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'Rural Sprawl' Transforms John Muir's Sierra Nevadas

The trout fishermen are out early on the emerald waters of June Lake, intent on pursuit of their scaled prey. They seem to barely notice the mountains that vault vertically from the shore, granite sides dotted by tall pine, snow still visible on distant peaks.

This is the Sierra Nevada range that naturalist John Muir immortalized as "the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain-chains I have ever seen." But today this region - one of the crown jewels on the American landscape - is under severe stress.

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Rapid population growth is causing what some call "rural sprawl," exacerbating the longstanding struggle here over the economic shift from mining and timber industries to tourism and recreation.

The transformation of the Sierra Nevada mirrors a fundamental change going on in much of the mountain West, setting up a clash between urban encroachment and preservation. Yet in few areas are the tensions more pronounced than in California, the nation's most populous state and one of the most environmentally sensitive.

The view from Route 120

A drive on Route 120 - through Tioga Pass, across the granite spine of Yosemite National Park, and down toward California's great Central Valley - reveals the changing face of the Sierra Nevada.

In the old mining town of Groveland, the 19th-century wooden storefronts are now occupied by art galleries and museums. Further west, in Chinese Camp, logs stripped from the vast Sierra forests are piled in hillocks in lumber yards. Heading down toward Oakdale, billboards bark the virtues of new subdivisions - "Connor Estates: Have You Seen Our Beautiful Lakeside Homes?"

These are signs of the "amenity boom" that has brought an influx of people into rural communities, among them retirees cashing in their suburban properties and baby-boomers looking for second homes in more natural settings. Some new residents are searching for idealized landscapes that have no trace of urban ills like crime and traffic jams. Businesses move for the same reasons, and the trend is increasing partly as a result of new communications technology that frees them to locate outside of metropolitan areas.

Western communities welcome much of this boom, which they perceive as a substitute for the shrinking extractive industries - mining, timber and ranching - that have always formed the economic base. University of Montana economist Thomas Power argues in a new book that the economic health of the West is now tied more to a diversified service sector catering to the new residents.

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But the suburban-style strip malls and fast-food joints that often follow the new residents threaten to destroy the very quality of life that brings people to rural America. "If a community loses its identity, then it is going to become a much less appealing place to live," says Lucy Blake, executive director of the Sierra Business Council, an association of 400 businesses concerned about environmental quality.

Glenda Edwards, a long-time resident of the Sierra foothill community of Sonora, saw this coming a few years back when a developer bought a huge parcel of ranchland and proposed turning it into "Yosemite Estates," complete with tract homes, townhouses, golf course, mini-mall, and motel. She joined with other local activists to file a court challenge. Although they lost the suit, their effort encouraged the developer to opt for a much smaller-scale project.

The Sierra Nevada has long been considered a relatively pristine region. But a massive report issued last month by the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP), the product of a three-year congressionally-mandated study carried out by more than 100 scientists, details the toll of pressures on this region. Among its findings:

*Population, which doubled in the Sierra Nevada between 1970 and 1990 to 650,000, is projected to triple by 2040.

*Air quality, once among the purest in the nation, is declining, particularly in the western foothills affected by pollution from the Central Valley.

*Lakes and rivers of the Sierras "are the most altered and impaired habitats," damaged by more than a century of mining, grazing, and dams designed to deliver water and hydroelectric power to coastal and central California.

*Old-growth trees occupy 15 percent of forests and less than 1 percent in the pine forests on the eastern side of the range.

*Numerous plant and animal species are threatened. Chinook salmon and steelhead trout are nearly extinct in Sierran rivers, and populations of frogs, salamanders, and songbirds are disappearing.

The SNEP report also concludes that these problems are compounded by a myriad of institutions that stand in the way of a taking a comprehensive approach to solving the region's problems. The scientists point out, for example, that one agency manages water quality in eastern Sierra streams, another controls rights to the water, a third supervises the trout, and both federal and state agencies have jurisdiction over the trees that grow next to the water.

Understanding the consequences

The multi-volume report is long on scientific assessment of the Sierra's problems, but it stops short of laying out a coherent plan of action. The authors do suggest some ideas, such as creating new forest reserves, curbing logging and grazing practices, and restoring the health of Sierra watersheds.

"What SNEP gives us is the ability to better demonstrate what the consequences will be if we continue our current growth patterns," says Katherine Evatt, an Amador County resident who is co-president of the Foothills Conservancy, a group dedicated to stopping what some call "rural sprawl."

The future of the Sierra may rest in the hands of Ms. Evatt and other environmental activists from California, Nevada, Utah, and other parts of the West who gathered here earlier this month under the auspices of the Sierra Nevada Alliance. The Sierra, like many other areas of the West, has been polarized between two groups of political activists - the environmentalists and the advocates of property rights, often associated with timber, mining, and agricultural interests.

"Those two sides have been shooting at each other," says Ms. Blake of the Sierra Business Council. "Normal people in the middle who want to help the environment and have a healthy economy have been ducking."

The business group backs the Alliance's efforts to build new movements that unite previously divided communities around common aims. Anglers and loggers have joined with environmentalists to oppose dams and other projects on Sierra rivers. In the foothills, conservationists are finding common cause with ranchers trying to preserve open range land from becoming new subdivisions.

Finding common cause

One Alliance member, the South Yuba River Citizens League, a group of environmental activists fighting to get federal protected status for that Sierra watershed, found itself locked in a war with local residents.

"The opposition was based on compete distrust of the federal government," recounted league director Kerri Varian.

After a decade of struggle, the league shifted course to work with local businessmen and county officials to shape a common understanding of the importance of protecting the river - not only as an ecological asset, but also as an economic one. The former foes agreed that Nevada County's land-use plan would include opposition to new dam projects on the river.

"We've been getting in there and playing with the bad boys," says Ms. Varian. "It's not fun at all, but it has produced some results."

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