Logging, mining industries led early exploitation of land, resources
“Eden” is an image many historians like to use to describe what California must have been like prior to the modern era.
Archaeologists believe that humans moved into California some 15,000 years ago. They most likely occupied, and used, every square mile of the land in this territory. They learned to use fire to manipulate their surroundings, first to clear vegetation around villages to remove cover that approaching enemies could use. They would use fire to influence vegetative patterns in order to benefit their food gathering and hunting. Today, this practice is called “light burning.”
Enter the Europeans, when the harvesting of timber to erect homes and other buildings began in earnest. With the gold rush in mid-1800, lumber demands accelerated.
This began an era spawning exploitation of natural resources and resulting in a legacy of over-use and abuse.
Placer mining started the diversion of river flow, and hydraulic mining required canals and flumes. All these ventures in the Mother Lode were encouraged by the General Mining Act of 1866, which opened all public lands to mineral exploration. A few years later, Congress passed the General Mining Law of 1872 that allowed free entry into public domain land to extract minerals. It also declared that mineral development would have priority over all uses of the land. The legacy of these two acts continues to plague the Forest Service to this day. The quest for gold caused severe and widespread damage to forests, watersheds, wildlife and grasslands throughout the Sierra.
With the discovery of the Comstock Lode made in 1859, the demand for lumber was so great that large portions of timber stands around Lake Tahoe were completely clear-cut.
The killing of wildlife like, elk and antelope for food greatly depleted the big game herds. They were replaced with the import of cattle and sheep. The fear of the grizzly bear and the mountain lion by miners and stockmen led to the California extinction of the bear and near extermination of the mountain lion.
The cattle and sheep industries boomed as the population grew through the latter part of the century. Herds were moved to the mountains during the dry summer months. Soon, overstocking led to over grazing. In order to get more grassy meadows, the stockmen began a practice of burning to improve forage on public lands. From 1875 to 1890, there were many newspaper accounts of uncontrolled fires each fall because of the practice. Dense clouds of smoke billowing over the Sierra were commonplace.
Between the hydraulic mining and the loss of vegetation from the burning, watershed devastation followed. This resulted in severe flooding of the lowlands and countless tons of silt being washed over orchards and farmlands.
The Timber Acts of 1878 were intended to allow the homesteader to cut lumber on acquired land for home construction and other individual needs. A person would be given public land if he was willing to pay $2.50 an acre for it and “promised” not to accrue more than 160 acres. Although the purpose was to aid small landowners, it instead enriched lumber companies which circumvented the law by having employees file claims with false promises. They in turn deeded the land over to their employers who were able to strip the best timber tracts for immense profit. These practices led to logging intended only for immediate financial gain with no regard for future generations.
With all this decimation, something had to change.