In the 19th century, The Sierra Nevada was swept by economic and social changes just as disturbing as the environmental changes, and just as difficult to recover from. It is not possible to address social, environmental, and political issues in this state without recognizing the pivotal role that gold mining played in shaping the current health of headwater ecosystems and communities.
Before the Gold Rush, California had been inhabited by many thousands of people – hundreds of individual indigenous nations– that had been actively managing the landscape for millennia. The Indigenous First Nations of the region were savagely removed from the landscape in the hunt for gold, thus ending an era of intricate and effective sustainable resource management.
Current residents of the headwaters contend with the constant threat of wildfire and unsafe air quality, exposure to dust contaminated with arsenic, asbestos, and lead, often while on public lands, and the risk of consuming fish high in neurotoxic mercury. As a direct result of 19th century extractive activities, the environment of the headwaters is strewn with hazards that pose a threat to residents and visitors via multiple exposure pathways. To those from outside the area, and even to locals, the dangerous implications of recreating in the Sierra are imperceptible. Unlike the gray smog of urban pollution, Gold Country hazards are hidden on forested trails and in “pristine lakes.” Contamination in dust can only be detected through sampling, and the mercury that makes fish toxic cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. Harmful particles in smoke from wildfire can be smaller than a strand of hair. The invisibility of these exposure pathways has perpetuated a lack of comprehensive information about the severity of the associated health impacts, to the detriment of rural communities unwittingly exposed to legacy toxics.
The Sierra Fund’s Vision for Supporting Environmentally Healthy, Resilient Communities
The task of restoring land stewardship to the people who live here and re-building vibrant, resilient communities in the face of decades of economic and social upheaval has just begun. Traditional tribal leaders have begun to come forward and speak up about the extensive Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) they hold, 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.
Building communities that have the ability to protect and restore water quality, as well as to protect families from exposure to mercury in fish, heavy metals in dust, or poor air quality is strengthened by access to accurate information about what happened during the Gold Rush, and how these impacts affect public health today. Through on-the-ground pilot projects, data collection, and tireless inquiry TSF has changed the framework of understanding about environmental health in the Sierra.