The Battle of the Fish Check Dams in the Emigrant Wasteland

The Battle of the Fish Check Dams in the Emigrant Wasteland

For the past three decades, the Emigrant Wilderness, located just north of Yosemite National Park, has been the site of a dispute over 18 small stone “dam walls” built in the first half of the twentieth century. On one side in favor of the dams are anglers, wildlife tourists and preservationists who seek to preserve local history. They have been opposed by environmentalists who believe that a wilderness area should contain no man-made structures except perhaps footpaths and the occasional trail sign.

The Emigrant Wilderness, part of the Stanislaus National Forest, includes 100 named lakes and about 500 smaller unnamed lakes. It contains miles and miles of streams, the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. But it wasn’t always the fishing paradise it is today.

Soon after the last emigrant wagons left the mountains near Sonora Pass in 1850, cattlemen and sheep herders began grazing their animals in the high meadows that are now part of the Emigrant Wilderness Area. Finding fish scarce in the lakes that dot the region, ranchers began hauling buckets of local fish from lakes and streams at lower elevations and dumping them in the alpine lakes.

By the late 1800s, large lakes such as Kennedy Lake and Emigrant Lake had become popular fishing destinations, drawing sportsmen from nearby gold country towns such as Sonora and Columbia and from valley cities such as Modesto and Stockton. The only significant reservoir at the time was Strawberry Lake, now Pinecrest Lake. Most of the river and stream fishing was at low elevations on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers. Because high streams and some lakes tend to dry up in late summer and fall, they do not provide adequate habitat to support fish populations.

Construction of Chek dams

Around 1900, a young local man named Fred Leighton began making his way into the high country near Sonora Pass. He soon realized that if just a few of the lakes could be regulated with what he would call “retention dams,” more water could be stored in the lakes and then released at a slower rate in early summer. snowmelt time. As a result, there will still be a reserve of water in the lakes when the rainless late summer and fall sets in so that adequate stream flow can be maintained to provide habitat for native trout. They would also serve as an early method of flood control.

Beginning in 1920, Leighton and a team of volunteers began building a series of low “check dams” on key lakes. They brought supplies up into the highlands with pack animals and built the dams by hand using stones and mortar. They received the full support of the US Forest Service, California Fish and Game, and many local organizations.

The first dam was built at Yellowhammer Lake at the headwaters of Cherry Creek, just two miles north of the Yosemite border. Over the years, 17 more dams have been built. Most were on lakes, including Lower Buck Lake, Bigelow Lake, Emigrant Lake, Emigrant Meadow Lake and Huckleberry Lake. Two dams were built along streams, creating reservoirs to provide water for summer irrigation of the meadows. The last few dams were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941.

As a result of the dams, fishing has greatly improved in the region with rainbow, brown and brown trout populating the waters. Every summer, anglers flocked to the highlands, taking pack animals from places like Pinecrest, Kennedy Meadows, Gianelli’s Cabin.

The name of the emigrant wasteland

The beginning of the end of “control dams” came in 1975 when the region was designated the Emigrant Desert. The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits almost any type of man-made structure within wilderness boundaries. Exceptions made for historic structures such as early log cabins are rare. For a while it looked like the “check dams” would fall into the category of historic features. Many of them were entitled to be included in the historical register. Most of them were only a few feet tall and hardly intrusive. Others saw them differently.

The battle over “control dams” has lasted decades. In 1988, the Regional Forester for the Stanislaus National Forest ordered that all dams be removed. His decision caused a public outcry and soon after he changed his position. Then in 1991, the Forest Service began developing a Land Resources Management Plan for the area. At the same time, Congressman John Doolittle tried, but failed, to push a dam protection bill through Congress.

Meanwhile, evidence mounted that the dams were in desperate need of repair. Some were vandalized, others were just falling apart. The spill valves were lost under the mud. Eventually, in 1998, the Forest Service decided to rebuild 8 of the decaying dams to keep the rivers flowing. But only a year later, the regional forest department reversed this decision. He took the position that there was no evidence that the dams were necessary. Aerial stocking kept fish levels at an acceptable level.

The decision of the US District Court

The “check dam” controversy came to a head in 2006, when Wilderness Watch and other environmental groups filed a lawsuit to halt proposed maintenance of the dams. Both sides argued convincingly. Defenders of the dams have touted their historic value, their unobtrusive nature and their benefit to wildlife habitat. Wilderness purists pointed out that there was nothing in the Wilderness Act to allow such structures within the boundary of the wilderness area. Additionally, the Forest Service has recognized that fish populations are self-sustaining. The construction of the dam at Cherry Dam in 1957 long ago negated the need for upstream flood control.

Judge Anthony W. Ishie ruled in June 2006 that the dams could not be restored or maintained. But they were not to be dismantled either. They will be left to decompose naturally.

“The area exhibited its wildlife characteristics before the dams were placed and would lose none of its wildlife values ​​if the dams were not present,” Ishii wrote in his decision. “What would be lost is some enhancement of a particular use of the area (fishing), but that use, while perhaps popular, is not an integral part of the wilderness nature of this area.”

With this decision, the fate of Fred Leighton’s “control dams” appears to be sealed. Even without maintenance, many can last another century or more. Meanwhile, fish populations continue to hold steady. Every summer, thousands of visitors flock to the migratory wildlife to fish, camp and enjoy the pristine beauty of the area.

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