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Environmental huddle riles Modoc County localsKevin Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle June 3, 2008
Pasted into that mountainous northeastern corner of forestland and high desert where California rubs both Nevada and Oregon, Modoc County is a proudly rugged backwater that defines what's left of the frontier way.
Locals describe it as: "Where the pavement ends, and the West begins." Not much room for hippies, beatniks and environmental city slickers here.
But that's just who the cowboys and small-town folks say will be invading come Thursday.
They're not happy about it.
A four-day "Common Ground" symposium begins that day in Modoc County's bucolic Surprise Valley, and it will present a panel of prestigious writers and scientists to discuss how to more wisely use the area's natural resources. To most ecologically minded city folks, the speakers that include Pulitzer Prize-winning Beat-era poet Gary Snyder and maverick Berkeley book publisher Malcolm Margolin would be positively exciting - as would the sessions such as "Honoring the Land and the People On It," and "Western Water Crisis."
Not to the muddy-booted, Stetson-wearing crowd, they're not.
"The days of lighting a longhair's hair on fire have passed, but I'm not sure we need outsiders coming here and telling us how to change things," said Ray Page, president of the Modoc County Cattlemen's Association. "We're kind of a close-knit community out here.
"We have our own ways."
He said he doesn't mind anyone having a talk-fest in Modoc, where the decline of the cattle and timber industry has made it a "tough place to make a living." But if it's going to be relevant, he said, it should spotlight locals, who know land preservation, cattle grazing and water use better than anyone.
What's going on instead this week, Page wrote in a widely circulated letter to the county Board of Supervisors, is a gathering of "out-of-town folks, zealous environmental types who will pay big bucks to come and listen to ideas from other out-of-town, disingenuous, environmentally oriented experts."
The supervisors responded by refusing to support the symposium - so adamantly that one, Patricia Cantrall, likened the city-versus-country ideological fight to the Battle of the Alamo.
Newspaperman Ray March, organizer of the symposium, says lecturing country folks on how to change their ways is the furthest thing from his mind.
He moved to Modoc from Big Sur five years ago to start the monthly Modoc Independent News. Shortly after hitting town, he founded the Modoc Forum in an effort to pitch in for the place he now calls home. The forum holds seminars to discuss writing and Western life issues - and this "Common Ground" symposium is the latest and biggest, with about 300 attendees expected.
"We're not saying the way they do things here is wrong, we're just attempting to discuss ideas that might work for people in the future," said March, who wrote golf books before lighting out for the far-north-state country. "It's a dialogue we're after."
A lot of the spat, he reckons, is an outgrowth of the increasing clash of local country folk in the Sierra and city folk lured to the sticks by the serenity and cheaper real estate. He's enlisted moral backing from several area leaders, including the federal Bureau of Land Management, but the down-home crowd has been unswayed.
"The best way to kill a small town is to shut off its air supply from outside ideas," March said. "We're just trying to help."
He does acknowledge that the images of Snyder and Margolin, prestigious as they and the other speakers are, might be a barrier for selling the symposium.
For instance, Snyder first carved his notch in history as one of the core San Francisco Beat writers of the 1950s. He not only lived with Jack Kerouac, but inspired the Japhy Ryder character in Kerouac's novel "The Dharma Bums." Many of his poems are ecological odes, and on the symposium program, he writes, "Find your place on the planet."
And then there is Margolin, a self-described "aging hippie." A frizzy, gray beard spills to his chest, and he got his start by writing 1974's "The Earth Manual" about nature programs.
Not exactly the profiles of a couple of guys you'd hire to buck hay, which is what a lot of locals will be doing this month, this being hay-bucking season in Modoc. But there's more to these men - and to the rest of the speakers.
UC Davis professor emeritus Snyder is a former logger, lives on a spread of Sierra foothill forestland, and is considered one of the West's leading experts on wildland use. Margolin's books so completely cover the culture and character of the West, from tribal history to frontier development, that retired State Librarian Kevin Starr once described him as "a power larger than life, a savant."
UC Davis professor emeritus Eldridge Moores, another speaker, is one of the top geologists in America. And speaker Darryl Babe Wilson of San Jose is a California Pit River tribal member frequently sought as an expert on Native American culture.
"Someone here googled Gary Snyder, saw he'd been in Berkeley, and assumed he must be a radical," March said. "That's the way a lot of them made up their minds. Wait till they see Malcolm."
The debate over outsiders chewing the grass with locals has filled the coffee shops and saloons for months. Some thought Modoc Forum was audacious for seeking funding - unsuccessfully - from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. Some thought locals should be charged the $429 fee like everyone else. Others thought the forum's letting locals attend panels for free was right neighborly.
Everyone gets a chuckle, even if it is rueful, at the concept of true beatniks and hippies rolling into town. Even if they are ex-beatniks and hippies. And that goes for the beatniks and hippies themselves.
"I don't think they know I'm more like them than they could expect," Snyder said. "They don't like outsiders like me coming in and suggesting things like how they can preserve their land, and I can appreciate that. I figure I will just be having a good discussion."
E-mail Kevin Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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