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Political, legal battle in Emigrant a dam waste

After nearly 20 years, it's over.

The long, costly and at times bitter debate over the Emigrant Wilderness check dams has been resolved: Nothing will happen.

Nothing will happen at a cost that has no doubt run into the millions of dollars. And nothing will happen despite strong local sentiment for maintaining and preserving most, if not all, of the small High Sierra dams.

The protracted drama illustrates government at its worst. The check dam verdict took nearly two decades to reach and many of the key decisions during the process were made by bureaucrats, judges and politicians who had never been to the Emigrant or seen a check dam.

In the end, the Forest Service's lawyers decided not appeal a Fresno judge's decision that the 18 check dams be allowed to deteriorate naturally. U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii made the ruling last June, overturning Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Tom Quinn's decision that 11 of the 18 dams be maintained and preserved.

The dams were built by the late Fred Leighton and volunteer crews between 1920 and 1951 to maintain stream flow and viable trout populations in streams running from a number of lakes in the Emigrant Wilderness.

Quinn's decision was challenged by Wilderness Watch and several more environmental organizations, which contended that man-made structures have no business in a wild area protected by law from the incursions of man.

It might sound cut and dried, but it's not: The labyrinthine path toward a decision involved all three branches of government and ranged from the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors' chambers in Sonora to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to a federal courtroom in Fresno.

The controversy spanned more than a generation of Forest Service officials, politicians and lawmakers. It has roped in such diverse players as Mark Stoltenberg, a Twain Harte horseshoer who wrote a play about the dams, to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who reportedly blocked a vote on a bill which would have saved them. It has amounted to journalistic welfare, providing grist for hundreds of stories in this paper and others.

Forest Supervisor Quinn, whose overturned decision may have most accurately reflected local views on the issue, does not condemn the nearly interminable process that led to a decision. In fact he said it was a good illustration of he how checks and balances built into the branches of government work.

But should deciding the fate of a handful of dams in the California mountains feature a cast, budget and scope of an epic Cecil B. DeMille film? Almost certainly not.

In retrospect, language grandfathering in the historic dams should have probably been added to the 1974 legislation adding the 112,376-acre Emigrant to the nation's wilderness system. But it wasn't and they became our can of worms.

Looking back at the long-running controversy, we do not advocate limiting access to the courts or curbing a lawmaker's right to introduce bills, such as Rep. John Doolittle's ill-fated legislative attempt to save all 18 dams. But we would urge the Forest Service leadership to both streamline the decision-making process and assure that local voices, often muffled in the bureaucratic thicket, are heard.

Meanwhile, on the plus side, Judge Ishii didn't order the check dams dismantled. And, since Leighton and his crews did a pretty good job building them, their benefits and beauty will likely be enjoyed for years to come.

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Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller, City Editor Craig Cassidy and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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