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The Battle Over Fish Check Dams in the Emigrant Wilderness

For the past three decades, the Emigrant Wilderness, located just north of Yosemite National Park, has been the scene of a dispute over 18 small, stone “check dams” built during the first half of the twentieth century. On one side in favor of the dams were fishermen, wilderness campers and advocates seeking to preserve local history. They argue against environmentalists who believe that a wilderness area should contain no man-made structures, except perhaps for footpaths and an occasional trail sign.

The Migrant 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.

Shortly after the last trainloads of emigrants rolled out of the mountains near Sonora Pass in the 1850s, ranchers and herders began to graze their livestock on the high prairies that are now part of the Wilderness Area. Finding fish scarce in the lakes that dot the area, ranchers began hauling buckets of native fish from lower-elevation lakes and streams and dropping them into the alpine lakes.

In the late 1800s large lakes like Kennedy Lake and Emigrant Lake became popular fishing destinations, drawing anglers from nearby gold towns like Sonora and Columbia and from valley towns like Modesto and Stockton. The only major reservoir at the time was Strawberry Lake, now Pinecrest Lake. Most of the river and stream fishing was at low elevations along the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. Because high-elevation streams and some lakes tended to dry up in late summer and fall, they did not provide habitat suitable for sustaining fish populations.

Construction of check dams

Around 1900 a young native named Fred Leighton began making his way into the high country near Sonora Pass. He soon realized that if only some of the lakes could be regulated with what he would call “check dams,” more water could be stored in the lakes and then released at a slower rate in early summer during snowmelt. . As a result, there would still be a supply of water in the lakes when the wet end of summer and fall arrived, so that sufficient stream flow could 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 crew of volunteers began constructing a series of low “check dams” on key lakes. They carried supplies to the high country by pack 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 on Yellowhammer Lake at the headwaters of Cherry Creek, just two miles north of the Yosemite boundary. Over the years, 17 more dams were built. Most were located in lakes such as Lower Buck Lake, Bigelow Lake, Emigrant Lake, Emigrant Meadow Lake and Huckleberry Lake. Two dams were built across the streams, creating reservoirs to provide summer irrigation water to the meadows. The last two dams were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941.

As a result of the dams, fishing has greatly improved in the area with Rainbow, Brown and Brook trout inhabiting the waters. Every summer anglers flock to the high country, taking packs from trails like Pinecrest, Kennedy Meadows, Gianelli’s Cabin.

The characterization of the wilderness of emigrants

The beginning of the end of the “check dams” came in 1975 when the area was labeled as the immigrant wasteland. The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits almost any man-made structure within the boundaries of a wilderness. Exceptions made for historic structures such as early log cabins were rare. For a time 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 meters tall and not bothersome at all. Others saw it differently.

The battle over “check dams” continued for decades. In 1988 the Stanislaus National Forest District Forester ordered all dams removed. His decision caused a public outcry and he immediately reversed his position. Then in 1991 the Forest Service began developing a Land Resources Management Plan for the area. At the same time, Representative John Doolittle tried, but failed, to get a bill through Congress to protect the dams.

Meanwhile, there was evidence that the dams were in desperate need of repair. Some had been vandalized, others were simply corroding. The leak valves were lost under mud. Finally in 1998 the Forest Service decided to rebuild 8 of the decaying dams in order to keep the stream flowing. But only a year later the District Forester reversed this decision. He argued that there was no evidence that the dams were needed. Aerial storage kept fish levels at acceptable levels.

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 stop proposed dam maintenance. Both sides argued convincingly. Proponents of the dams pointed to their historical value, non-intrusive nature and benefits to wildlife habitat. Wilderness purists pointed out that there was nothing in the Wilderness Act that allowed such structures within the boundaries of the Emigrant Wilderness. Furthermore, the Forest Service had admitted that the fish populations were self-sustaining. The construction of the dam at Cherry Reservoir in 1957 had long ago negated the need for upstream flood control.

Judge Anthony W. Ishii ruled in June 2006 that the dams could not be rebuilt or maintained. But they didn’t have to be disassembled either. They would let them decompose naturally.

“The area manifested its wilderness characteristics before the dams were installed and would lose none of its wilderness values ​​if the dams were not in place,” Ishii wrote in his decision. “What will be lost is some enhancement to 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 “check dams” appears to be settled. Even without maintenance, many of them can last for a century or more. Meanwhile, fish populations have continued to remain stable. Every summer thousands of visitors flock to the Emigrant Wilderness to fish, camp and enjoy the pristine beauty of the area.

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