Indians, Cowboys, and the Environmental Cavalry:
The Battle of Lake Earl
by Ed Wolfe – Published: 03.13.01
Aside from technological advances, the biggest change in our society today compared to 200 years ago is how involved that mutant servant of ours called Big Government has become involved in our local affairs.
Once upon a time there were still Indians who went about their lives without having to worry about hunters, explorers or United States soldiers interrupting their affairs by shooting at them, massacring them and nearly wiping them off the face of the land. One such group of Indians was the northern California Tolowa tribe.
Tolowa girl. circa 1921
They never thought of it as California though. To them it was home, and they were “the people.” If we were to compare where they lived then with the cities most of us live in today, we would have thought they lived in Eden. The Tolowa lived at the uppermost tip of California, just below where the Oregon state line is today. The land they inhabited was a topographical smorgasbord featuring mountains behind them, ocean in front of them, a lagoon/lake between their village and the ocean separated by a natural sand barrier, pastures, creeks, rivers, etc. Try to imagine a setting like that and at the same time, blot out any thoughts of cars, buildings, telephone poles, or any kind of mechanical noise.
The Tolowa lived off the natural resources provided by the abundant wildlife and wilderness. As does anyone who maintains their existence with natural resources, they knew how to strike a balance between their needs and the respect they held for the plants and animals. They did not hunt or fish for sport. They did not cut trees to make convenient paths through the forests. But neither did they leave everything in its native state out of a reverent worship for the earth and the things that grew, walked and swam on its surface.
The Tolowa Indians could teach a thing or two to today’s “environmentalists” about how to live on and respect “Mother Earth” at the same time. When they needed to make canoes, they cut down trees. When they needed hides, they hunted deer. They fished, hunted birds for food and feathers and killed predators when necessary.
Earl off to the left, Tolowa to the right
In addition to using the natural resources for their sustenance, they also engaged in what we might call land management. The Tolowa lived on the edge of what is now two lakes called Lake Tolowa and Lake Earl. This is a lake sitting right in front of the ocean but separated from it by a sand bar. (Technically, it’s a lagoon, but it’s considered today to be Lake Earl and Lake Tolowa, so that’s how they’ll be referred to here.) Unlike most lakes, Earl and Tolowa don’t have a way to provide natural run-off when the lake water rises continually from heavy rains. Some of the Tolowa Indians lived on land near the twin lakes and had a cemetery close to them so they naturally had a vested interested in the lake water not rising too high. Their solution was to breach the sand bar by hand thus allowing the lake to slowly drain into the ocean. The natural ebb and flow of the tide would gradually fill the breach in again. It was a fairly simple solution to what could have been a huge problem requiring them to relocate completely.
Although they had the option of relocating, it’s doubtful that the elders at the time would have approved of relocating their deceased tribal members buried there. But this solution of slowly draining the lake on occasion worked out well for them. The process was simple and had the added benefit of drawing out some waterfowl for easy hunting. And so, life was good for the Tolowa. And it remained good while elsewhere in the nation indigenous people were fighting for their lives and waging war with U.S. Cavalry, settlers, trappers, traders, etc.
The Tolowa may have been among the last to join the fray, being situated as they were as far as anyone could possibly be in the West without going into the ocean. Apparently though, all good things must come to an end, and they surely did for the Tolowa people.
In 1828 famed explorer Jedediah Smith passed thru northern California on his way up North. According to local Tolowa history, he did what explorers and traders usually do when encountering a new culture – he introduced them to things they’d never known about before. Although our history books describe Smith as man who didn’t drink or smoke and was believed to have very strong Christian morals, the Tolowa say he introduced to their culture via their young women such things as rape and gonorrhea.
After their encounter with Jedediah Smith, things only got worse from then on for the Tolowa. They would never again know the peace and tranquility of their village by the sea. Eventually, many of their tribe were massacred and buried by the lake that bears their name. Later, the descendants of the survivors were mostly relocated by the U.S. Government. Those that agreed to the relocation (tribal dispersement and dilution) were given official status as “federally recognized Native Americans” and the attendant (welfare) benefits of such status. The hold-outs may as well be listed as Irrelevant Endangered Species.
Original article sidebar
“Numerous vigilante type paramilitary troops were established whose principal occupation seems to have been to kill Indians and kidnap their children. Groups such as the Humbolt Home Guard, the Eel River Minutemen and the Placer Blades among others terrorized local Indians…
The handiwork of these well-armed death squads combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by individual miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians in the first two years of the gold rush. A staggering loss of two thirds of the population. Nothing in American Indian history is even remotely comparable to this massive orgy of theft and mass murder.” — Professor Edward D. Castillo, “Short Overview Of California Indian History”
After the Indian massacres and the Gold Rush hysteria ended, life went on as usual. People settled in the area near the lake which became Crescent City in the county of Del Norte. The area was rich with old growth redwoods and a mill established in 1853 cranked out redwood lumber for the next 100 years. In addition to the timber industry, fishing and agriculture were mainstays of the area.
To people not familiar with the California and Oregon coasts it appears odd at first to see cattle and sheep roaming pastures with the Pacific Ocean in the background, often times less than 1/2 a mile away. The people that set up ranches on the fertile ground near Lake Earl quickly learned the customs of those who lived and worked the lake area before them. They had to keep an eye on the lake to keep it from rising higher than four feet above the Mean Sea Level (MSL).
For generations, this was never a problem. Eventually the county took over the task and it would appear that everyone was happy. The ranchers in the area like Helen and Brian Fergeson who kept dairy cows on land adjacent to the lake never anticipated that there would be a problem. The lake only flooded after heavy, prolonged rains and the county was good about breaching the sand bar when the water surpassed four feet MSL. An investor named Andrew P. Tell certainly didn’t anticipate a problem with the lake(s) when he sub-divided and sold 1500 lots, many on the lake’s perimeter. The California Real Estate Department had no reason not to allow Tell to sub-divide the land north of the lakes into 1500 lots. The buyers, mostly southern California retirees had no reason to believe there’d be any problem with the lots they rapidly bought from Tell with the intention of building their coastal getaways and retirement homes.
In the mid to late sixties Viet Nam was starting to become a serious issue. The Beatles had invaded America, and flower-power was making its debut in larger metropolitan areas. But small town life in Del Norte County was much the same as it had always been. Timber was harvested, salmon were fished and dairy cattle were milked for cheese. Crescent City, the heart of Del Norte County had recently lived thru a tsunami that destroyed the downtown area and killed nine people, but the area was being rebuilt and people were getting on with their lives and businesses. But then a new force seemed to suddenly appear on the American landscape at the tail end of the sixties and early seventies. Since then it’s become a problem for landowners across the country. The man who takes credit for starting it all lived in Crescent City near Lake Earl from August of 1997 to February of the following year – accommodations provided by Pelican Bay State Prison.
Father of the Enviro-wackos?
Although the genesis of the American environmental movement has probably not been traced to a single person, there is one man who can be described as one of the very first environmental wackos, though he became notorious for reasons completely outside the scope of land and animals. I consider Charles Mills Manson to be the founder of all the flakes following in his footsteps – whether they realize it or not. Although Manson specialized in brainwashing teenaged runaway girls into seeing him as some sort of messiah, you wouldn’t see a recognizable difference if he had spent his time teaching environmentalism to a modern class of earth worshippers.
Along with teaching his followers that the Beatles were sending him secret messages that could only be heard when you played their songs backwards and that these messages were instructing him to provoke a white/black race war, he also taught them the sanctity of the “Air, Trees, Water, Animals” which he called ATWA and that they needed to be “ATWAR” with pollution and environmental degradation. “Charlie” takes credit for starting or planting the seeds of today’s most extreme environmental groups such as “Earth First!” and the Animal Liberation Front. There is no discernible difference between Manson’s sentiments on nature and the way today’s environmental extremists feel about nature – giving any living thing, including flies and snails supreme importance and sanctity over human life and welfare.
Few enviro-wackos would argue with this quote from Charlie:
“…God’s coming is not for the glory of people but the kingdom of life and that’s bugs, birds, bees, wildlife, trees, fish.” – Charles Manson
Left-wing extremists in general probably agree with this one:
“All must have a one world government, money, army, all in order to bring order in fast…” – Charles Manson
With the most extreme of the environmentalists now engaging in bombings, arson and sabotage of timber woods, none of them would appear to be at odds with Manson’s directive to the U.S. population about getting in tune with the environment: “Do or die.” Manson was ready, willing and able to kill in order to bring about what he believed was some sort of solution. His environmental heirs don’t seem to be too far behind him. This extremist cavalry that has ridden in to the town of America to save every creature that walks the face of the earth (people not included) have done what other liberals and wackos seem to have also done nationwide – they’ve insinuated themselves into our civil service. As their radical counterparts cause mayhem for the timber, fur and fishing industries, the more low-key among them are on government payrolls, turning their ideology into policy.
Evening at Lake Earl near the Fergeson’s
In 1972, the Federal Coastal Zone Management Act became law. California quickly adopted a state version of the Act to implement the federal act. The effect this act has had on the people living around Lakes Earl and Tolowa is being felt to this day. One of the first ramifications was a regulation imposed on the Pacific Shores 1500 lot sub-division that basically said that anyone who actually intended to follow through with building a house on the ocean or lakefront property they had just bought could not include any type of septic system. It’s almost impossible to understand and keep track of all of the city, county, state and federal agencies that have been involved in the war over Lakes Earl and Tolowa so I won’t even try to cite each of them and their specific regulatory restraints that have made life hell for some citizens in the area. The first that seems to have jumped into the act though was the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. In addition to disallowing septic systems to be put in on any of the lakefront lots, they also required that there be “zero drainage” of any “pollutant” into the lakes. If you watered your lawn and runoff made it to the lake, that would be considered a pollutant.
This effectively stopped anyone from building on their recently acquired property and moving in. The purpose appears to have been to preserve the lagoon and the “wildlife habitat” in and around it. (It could just be a coincidence that the State of California wanted to make a wildlife park on the land that the subdivision sits on.) As part of California’s self-imposed responsibility for implementing the federal coastal management act, the Fish & Game Department conducted a study of Lake Earl and published their recommendations. Nevermind that it had done just fine by itself and with the occasional help of locals, (starting with the Tolowa Indians over a century before.) The official environment cavalry had to have its say in the matter, and to the surprise and relief of many, it said that the lake should be left the way it was, including maintaining the water level at 4 feet. This was good news for the ranchers because it meant the state was not going to force them to be flooded off their land. It was also good for the Pacific Shores lot owners, the Tolowa Indians, and the wildlife that lived in the area or stopped in along the “flyway.”
For some reason, everything changed in 1986. Despite the Fish & Game study that was authored by four Wildlife Managers and Biologists, a Fisheries Biologist, a Marine Biologist and a Coastal Wetland Program Coordinator, the Fish & Game Dept. decided that the lake could no longer be breached until it had surpassed the eight foot water level. This decision seems to have been made with the thinking that “Mother Nature should be left alone for the good of all wildlife concerned.” But it is in complete contradiction to the Department’s own study of the lake and the observable effects that flooding has on the wildlife that depend on the lake being at a lower level. Don’t expect to find reason or sanity though when dealing with environmentalists.
With the new, higher water levels, mandatory flooding became the norm. The effects have been disastrous for the ranchers, the lot owners, the Tolowa Indians and the endangered species that are alleged to benefit from the higher lake level.
Flooded Pacific Shores “homeowner lot”
Ranchers with land that extends to the lake now have to deal with flooded pastures. This requires the expensive relocation of their herds. The subdivided lots become what the owners would call a swamp, but the green-freaks call a “wetland,” which although it doesn’t exist without the flooding, must now be allowed to remain as though it were vital to the wildlife and waterfowl. However, the flooding wipes out the habitat of the endangered Silver Spot Butterfly forcing it to land and frolic elsewhere. It also wipes out the greenery that the Aleutian Geese, (recently taken off the Endangered list) normally eat, forcing them to go further inland for food and nesting areas. This results in adding insult to injury for the ranchers since the land of theirs which isn’t flooded gets raided by geese. The geese have the run of the land since they’re still a protected species, which means the cows have to be moved if they haven’t already been moved due to the flooded pastures. The endangered Coho Salmon that used to take advantage of the lake breaching to gain entry to the lakes and streams no longer have a way in and are forced to go elsewhere. And lastly, the Tolowa Indians who’ve been all but wiped out in the area now have the further indignity of having the burial grounds of their massacred ancestors flooded.
None of this makes sense when the whole point is supposed to be the protection of these species and the habitat they depend on. And it makes the least sense of all to the landowners who have reasonable expectations of rights to their land. One logical proposition to solve this dilemma of high water or low water for the lake would be for the state to purchase all the land around it and then flood it to their heart’s content. This presupposes that the state would be willing to spend a sufficient amount of money to not only buy all 1500 lots in the Pacific Shores, but to also sway those ranchers that don’t want to move and have lived in the area for generations with no desire to leave. The state is not willing.
Bill Erickson looks down at the ocean from his
Former County Supervisor Bill Erickson has endured a unique problem as a direct result of the forced flooding. His property is on the ocean front, adjacent to the subdivision lots, but it is not subject to the flooding despite its proximity to the subdivision. However, the county roads that were put in to serve the subdivision do get flooded and they provide the only access to Erickson’s land aside from coming at it from the other side in a boat.
Bill says, “You can’t develop, sell or even use land you can’t get to, so my property was effectively taken from me years ago when an out of control State Agency considered itself above all laws [including] the State and Federal Constitutions.” As far as he’s concerned, the forced flooding is a crime. If his land is going to be rendered unusable, then he should be compensated for it. If the state doesn’t want to buy it, then they need to recognize and respect it as being private property.
Others like Helen and Brian Fergeson don’t want to move. They’ve lived on their lakeside land for generations and don’t see why the lake can’t continue to be breached as it has been for over a hundred years, and as the Fish & Game Department’s 1975 study said it should continue to be in order to keep the lake at four feet above MSL. Helen and Brian have been battling this issue for a while and at times, the battle has gotten fairly ugly, especially on the government’s side. At one time when the lake was flooding in the 80’s due to the required eight foot above MSL that the Fish & Game Department insisted on, a Fergeson cow pasture was being destroyed, as was the subdivision properties. Someone called the President of the Pacific Shores Property Owners Association and he flew up and had someone go out and breach the lake. It was a defiant act of preservation. The Fish & Game department only saw the defiance in it and charged him with violating federal laws. What’s worse is that Helen Fergeson was charged with conspiring against the government since telephone records revealed that the president of the association was called from her phone. Helen gives the impression of a woman who has never walked away from a battle and the 14 counts against her didn’t change that. She fought the state, and just when the state was about to lose in court, all of the charges were dropped.
Subdivision lot owner/resident
Of the 1500 lots on Pacific Shores, the majority of them have become ruined, sandy pastures. The lake water when allowed to flood, turns the normal green grass into swamp grass and kills the trees. When the area is covered with water, it’s useless to the Silver Spot Butterfly and the Aleutian Geese. When the water is finally allowed to drain out into the ocean, the dried out land looks more like a coastal wasteland than a “wildlife preserve” or a place anyone would now want to live on. There are a few people who have decided to take up residence on the lots they purchased so many years ago with the dreams they entertained of a new house near the lake and the ocean. Getting there is sometimes impossible though when the roads are flooded. They have almost none of the services they expected to have long before entering the 21st century, like street lights, garbage service, cable TV, etc. The state doesn’t want anyone living there and has made it too difficult for most people to go to the extreme measures it takes to do so.
Although a few people are determined to exercise their rights by living on the land they own, most of them want the issue resolved one way or another, once and for all. As Bill Erickson puts it, “The state can’t have it both ways.” The land around the lakes is either going to remain private property without being subjected to forced flooding, or the state needs to buy it and do whatever it pleases with it. “Anyone should know that farm and residential land — and flooded wildlife habitat — cannot possibly exist together in the same space. Those two uses are absolutely incompatible in the same area,” he said.
Far from being near a conclusion, a new chapter in this battle has just begun. On March 8th, the Fish & Game Department held a public comments meeting in Crescent City to gather opinions from concerned citizens regarding the state’s intention to come up with an official plan for managing the Lake Earl Wildlife Area. It’s not clear to anyone why the state can’t use the study results it published in 1975 that recommended in part, that “No project be permitted which would alter the water level or characteristics of Lake Earl in a manner adversely affecting fish and wildlife. Any significant change in these conditions would result in damage to the existing natural resources. The periodic breaching of the barrier dune to reduce floodwater level is an acceptable practice as long as water levels are not dropped below those presently existing,” which was at the four foot level and had been for over a hundred years.
Fish & Game public comments meeting
The meeting that was conducted to solicit public comments filled the courtroom it was held in. Approximately 125 people attended, filling every seat and taking up wall space and standing in the doorway at the back of the room. People were given a few minutes each to express their opinion of what should be done about the lake water level and what things they wanted the F&G to consider when drawing up their new plan. The majority of the speakers were logical and sometimes angry landowners who have been denied their rights for many years and often at great personal expense because of the flooding. Their arguments would go without saying in a sane world. They own their land, and they are entitled to live on it without the state flooding it. What more needs to be said? One angry land-owner concluded his comments with a simple solution that was met with cheers and applause, “If you flood it, you buy it!”
Several greenies were also in attendance and made pleas that rested less upon logic, rights, reason or even science than they did on emotion and imbalanced sentimentality. In fact, being that no real valid argument exists in favor of flooding private land and the endangered species’ habitat, they were forced to ramble on about un-related issues and rely on un-supported claims that had no bearing on the matter. One of them claimed that “…left to local control, every Redwood would be cut down today.” Not only did the meeting have nothing to do with Redwood forests, but cutting down every Redwood in the area in one day would be physically impossible. Such is the typical method of the greenies when “arguing” for their cause.
Another one suggested something that I found to be ironic and disturbing. This spacey ambassador for the environment insisted that the lake only be allowed to breach naturally and at worst, only be allowed to be breached manually after exceeding a 10 foot water level. This would mean that the county could only come in and do emergency breaching after the lake surpasses by two additional feet, the eight foot level that it currently waits for before doing emergency breaching. Not only is this far too late for the ranchers and property owners surrounding the lake, but there’s another problem that results from emergency breaching that one would expect the Mother Earth worshippers to have some serious concern about for several reasons that are visibly obvious and disturbing.
When the lake fills up to eight feet and beyond, and the county comes in to breach it, a tremendous volume of water suddenly escapes through the opening in the sand bar and flows rapidly out into the ocean. This causes coots (shorebirds that float on the water) to be sucked under water and drown as they are not able to take flight quickly enough since they require time to get a running start. After an emergency breaching of the lake, thousands of dead coots litter the shores. You’d think this would be enough to show the wackos how well their solution protects the wildlife they love so much. But even more disturbing (to some anyway) is that this rapid water drainage also pulls away dirt and sand with it. Remember, this isn’t just lake-bottom sand, but dirt that had previously been dry land as well, such as that in the Tolowa Burial Grounds. After being flooded over, the dirt pulled away from the graves by the escaping water leaves the bones of massacred Tolowa Indians exposed. This is an additional insult and injury long after they thought they were finally resting in peace, put in those graves by people who had just as much disregard for their well-being then as the environmentalists do now.