Sunday, August 30, 2009

Protected rivers are an economic resource

Earlier this month, we took a vacation and went to Idaho to raft the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It's one of the country's original National Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Right before we left, we heard that some members of the Amador County Board of Supervisors were worried about the economic impacts of designating the Mokelumne a National Wild and Scenic River. I was happy to send them some studies about the local economic benefits of Wild and Scenic Rivers.

I also pointed out that on our trip to visit the Middle Fork Salmon the following week, we would be spending money in the Idaho local economy on meals, lodging, car rental, a car shuttle, gasoline, and supplies for our trip.

At the same time, the outfitter with whom we took the trip, OARS of Angels Camp, pays salaries to guides, charters small planes to take people to the river and buses to return them to town, buys huge quantities of food and supplies, and makes a major contribution to the local economy. And OARS is just one of the many outfitters that run the Middle Fork and other Idaho rivers.

The little towns we visited seemed to appreciate the river recreation business that helps keep them alive.

The Mokelumne is considerably smaller than the Middle Fork Salmon, of course. It won't ever be as big an economic engine as that river, but protecting the Mokelumne as it is today would ensure that money our community already receives from river recreation continues. People already visit our river to kayak, swim, innertube, fish, rock climb, camp, hike, hunt, view wildflowers and enjoy the scenic beauty. Everyone who visits the Mokelumne loves it, and most come back.

In addition, if East Bay MUD will ever cooperate and allow commercial rafting on the Electra-Middle Bar run (which OARS wants to do), or an outfitter starts to run the wilder sections of the river upstream, even more money will come into our local businesses from people who travel and spend money to visit the nation's special rivers. Our Middle Fork trip included river-lovers from Texas, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and California, all of whom were willing to fork out some serious cash to spend six wonderful days floating a river in the middle of the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48 states.

On our way home, we had supper with a friend who works for Idaho Rivers United, a conservation organization. He talked about how his group has worked with Republican Senator Mike Crapo to protect the state's rivers.

The folks in Idaho need water every bit as much as Californians do. It's a very dry state, and a very politically conservative one. It's also a place where people really enjoy the outdoors for hunting, fishing and more. And they obviously understand that keeping some of their rivers flowing free benefits Idahoans and local communities in many ways.

Amador County residents understand the importance of our Mokelumne River, as shown by the huge opposition to the proposed expansion of Pardee Dam. And more and more of them are supporting National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne, since it's the only way to ensure we have a river in our future.

Maybe our county supervisors will join them one day.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Responding to the taxpayers

When I send a letter or e-mail to an elected official, I nearly always receive a response of some sort. That's true whether I'm writing for myself or on behalf of an organization. And it's true whether I write to our state senator or assemblywoman, U.S. Congressional rep or senator, a local city councilmember, or even the East Bay Municipal Utility District directors.

Sometimes it takes a while to get a reply. And sometimes the replies are obvious boilerplate. But still, the officials nearly always respond in some way.

Not so with the Amador County Board of Supervisors. When I send them information or ask questions by e-mail or snail mail, they seldom even acknowledge having received the communication. And it's exceptionally rare for a supervisor to respond in a substantive way.

It's puzzling. Our supervisors like to say that decisions should be made locally, where government is closest to and most responsive to the taxpayer. But just whom are they responsive to?

I've been a county taxpayer for more than 30 years. I've done a thing or do to contribute to our county. The organization I most often represent is made up primarily of Amador County residents. But the supervisors can't even find time to say, "Thanks for your comments. I'll think about them."?

I worked in government for nearly 25 years, most of it in state service. Both state agencies I worked for had a communication policy regarding response to public comments or questions. They both required acknowledging all communication within a certain amount of time, and a full response by a specific deadline. The policies applied to everyone, from the executive director on down. And no way would the elected officials on the boards of those agencies ever consider ignoring a comment from a taxpayer, regardless of its nature or what they might think of the individual or group. Even totally crazy, off-the-wall comments received a response.

One of those agencies even required everyone -- including the executive management -- to take customer service training. While taxpayers are not customers in the conventional sense (you don't get to pick your tax agency), that did lead to a better focus on the taxpayer. Responding to correspondence is just one example of what government agencies do to serve the public.

Our elected officials, including county supervisors, work for us. All of us. They don't just work for the people they know or like or agree with -- or those who helped them get elected.

So why is it that our supervisors cannot bring themselves to even acknowledge contacts from a local taxpayer?

I'd really like to know.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Working on the river

I've been so busy working to protect the Mokelumne River from the proposed Pardee expansion that I've been neglecting my blog of late. The work I've done on the river this year has been both frustrating and gratifying.

Frustrating, because despite the huge local opposition to the Pardee expansion, East Bay MUD may not listen. We'll know more about that after Tuesday morning's workshop in Oakland.

It's also frustrating because a few people are still spreading lies and disinformation about National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne. What's even more frustrating is when people believe them. Wild and Scenic designation is the true long-term solution for Mokelumne river conservation, and it will only benefit our counties.

It's been gratifying because I've gotten to talk and work with so many local people and visitors who love the river and support keeping it a river forever. I've seen local businesses, especially OARS of Angels Camp, step up to help with its conservation. I've met dedicated river conservationists like angler-videographer Mikey Wier, who grew up in Plymouth. I've learned from native people who have ties to the river reaching back for thousands of years.

I've seen 350 people show up for local hearings. I've watched people work their networks and groups to help save the river.

I've also seen our community unite around an issue in a way we seldom experience. When was the last time you saw ranchers, native MiWuk people, local governments, environmentalists, businesspeople, anglers, young people, older people, anglers, and paddlers all agree on something? It's pretty rare. (We should try it more often.)

I've also spent more time on the river myself. I've rafted the Electra-Middle Bar run three times. I've seen people playing in and around the river from Salt Springs to Middle Bar. I've seen rafters come off the river absolutely enraptured. I've seen anglers cleaning hooks and debris from the Middle Bar Bridge. And I've taken many, many photos of the river, including some of the Foothill Conservancy benefit raft trips OARS put on this summer.

It's good to know that so many people love the Mokelumne River and want to protect it. We will save this river.