History of Stakeholders in the California Jobs First Eastern Sierra Region

Magnolia Barra

Magnolia Barra

Eastside Project Navigator

Kara Bechtle

Kara Bechtle

Westside Project Navigator

By Elaine Kabala (ESCOG), Magnolia Barra (SBC), Kara Bechtle (SBC), Steve Frisch (SBC), and Jill Sanford (SBC)

As an exercise related to our stakeholder mapping exercise of the 7-county “eastern Sierra region,” Sierra Business Council was tasked with outlining the history of this region and how it led to the current social dynamics that influence our work in regional, inclusive economic development that priorities disinvested communities. What follows is a longer narrative that was summarized in our Regional Summary, which was submitted to the State on Dec. 29, 2023. 

Introduction

The seven-county Eastern Sierra California Jobs First region is a predominantly rural and sparsely populated area of California with significant historical power disparities. This region is comprised of Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Inyo, Mariposa, Mono, and Tuolumne counties and will be hereafter referred to as the “Eastern Sierra California Jobs First region” or “the region” in this document (despite the regional understanding that the term “Eastern Sierra” traditionally refers exclusively to Alpine, Inyo, and Mono counties). 

The California Jobs First Eastern Sierra region of California has a complex history of European settlement and colonization, dispossession, federal land tenure, and natural resource extraction, leading to significant income and wealth disparities. 

Despite this, the Sierra Business Council team is dedicated to prioritizing traditionally disinvested community members throughout the California Jobs First process and has developed a comprehensive engagement plan to involve all residents of the region, not just those who have historically held power and are currently highly visible in these communities.

The communities and individuals that hold influence in the Eastern Sierra are heavily determined by the region’s rural nature and low population density. The counties of Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Inyo, Mariposa, Mono, and Tuolumne have a combined population of 191,351 across 19,253 square miles, with just under 10 people per square mile. Many communities are isolated by a lack of institutional representation and/or physical distance, with 80% of the region’s land owned by the Federal Government. Many disinvested community demographics have little to no organized presence, such as environmental justice organizations or worker centers, requiring continuous outreach and engagement over the life of the program to ensure equitable representation.

It should also be noted that Sierra Business Council is beginning to phase out the term “stakeholder” from our internal and external work, due to the expressed preferences of our tribal partners. However, we have not yet settled on a single alternative.

Landscape

The Eastern Sierra region is characterized by its sweeping mountainous landscapes and open spaces. The undeveloped nature of the area is shaped by the historically powerful stakeholders that have in turn monetized and preserved the region for the provision of natural resources and ecosystem services for urbanized areas outside the Eastern Sierra region, specifically the provision of water and power. Thus, the historically active stakeholders of the Eastern Sierra are primarily Federal, state, and local government landholders. The benefit of the resulting conservation of these natural resources makes the Eastern Sierra a prime, though remote, destination for year-round, world-class outdoor recreation. Given the limited availability of private land, the geographic isolation of Eastern Sierra communities, and the very small population centers, the economic base of the region has historically centered on natural resource extraction, agriculture, ecosystem services, and tourism. Within these constraints, institutions such as local government, Chambers of Commerce, and education systems collaborate to diversify and enhance economic prosperity in the region.

Pre-colonial

The original stewards of the region are the indigenous people who have lived in the high Sierra and surrounding foothills for more than 13,000 years. Dozens of unique tribal entities held power within their respective territories in the Sierra Nevada, each governed by their own social and political structures. Before contact with Europeans, the Native American population in California was approximately 350,000 people. There were extensive tribal trade networks exchanging seeds, foodstuffs, tools, medicine and raw materials as far as coastal California, into the Great Basin in Nevada and Utah, and as far south as present day northern Mexico.  Indigenous peoples managed the land through controlled burns, foraged for food, and even irrigated the landscape in some areas to promote plant growth and raise groundwater levels. Their descendants continue to live and care for their Sierra Nevada homelands. 

Tribal peoples’ regenerative relationships to the land are based on generations of deep connections ingrained through cosmology, ceremony, and language. To this day, both recognized and unrecognized tribes have vast traditional ecological knowledge of this landscape that will be consulted and valued throughout the California Jobs First process.

Colonization

The colonization of California began with the Spanish Empire’s occupation of New Spain, including present-day Mexico, with California and several other western states comprising a portion of that land mass. California was among the last of the new-world territories occupied by the Spanish in the 18th century. In addition to the Spanish creation of numerous presidios, pueblos, and missions, substantial portions of California, including approximately 150,000 acres of present-day Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Mariposa counties, were granted to private landowners. With Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 these lands were retained by the grantees. 

As a result of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), California was annexed by the United States and took ownership by treaty of all public lands. A condition in the Congressional Act granting California statehood in 1850 was the granting of the former Mexican public lands in California to the US federal government. In 1851, Congress passed the California Land Act requiring private land claims under the Mexican government be perfected under US law through a lands commission. Almost all of the former Spanish and Mexican land grant lands in the region were remitted to the US federal government. As a result of the granting of lands to the federal government at statehood, and the perfecting of land rights under the California Land Act, a significant acreage of the Eastern Sierra California Jobs First region is in federal ownership.

This history created a land tenure pattern across the Eastern Sierra CERF region that has led to the protection of significant natural areas, but has also led to many communities being landlocked by public lands, or patterns of land ownership that isolate communities. 

Impact of the Gold Rush            

Shortly after annexation, gold was discovered and California was admitted to the union in 1850. During the Gold Rush period of 1848-1855, miners, merchants, and settlers who moved to the region held significant economic and political power. Native Americans were routinely removed from potential mining lands and surrounding areas. This influx of people reshaped California’s demographics and politics and led to widespread removal, death, and persecution of the Sierra Nevada’s native peoples. In 1848, the Native American population in California in 1848 was approximately 150,000 people. In the 1900 census, the Native American population had dropped to 16,000. 

The Gold Rush also saw periods of migration by a diverse set of fortune seekers, including a number of Latin American, Chinese, African American, and Filipino mining communities. These communities often faced violent reactions from white settlers, and exclusionary laws such as the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850 and eventually the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Many of these early settlers moved out of the region to escape persecution and moved to other regions of the state as mining proved transient and new opportunities opened primarily in agriculture.

On the eastern slope of the Sierra, the now-ghost towns of Bodie and Cerro Gordo, which started as mining camps, flourished during this era. The pursuit of precious metals led to the establishment of numerous mining towns and brought significant population growth. The Owens Valley was settled during this period as a fertile agricultural valley to support the mining camps in the surrounding mountains. 

The western slope of the region is still to this day known as the Mother Lode and Gold County. In Tuolumne County, Jacksonville was the principal river town for miners working along the Tuolumne River. The site has since been inundated by Don Pedro Reservoir. Chinese Camp was the headquarters for stage lines and for several California Chinese mining companies in the 1850s. Jamestown became known as the gateway to the Mother Lode and the southern mines. Large quantities of gold were found in nearby Woods Creek. Calaveras County is the birthplace of Archie Stevenot, who helped found the California State Chamber of Commerce. Mokelumne Hill, San Andreas, and Angels Camp were established as early mining towns. Nearby Carson Hill was one of the most productive mining areas in California and the largest gold nugget in the state was discovered there in 1854. Drytown is Amador County’s oldest community, and the first in the county in which gold was discovered.

The California Gold Rush created a high demand and regional market for timber for mining, housing, construction of railroads, and fuel. Between 1848-1870 approximately one-third of all of the timber in the Sierra Nevada was logged. As the infrastructure for logging was developed in the region and with the rise of steam power a significant market for timber was expanding in California’s cities, and over the next 40 years another third of the Sierra Nevada was logged. Today, old-growth forests comprise about 12% of the Sierra Nevada landscape, with the amount slightly higher in the Eastern Sierra CERF region due to the protection of forested land in Yosemite National Park, which was set aside as the first conservation-focused federal land grant in 1864.  

Post Gold-Rush Resource Extraction and Water Rights

As the boom of the Gold Rush diminished, the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw continued development and resource extraction in the Sierra Nevada. Towns, farms and ranches grew up around mining and timber camps in the Sierra Nevada and California’s economy subsequently prospered. Water was diverted from the Sierra Nevada to sustain population growth in Los Angeles and San Francisco and the agriculture of the Central Valley. The need to move natural resources out of the Sierra Nevada and to California’s port cities led to a surge in infrastructure development, such as roads, railways, and reservoirs, which in turn led to further economic growth and job opportunities while ingraining into the California economy dependence on and privatization of the Sierra Nevada’s resources. 

As mining activity waned, the Eastern Sierra’s landscape transitioned into a hub for agriculture and ranching. The region’s fertile valleys and ample water supply supported the growth of crops and livestock. Communities like Bishop and Lone Pine became centers of agricultural activity, contributing to the state’s food production. In Mariposa county, the gold rush was responsible for roads being built and communities established, so that locals could turn to ranching, farming, and the small businesses serving them. The Railroad built along the Merced River to El Portal enabled various large-scale enterprises. 

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles sought to secure a more reliable water supply to sustain its growing population and development. The LADWP embarked on an ambitious plan to divert water from the Owens Valley, located in the Eastern Sierra, through the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913, led to the draining of Owens Lake and significantly reduced water availability for local communities and agriculture. This event resulted in significant social, economic, and environmental upheaval, decimating the agricultural economy of the Eastern Sierra and causing significant ecosystem damage, including severe dust storms caused by the exposed lakebed of the Owens Dry Lake – at times considered the greatest source of air pollution in the United States. In 1965, the City of Los Angeles extended the aqueduct system to capture the tributaries feeding Mono Lakes, as well. In order to secure the water rights to the Eastern Sierra watershed, the City of Los Angeles purchased nearly all lands and the City of Los Angeles remains the largest private landholder in Inyo and Mono Counties. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Inyo National Forest, preserving the remaining lands for the security of the water interests of the City of Los Angeles. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest was established in 1908 and is the largest National Forest outside of Alaska. Hetch Hetchy was one of the first national battles between foresters and environmentalists. It remains a controversial dam to this day, with locals desiring to preserve natural resources and outsiders wanting to shape the landscape to meet human needs. Hetch Hetchy began as a glacier-carved valley at the ancestral Tuolumne River until the dam project was completed in 1923. Now it’s a massive reservoir that holds 117 billion gallons of water. People have lived in Hetch Hetchy Valley for over 6,000 years. Native American cultures were prominent before the 1850s when the first settlers from the United States arrived in the Sierra Nevada. During summer, people of the Miwok and Paiute came to Hetch Hetchy from the Central Valley in the west and the Great Basin in the east. Chief Tenaya of the Yosemite Valley’s Ahwaneechee tribe claimed that Hetch Hetchy was Miwok for “Valley of the Two Trees”, referring to a pair of yellow pines that once stood at the head of Hetch Hetchy.

The social, economic, and environmental impacts of these actions are ongoing dynamics shaping the economic prosperity of Eastern Sierra communities. More than 95% of land in the Eastern Sierra is held in government interests, severely constraining economic and community development efforts. 

This era also saw the creation of federal public land management agencies (such as the US Forest Service and National Park Service) and rise of the conservation movement. The protection of natural resources and landscapes in the Sierra Nevada by conservationists such as John Muir helped shape the modern environmental and tourism sectors. The tourism industry began to generate revenue from visitors who came to admire the Sierra Nevada’s pristine landscapes, leading to the development of hotels, restaurants, and other services in the region. 

While this seemingly altruistic conservation movement led to the protection of land, exclusive and racist elements within the history of the conservation movement have shaped this CERF region’s history, primarily through the continued displacement of indigenous peoples, 

In some parts of the region, growth in tourism and recreation opportunities has also led to gentrification and displacement of the local workforce. Rising property values and tourism development have made it difficult for long-standing residents, often holding lower-paying hospitality industry jobs, to continue living in the Eastern Sierra region. As the Sierra Nevada increasingly becomes a haven for tourists and second homeowners, the disparities will continue to grow. 

The timber industry collapse in the later 20th century cause economic hardships in many communities, especially on the western slope of the range. The past few decades have also seen population increases in some foothill communities as the region became a popular destination for retirees and individuals priced out of urban areas of the state. 

Environmental Significance

The Eastern Sierra region provides exponential ecosystem benefits to downstream users. Watersheds on both slopes of the Southern Sierra are vital water provision sources for urban areas. Sierra snowpack serves as a primary water source for domestic and agricultural users outside the region. The Eastern Sierra region’s mountainous terrain and snow accumulation patterns create natural reservoirs gradually releasing meltwater during the warmer months, which supports agricultural activities, urban water supply, and industry throughout Southern California. These watersheds facilitate hydroelectric power generating the energy from flowing water to produce clean and renewable electricity for both the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Southern California Edison. The Hetch Hetchy water system in Tuolumne County provides water to 2.4 million people in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda, and San Mateo counties. Eighty-five percent of these areas’ water comes from Sierra Nevada snowmelt stored in the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Hetch Hetchy water travels 160 miles via gravity from Yosemite to the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Eastern Sierra region serves as the gateway to Yosemite National Park, Death Valley National Park, Kings Canyon-Sequoia National Park, the Inyo National Forest, and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, which encompass the John Muir Wilderness and the Ansel Adams Wilderness areas. The spectacular scenery and pristine landscapes of the Eastern Sierra have long been a recreation destination draw, providing boundless opportunities for fishing, hiking, camping, rock climbing, downhill skiing, and other outdoor recreation opportunities. Mammoth Mountain, located in Mono County, was founded in 1953 and is the largest ski resort serving the Southern California market and draws XX visitors to the region per year. Kirkwood Ski Resort, in Alpine County, was established in 1972 and draws skiers primarily from the San Francisco Bay Area. Additional ski resorts include June Mountain in Mono County, Bear Valley Resort in Alpine County, Kirkwood Mountain Resort in Alpine and Amador counties and Dodge Ridge Mountain Resort in Tuolumne County.

In addition to the land management agencies that govern land and development uses in the Eastern Sierra, historically active stakeholders in the regional economy include local governments, economic development partners, healthcare and education institutions, and non-government (NGO) partners. Local government economic development resources are often allocated to a single employee with split responsibilities. Government economic development partners such as the Small Business Administration and the Workforce Development Board have a limited presence in Inyo, Mono, and Alpine Counties. 

Acknowledging the historical shortcomings and injustices of this region and working to rectify them is a critical step in creating a more equitable and inclusive approach to economic and environmental stewardship in the Eastern Sierra CERF region. 

California’s economy is driven by a wide range of industries, including technology, entertainment, agriculture, and more. However, the relevance of the Sierra Nevada’s natural resources is still evident in the state’s economic landscape. The Eastern Sierra region is complex, vibrant, and beautiful—in large part because of the contributions of Indigenous peoples and the Latino workforce that have traditionally been excluded from positions of power

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