Come back, cool stream.
THE JULY EVENING had slipped dreamily over Stony Ridge, a curious formation that seems to plod granitically toward the horizon, collides with a dizzying scarp called the Diamond Mountains, then plunges 2,800 feet right off the edge of the California Sierras.
A sundown blush of orange and peach came upon the land. Then, in perfect anticlimax, a gunmetal aura blanketed my little camp as zillions of bank swallows careened into darkness.
But I was not here to watch the sunset.
I was here in a remote corner of Plumas National Forest, where the 14,000-foot postcard peaks of the High Sierras have settled to a modest 8,000 feet in becoming the Cascades, to wet my boots, so to speak, in a land-restoration concept called ecosystem management.
Alone in a place I now call Ponderosa Flat (saluting a monstrous pine passed up by loggers), I was camped by a willow-lined headwater stream, Clarks Creek. That stream represents what's sad but real in a badly overstressed forest.
Fascinatingly, Clarks Creek is also the vortex of a whirl of enthusiastic, motivated activity that no forest plan, or act of Congress, or preservationist outrage could possibly duplicate: Gathering here to fix the watershed is a spirited legion of first- and fifth-graders from a nearby cow town, California Corrections inmates, drought-hardened cattlemen in Ford F-250 pickups, thermometer-toting hydrologists, a woman Forest Service range conservationist in a genuine Bailey straw hat, 20 binocular-toting Audubon bird monitors, various Forest Service work crews, and other players.
I was here to learn about the three-year-old "Clarks 2000" ecosystem-management project, sponsored by Coordinated Resources Management, a stream-repairing coalition involving the Forest Service, Plumas Corporation, Pacific Gas and Electric, California Department of Forestry, private landowners and others.
NO ORDINARY PROJECT
The Clarks 2000, I soon found, is no ordinary stream-fixing project. Under the Forest Service's new ecosystem-management push, the aforementioned cast of players is taking a larger view by working on the stream's entire watershed, following four ambitious guidelines in the agency's blueprint for forest health:
* Combining features of the land in describing the ecosystem: soils, geology, landscape, climate, water, and vegetation.
* Using interdisciplinary teams (botanists, geologists, hydrologists, wildlife biologists) plus involved publics.
* Considering condition of the land, rather than allowable timber sales (ASQs) or in-place grazing allotments, as the main criterion for forest-management success.
* Working toward precisely defined desired future conditions for the watershed.
Plumas Forest Supervisor Wayne Thornton says, surprisingly, "No timber-sale targets have been allocated in our fiscal 1994 budget. Commodity outputs are secondary considerations after viable plant and animal communities."
The concept of aggressive stream restoration here in these mountains actually began seven years ago around the dining table of Greenville resident John Schramel, a county supervisor and Forest Service seasonal employee. A concerned, diverse group that became known as the Gang of Seven poured out their hearts about the deterioration of local streams, then decided to do something about it.
And that's the genesis of Coordinated Resources Management--and a host of CRM stream-fixing programs that are now attracting national attention.
LAND OF CATACLYSM
A year earlier, as I drove northward with my grandson Rucker to Oregon's Winema National Forest, night had overtaken us near Milford, California, an eye-blink berg on Highway 395 north of Reno. Instinctively I had headed up a steep granite canyon behind town, then had driven onto a huge log landing. Pitching our tents in gathering darkness, we beheld an awesome view of Honey Lake with its distant necklace of glittering farmhouse lights. I had no idea that Clarks Creek was a mere six miles west of here. Or that we'd be shocked, at first light there on the landing next morning, to discover that we were surrounded by the black devastation of the 40,000-acre Clarks fire of 1987.
"This whole area has been hit by floods, fire, drought, logging, mining, overgrazing--you name it," says the Forest Service's Ceci Dale-Cesmat, who coordinates the Clarks 2000 project.
To amplify on that grim observation:
* A 1989 Forest Service report cited 60,000 tons of erosion along valley-floor creeks below Clarks.
* Last Chance Creek (immediately downstream) and six other streams were losing soil at an annual rate of 1,100 tons per square mile.
* Down on the fabled North Fork Feather River, Pacific Gas & Electric, a major utility, chronicled the accelerated silting-in of its Rock Creek and Cresta hydroelectric reservoirs, which today are half filled. Among the consequences: worn turbines, reduced generating efficiency, degraded water quality.
"Our studies raised a red flag for the whole area--Clarks Creek was in terrible condition," Ceci told me. Specifically, this particular watershed had lost nearly all of its old-growth ponderosas to logging decades ago, its creeks were gullies in places, its meadows were largely dry and heavily overgrazed, and the ponderosa understory has grown thick and fuel-heavy with white fir, due to the exclusion of natural fire.
Clearly, the Clarks needed help. And clearly, some controversy would surround the program to fix it.
WALKING THE CREEK
Awakening to a 40-degree morning at 6,000 feet in my camp below Stony Ridge, I hauled off for the creek. Clarks was scarcely more than a summer trickle despite a fine, drought-breaking winter.
Here in the rain shadow of the Sierra crest, 40 miles to the west, I found few lush, tree-lined waterways. The dry meadow on either side of the creek was one of many that string through these sage-heavy, pine uplands. The grasses looked like they'd been chomped close to the ground by cattle. Along the creek were bank-protecting, water-cooling willows.
Distressingly, the creek didn't meander shallowly through the meadow, thus raising its water level end encouraging grass. Basically it gullied in a single confined, deepening channel.
The banks of the Clarks troubled me most. In places I was looking at 10-foot-high cuts where the soil, fashioned here through eons, had collapsed under the pressure of a flood-stage torrent earlier in the year.
Erosion is, of course, a perfectly natural phenomenon--one that built California's 450-mile-long Central Valley. The rate of erosion is something else, and here that factor can be traced largely to overgrazing and eroded former logging roads.
For the moment, I was taking a tight, focused look at an ailing watercourse--but a look far too narrow for real understanding.
"This time we're looking not just at a stream, but taking an ecosystem-management perspective of the whole watershed," explained Milford District Ranger Jeff Withroe as we toured the area.
Over the next several days, I was reminded that streams and trees in a forest are just components of a much more complex system. Everything is somehow tied to everything else, most often in ways we have yet to discover.
Depending on how broadly you want to define "ecosystem," that term here on the Clarks might include interactions among willow flycatchers and willows, bank swallows and aspens, white firs and natural fire; cows, ground squirrels, and coyotes; and, as geologist Allen King suggests, even mud and basalt flows and decomposed granite soil.
Now, add to that perspective seventh-generation cowboys, in-forest private landowners, and even folks from Reno who come up here on weekends. As far as forest health is concerned, they all relate because they all affect the ecosystem.
I asked for an example of an eco-relationship, and Forest Service Silviculturist Al Vazquez pointed to a white fir standing against a large ponderosa pine at the edge of a Clarks meadow.
"Normally, natural fire would 'scrub' ladder-fuel trees like that from the forest understory, but for years we have efficiently excluded fire from the ecosystem, and now that fir pumps water from this meadow like crazy, in effect 'dehydrating' the soil and drying the meadow," he answered.
PLACES TO GO
Unpretentious Clarks Creek, I learned later, has important places to go on an amazing 600-mile call-to-duty after it leaves my campsite. When its water hits the Feather, much of it then flows crazily into a technological never-land of crafted concrete, whirling turbine blades, and enormous pump impellers. It sits behind three retention dams, then pours through four powerhouses, whooshes under the 700-foot-high Oroville Dam (world's tallest earthen structure), flows into the Sacramento River, and gets sucked up into the California Delta by an enormous battery of pumps.
Southward it flows, traversing the 444-mile-long California Aqueduct (world's longest) as it heads for Los Angeles, moving upward in the San Joaquin Valley with the help of pumps, then is boosted summarily over the Tehachapi mountains by the world's highest pump lift.
Finally some of the Clarks' waters, together with those of countless others originating here in Northern California, repose briefly in a Southern California reservoir before being drunk, sprinkled on lawns, flushed, car-washed, espressoed, turned into irrigation ditches, or otherwise consumed by the populace.
Clarks Creek, obviously, is a pretty important waterway.
FIXING THE SYSTEM
Exploring this 11,000-acre watershed one morning, I found a Forest Service backhoe "nosing off" a severely cut bank so that straw matting and newly planted grass seed could begin to take hold, stabilizing the bank and slowing the flow.
Later I joined a firefighter crew of Department of Corrections inmates as they thinned a heavily overfueled stand of "dog-hair" ponderosas to protect higher, healthier pines that might easily be ignited in a wildfire.
As I rambled in my Nissan pickup, I found numerous roads closed, the signs said," to protect soil and water resources."
Ceci is a key player in all this. The daughter of a California ranch manager, this lanky 34-year-old UC/Davis range-management graduate knows her business, communicates her ecosystem outlook, and has no qualms about putting forest health ahead of resources extraction, meaning logs and cows. She also listens as carefully as she speaks, seemingly fashioning a stronger result with each contact.
One evening I met with Ken Wemple and his son Keith, who briefly rest their cattle in a Clarks Creek hollow each summer. Now, three-acre Dunn's Pasture is doing the resting until it recovers, in terms of certain specified desired conditions--namely a thick matting of healthy grass, 75 percent shade along its banks to produce cool water for fish habitat, and 95 percent ground cover (trees, sedges, rushes) on the flood-plain to store late-season water for diverse wildlife species.
That's fine with the Wemples and with other ranchers who use the pasture. They're happy to see more grass there, but they also know that the grass must stay healthy if they're to continue using it. And that may mean cutting down on the number of cows grazing there.
CARS OF SCHOOL KIDS
Back near camp later that evening, here came five carloads of school kids from nearby Janesville, who began traipsing the stream bed.
"My gosh, they're growing!" yelled one as he knelt to touch sapling willows, ponderosas, and aspens that he and 60 other first- and fifth-graders had planted that spring. Eventually those trees will stabilize the stream banks; cool the water, inviting rainbow trout to come back; and materially slow the creek at flood stage.
"It's the ultimate experience, learning about the environment while doing something to enhance it; we plan to have 180 kids up here next year," teacher Jeanne Withroe bubbled.
Later, an international group called the Student Conservation Association camped nearby and proceeded to plant many hundreds more trees, build sediment traps, and pour their love from Mexico, Texas, and New York upon the land.
How does the Clarks 2000 project stack up thus far?
* 100 acres of streamside restoration completed.
* 12 miles of fence installed to keep cattle out of critical places.
* 28 miles of logging roads closed.
* 45 acres of deciduous trees planted for watershed and wildlife improvement.
* 400-plus acres of prescribed understory burning completed for defueling, and to improve wildlife habitat.
* 8,000 acres of various management changes to make grazing compatible with ecosystem health.
Here, I am convinced, is ecosystem management--the real thing--applied with zest and know-how.
When I return to Clarks Creek for another look next summer, I won't be looking for postcard sunsets. This place, I now know, is a moving picture of bold and promising eco-proportions.
COWBOYS & SETTLERS
Meet some "flash-point" players who are closest to the heat being generated by the Clarks 2000 project.
Cattle rancher Ken Wemple, 53, is fifth in a line of seven generations who have ranched around Milford since 1859. Today a spring cattle drive into the Diamonds, where about 300 of his cattle spend the summer, is simply a family tradition.
But not a particularly glamorous one. A Wemple history book describes cows dying on loco-weed, and family members and ranch hands losing fingers, an arm, or a leg in long-gone granaries and lumber mills. Add a drying-up Honey Lake, a wildfire that gobbled up ranch buildings, family members going plumb broke, calves sucking dust and getting pneumonia--and you realize that calamity is practically deja vu in Milford.
With grazing-allotment fees set to rise dramatically over the next four years, Ken feels the pinch.
"There's a real strong movement to do away with anyone trying to make a living on public lands," he complains. "I guess we're all crazy for even being out here."
"I think the environmentalists would like to have no cows, no logging, no mining," adds Ken's wife Kathryn. "The Forest Service is doing the best they can, but it's frightening."
Meanwhile, the Wemples donate labor to fence off riparian areas on Forest Service land, and feel their cattle are taking "too much heat" for today's stream erosion.
Fellow cattleman Fred Mallery, who runs 114 head of black angus in the Clarks Creek area, adds, "We've fenced off these allotments, eliminated season-long grazing, and we're never on a creek more than 30 days . . .
"What gripes me is these environmentalists who come up here once, twice a year. Why are they interfering with my way of life?"
Running for a couple of miles right along the upper Clarks Creek watershed in a cool, inviting stand of mixed conifers is a 360-acre cow-hostile enclave of private landowners. They are here because of the questionable Swamp and Overflow Act of 1883, which encouraged home-steading in doubtful sites.
"The cows eat up all the grass, and the squirrels, which feed the mountain lion, coyote, hawk, and eagle, have nothing to eat," claims resident Jim Rogers.
Adds wife Lois, "I love the seclusion, the hummingbirds, the jays, the hawks. We feed 'em all winter. Cows? I like 'em about medium rare!"
So goes the debate as the landowners slowly fence off their property, their grass grows tall, the willows come billowing over the creek, and rainbow trout hunker in deep, cool pools.
Meanwhile the cattlemen, who are being more than reasonable by actively helping Clarks 2000, ponder a grim future.
GENESIS OF AN AILING FOREST
Wondering how the waterways of the Plumas National Forest got into trouble, I drove downriver to Oroville one day and found Lost Beneath the Feather, a pictorial history written after the huge Oroville dam was constructed in the mid-1960s. It provided some startling answers.
* Seeking gold on the bottom of the North Fork Feather in 1897, one Major Frank McLaughlin hired 1,000 men and, in a con game extraordinaire, actually rerouted the entire river through a wooden flume so he could mine gold (unsuccessfully) from its dried-up bed. So much for stream ecology.
* The Western Pacific completed its 927-mile railroad from San Francisco to Salt Lake City in 1909, but not before blasting a 60-mile-long grade through the canyon, no doubt causing major disturbances.
* The railroad, requiring tens of thousands of ties and trestle timbers from nearby forests, would open the whole region to big-time logging, lumbering, mining, and ranching (Clarks Creek included), further impacting much of the area.
Later came a major trans-Sierra highway along the same cramped route, where bridges actually cross over each other at two locations.
Today the North Fork Feather River is closed forever to salmon and steelhead migration, thanks to the construction of 10 successive powerhouses and fish-blocking dams.
Amazingly, the Feather region is still visually enchanting as you drive through it, and perhaps even stop at an attractive Forest Service or PG&E campground.