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Political Debut of a One-Man Show

Times Staff Writer

After nearly a century, John Muir is back. He has trimmed his beard and doesn’t spar with the president. But he is still angry about the Hetch Hetchy dam and would like to see wilderness protection for more of the Sierra countryside near his beloved Yosemite National Park.

And though the original Muir was content to harangue the politicians, his double has joined their ranks.

On Tuesday, 62-year-old Lee Stetson, who has impersonated the Scottish-born national park advocate and Sierra Club founder for 20 years in theaters around the world, took the public stage as a newly elected member of the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors.

Friends say that Stetson has played the role of John Muir so long that he has become a virtual clone of the famed naturalist, from lean, wiry frame to wild bushy beard.

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The question of many here in this politically conservative Yosemite gateway is, who are they getting, Stetson or Muir?

There is some concern that Stetson’s make-believe stage persona will lap over into his political role. “He’s really an unknown,” said Ruth Sellers, a Republican party activist who doggedly follows local issues. “I think most people voted for him as John Muir, not Stetson.”

Actor Hal Holbrook, some here say, played a great Mark Twain, but that doesn’t mean you want him to pilot your riverboat.

Others welcome the idea of a legendary figure brought back to life to serve at this basic level of American democracy. Are clones of Jefferson, Lincoln, Emerson and Thoreau also available?

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“He’s John Muir to me, and that’s just fine,” said “Cousin Jack” Franklin, 73, a former professional minstrel who owns a music store on Mariposa’s rustic Main Street. “He’s a great performer and will bring more art to the community.”

All this makes Stetson, a Maine native and former Peace Corps volunteer with a graduate degree in American studies from the University of Hawaii, a little nervous.

Stetson acknowledges that he and Muir, who died in 1914, have few political differences. Like Muir, he often wanders off on solitary treks for weeks at a time in the local woods.

Over the years, he has developed seven hours of performance material on Muir, mostly using Muir’s own words. There are some glorious moments on stage, he admits, when he completely loses himself in the character, down to the thick Scottish brogue.

But he describes his years in the theater as a pleasant “detour” from political ambitions that started in the John F. Kennedy era. His success on stage, he said, only delayed his political calling.

“I like many things about the political process at this level,” said the soft-spoken Stetson. “It’s where the rubber hits the road. It’s where things really get done.”

Stetson said the $34,500 supervisor salary is a significant pay cut from what he earned as an actor. He said he will limit his acting engagements while in office.

His passion for local politics, said Stetson, marks him as different from Muir, who “found politics distasteful, to say the least.” The closest Muir came to direct political engagement was camping for three days in Yosemite with President Theodore Roosevelt, at the end of which Roosevelt emerged with an expanded agenda for national parks.

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Later, Muir rebuked Roosevelt for his failure to oppose the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Stetson, who lives on the wooded fringe of Yosemite in Midpines, said he made the decision to run last fall after the former supervisor from his district, which includes the Yosemite Valley and much of the national park, decided to step down.

To calm potential voters, particularly after Sept. 11, Stetson said he trimmed five inches off his beard for the campaign to “take out that wild-eyed terrorist look.”

In debates with his opponent, he found himself reassuring citizens that he had no desire to level homes, close businesses and return the Sierra foothills to a primeval forest.

“I’m in favor of thoughtful growth,” he said.

But true to his Muir character, he favors Sen. Barbara Boxer’s proposal to turn the south fork of the Merced River into a wilderness area, a plan opposed by many in his district. The previous Board of Supervisors, fearing that the Boxer plan would close the forest to off-road vehicles and logging, passed a motion against it by a 4-1 margin.

And he continues to wage the one big fight that Muir lost, the campaign against the Hetch Hetchy Valley dam, which was completed in 1923 to supply San Francisco with water. Muir felt the Hetch Hetchy was even more beautiful than Yosemite Valley. Stetson, a life member of the Sierra Club, wants San Francisco to find another water source.

At his first Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Stetson remained mostly silent as county officials presented the board with dreary projections for funding in the current California budget crisis.

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When the board considered an item waiving the $35 facilities fee so the Mariposa Arts Council could use the county meeting room, Stetson was enthusiastic. But he noted, with perhaps a little Muir-like irony, that the proposal for the minuscule exemption required 11 pages of application forms.

For the moment, at least, his fellow Mariposa supervisors are giving Stetson a warm welcome.

“I’ve talked to him a few times and he seems to have common sense,” said Supervisor Doug Balmain, 63, a former logger and 10-year board veteran who is often on the side of development interests in the county.

As is the case in many Sierra foothill communities, the dominant issues here are the constant collisions between growth and nature.

Mariposa County has doubled in population to 17,300 in the past 20 years. The development of the new UC campus in Merced, 25 minutes away by car, has spurred land speculation.

Balmain and other board members encourage more housing developments in the northern Don Pedro portion of the county, where Boise-Cascade carved out 2,200 development lots decades ago.

If Stetson veers too far to the Muir side of his personality, he could find a rough reception.

“Let’s put it this way,” said Balmain. “I’m not a fan of John Muir. I don’t think he was real good for the Sierras. I don’t think his Sierra Club has been good for the Sierras. They took a good thing and made it an extreme.”


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