Range,’ He has certainly re-awakened my personal commitment to the Sierras. It’s time I headed back up into the mountains….
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