Shaping the Sierra: Nature, Culture, and Conflict in the Changing West

Shaping the Sierra: Nature, Culture, and Conflict in the Changing West

by Timothy P. Duane

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520926141
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/30/1999
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 623
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Timothy P. Duane is Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Read an Excerpt

Shaping the Sierra

Nature, Culture, and Conflict in the Changing West

By Timothy P. Duane


Copyright © 1999 Timothy P. Duane
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92614-1


The Range of Light

The superficial inducement, the exotic, the picturesque has an effect only on the foreigner. To portray a city, a native must have other, deeper motives—motives of one who travels into the past instead of into the distance. A native's book about his city will always be related to memoirs; the writer has not spent his childhood there in vain.

Walter Benjamin, 1990

Little Deer Creek slips off the northwest slope of 3,899-foot Banner Mountain, gathering a trickle of light snow and rain on its journey to the sea. Dipping down through a transition zone forest, its waters are cooled in the shade of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, incense cedar, black oak, madrone, manzanita, and ceanothus. Spring brings the glorious bloom of the dogwood, only to see the white petals beaten to the ground with a late April rain. Deep in the shadows where the sun rarely shines, the snow lingers longer to water an occasional big-leafed maple. A brilliant explosion of color comes with the fall. Black oaks turn orange and yellow against the mixed greens of the conifers, while the bark of the madrone and manzanita glow a deep reddish brown against the red clay of the earth. The maple leaves stand out with the burnt red of a New England autumn, conjuring up visions of Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond deep in the Sierra woods. The white-leaf manzanita leaves hold their gray-green reflectance through the winter as the leaves of Quercus kellogii (black oak) turn brown and drop to the ground.

Dropping down toward Nevada City, at around 2,900 feet the small but perennial creek is crossed by a flume for an irrigation ditch. A small diversion in Little Deer Creek occasionally picks up a high flow and sends it into the Cascade Ditch, but the ditch is overgrown with blackberries and filled with oak leaves. The creek drops down another fifty feet and crosses a dirt four-wheel-drive road called Banner Mountain Trail, where a swarm of butterflies gathers every spring to drink the waters. The road will be dry and dusty by August, sending a milky batch of soil into the clear waters of the creek with every Jeep that crosses. There is very little development in this part of the watershed, though, so it doesn't appear to be a major problem at this point. This road is mainly used by mountain bikers and joggers living in the town below or in one of the many houses tucked away in the woods above. For now, the region is still largely open space.

Soon the creek is crossed by another irrigation ditch, although this one is much larger. Like the Cascade Ditch, the D-S Canal flows with water diverted by the Nevada Irrigation District from Deer Creek. The irrigation district was organized as a special agency of the state in 1921 to bring water to farmers in the foothills, but much of its new demand comes from residential and commercial development. It is governed by an elected board of directors, with voting power proportional to both population and the land area within the district's boundaries (Miller 1996). Many of its waterworks in the high Sierra were originally developed to support the local mining industry and to generate hydroelectric power. The plumbing system near the source is among the most complex ever designed or built. Water is diverted from one watershed to another and then back to the first via a maze of dams, canals, ditches, and hydroelectric generators. The water that flows through the D-S Canal and the Cascade Ditch may have originated in the upper watersheds of the Middle Yuba River, South Yuba River, or Bear River. Some of it then leaks out of the wooden flumes and flows back via Little Deer Creek into Deer Creek, which runs through the gold rush town of Nevada City. Along the way Little Deer Creek will pass through Pioneer Park, where I played Little League games and families gather on the Fourth of July to celebrate the birth of the nation. Watermelons chill in the cool creek beneath the shade of pines and oaks. Little Deer Creek makes its final run past left field and the tennis courts in a concrete-lined channel, however, devoid of shade or cover for fish along its artificial banks.

From Nevada City, Deer Creek flows downstream past the sewage treatment plant to the dam at Lake Wildwood, which blocks salmon and steelhead migrations. The reservoir was constructed in 1970 as the centerpiece of a thirty-six-hundred-home gated subdivision (Grass Valley–Nevada City Union 1970e). The lake gathers pesticide and effluent runoff from the golf course and septic tanks, then spills downstream into Deer Creek before it joins the main stem of the Yuba River just below Englebright Reservoir. Here the river nourishes one of the most important native anadromous fisheries in Northern California before snaking through the flood levees and hydraulic mining debris of the valley to merge with the Feather River at Marysville and Yuba City. The Feather in turn joins the Sacramento in the valley for the long, circuitous journey through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Each drop of Banner Mountain runoff then ends up either going south in the massive aqueducts of the California State Water Project or the Central Valley Project, or back to the Pacific Ocean via the Golden Gate. In either case, the water of Little Deer Creek touches the lives of nearly every resident of the burgeoning state of California.

I grew up near the headwaters of Little Deer Creek in a place called Echo Woods, and I have hiked or biked for hours across the rolling contours of its watershed. Technically, my home was on the other side of the watershed divide, near the headwaters of Wolf Creek. One reached our home on Echo Drive with a short trip on Cascade Way, however, whose path paralleled its namesake watercourse. The Cascade Ditch offered an uninterrupted journey of wilderness adventure for six miles upstream from the junction of Gracie Road to Red Dog Road. The waters of the Wolf Creek drainage gathered in the town of Grass Valley before joining another branch of Wolf Creek draining the Chicago Park area to the southeast. Together, they traveled onward to the Bear River and Camp Far West reservoir before joining the Feather River near Rio Oso. Like a small Continental Divide, our home straddling the ridge leading to Banner Mountain linked us to both Nevada City to the north and Grass Valley to the south. As if to recognize the significance of our spot on the watershed boundary, we had a Nevada City address and a Grass Valley phone number. Together these two towns constituted one community bound by a shared history of mining (Bean 1867; Thompson and West 1880; Mann 1982).

I imprinted on this landscape. Like a newborn discovering the subtle lines of his mother's smile, I learned the contours and colors of the middle-elevation forests of the Banner Mountain divide and came to call them home after moving here as an eleven-year-old. I can't get the place out of my system; it keeps calling me back, and it will probably always be home to me. I hiked continuously for the first month of my first summer back home after going away for college, covering about two hundred miles in and around the Little Deer Creek watershed with my trusty dog, Dusty. It was as if a life force had been drained from me after nine months in the Bay Area; I needed to reacquaint myself with my home range to recharge. Only then did I have the energy and the peace of mind to work full-time to pay for college. I found a job doing construction and installation of solar energy systems, allowing me to breathe the air and smell the breeze every day in the hot summer sun of the foothills. I sometimes worked down among the oaks and grasses of the rolling foothills of Penn Valley, where my grandparents were living when we first discovered Nevada City. It was near here that I once explored the falls of Squirrel Creek one summer day with a friend in high school. We were both in Dick Soule's biology class, so we took the time to watch for wildlife and identify the live oaks, blue oaks, and black oaks growing among the rocks. I still remember our startling discovery of a single newt in the hot sun, seeking cover beside a small pool of water in the nearly desiccated pools of Squirrel Creek. Only a trickle of water tumbled down over the face of the precipice. The drought of 1976–77 had just begun. I doubt the newt survived the difficult conditions of the next two summers, but it stood there for me in 1976 as a poignant reminder of how precious and fragile our place on the planet is.

Years later, I came upon another newt in the waters of Rush Creek above the South Yuba River. Rotating his legs around their strangely jointed sockets, he moved out cautiously into the fast-flowing water. It was the peak of the spring runoff along a steep gradient down into the canyon. The water was a powerful force against his small and fragile body. His sticky toes clung to the rocky bed of the small stream as he worked his way like a rock climber up a slippery face. One leg moved while the other three held him in place, then another reached out to move him farther upstream. Inch by inch he worked his way out into the current and toward a small rock island midstream. I watched for fifteen or twenty minutes as he advanced a mere three feet. Suddenly, a stronger wave of water swept him from his foothold, to a calmer place eighteen or twenty inches downstream. He regathered his equilibrium, turned upstream again, and began the slow process of rotating his arms and legs forward in movement. And so it has been with my own insufficient understanding of this place and the many complex forces affecting its prospects.

What was it about this place? Was it the people, the landscape, or the pattern of daily living that I desired? Perhaps most important, what was the relationship among these three elements? Certain aspects of metropolitan life continued to appeal to me, but I still found myself longing for more intimate and daily contact with the natural world.

Now I am back again, still struggling with the questions that first inspired me to study environmental planning: What is our relationship to the natural environment? How can we accommodate the forces of population growth and the legitimate need for economic development and affordable housing without destroying the natural environment? What does that growth and our relationship to the natural environment mean for our relationships to each other and our communities? Fundamentally, can we construct a sustainable way of living in the Sierra Nevada and throughout the rural, small-town, and exurban West that will maintain the well-being of both human communities and the natural environment? If we can, what will be the relationship between the Sierra Nevada and the many people who depend on it or care about it but don't live here? These are perennial questions that apply to almost any community or place. They are especially apt questions for rural communities in the rapidly changing, resource-dependent western United States. Unless we can answer them in the places we know best, however, I don't know how we can pretend to know the answers to these questions for any other community or place. As Wendell Berry has stated so well, our global problems are really just an aggregated set of local problems (1989).

I am in search of a place called Harmony Ridge. It appears on my local map as the ridge extending due east from Sugar Loaf Mountain, which is just north of town. Highway 20 climbs east up the dry, chaparral-covered southern flank of Harmony Ridge above Deer Creek, offering fine views of Banner Mountain and the Little Deer Creek drainage to the south. Parting the waters at the top of the ridge, the northern slopes descend to the South Yuba River clothed in the denser vegetation found in the upper reaches of Little Deer Creek. This physical place is not the real Harmony Ridge, however, despite its claim to that name on the U.S. Geological Survey map. Harmony Ridge is a concept, an idea, a vision, an ideal; it is everywhere in possibility yet nowhere in reality. There has been much talk of "sustainable development" over the past few years, but we have not yet established patterns of sustainability in rural resource-dependent communities in the industrialized countries. Harmony Ridge is my name for that place where sustainable development is both the vision and the practice in the Sierra Nevada. I believe we can find the nascent bedrock foundations of Harmony Ridge throughout the Sierra Nevada if we take the time to listen and understand what is driving development in the region. This is my challenge in this book, and I believe it is the challenge of the twenty-first century for all of humanity. Only time will tell if we will ever find or create a true Harmony Ridge. Many utopic visions have failed in the past, and we may be no more successful in our rehabitation of the Sierra Nevada.

Today I am living on a spur ridge connected to the northern flank of Montezuma Hill, which sits atop the southwestern edge of the San Juan Ridge north of Nevada City. I look westward out my window across the rolling and jagged terrain of the ridge toward the confluence of the South Yuba River and the Middle Yuba River, with the tule fog of the Sacramento Valley beyond. The 2,117-foot Sutter Buttes, the smallest mountain range in the world, poke their ancient and weathered volcanic heads up out of the fog to catch the warm rays of the winter sun. One hundred miles away from me sits a portion of the Coast Ranges of Northern California. It has been cold lately, and the top of this part of the Coast Ranges is marked by a layer of white. We sit about twenty-five hundred feet above sea level here and, as of the first of the year, have not yet had snow. It has tried to snow many times, however, and the trees have been blanketed in the silent colors of winter just about five miles east of here and five hundred feet above us in elevation. Winter will soon come down the mountain and cover our porch with her blanket.

Although I have moved north of Harmony Ridge and Nevada City into the South Yuba watershed, I am still within my home range. Like the mountain lion, I have a home range and intimate knowledge of a landscape that covers around one hundred square miles. My extended habitat is an order of magnitude larger, however, covering the 978 square miles of Nevada County or a comparable area along Highway 49 in the western Sierra Nevada foothills. Nevada City is about ten miles from here as the robin flies, and we are seventeen miles from town by road. Banner Mountain is clearly visible from Montezuma Hill to the south, maintaining my connection to Echo Woods and Little Deer Creek. I appreciate glimpses of its familiar shape as I hike or bike around the area. Standing guard over the gaslit streets of Nevada City, it is a symbol for me that I am still in my home range. It seems as if there has forever been a forest fire lookout on the top of Banner Mountain, and you can see Mount Diablo from it, more than 150 miles away on a clear day. Banner Mountain now flashes red at night with an ungainly communications tower, and owners of new homes seeking wider views have scarred the mountain's face by removing too many trees. It nevertheless triggers a deep feeling of comfort when I see it in the distance.

Other cues also have their power: the crunch of the deeply lobed leaves of the black oak as I walk across the ground, the smell of ponderosa pine and incense cedar, the soft touch of a Douglas fir branch. Winter brings the smell of wood smoke and the sweat of wood chopping, summer the smells of the Pacific Ocean and the Central Valley rising up the western slope past the house. Fall offers the brilliant palette, spring the green buds of life returning as the snow line melts its way up the slope. The sound of a blue jay or a flock of robins marks summer or fall in my mind. And always the sunsets linger on in an ever-changing dance of light, clouds, night, and sky.

On this spot in the Yuba watershed of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the complexities of our relationship to the natural environment are overwhelming. Yet as Aldo Leopold has written, "Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf" ([1949] 1970, 137). Only the mountains themselves can be objective about Nature; our interpretations are too heavily influenced by Culture. And as we move from the cities and suburbs into the rural West, both Nature and Culture are changing in response to our new relationship to the landscape. Those changes, we will see, hold profound implications for how we manage the Sierra Nevada.


The Sierra Nevada is a remarkable mountain range. Stretching approximately 430 miles from north to south and nearly 70 miles in width at times, it covers almost 28,000 square miles (18 million acres) (Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project 1994; Palmer 1988). The Sierra Nevada is the largest continuous mountain range in the United States outside Alaska and is larger than the area covered by the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps combined (Whitney 1979). It is larger than ten of the fifty states and nearly as large as two others (for comparison, the state of Maine is about 31,000 square miles). Approximately three-fifths (10.7 million acres) of its land area is federally owned, dominated by portions of nine national forests (Lassen, Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado, Stanislaus, Sierra, Sequoia, Inyo, and Toiyabe) and three national parks (Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon).4 The national forests total 8.1 million acres, the national parks (including Devil's Postpile National Monument) total 1.6 million acres. The U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management administers another million acres of federal land in the Sierra Nevada. Approximately 3.3 million acres (31 percent) of the federally owned land have been designated as wilderness by Congress since passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Today it is the only place in the "lower forty-eight" where you can still draw a straight line on a map and not cross a road for more than 150 miles (Foreman and Wolke 1992).


Excerpted from Shaping the Sierra by Timothy P. Duane. Copyright © 1999 Timothy P. Duane. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. The Range of Light, 1,
2. Theoretical Foundations, 37,
3. The Exodus to Exurbia, 73,
4. Economics and the Environment, 122,
5. Ecotransformation and Amenity Values, 159,
6. The Fragmented Landscape, 195,
7. Politics and Property, 251,
8. Managing Exurban Growth, 296,
9. Planning and Politics, 337,
10. Habitats and Humanity, 386,
11. Reinhabiting the West, 425,
NOTES, 471,
INDEX, 567,

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