The Man in the White Hat Who Saved the Sierra


Watching all those political photo ops out of Lake Tahoe in recent days, I was reminded of the greatest photo oper of them all--the true savior of the Sierra, that right-winger Ronald Reagan.

Yes, savior of the Sierra--and other environmental treasures--but more about that later.

Right now, the senses are saturated with TV film of beautiful backdrops partially eclipsed by politicians, all looking a bit out of place: Gov. Pete Wilson on a mountaintop. Vice President Al Gore at a trail head. President Clinton in a research boat.

Nothing like Reagan on a horse, leading a pack train into the wilderness. Forward, ho.

I still have this image of Reagan waving a white hat, on a tall horse, suddenly trotting through a pack station--then bounding over boulders into the High Sierra as staffers and reporters struggled to mount and hang on to some strange beast.


That was 25 years ago this summer. Gov. Reagan was off to protect the Minaret Summit south of Yosemite--and the spectacular John Muir Trail--from highway builders. In fact, Caltrans surveyors were there when Reagan arrived. The feds were about to put contracts out to bid.

A high-speed, trans-Sierra highway between the John Muir and Minarets wilderness areas long had been the dream of Central Valley interests.

But Reagan had the wisdom to appoint a former Sierra packer, Ike Livermore, as his resources secretary. Livermore’s mission in life was to protect the environment and he had great influence on the governor, an outdoors lover himself.


Reagan galloped out of Red’s Meadow near Devil’s Postpile, 100 packhorses in tow. We overnighted in small tents at a High Sierra lake. The next morning, the governor rode to a meadow beneath the Minaret Summit, dismounted and announced that he had persuaded the Nixon administration not to build the highway’s planned initial leg.

But to bury the road idea forever, Reagan proposed joining the two wilderness areas. Congress later agreed. And today, the John Muir Trail remains unbroken for 250 miles between Yosemite and south of Mt. Whitney.

That day, Reagan waxed on about “this spectacular setting” and how a mini-freeway “would do irreparable harm to the wilderness beauty and wildlife . . . the wolverine, deer, bear, mountain lion. . . .”


Doesn’t much sound like the guy who made his environmental reputation by asserting, “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all”--and by later aligning himself with the “Sagebrush Rebel,” James G. Watt.

But as John Sullivan, an avid East Sierra fisherman and business lobbyist, noted in an article five years ago for the Mammoth Lakes Review Herald: “This episode will not lead historians to rediscover Ronald Reagan as an environmentalist. But it does remind us that neither heroes nor villains ever quite live up to their billing.”


There were many such episodes, however, including one 30 years ago at a Tahoe ski resort.

Two freshman Republican governors--Reagan and Paul Laxalt of Nevada--met for the first Tahoe Summit and, in truth, wound up saving the lake. They cast aside their antagonism toward centralized, coercive government and agreed on a bi-state compact to control Tahoe’s growth. Then they pushed it through reluctant legislatures.

What environmental protections now exist at Tahoe--and they’re among the nation’s toughest--were initiated by Reagan and Laxalt.

“The environmentalists were giving us all these reports that on our watch, any day, Tahoe could turn gray,” Laxalt recalled last week. “That got our attention.

“Rather grimly, we came to the conclusion that a super government agency was the only solution--which was ironical because that went against the grain of everything we stood for.”


Laxalt, now a Washington lawyer, said neither he nor Reagan ever had any regrets: “There would have been serious pollution at Tahoe and none of us could have lived with that.”

Reagan also twice thwarted the dam builders--on the Eel River and on California’s last wild river, the Middle Fork of the Feather. The huge Eel River dam--Dos Rios--would have flooded Round Valley, sacred to Indians.

Livermore brought in an old Indian to lobby Reagan. If the valley were flooded, the man pleaded, no longer could he worship his buried ancestors. “Well, you’ve got to be able to worship your ancestors,” Reagan agreed. And he pulled the plug on the dam.

Reagan never will be confused with Teddy Roosevelt. But he’s a long way from James Watt. In fact, it would be hard to name a California governor who has been better for the environment.