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Nature to take some Emigrant dams


In a decision that was 14 years in the making, 11 rock-and-mortar check dams in the Emigrant Wilderness will remain and seven will be allowed to erode.

Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Tom Quinn's ruling caps years of controversy over the dams, built by the late Fred Leighton and others between 1921 and the early 1950s to help support high-country trout streams.

The tallest, at Y Meadow, stands 25 feet. It is the only one that creates a new lake. The others enlarge existing pools.

The dam at Y Meadow was originally slated for maintenance, but after more study, Quinn decided it can go.

Red Can, proposed for elimination in the Forest Service's environmental impact statement, under Quinn's decision will stay.

Despite their remote location — covered in snow more months of the year than not, and requiring at least a day's hike to reach — the stone dams have sparked intense controversy for the past 28 years.

After the U.S. Congress set the Emigrant aside as wilderness in 1975, arguments began swirling as to whether the dams fit the federal wilderness definition and should remain. That definition characterizes wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."

The check dams have not been maintained since 1989, when the debate intensified. Since then, the Stanislaus Forest has issued two decisions on which dams should stay or go. Both were overturned by the regional forester.

U.S. Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin, — who then represented Tuolumne County — introduced bills in 2000 and 2001 to preserve all 18 dams. After revisions dropped the list to 12, both bills passed in the House, but neither was heard in the Senate. Quinn said this decision should stick.

"We chose to include all seven (dams) that are eligible for the National Historic Register," Quinn said, adding that dams that did not improve fishing or raise water levels appreciably will be allowed to deteriorate.

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