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Tears, Ghosts and Golden Trout

Just a few weeks ago, I stood with my two young sons in the Southern Sierra, gazing at the fortress walls of the Great Western Divide and marveling at how peaceful it seemed compared to 30 years before.

Those decades ago, I had come to this same spot as a newspaper reporter to write about the early struggles of the environmental movement - struggles that saved Mineral King from development, halted clearcutting on the national forest, created the Golden Trout Wilderness, and gave birth to Earthjustice.

But there was a bitter side to those victories, as I quickly learned. First, my editor cursed me publicly in the newsroom when he discovered my green bent; then perversely assigned me the job of covering the closure of Johnsondale, a bankrupt Sierra timber town. He wanted me to feel the consequences of environmental activism.

On a cool day in 1979, I watched as Johnsondale was auctioned off piece by piece, its few remaining inhabitants shunted aside by droves of bidders snatching away the little town’s bones. Every local’s car it seemed had the bumper sticker, “Sierra Club Kiss My Axe.” Every eye appeared to glisten. People glared at me. I heard sobbing in one house. Over and over, people expressed grief for themselves and hatred for the environmentalists they blamed.

Shaken by such real human travail, I wandered away to clear my mind. In doing so, I gazed about the surrounding valleys, hills and mountains and got another shock. They were virtually barren. Where there should have been mature forest, only a few young trees were sprinkled. The rest had been logged and milled. I wondered - did Johnsondale die at its own hand, a victim of unregulated overharvesting?

The answer, I discovered, is ironic and complex.

The town was officially created in the 1930’s as one of the earliest environmental solutions to the tragic slaughter of Sierra old growth. For 50 years prior, freelance loggers had stripped the slopes of ancient trees, especially the Sequoia redwoods that were in some cases thousands of years old. Alarmed, the U.S. Forest Service and private individuals came together with a plan to regulate the harvest in an economically sustainable way. Their collaboration resulted in the company town of  Johnsondale.

Unfortunately, “economically sustainable” meant treating the forest as a tree farm, which private operators like Johnsondale did, creating the horrendous barren swaths that so shocked followers of John Muir in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and which helped fuel political and legal movements to save Sequoia National Forest.

Aside from preserving the magnificent Mineral King area some 30 miles to the east, the greatest achievement of those environmental pioneers was the Golden Trout Wilderness in 1978. It also  was the final blow for Johnsondale. Cut off from its last supply of trees, the town closed less than a year later. The workers who lost their jobs - perhaps 400 at most – blamed long-haired environmentalists, although the whole nation had roused to protect the remnants of a once-vast natural heritage. Company owners had another story: the mill was economically obsolete.

I pondered these memories as my sons and I gazed deep into the sanctuary gorges of the Little Kern and Kern rivers. We would spend a remarkable week tramping their quiet beauty, encountering just a few fishermen and horse packers, continually astonished by forest-encrusted granite bedrock. We caught and released pure-strain golden trout that would not exist without wilderness preservation. We wallowed in good, clean forest duff, and swam in crystal waters.

On our last night, drunk on star-crammed sky views, I realized that in my time, one generation had inherited the fruits of another generation’s struggle, and I had witnessed both. Had the Johnsondale concept gone unchallenged, this would have been logged, criss-crossed with roads, filled with off-road traffic; its streams made turbid and all that is wild lost.

Upon emerging, I took the boys on what I thought would be a history trip to a ghost town. As we drove the mountain spine, I remembered a CIA-like operation that had taken place here in 1983, when the last condor in the Sierra was found in an old tree and secretively whisked away to a sanctuary, where he helped breed his species back from extinction.

When we finally reached Johnsondale, I could only gape. Left alone, nature had taken its course by filling the once-ravaged area with young trees and undergrowth. A ranch-style resort mostly blended in. As laughter echoed out of places where last I had heard weeping, it occurred to me that a kind of full-circle healing had taken place here.

Someone was tugging on my shirt.

“Hey, dad,” asked my 11-year-old. “Where’s the ghosts?”

Exorcised, I told him, and we drove down the mountain.

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