Thursday, October 23, 2008

A fall Sierra walk

After such a dry spring and warm summer, I didn't expect much in the way of fall color this year. But in the last week or so, the trees have started coming on.

Early rain and some cold nights have given the leaves a shove into autumn. The color is especially vivid in the colder drainages, the creek and river canyons.

Yesterday, I went hiking with a friend on the Caples Creek trail, which starts near the creek's confluence with the Silver Fork of the American River, off Silver Fork Road. The heart-shaped black cottonwood leaves were a shimmering deep gold. The aspens were at peak color: light, not leaf. The willows flashed against the dark granite and water along the stream.

The black oaks, which I expected to be really disappointing this year, were a rich golden yellow trending to red, cascading down the slopes. Rose leaves clung to creek-side dogwoods. The creek itself was flowing clear and slow, transporting packs of leaves downstream. It was a clear, bright-blue Sierra day.

The Caples Creek trail is also noteworthy because of its big, old Jeffrey pines, cedars and firs; the big granite shoulders that intrude from each side of the canyon; lovely meadows with native plants; and a basalt postpile on the canyon's north side.

The trail has wonderful flowers in the spring. We could see their remnants yesterday: fascinating seedpods on the lilies, scarlet berries on the false Solomon seal, gnarled, desiccated, maroon snow plant. (I am waiting for the day when someone writes the Field Guide to Dead Flowers of the Sierra Nevada, but doubt it's at the top of any naturalist's list.)

We didn't see anyone on the trail yesterday, a Wednesday, but there was plenty of evidence of hikers and trail bikes (motorcycles). The lower part of the trail is open to motorcycles, which are deepening the ruts, widening the trail, and adding to the dust this time of year.

But on this weekday, at least, the Caples Creek trail was a beautiful, quiet place to hike. We listened to the birds, chickarees, and creek. We examined the abundant pine and fir cones. And most of all, we breathed the clear, clean air and rejoiced in a lovely fall Sierra day.

Note: All photos are from the Caples Creek trail, shot in October 2007.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Everyone should count

I've lived in Amador County for 29 years, nearly all of my adult life. I have wonderful friends and colleagues here. Some are members of families who have lived here for generations. Many of them are not (in fact, I would guess that most people who live here are not from the old families).

My friends and colleagues take care of people when they're aging, sick and dying. They teach in our schools. They own businesses that employ local people and contribute to our economy. They create art and music that enriches our lives. They run local nonprofit groups. They spend money in local stores. They raise livestock and grow food. They design and build homes. They save lives and property by responding to fire and medical emergencies. They raise large sums of money to help local cancer patients. They bring in retirement dollars that support local businesses and jobs.

They contribute in more ways than I can begin to list here. They are an essential part of our community even if they do not own large amounts of land or adhere to conservative political principles.

Last week, the county board of supervisors and planning commission met to discuss the updating of the county general plan. That general plan will shape our county for decades. It will affect how each one of us lives, every day, by determining how, where, and how much development occurs in the county, as well as where development doesn't occur.

The general plan will influence everything that makes up our quality of life: small town identity, air quality, roads and traffic, wildlife, scenic vistas, schools, economic health, rivers and forests, agriculture, and more.

Many of the speakers at the three days of general plan meetings had a clear message for those of us who are not major landowners:
You do not count. What you think does not matter. You are not "representative" of the community. If you are a "liberal," or worse yet, went to UC Berkeley, you are especially suspect. Regardless of the contributions you make, only we -- the multi-generation landowners and the developers and pro-development interests who are using us to their own ends -- really matter.
This was not unexpected. It's the boiling up of a simmering community conflict that is seldom openly discussed. That conflict came to the fore during the District 5 supervisor race two years ago. Local rancher Brian Oneto ran as the archetypal representative of the old-family, landowner power base and those who agree with a "let us do what we want with our land regardless of what it does to you" philosophy. Mel Welsh, a registered nurse with an impressive record of community service, ran on her record and a comprehensive platform.

Oneto succeeded in portraying Welsh as a Nancy Pelosi-loving, "San Francisco liberal" whose goals was to take away landowner property rights. The message was clear and explicit: "She is not one of us." It worked and Oneto won.

Many of the folks involved in that campaign are now part of the current effort to derail two years of community work on the general plan update.

Events like last week's hearings make me worry about our county's future. If we cannot learn to appreciate and acknowledge the contributions of all of our county's residents, how in the world can we begin to deal with the challenges we face, especially in these increasingly difficult economic times? And what will we do as our communities become more ethnically and culturally diverse?

The way I see it, we can't afford to reject anyone or any idea. We need to embrace our neighbors, acknowledge their contributions, and use all of our collective knowledge and experience to build a stronger, resilient, more capable community. To do anything less is beyond foolish.

No one has all of the answers. But if we work together, we'll come a lot closer to success than we will ever get by discounting the ideas and contributions of people with whom we disagree.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Speaking up for civility

Dismayed by the name-calling that is starting over Gold Rush Ranch, I thought I ought to weigh in on the side of civility and respect. Below is the text of an item I sent the Amador Ledger-Dispatch, shown as published online.

Recent letters to the editor and op-ed columns are a good reminder of how passionately people feel about the Gold Rush Ranch Resort proposal. Some think the project is too big, too destructive and too costly for Sutter Creek. Others think that Gold Rush is the best solution for a range of challenges facing the town and its businesses. I have friends in both camps.

The disagreement is a reminder that good people can and do come to very different conclusions about important local issues. That's normal and healthy provided it leads to civil and respectful debate. But when the disagreement turns into personal attacks, it's not good for Sutter Creek or the larger community. We are too small to allow issues like this to divide us so dramatically.

Everyone involved in this discussion has legitimate concerns. The individuals, groups and public agencies concerned about Gold Rush are worried about public safety, fiscal accountability, habitat destruction, overcrowded schools, sprawl, jammed intersections, air quality and more. Gold Rush supporters are concerned about downtown business, local recreation and city wastewater facilities. All of these issues matter. And we all want Sutter Creek and Amador County to stay a wonderful place to live, do business, work and retire.

If we remember that we share common goals and treat each other with civility and respect, we can move through and beyond Gold Rush Ranch to build a stronger community, one more capable of constructively addressing challenges and solving problems. But if the conflict deteriorates into stone throwing and name calling, all of us will lose, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

Instead, we can try to understand each others' points of view, focus on the facts about the project as determined by independent analysts and follow a key principle of win-win negotiating: Be hard on the problem and soft on the people. We may never agree on Gold Rush. But we can disagree in a way that preserves the sense of community that is the ultimate expression of our local quality of life. In my opinion, that's the true path to a successful and prosperous future for Sutter Creek.