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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 subject of controversy over 18 small, stone “check dams” built in the early twentieth century. On one side of the dams are anglers, wilderness campers and advocates trying to preserve local history. Arguing against them are environmentalists who believe that a wilderness area should have no human-made structures, except perhaps for trails and the occasional trail.
The Emigrant Wilderness, part of the Stanislaus National Forest, has 100 named lakes and about 500 smaller, unnamed lakes. It has miles and miles of streams, the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. But it wasn’t always the fishing paradise it is today.
Soon after the last emigrant wagons left the mountains near Sonora Pass in the 1850s, cattle and sheep ranchers began to graze their animals in the high pastures that are now part of the Emigrant Wilderness Area. As fish became scarce in the region’s scattered lakes, stockers began bringing in buckets of indigenous fish from lower-altitude lakes and streams and dumping them in alpine lakes.
Large lakes like Kennedy Lake and Emigrant Lake became popular fishing spots in the late 1800s, attracting anglers from nearby gold country towns like Sonora and Columbia and valley cities like Modesto and Stockton. The only significant reservoir at the time was Strawberry Lake, today’s Pinecrest Lake. Most of the river and stream fishing was in the lower elevations along the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers. Because high-elevation streams and some lakes dry up in late summer and fall, they do not provide sufficient habitat to sustain fish populations.
Construction of check dam
Around 1900 a young man named Fred Leighton began to venture into the highlands near Sonora Pass. He soon realized that if some lakes were regulated by what he called “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, the ponds will be stocked with water even in the absence of late summer and fall rains, to maintain sufficient flow to provide habitat for native trout. They will also serve as an initial method of flood control.
Beginning in the 1920s, Leighton and a team of volunteers began building several low “check dams” on major lakes. They hauled supplies up the high country with large animals and built dams by hand using stone 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 the headwaters of Cherry Creek at Yellowhammer Lake, just two miles north of the Yosemite border. 17 more dams were built over the years. Most were on lakes including Lower Buck Lake, Bigelow Lake, Emigrant Lake, Emigrant Meadow Lake and Huckleberry Lake. Two dams were built along the streams and created reservoirs to provide summer irrigation water to the pastures. The last two dams were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941.
As a result of the dams, fishing in the region improved significantly as rainbow, brown and brook trout populated the waters. Anglers flock to the high country each summer from trailheads like Pinecrest, Kennedy Meadows, Giannelli Cabin.
The designation of a migrant deserter
The end of the “Check Dam” began in 1975 when the region was designated as a shifting desert. The 1964 Wilderness Act prohibits any man-made structure within wilderness boundaries. Exceptions are rare for historic structures such as early log cabins. For a while it appeared that “check dams” would fall into the category of historical features. Many of them deserve to be included in the historical register. Most of them stood only a few feet high and were hardly intrusive. Others saw them differently.
The battle for ‘Check Dam’ was going on for decades. In 1988 the regional forester of the Stanislaus National Forest ordered the removal of all dams. His decision caused a public outcry and he changed his stance soon after. Then in 1991 the Forest Service began developing a land resource management plan for the area. At the same time, Representative John Doolittle tried to get a bill through Congress to protect the dams, but failed.
In the meantime, there was evidence that there was an urgent need to repair the dams. Some were vandalized, others were cheated. The leak valves were lost under the sediment. Finally in 1998 the Forest Service decided to rebuild 8 of the decaying dams to maintain the flow of the stream. However, after a year, the regional forester withdrew that decision. He took the position that there was no evidence that dams were needed. Aerial stocking was keeping fish levels at acceptable levels.
US District Court Decision
Controversy over “check dams” ended in 2006 when Wilderness Watch and other environmental groups filed a lawsuit to stop proposed maintenance of the dams. Both sides argued sensibly. Advocates of dams point to their historical value, their non-obstructive nature, and their benefit to wildlife habitat. Wilderness purists point out that there is nothing in the Wilderness Act that allows such structures within the boundaries of migratory wilderness. Moreover, the Forest Service had accepted that the fish population was self-sustaining. The construction of a dam on Cherry Reservoir in 1957 had long since 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 both of them did not have to be demolished. It will be left to rot naturally.
Ishii wrote in his decision, “The area manifested its wilderness character before the dams came into being and would lose nothing in the way of wilderness values if there were no dams.” “What will be lost is some improvement to a specific use of the area (fishing), but that use, while perhaps popular, is not an integral part of the wilderness nature of the area.”
That decision seems to have sealed the fate of Fred Leighton’s ‘Check Dam’. Even without maintenance, many of them will last another century or more. Meanwhile, fish numbers have remained stable. Every summer thousands of visitors flock to the migratory wilderness to fish, camp, and enjoy the pristine beauty of the area.
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