For the past three decades the Emigrant Wilderness, situated just north of Yosemite National Park, has been the setting for a dispute over 18 small, stone “check dams” constructed during the first half of the twentieth century. On one side in favor of the dams have been anglers, wilderness campers, and advocates seeking to preserve local history. Arguing against them have been environmentalists who believe a wilderness area should not contain any man-made structures, except perhaps foot paths and an occasional trail sign.
The Emigrant Wilderness, part of the Stanislaus National Forest, encompasses 100 named lakes and about 500 smaller, unnamed lakes. It contains miles and miles of streams, the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. But it wasn’t always the fishing paradise that it is today.
Soon after the last emigrant wagons rolled out of the mountains near Sonora Pass in the 1850s, cattlemen and sheep herders began to graze their animals in high meadowlands that are now is part of the Emigrant Wilderness Area. Finding a dearth of fish in the lakes that dot the region, stockmen started hauling buckets of native fish from lower elevation lakes and streams and dumping them into the alpine lakes.
By the late 1800s large lakes like Kennedy Lake and Emigrant Lake became popular fishing destinations, attracting sportsmen from nearby gold country towns like Sonora and Columbia and from valley cities such as Modesto and Stockton. The only significant reservoir at the time was Strawberry Lake, today’s Pinecrest Lake. Most river and stream fishing was at low elevations along the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. Because the high elevation streams and some lakes tended to dry up in late summer and fall, they did not provide a habitat adequate to sustain fish populations.
Construction of the Check Dams
Around 1900 a young local man named Fred Leighton began to make his way into the high country near Sonora Pass. He soon realized that if just a few of the lakes could be regulated with what he would call “check dams”, more water could be stored in the lakes and then released at a slower rate early in the summer during the snowmelt. As a result there would still be a reserve of water in the lakes when the rainless late summer and fall arrived so an adequate stream flow could be maintained to provide habitat for native trout. They would also serve as an early method of flood control.
Starting in 1920, Leighton and a crew of volunteers began to construct a number of low “check dams” on key lakes. They hauled supplies into the high country on pack animals and built the dams by hand using stones 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 at Yellowhammer Lake on the headwaters of Cherry Creek, only two miles north of the Yosemite boundary. Over the years 17 more dams were built. Most were on lakes, including Lower Buck Lake, Bigelow Lake, Emigrant Lake, Emigrant Meadow Lake, and Huckleberry Lake. Two dams were constructed along streams, creating reservoirs to provide summer irrigation water to meadowlands. The last couple of dams were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941.
As a result of the dams, fishing improved considerably in the region with Rainbow, Brown, and Brook trout populating the waters. Every summer anglers flocked to the high country, taking pack animals in from trailheads like Pinecrest, Kennedy Meadows, Gianelli’s Cabin.
The Designation of the Emigrant Wilderness
The beginning of the end of the “check dams” came in 1975 when the region was designated as the Emigrant Wilderness. The 1964 Wilderness Act prohibits virtually any kind of man-made structure within the boundaries of a wilderness. Exceptions made for historic structures such as early log cabins have been rare. For a time it appeared that the “check dams” would fall into the category of historic features. Many of them were eligible to be included in the historic register. Most of them only stood a few feet tall and were hardly intrusive. Others saw them differently.
The battle over the “check dams” continued for decades. In 1988 the Regional Forester for the Stanislaus National Forest ordered all the dams to be removed. His decision created a public outcry, and soon afterward he reversed his position. Then in 1991 the Forest Service began to develop a Land Resource Management Plan for the area. At the same time Representative John Doolittle attempted, but failed, to get a bill through Congress to protect the dams.
In the meantime evidence mounted that the dams were in desperate need of repair. Some had been vandalized, others were simply eroding. Spill valves were lost under silt. Eventually in 1998 the Forest Service decided to rebuild 8 of the decaying dams in order to maintain stream flow. But only a year later the Regional Forester reversed that decision. He held the position that there was no evidence that the dams were needed. Aerial stocking was keeping the fish levels at an acceptable level.
The US District Court Decision
The dispute over the “check dams” reached its conclusion in 2006 when Wilderness Watch and other environmental groups filed suit to stop the proposed maintenance of the dams. Both sides argued persuasively. Advocates for the dams pointed out their historic value, their non-obtrusive nature, and their benefit to wildlife habitat. Wilderness purists pointed out that there was nothing in the Wilderness Act that permitted such structures within the boundary of the Emigrant Wilderness. Furthermore, the Forest Service had conceded that the fish populations were self-sustaining. The construction of the dam at Cherry Reservoir in 1957 had long ago negated the need for flood control upstream.
Judge Anthony W. Ishii ruled in June 2006 that the dams could not be rebuilt or maintained. But neither did they have to be dismantled. They would be left to decay naturally.
“The area manifested its wilderness characteristic before the dams were in place and would lose nothing in the way of wilderness values were the dams not present,” Ishii wrote in his decision. “What would be lost is some enhancement to a particular use of the area (fishing), but that use, while perhaps popular, is not an integral part of the wilderness nature of that area.”
With that decision the fate of Fred Leighton’s “check dams” appears to have been settled. Even without maintenance, many of them may last for another century or longer. In the meantime, fish populations have continued to hold steady. Every summer thousands of visitors flock to the Emigrant Wilderness to fish, camp, and enjoy the pristine beauty of the area.