Advocating for and protecting California’s iconic wild lands
By Leonie Sherman
If the Eastern Sierra is California’s playground, then the non-profit group Friends of the Inyo (FOI) is playground monitor, custodian and the funnest kid to play with all rolled into one office, five full-time staff members and over a dozen seasonal employees. When concerned individuals got together in 1986 to comment on a new management plan for Inyo National Forest, they never imagined the scope and effectiveness of the organization their ragtag band would become. Over three decades later, FOI collaborates with every agency along the 395 corridor to advocate, explore and steward the area’s greatest legacy — its public lands.
“Friends of the Inyo is the only non-profit that works to protect the entire Eastern Sierra region,” says FOI Executive Director Wendy Schneider. “We work all the way from Lone Pine to Bridgeport, from the desert to the summit. We make the phone calls, we fight for the budgets, we advocate for science based management plans, we do policy work. We get out there and solve problems.”
“Our mission has three main branches: preservation, exploration and stewardship,” explains FOI Stewardship Program Director Julia Runcie. “We are directly involved with local and regional political advocacy, we sponsor public outings on public lands, and we coordinate year-round volunteer events to do trail work, pick up trash, remove graffiti, plant and water native plants. All of our activities help restore the area and make sure that recreation on our public lands is sustainable.”
When the group started they were confrontational, pushing back against what many locals saw as poor management of shared resources. But as the group has matured they’ve earned a reputation for listening carefully and working well with a wide range of individuals and groups, from Death Valley National Park to BLM to the Inyo County Supervisors. “Local agencies really look to us when they have tasks they can’t complete in house,” says Runcie.
Thirty years ago, Inyo National Forest hired 10-15 folks every spring to do trail maintenance. These days almost every Inyo Forest Service employee works inside. FOI takes up the slack by fundraising to hire trail stewards. Their seasonal crew removes downed trees, constructs water bars, and clears some of the country’s most popular footpaths, including sections of the John Muir Trail. They also interact with visitors to stoke their enthusiasm for the area and educate about Leave No Trace principles.
Some of their largest volunteer events have been as a part of climbing festivals. Every year the American Alpine Club hosts the Bishop Fall Highball Craggin’ Classic — three days of clinics and partying in the Buttermilk. “This past year, 141 climbers came out to volunteer,” says Runcie. They helped plant bitter brush, picked up several hundred pounds of trash, reduced massive fire rings at camp sites and delineated trails by lining them with rocks. “People were so grateful for the opportunity to do some work and pay back the area for all the good times they’d had there,” Runcie explains with a grin. “A lot of folks followed up to ask about more opportunities for volunteering.” Thanks to FOI, learning how to take care of the land is part of festival goers’ climbing education.
This past February, FOI worked with Death Valley National Park to restore the Racetrack, an ancient lake bed tucked between tall mountains and covered with sinuous tracks made by rocks that get blown over the frozen surface by winter winds. Recently people have been making their own tracks by driving illegally over the playa. One person even landed a plane out there. Those tracks last many decades. The Park Service won an OHV grant to efface those tracks and called on FOI’s experienced and enthusiastic crew to help with the project.
Eight FOI volunteers joined the park service and used rakes and a hand-powered rototiller called a Garden Weasel to pulverize the sediment in the tracks. Then they used concrete floats to level the surface and applied hundreds of gallons of water. “It was amazing to watch these hexagonal shapes and cracks form right before our eyes,” says Runcie. “We had about 20 people working for four hours and managed to efface 500 feet of tracks,” she continues. “There are several miles of those vehicle tracks on the playa, so it’s a monumental task.” Judging by FOI’s past successes, they are up for it.
“We are basically a one stop shop for environmental issues in this area,” explains FOI Operations Manager Michael Cleaver. “The diversity of projects we contribute to reflects the diversity of the land we are working to protect.”
The scope of their work points to the disintegration of federal oversight on our public lands. “If we weren’t doing this work it wouldn’t get done,” says FOI Communications and Outreach Manager Alex Ertaud.
But shifting federal priorities can encourage a resurgence of grassroots involvement and commitment. Schneider explains, “If you enjoy these places, if you climb or ski or hike or fish or ride an OHV here, get involved and help take care of them.”
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) Threatened
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) balances recreation, conservation and renewable energy development on 22.5 million acres in seven counties in southern California. After eight years of negotiations, all the major stakeholders — motorized and non-motorized recreational users, environmentalists and government agencies — agreed to streamline renewable energy development while protecting wild lands for scenic beauty, environmental integrity and recreational use. Then, President Trump issued an Executive Order to increase energy development on public lands, jeopardizing the entire plan.
“The DRECP is a a science based long term management plan,” says Friends of the Inyo (FOI) Executive Director Wendy Schneider. “The Trump administration wants to remove the few environmental protections that exist because there’s a belief they interfere with economic activity, like mining or development of wind farms. Friends of the Inyo fights to keep those protections in place.”
So when the BLM met in Lone Pine to discuss Trump’s directive, FOI packed the room with over 70 people. Every single one of them spoke in favor of preserving the plan the way it stands. The next day, when Inyo County Supervisors met to discuss their response to Trump’s order, they were met with such a large audience they were forced to seat people in the lobby. Again, every person spoke in favor of preserving the DRECP. The Supervisors agreed to draft a letter stating they do not support reconsidering the DRECP.
FOI joins other non-profits across the country who are fighting back against federal directives that would harm their communities. Grassroots support and community engagement empower local and state agencies to resist. “Friends of the Inyo is a small part of a larger legislative process,” says FOI Board Member Michael Prather.
Consensus among mountain bikers, backpackers, OHV riders and deep ecologists is rare. When all those folks agree with the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the US Bureau of Land Management, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the result is an exquisitely crafted document that required hundreds of hours of painful meetings and difficult compromise. President Trump’s Executive Order threatens to make the entire process null and void and would require all stakeholders to start over again.