From Sequoia National Park to Yosemite Valley and beyond, the history of the Sierra Nevada is filled with stories of residents and governments that opposed long-term resource conservation in favor of short-term concerns. Generations later, those of us who enjoy our national parks, state parks and protected rivers are grateful that the longer view prevailed and these special places were protected for us to use and enjoy.

In that context, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors’ Feb. 25 vote in support of California Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne River was historic. It was not an easy decision for the board nor a snap judgment, as anyone present for the meeting could tell. Board members carefully considered all of the ramifications of permanently protecting the river. They carefully compared the effects of state Wild and Scenic designation with federal designation. They made sure they understood the effects on landowners and water supply and the benefits to the economy. And in the end, they voted unanimously to protect the Mokelumne for generations to come.

It was a 21st century decision: a look forward toward creating a sustainable county and a move away from decades past, in which bitter conflicts over natural resources pitted Calaveras neighbors against each other.

The board understood what Calaveras business owner George Wendt of O.A.R.S. said in his Feb. 21 guest editorial in the Enterprise: He noted the Mokelumne is an economic engine for Calaveras County, contributing to its diverse tourism industry. That’s why Destination Angels Camp and the Calaveras Visitors Bureau supported the Wild and Scenic designation at the meeting.

The supervisors also understood that their vote for the river was about more than economics. It was a vote for the people of Calaveras County, who crowded the supervisors’ chambers to voice their support for the Mokelumne. American Indians, seniors, business owners, high school students and more came out to speak.

After all, residents use and enjoy the river every day, year-round. It serves as a public park, a place any Calaveras family of any income can spend a beautiful day outdoors, for free. It’s the place children first touch a flowing stream and learn what a river is, which later helps them understand our rich American history and culture. How can a child appreciate Washington’s crossing of the Delaware or the accomplishments of Lewis and Clark, or understand the writings of Mark Twain without some understanding of what flowing rivers are like?

The Mokelumne is a place where people can walk their dogs, view the beautiful wildflowers and enjoy the changing seasons. It’s enjoyed by those who fish for sport or to feed their families. Its riverside campgrounds host multigenerational family gatherings, where young and old alike focus on the simple pleasures of each others’ company and nature’s gifts instead of electronic gadgets and nonstop pop culture assaults. The river gives locals respite and relaxation and challenges the daring ones who tackle its whitewater runs and granite domes. The Calaveras board vote will help ensure those activities continue.

And significantly, the Mokelumne is sacred to Calaveras’s native people, local Mi-Wuk individuals and tribes whose ancestors made a rich living along the river corridor, depending upon its abundant plants, fish and wildlife. The elders use the river today to teach their culture and their heritage to the younger generations – a culture that was very nearly lost. For native people, the river is a healing place that connects them across thousands of years to those who came before. The vote respected that history and culture, too.

The Mokelumne truly is a river for everyone, providing water, power, recreation, culture, scenic beauty and family time. But it can only stay that way if the remaining free-flowing reaches in Calaveras County are protected for generations to come.

That is what the supervisors understood and supported with their vote.

Now it’s time for all who care about Calaveras County’s future to stand with their elected leaders to help make the dream of a permanently protect Mokelumne River a reality through state legislation to designate the Mokelumne a California Wild and Scenic River.

It won’t be easy. It will take a concerted effort, patience and determination. And it will be opposed by those who see the Mokelumne only as the site of even more dams and reservoirs rather than understanding all it offers as a flowing river. We’re already seeing our Congress-man, Tom McClintock, resort to the divisive wedge politics of the past to again pit neighbor against neighbor. That’s never worked out well for Calaveras.

Fortunately, the Board of Supervisors has taken the long view instead and taken the first steps to keep the Mokelumne a river, forever. Now it’s up to us to finish the job.

Cecily Smith is the executive director of the Foothill Conservancy. Contact her at cecily@foothillconservancy.org.

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