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August 7, 2020 – While change is inevitable, the pace of change driven by hordes of tourists is affecting the character of our community and threatening the health of the Yuba River foothills.  Every summer thousands of visitors, hell-bent on a day at the river, descend on the South Yuba, a sacred stream that is struggling to cope with the increase in soil compaction, erosion, diminished water quality, degraded wildlife habitat, trash, diapers, broken glass bottles, increased traffic with unconscious drivers, graffiti on boulders, more creepy voyeurs and piles of shit from both dogs and humans.  This year has attracted the biggest crowds since the gold rush.  The biggest threat is from catastrophic fire!  No sane person would deliberately start a fire, but accidents happen, and with this volume of unaware visitors, it is a real possibility.

Most visitors don’t know (and some don’t care) anything about the Yuba ecosystem, they’re here for a carefree day of swimming and sunning.  But for those of us who live here the Yuba River basin is an inspirational landmark and it’s the heart of our community. Did you know that ecology comes from the Greek word for house or home?

I want to reemphasize that we, the people of the Yuba River watershed, are in an alarming situation.  It is only early August and people, unfamiliar with this place, are swarming the Yuba River, especially the South Yuba, in record numbers.  As a result, there are immediate dangers in the very real threat of wildfire and the inability of the Yuba canyon to cope with the volume of visitors.

It’s sobering to be driving home and see smoke in that direction

How did this happen?  Prior to the 1970s lumbering, or logging, was the basis of the local economy but it was slowing down, in part, by a series of new laws that mandated concern for the environment and input from what loggers called “specialists.”  Reports written by wildlife biologists, botanists, archaeologists, hydrologists and ecologists added costs and made logging less profitable, but it made for healthier forests.  I became a specialist myself when, in 1975, I was hired as an archaeologist by the Tahoe National Forest.

The economic hub of the region is the Nevada City–Grass Valley area where, in the 1950s & 60s, small sawmills were ubiquitous from Bear River to the North Yuba and its tributaries.  Eventually there was less employment in the traditional triad of mining, logging and ranching.  It took Nevada City residents, David Osborne and Charles Wood, partners with a background in architecture and art, to point out the abundance of historical structures here and how that could appeal to tourists.  To make a long story short Nevada City was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and the Nevada County Chamber of Commerce began to sell the historical authenticity of the region.  

View from a clearcut on Buck Mountain with Malakoff Diggings in the background.        

The Yuba River watershed has a history of largely unregulated extractive industry. In the 21st century more aggressive marketing from both business entities and environmentally conscious non-profits, along with a constant barrage of praise, bragging and photos on social media have essentially changed an experience with nature to a crowded rendezvous of strangers, most of whom have no ties to this community.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but we had to learn the hard way that there is no such thing as “sustainable tourism,” it’s an oxymoron along the lines of “friendly takeover,” “open secret,” “civil war” or “military intelligence.”  Now local citizens are forced to travel to other, more remote areas, for a quality day outdoors, making them tourists themselves.  Meanwhile people who’ve lived here for decades, and their children, are being priced out of the area.  This is merely kicking the can down the trail.  It’s a conflict between a residual gold rush mentality and those for whom nature, culture and quality of life matter most.  If you live in a beautiful, enlightened or quaint area long enough you will probably see its commodification, homogenization and demise?  It’s the way of things, the Tao of capitalism.  Yet, does it have to be this way – so vulgar, pathetic and unconscious.

A collection of lighters casually collected in a year’s time. For future archaeologists this will be seen as an emblematic artifact from this era.

Recently I’ve been meeting tourists who romantically term themselves “global citizens” and who see becoming part of a place as provincial and inhibiting.  They’re generally self-centered and fluid and include ecstatic dancers, traveling weed trimers and spiritual seekers who arrive in greater numbers after Burning Man to plunder local food banks and camp on the river (with campfires, of course).  Right now, the Yuba River is at its population carrying capacity and it’s no one’s fault or insidious scheme, but under these conditions the environment is degrading, and it won’t be the place we used to know much longer.

Nevada City, CA

Previous generations worked hard on maintaining historical authenticity and it did draw people to the region for several decades.  In this century Nevada City and Grass Valley became more event oriented and have cultivated still another group of tourists.  Fewer people today come here for the historic ambience – a Disney-like façade is sufficient.  In time we will probably lose our remarkable downtowns to versions of Virginia City, Nevada, complete with staged authenticity.  It happens incrementally, and it’s well underway.

Washington, CA. Advice from the locals

Part of the problem is that our cities and their Chambers of Commerce are way too accommodating to tourists causing places to lose their authenticity to the whims of carpetbaggers who are only here until the money’s gone.  I’m not saying make it difficult for tourists.  You can still be a friendly, welcoming place while still basically forcing people to adapt to YOUR city, with its own culture, concerns and values.  Eventually mass tourism will attract corporate interests who will turn your beloved neighborhood into a theme park.

Airbnb and the illusion of “living like a local” are condescending concepts.  Locals don’t want residential neighborhoods commercialized and populated by strangers on vacation.  And what visitor wants to work for the wages that locals earn?  Let’s face it, all tourists are intrusive at one level or another.  Does it matter to tourists that most locals will tolerate them only as long as they’re spending?  When concerns about tourism come from locals, is it not wise to listen?  

I’ve been in the Nevada City area for over 50 years and I’ve watched shops selling auto parts, gas, used building materials, hardware, clothing, baked goods, groceries, a pharmacy, a newspaper office and more, close.  New businesses that cater to tourists have replaced them.  At the moment you can’t find a wing nut in Nevada City, or groceries for that matter, because the entire economy is based on tourism.  Despite this desperate solution, Donald Snow, author of Selling Out the Last Best Place (1994) observed that opposing tourism in the West, if only theoretically, has become “like being against ranching, or Christianity.”  

Nevada City, CA.

The design on the T-shirt is a remix of local architecture  

When tourism becomes the only option for economic survival, our labor force could become a population of service workers, some dressed up to look like our ancestors as we rewrite the past to serve the present, although I doubt that will happen here.  Yet expectations of tourists mold the behavior of locals because they have the economic power to do so.  Tourist towns are often stripped of their innate character only to be repackaged in a sanitized, marketable format.  Surprisingly, some (many) people are at home in a swamp of clichés.  Residents of tourist towns (locals) sometimes feel displaced and need their own refuges, which are also endangered because, they too, are potential tourist spots. 

The South Yuba River Citizen’s League, or SYRCL, was founded in 1983 through a rural, grassroots campaign to defend the South Yuba River from proposed hydropower dams.  In 1999 SYRCL was instrumental in gaining Wild and Scenic Status for 39 miles of the South Yuba River.  Today SYRCL is the leading voice for the protection and restoration of the Yuba River watershed and has developed into a vibrant community organization with over 3,500 members and volunteers.

Over the past 20 years SYRCL has organized volunteers for an annual watershed cleanup.  In 2019 they removed more than 15 tons of trash and recycling from the Yuba and Bear watersheds with the help of 928 dedicated volunteers.  Among the trash items were 5,674 cigarette butts and 45 lighters, each capable of igniting a fire.  This is a good indicator of how reckless and unaware visitors (and no doubt, some locals) can be.  We are grateful for this effort and the work of SYRCL’s River Ambassadors to educate visitors about environmental degradation, but if you look at the trash/artifacts gathered objectively it is clear that much more education is necessary to stem the unconscious and dangerous behavior of more than a few.  It’s time to get serious about “your happy place.”  Might I add, it’s getting worse as we dawdle.

South Yuba RiverLike it?Be responsible 

How can we get a grip on this?  Here are some ideas from local resident, Gary Snyder’s 1969 poem, Smokey the Bear Sutra.

 . . .

And he will protect those who love woods and rivers,

Gods and animals, hobos and madmen, prisoners and sick

people, musicians, playful women, and hopeful children;

And if anyone is threatened by advertising, air pollution,

or the police, they should chant SMOKEY THE BEAR’S WAR SPELL:

DROWN THEIR BUTTS

CRUSH THEIR BUTTS

DROWN THEIR BUTTS

CRUSH THEIR BUTTS

I’m all for it, and may these final lines inspire you:

. . .

Now those who recite this Sutra and then try to put it in practice

will accumulate merit as countless as the sands

of Arizona and Nevada,

Will help save the planet Earth from total oil slick,

Will enter the age of harmony of man and nature,

Will win the tender love and caresses of men, women, and beasts

Will always have ripe blackberries to eat and a sunny spot

under a pine to sit at,

AND IN THE END WILL WIN HIGHEST PERFECT ENLIGHTENMENT.

thus have we heard.

You may see this poem as charming and unrealistic but lo, we already have sensible laws and ordinances regarding fire pits, trash dumps, water pollution, firearms, human waste, etc.  What we need is enforcement – the time for warnings is past.  Right now, there are many nighttime and morning campfires in the Grouse Ridge Roadless Area and in many other locations despite rules against it.  This must stop – fine them – and let it be known on social media that we, the citizens of the Yuba River watershed, will not tolerate environmental abuse and dangerous behavior.  Actions have consequences!

Lower Sardine Lake/ North Yuba

The South Yuba River Citizens League, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the U. S Forest Service (Tahoe & Plumas National Forests), the Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers, CalFire and ordinary citizens must be more forceful and remind people that they WILL be ticketed, fined or jailed for anti-social behavior and environmental damage.  This will take cooperation between land managers, non-profits and the public, and it will take assertiveness, but it can and must be done before we have catastrophic fire, degraded water quality or communicable disease.

I can’t end on a negative note.  Maybe, in the long run, it’s a good sign that so many Californians are enjoying the outdoors – they may come to love it enough to give nature some respect.  While we’re an assertive and competitive species, we have a deep capacity for compassion and many are still moved by beauty.

p.s.

Coney Island by Weegee, 1940

Social distancing is driving me nuts. I miss potlucks, live music, crazed dancing, hugging friends and kid’s birthday parties but I know that if we behave responsibly we’ll eventually get back to socializing with vigor.Some References

Lippard, Lucy R. The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. New York: New Press. 1998

Lippard, Lucy R. Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West. New Press. 2014

Snow, Donald. Selling Out the Last Best Place. From “Discovered Country: Tourism and Survival in the American West.” Eds: Scott Norris & John T. Nichols (1994)

Matson, Paul. Who Were Osborne and Woods?

Snyder, Gary. Smokey Bear Sutra. (1969)

My name is Hank Meals and I’m a passionate pedestrian with extensive and intimate knowledge of my habitat. In this blog I’ll share information, stories and discoveries that I’ve collected, and continue to accumulate, about the topography, natural history and culture of the Yuba River basin in the Sierra Nevada of California. I’m a capable researcher, an experienced photographer, an avid hiker and a trail guide. For more information contact me at yubatrails@gmail.com