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Protection Debated for One of Last Wild Rivers

Environment: Bid for U.S. safeguards faces opposition from power companies, sportsmen.


GOD'S BATH, Calif. — In those stressful days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Jenna Olsen desperately pined for an emotional outlet, she knew just where to find it. She hurried to a pristine waterfall along the isolated Clavey River that tumbles over salmon-colored rocks into a succession of blue-green pools.

"My soul sort of called out for this place," she said.

The little-known Clavey is one of California's most remote and wildest rivers, unblocked by dams and unscarred by the hand of man as it courses 47 miles through the forested wilderness of the western Sierra, not far from Yosemite National Park.

The cold, free-flowing Clavey's waters have given birth to world-class rapids, frisky wild trout and a surrounding ecosystem of native species. And all of it, say those who relish this river, is in peril.

In 1996, naturalists barely held off a utility that wanted to build a 413-foot-high dam in one of the Clavey's narrow granite canyons. Olsen fears the utility will be back.

Olsen, executive director of the Tuolumne River Preservation Trust, insists that the Clavey is a poster river for a bill before Congress to protect a huge swath of federal lands and free-flowing sections of rivers from invasive development.

Sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the California Wild Heritage Act of 2002 would protect 2.5 million acres of federal land from invasive development and give portions of 22 rivers protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Included are the Clavey and the Tuolumne's south fork in the Stanislaus National Forest and the Southern Kern, San Diego and Kings rivers in Southern California. The bill would increase by 450 miles the 1,900 miles--1% of the state's 190,000 miles of rivers--that already are protected from logging and mining that occur on many federal lands.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act requires government oversight agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service to create a protection plan for an area extending one-quarter mile to either side of selected rivers. It leaves the areas open to recreational use, supporters say.

Yet the wilderness cause has an angry torrent of enemies--from equestrians and users of all-terrain vehicles to hunters, farmers, ranchers and the timber and hydroelectric power industries--who say the Boxer bill would trample on their rights to tracts maintained with taxpayer dollars. Introduced this summer, along with two companion bills in the House, Boxer's legislation is being debated by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Definitions at Issue

Just what the wild-and-scenic designation means depends on which side of the issue you stand on. While naturalists say the bill would merely add a level of future protection to federal land and rivers, critics say outdoor enthusiasts are being closed out of their own woods. They call the effort an environmental land grab that would let roads and trails fall into disrepair.

Critics of the plan to apply the designation to the 22 rivers are exploring alternative legislation that they say would better preserve the rights of forest users.

"For sportsmen, it's just one more imaginary fence being built, one more 'Keep Out' sign, one more way our access is being limited," said Toby Horst, president of the Backcountry Horsemen of California. "We're not against wilderness. But we are against these newfangled areas that are being made off-limits to real people."

While he acknowledges that the Boxer legislation would not ban equestrian use of such areas, he said that allowing trails to grow over would discourage riders and have the same effect.

Kay Bargmann said such assumptions are wrong.

"The Clavey is among the last free-flowing rivers in the Sierra--the rest have been dammed up," said the former board member of the Clavey River Coalition. "This is about protecting what we cherish, to share it with future generations and not covet it for ourselves."

Meanwhile, the state's electricity interests, which have their own ideas for the river, aren't giving up easily.

"A dam on the Clavey would provide another means to store water--a precious commodity in California," said Tony Walker, a spokesman for the Turlock Irrigation District, which was defeated in its proposal to dam the Clavey in 1996. "While our plans are now in limbo, we're opposed to anything that would preclude us from reviving them in the future."

The Clavey River's north-to-south journey is like a natural luge ride, an 8,000-foot plunge down the Sierra's western slope. Its headwaters originate in California's highest terrain in the Emigrant Wilderness and empty at its eventual confluence with the Tuolumne River far below.

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