The Sierra Nevada has been swept by economic and social changes just as disturbing as the environmental changes, and just as difficult to recover from. Starting with the Original People, who were overrun by gold miners who arrived by the tens of thousands in the 1850’s, the population of the Sierra Nevada has changed dramatically over the last 150 years. As mechanization of the forest harvest increased and the price of gold fell, the number of people making their living in the mines and forests declined dramatically, creating “ghost towns” throughout the region. The economy of the larger Sierra Nevada was nearly flat in the 1960s, but has been somewhat revived through the growing tourism that now serves as a primary economic driver in the region. A wave of retirees leaving the urban areas of California to live out their “golden years” in the “Gold Country” coupled with an influx of people who can afford to have a second home in the region, means the economy faces both high housing costs and low wages.
Only recently has the threat to the region’s natural resources, and the cruel history of its colonization, become visible to the state at large. The task of re-building vibrant, resilient communities in the face of decades of economic and social upheaval has just begun. The expansive and sparsely populated Sierra Nevada has started to incubate organizations with the capacity to implement and sustain projects to restore the region. Traditional tribal leaders ave begun to come forward, seeking partnership and support as they attempt to rebuild their culture and repair the environmental damage that has changed the very substance of their communities.
The ability to protect and restore water quality, as well as to protect families from exposure to mercury in fish or other heavy metals in dust, is strengthened by access to accurate information on what happened during the Gold Rush, and how these impacts affect public health today. Getting this message out to the rest of the state – especially the decision makers that have the capacity to help solve these problems – is crucial to generating the resources needed for the communities to implement solutions.
TSF’s vision for improving community resiliency focuses on environmental justice; making sure all people who live and work in the Sierra Nevada have the tools they need to protect themselves and their families from exposure to legacy mining toxics and to participate in decisions about their future access to clean water, air, soil and food. Vital to the tenets of environmental justice is the crucial leadership role that must be played by the people who live near environmentally devastated and toxic landscapes, especially those who are economically disadvantaged and/or under-represented.
It is critically important to highlight these challenges and utilize opportunities to make them visible at both the state and national levels, in order to attract new investment to the region for these nascent organizations and activities. Truly collaborative activities take substantial time and investment but are ultimately both effective and sustainable and thus can attract more funding to the region.