“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike,” wrote John Muir, in one of his many celebrations of the majesty of the Yosemite Valley. The Scottish-born founder of the Sierra Club recognized that man does not live by bread alone. His latter-day followers, however, seem to have forgotten that man cannot live by natural beauty alone, either. An urban-based environmentalist movement wants to lock up ever-expanding swaths of rural land so that no one can build on them or even work on them. Many rural residents are convinced that California’s powerful environmental lobby wants to “rewild” the landscape and drive them away, turning their communities into glorified playgrounds for urbanites.
The state’s urban areas are massive. Los Angeles County is more populous than 43 states. One of my favorite sights—from a nighttime descent into any one of Southern California’s airports—is the Los Angeles basin spreading out endlessly like successive strings of Christmas tree lights. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to more than 7 million people. California has cities few people have heard of that are more populous than major cities in the Midwest. Big-city voters, especially those who live west of the coastal ranges, are far removed from the ranchers, miners, loggers, and farmers who inhabit the state’s rural regions.
In late October, I drove to the historic gold-mining town of Yreka (Mark Twain claimed that the name comes from the word bakery spelled backward and missing the “b”), near Mount Shasta and the Oregon border, where about 800 activists attended the Defend Rural America conference. Along with a host of other issues, they argued that the federal government’s plan to destroy four dams along the Klamath River would harm their local farm-based economy. Most of the locals fear the dam-busting will undermine their property rights and ruin the local farming and ranch economy, which are all that’s left since environmentalists destroyed the logging and mining industries in the 1990s. These were once wealthy, resource-based economies. Now many of the towns are drying up, with revenue to local governments evaporating. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent and is higher in some places. In a recent (nonbinding) advisory initiative, nearly 79 percent of Siskiyou County’s voters opposed the dam-removal plan. But that hasn’t stopped the authorities from blasting the dams anyway.
In fairness, it’s not completely clear that dynamiting the dams will harm the farms. But residents are tired of having their opinions ignored. Far-off environmental and governmental interests destroyed logging to save the spotted owl, and now the locals are furious about the federal government’s Travel Management Plan, which is designed to keep the public off publicly owned forest roads.
Conference attendees talked much about the United Nations’ Agenda 21, a “sustainable” development plan designed to protect the environment by restricting urbanization. Many flew their State of Jefferson flags, which connote the secessionist movement to unite California’s north-state rural counties with rural counties in southern Oregon. Some of the discussions took on a conspiratorial cast. But without a doubt, environmental activists and federal and state officials are running roughshod over these areas. Local ranchers complain about massive fines for inadvertent environmental mistakes and of fish and game officials traipsing all over their land, unannounced.
The conference’s highlight was a panel of eight county sheriffs who vowed to stand up against the federal and state governments on behalf of local residents. They said they would not arrest residents for violating the Travel Management Plan. Billing themselves as “Constitution Sheriffs,” these top-ranking law-enforcement officials pledged, in the words of Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey, to protect the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It was pretty clear what he meant by domestic enemies.
A few weeks earlier in Fresno, members of the California Assembly’s rural caucus and a California Air Resources Board member met with San Joaquin Valley food processors regarding implementation of AB 32, California’s anti-global-warming law. The law will impose a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions—something the assembled farmers and food processors said could put them out of business. Eventually all manufacturers will have to purchase emissions credits, but CARB is rolling out the program slowly to minimize damage to employers. Using typical bureaucratic language, CARB placed various industries into categories based on their risk of “leakage”—a euphemism for job losses. The food processors, who depend heavily on natural gas to dehydrate and can vegetables, were put in the “medium-leakage” category, to which they objected: they’ll have to pay for credits sooner than businesses in the high-leakage category. Because their products are traded globally, the food processors argued, there’s little chance that consumers will absorb the extra costs.
It seems clear that Central Valley jobs and businesses are being sacrificed as part of a utopian environmental scheme to lower worldwide temperatures. Reducing carbon- dioxide emissions will not clean up pollution in the bad-air areas of Fresno County, given that global-warming gases are not—despite President Obama’s insistence—a pollutant. But more land will go fallow as farm-based industries shift south of the Mexican border and even to China.
Truth is, many environmentalists do want the farmland to revert to nature. They would gladly destroy dams so the rivers can run wild. They want to restrict urban growth to tight boundaries so most of California’s landscape can remain wild as well. California’s rural residents don’t seem to have enough clout to fight them off. Last year, I spoke with Andrew House, chief of staff for Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican from Tulare. Speaking for many, House said: “The radical side of the environmental movement, working with their patrons in government, is fighting a war of attrition in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Their goal is to assume control of water resources . . . and deny water to farmers in the Central Valley.”
I fell in love with California the moment I crossed the Colorado River into the Mojave. I understand the deep-seated desire to protect these landscapes, as wonderfully expressed by Muir. But Californians need to strike a better balance between protecting the land and allowing productive enterprises to make use of it. Otherwise, our rural residents won’t be the only ones facing a tough economic future.