This land ain’t your land

Much of the Yuba Goldfields are supposed to be public property, but the mining industry is treating the moon-like landscape as personal property. That’s not sitting well with the locals.

Old dredger scoops create an impassable barrier to public lands in the Goldfields.

Old dredger scoops create an impassable barrier to public lands in the Goldfields.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Bill Calvert tugs at the chain and lock that hold in place a thick, steel cable strung across old Hammonton Road. No good. Even if he had his bolt cutters, confiscated months ago by Yuba County Sheriff’s deputies, he probably wouldn’t be able to cut through.

Calvert, who has driven back and forth on this gravel road for years, believes he has every right to be on it. But the steel cable makes the road impassible.

He hears wheels on the road. A moment later, a white pickup rounds the corner in a cloud of dust.

“Here he comes,” Calvert mutters. He climbs back into his own vehicle, also a white pickup, as the other truck draws near and then skids to a stop. Calvert braces himself for the confrontation he knows is coming.

“This is private property,” says Nick St. Clair, jumping from his cab.

“Says you,” Calvert replies.

“I’ve got a deed,” says the man, thrusting his head almost through Calvert’s open window.

“Why don’t you run go get it then?” Calvert says, his face broadening into a ferocious grin.

“Why don’t I call the sheriff?” St. Clair says, thrusting his head closer, his grin growing to equally broad and ferocious proportions.

“That’s a good idea. I’ll follow you and wait.”

For a moment, the two white-haired old men stare at each other silently, the strange, aggressive smiles frozen on their faces. The men obviously have squared off before, and neither looks willing to back down.

“OK,” says St. Clair, who climbs into his truck and heads back toward where he came from.

Bill Calvert has been an agitator for opening the Yuba Goldfields to the public for more than a decade.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“I hope he does call [the sheriff],” Calvert says, now following behind in his pickup. He parks his truck on the outer edge of the once-bustling mining town of Hammonton and watches as St. Clair gets out of his truck and enters a long trailer building.

Hammonton was a company town, and, when the mining company went under in the 1950s, the employees’ homes were sold off for a dollar apiece and hauled away. Many of the houses wound up in the communities of Linda and Olivehurst to the south of Hammonton.

What was left of Hammonton was Mechanics Row, a line of old shop buildings, most of which have all but collapsed. A few years ago, a company named Western Water set up shop there, with a plan to take water out of the Yuba Goldfields and sell it to other cities around the state that needed water for new development. St. Clair is a Western Water employee, and he acts as a sort of caretaker over the company’s property.

Calvert waits about 10 minutes before deciding that St. Clair is bluffing, and then drives on to get his mail, some four miles away. To Calvert’s thinking, the road and much of the land it runs through belong to everybody. He is ready to fight anybody who says otherwise, and he’s not the only one. Dozens of people, including Calvert, have been arrested for trying to fish, hunt or just gaze upon the public lands in this area.

The ghost town of Hammonton is in the heart of the Yuba Goldfields, a strange 10,000-acre valley of gravel mountains, streams and turquoise-colored pools that straddle the Yuba River about 12 miles east of Marysville. One hundred and fifty years of gold mining and also gravel mining have given the Goldfields the unique and completely unnatural landscape that exists today. Everywhere are steep, oddly shaped hills and twisting ravines. At the bottom of many of the ravines are elongated pools filled with turquoise-blue water.

Some have called the Goldfields beautiful, but, if there is beauty here, it is an otherworldly kind. Indeed, the land is often described as a moonscape because of the towering hills of bare rock and sand. But there is color here: the browns, tans and reds of the rock and soil that give the place a feel as much Martian as lunar. It’s a sort of Mars-scape with water—and life. It’s not hard to spot deer. And flocks of wild turkeys, with their bald heads, black bodies and long, bluish necks, scrabble around in the clumps of brush that grow here and there among the rocks. Other species also have managed to hold on in this weird and much degraded habitat: ducks, herons, bald eagles and other smaller bird species; as well as some mammals, such as river otters and even the occasional mountain lion.

Because of the convoluted landscape those years of mining and dredging left behind, it is said that, from the air, the Goldfields resembles a bowl of intestines. But “can of worms” might be the best way to describe the Goldfields’ political and legal landscape.

Much of the land is public land, controlled by federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers. Yet very little of that land is actually accessible to the public. For years, private corporations have claimed almost exclusive rights to much of the Goldfields and have put up fences and blocked roads to keep the public out.

The fight is primarily between a Dallas-based gravel-mining company named Western Aggregates and a group of citizens named the Yuba Goldfields Access Coalition, of which Calvert is a founding member. For more than a decade, the two sides have been at odds about the public’s right to use an old county road that crosses mining-company property but also provides access to the strange and beautiful public land along the Yuba River.

But the road fight is only part of a larger struggle about the Goldfields, as public and private interests square off over the future of this place. For a century and a half, the Goldfields have been the private playground of the mining industry, which has exercised a godlike power to transform this place and extract its treasure. Now other forces—environmentalists, private citizens, sport-fishing and hunting groups and even the federal government—are looking to transform the Goldfields once again, to undo some of the damage that the Gold Rush caused and to reclaim the land for the environment and the public.

Not long after the confrontation between Calvert and St. Clair, Yuba County Sheriff’s Deputy Neal Houston stepped onto the surface of this much fought-over moonscape. It seemed St. Clair had called the Sheriff’s Department after all, and the deputy was there to flag Calvert down on the way to his mailbox.

Houston and Calvert had a brief, polite conversation and agreed that Houston would go ahead and take the complaint from St. Clair and that Calvert could drive on to get his mail. “Swing by as soon as you can,” the deputy said.

On the way back from the mailbox, Calvert pointed out a row of old dredger buckets that form a great, black barrier along one side of the road. Each of the steel buckets, once used to scoop sand and gravel out of the Yuba riverbed, weighs several hundred pounds. Now, the buckets form an iron curtain that blocks passage onto a road. The mining company put the buckets there because people kept cutting through the barbed-wire fence and driving on the disputed road to fish or hike on public lands some miles north.

A vast range of gravel mountains—leftover mining debris—has prompted many people to label the Goldfields a “moonscape.”

Photo by Larry Dalton

Everywhere you turn in the Goldfields, there is a fence, a ditch or an earthen berm, along with signs that proclaim, “No Trespassing.” Much of the land behind these barriers is private. But some of it is owned by the government and yet is still is out of reach to all but the bravest. Every day, it seems there is some small battle between citizens who want access and the private companies that deny it. Someone will snip through a barbed-wire fence and drive through, and the mining company will come behind, mend the fence and use a heavy-duty grader to cut a trench hundreds of yards long beside the fence to discourage vehicles.

When the government puts up signs denoting public land, someone else comes along with a rifle and uses the signs for target practice.

There have been years of court fights about the roads in the Yuba Goldfields, which run through both public and private lands, of course. The fight started in 1987, when Western Aggregates put in two locked gates at the eastern and western edges of the Goldfields and declared the road that connected the entrances to be private. For a while, people like Calvert who lived inside the Goldfields—he owns about 100 acres on their eastern edge—were given keys. But Calvert was never on good terms with the company and became both a vocal critic of the road closures and an agitator for turning a chunk of the public land here into a park. For his troubles, he found himself locked out of the gate one day when he tried to return home. He took the bolt cutters from the back of his truck and snipped the lock—in the presence of a security guard the mining company had posted at the front gate. Calvert was arrested immediately.

But, only three weeks ago, the Yuba County District Attorney dropped the trespassing and vandalism charges against Calvert. The prosecutor didn’t have much of a case because, only two months before, the state appellate court had found that the company had illegally blocked the road. So far, the court has held that an old rural highway exists somewhere in the Goldfields, although that road has moved and, in some parts, has been dredged out of existence. The only problem is that no one really knows where Hammonton Road is.

Western Aggregates largely has blamed the road controversy on a local labor union, Local 3 of the Operating Engineers, which has been battling to unionize the company for several years. Several union members picketing the company have been arrested for trespassing on Hammonton Road, and some union members are involved with the Access Coalition. Western Water officials, meanwhile, have said that Calvert wants to see as many roads opened as possible because that will increase his own property values if he chooses to develop it one day.

Calvert dismissed the notion that he is a “union stooge” or that he is motivated by money. These explanations, he said, overlook the interest that sportsmen’s groups like the California Waterfowl Association and environmental groups like the South County Yuba Citizens’ League have taken in opening up the public lands.

Western Water and Western Aggregates both maintain they have a right to protect their own property. Gravel and water both are enormously valuable commodities in today’s climate of suburban growth. “We are a business, after all,” said David Greenblatt, an attorney for Centex Construction Corporation, Western Aggregate’s parent company. “We just want to protect our investment.” Western Water officials also have reported incidents of vandalism and theft of company equipment since the road was opened to the public.

The mining company appealed the appellate court’s decision to the state supreme court. But, on October 17, the high court declined to take on the case and left it to the lower court to determine just where Hammonton Road lies.

The Sheriff’s deputy whom St. Clair called to report Calvert certainly didn’t know where the road was supposed to be, and it was clear that he didn’t want to get involved in a legal dispute.

Seemingly out of frustration, the deputy blurted out to Calvert, “I don’t know why you want to open this all up anyway. You’re just going to let in all those Olivehurstians. Every scrote and his brother will be up here then.”

The message was clear: If Calvert and his allies win their fight with the mining company, outsiders will come drinking, dumping trash and generally being a nuisance. It’s a risk Calvert is willing to take; better to deal with the hoi polloi than to let the mining company have this place all to itself. People in Marysville tend to spurn Olivehurst because it’s poorer and more dilapidated, Calvert explained. Indeed, he said, law enforcement around these parts likes to refer to Olivehurst as “job security.”

“So, are you going to tell me to stay off the road?” Calvert finally asked.

“Depends,” said Deputy Houston. “Can you wait an hour and twenty minutes?”

The Bureau of Land Management put up these signs a few weeks ago. It didn’t take long for someone to show their appreciation—with a rifle.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“I’ll bite,” Calvert replied. “What happens in an hour and twenty minutes?”

“That’s when I get off.”

Both men laughed. But whether the deputy was telling Calvert to stay off the road and whether Calvert intended to stay off both went unsaid.

In the 19th century, the Yuba River was inundated with millions of tons of debris-rock, gravel and sand, from hydraulic mining upstream in the Sierra Nevadas. Powerful water cannons were used to blast apart entire mountainsides, and the companies sifted through the tons of sludge to extract tiny amounts of gold flake. The debris left over was dumped in the river and, not surprisingly, proved to be an environmental disaster, wiping out natural habitat, raising the level of the riverbed and causing flooding in communities up and down the river. The process covered farm fields with the “slickens,” a soup of mud and gravel, along with some mercury and arsenic from the gold processing upstream.

Nearly half of all the debris from hydraulic mining in the Sierra Nevadas washed down the Yuba, raising the riverbed 100 or more feet in some cases. Much of that debris made it down as far as the San Francisco Bay, by way of the Feather River and then the Sacramento. In fact, the level of the Sacramento River rose so much that the city of Sacramento had to raise the I Street Bridge 20 feet.

In 1893, the California Debris Commission was created to mitigate the damage that hydraulic mining caused, and it began building debris dams on the Yuba. At the Goldfields, the Debris Commission basically dredged gravel out of the river and stacked it up into great mountains on the riverbank to create the tumultuous landscape of gravel mountains that exists today.

The dredgers also created a vast complex of ponds, more than 200 of which dot the Goldfields. The ground here is so porous that water flows in fast-moving streams underneath it, forming a network of underground rivers that flow back and forth from the river to the pools, from pool to pool and ultimately back into the river. In several spots, you can see these streams flow right out of the hillside; they bubble up through the rocks and into the pools below. In many of the pools, the water is a clear blue because it has been scrubbed clean or filtered by the gravel it percolated through.

As the Debris Commission stacked the gravel mountains ever higher, successive generations of mining companies came behind, doing their own dredging and sorting through the tailings for gold residue. Millions of ounces of gold were taken out of the Goldfields in this way, in ever-smaller amounts, with one company coming on the heels of its predecessor and sifting through the debris.

As the gold was finally exhausted, the debris itself proved to be valuable. Aggregate, the mix of sand and gravel that makes up the Goldfields’ landscape today, is used in building foundations and pavement and is quite valuable in this era of booming development. Estimates of the value of the aggregate in the Yuba Goldfields vary widely, up to $15 billion, depending on whom you ask. (Mining-company officials say this is far too high, but they refuse to offer an estimate.) It is the single largest aggregate deposit in the state, if not in all of North America.

Western Aggregates bought much of the Goldfields from a gold-mining company in 1987. When it did, it inherited a century worth of property-rights disputes and dubious land titles.

Ask anyone who has studied the Goldfields’ real estate exactly who owns what, and the first response you’ll get is, “It’s complicated.” It quickly becomes apparent that the mining industry has left a legal legacy behind it that is as convoluted and twisted as the physical landscape.

It is like asking, “What is gravel?” From a distance, gravel is a simple mixture of sand and rock. But, if you look closer, you see that gravel is made up of many kinds of pebbles of varying size, color and texture.

So it is with property ownership in the Yuba Goldfields.

Mark Hennelley, with the California Waterfowl Association, says some of the best public hunting and fishing land in the Goldfields is barred to the public.

Photo by Larry Dalton

On the most basic level, there are two kinds of land here: public and private. The private land is held by some small landowners like Calvert, but the bulk of it is owned by Western Aggregates, which plans to mine all of it for gravel.

That leaves about 3,000 acres, or about one-third of the total land, to the public, and that’s where it gets complicated. The Bureau of Land Management owns about 1,000 acres and has said members of the public are free to use it to their hearts’ content for recreation. The problem is that only half of that land is actually reachable. Citizens can get to this land from the river itself, if they have the means, or they can use the road that the appeals court recently declared was public. The other BLM parcel is completely land-locked because all roads leading to it have been closed off. Remember the wall of dredger scoops? That’s the road. You could visit this land, but you would have to be able to fly. That, or risk being arrested for trespassing.

The rest of the public land is controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. It owns a parcel next-door to the landlocked BLM parcel on the same road, and that parcel likewise was cut off when the road was closed. The Corps controls yet another 1,000 acres or so, which is technically public land but is subject to some control by Western Aggregates because the company actually owns a number of mining rights to this land. This was land the Debris Commission acquired and then passed on to the Corps when the commission’s work ended. When the Debris Commission bought the land from private landowners, many of them held on to certain rights, particularly mining rights, over the property. Those rights were passed from company to company and eventually on to Western Aggregates. But it doesn’t own all of the mineral rights in this area. Indeed, the whole Corps parcel is a mosaic of property rights; private and public ownership alternate throughout.

The titles to these rights are themselves the subjects of endless dispute. In part, that’s because the mining has so shifted and reworked the landscape that it is no longer clear just where property boundaries begin and end. Even the Yuba River itself, which is the chief reference point on many of the land titles here, has changed course because of the constant dredging of the river bed.

Corps officials, for their part, have refused any access and have said that the land is not intended for recreation. The land was intended to retain mining debris. But the Debris Commission’s work ended in 1986, the year before Western Aggregates moved into town. Although a 1996 law allows the Corps to open its land for recreation, the Corps has refused to do it, citing the complicated property-rights issues that would be involved.

The California Waterfowl Association, a sport-hunting group, has written to the Corps asking that it open just that land that the Corps owns outright. The group also believes a compromise could be worked out to allow roads that would connect some of the separate public parcels. “We just want to make sure that the people have some way to get out there and visit their land,” association lobbyist Mark Hennelly said. He added that, unfortunately, the Army Corps land has the greatest number of pools and ponds, and the best habitat for ducks and other waterfowl. But the Corps still has refused access because it says it doesn’t have the resources to patrol or maintain the land.

So, it isn’t really clear that the Corps holds the land for any purpose other than “not recreation.” And, although Western Aggregates owns only some of the rights to the land, it controls all of the access.

It is October, and the fall run of chinook salmon is just coming in on the Yuba. If you were to float through the Goldfields in a canoe or raft, you could see the salmon’s silhouettes gliding by below—dark shapes each three feet long or more. Thousands of chinook are spawning right now, and everywhere you look, you can see the redds, large patches of river bottom where the female salmon have scrubbed the gravel clean with their tails before depositing a thousand or more eggs. The Yuba is one of only two rivers in all of the Central Valley where wild chinook still spawn. The fall run is robust—as many as 13,000 fish—but the spring run has dwindled into the low hundreds and is considered endangered by the federal government.

The lower Yuba is also the only river in the Central Valley to support wild runs of steelhead trout. These smaller, faster fish are easy to spot because they like to ambush the chinook and try to steal the eggs out of their redds.

Both species left the Bay Delta weeks ago and traveled up the Sacramento River to the Feather and finally into the Yuba. It is thought that salmon navigate by smell and can detect the minute differences in river chemistry that distinguish their birthplaces from other streams. Unlike the steelhead, the salmon begin to die as soon as they hit fresh water, and many are covered with white blotches of fungus that are the telltale marks of the salmon’s birth and death ritual. Their dead bodies are beginning to pile up on the banks and in the riverbed already. Beneath the gravel mountains of the Goldfields, which, from the river look a bit like strange, alien pyramids, turkey vultures gather in groups of a dozen or more, hopping among the rocks to dine on fresh salmon carcass.

On the south bank of the Yuba, fly fishermen have gathered also—a sign that word has gotten out that at least part of the Goldfields is open to the public. Mostly, the fishermen are fishing for local rainbow trout. Both the chinook and steelhead are protected—catch and release only. The salmon won’t bite anyway because they stop eating once spawning begins.

“It’s great. We really appreciate having it opened,” says one fisherman from the Nevada City area, but he admits to being somewhat puzzled about just where they have a right to fish and where they don’t.

On either side of the Goldfields are two dams, put in by the Debris Commission a hundred years ago to catch the hydraulic-mining debris. East of the Goldfields is Englebright Dam, more than 200 feet high and an impenetrable barrier to spawning fish. On the Goldfields’ western edge is the Daguerre Point Dam, only 30 feet high. Daguerre Point has fish ladders that were built in the 1930s, but the ladders don’t work well, and half of the salmon merely batter themselves against the dam until they give up and die. Every couple of minutes, you can see a big salmon fling itself 10 feet into the air, only to crash against the concrete dam.

The Goldfields could become part of an ambitious Yuba River parkway and nature preserve.

Photo by Larry Dalton

These dams also are important to the future of the Goldfields. Environmental groups would like to see the dams taken out and salmon runs restored to the upper Yuba completely. But such groups are focusing now on Daguerre Point, which is smaller and less sensitive politically. The dam diverts a good deal of water to local rice farmers, but not nearly as much as the Englebright does. Getting rid of Daguerre Point dam, or at least modifying it to allow more fish through, is part of a larger movement to establish a parkway and nature conservancy on the lower Yuba, much of which would lie right in the heart of the Goldfields.

Local government officials as well as environmental, agricultural and business groups have begun early discussions about the idea of establishing a Yuba River conservancy that would stretch all the way from Marysville to the eastern edge of the Goldfields. There is no shortage of ideas for how a conservancy would be put together. But there seems to be general agreement that it would be a multi-use area, with a chunk of land consolidated and set aside for fishing, hunting and hiking.

There also would be efforts to restore some of the habitat for native wildlife, by removing barriers to spawning salmon and steelhead, restoring local ponds and planting native trees and other vegetation.

Of course, it could take years or more to sort out all of the competing economic interests in the area, from the mining industry to the farmers who have come to rely on water supplies from the Goldfields.

But the conservancy idea is getting a big boost from the BLM and its regional director, Dean Swickart. He was instrumental in the growth of the Cosumnes River Preserve in south Sacramento County, which has grown to some 40,000 acres during the years. He is hopeful that, through some creative land-swapping and negotiation, a parkway and nature preserve could be cobbled together that would encompass as much as 5,000 acres along the river.

But the transformation of the Goldfields would take years, if not decades, because of all the competing interests that want a piece of this bizarre, but promising place.

The first step would be to sort out just who owns what, where the public has a right to access and where restoration work wouldn’t impinge on private property rights. Just two weeks ago, the Corps informally offered to give the land it controls in the Goldfields over to the BLM. Swickart still will have his hands full trying to sort out the confusing mess of land titles and third-party property rights, but it is a start.

And, of course, any serious restoration of the Goldfields would require enormous amounts of money. That money likely would come from the very thing that so transformed this area in the first place—mining.

Whether there is $15 billion or $5 billion worth of gravel there, much of it is on public land, said Swickart, and the government could sell the aggregate off to private companies and make a tidy sum toward building a conservancy. “It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Swickart said. “Instead of being an element of destruction, mining could be the source of restoration.”

Greenblatt, the attorney for Western Aggregates, said his company naturally is interested in unraveling the ownership issues in the Goldfields once and for all and will be watching the conservancy efforts very carefully.

Of course, removing the gravel would transform the landscape back to something closer to its original state. And, once the gravel is hauled away and the legal titles are untangled, it won’t really be the eccentric Goldfields anymore.

Despite Swickart’s enthusiasm for a conservancy, he cautions that only the public can determine the future of the Goldfields and the lower Yuba River. He knows that if the BLM were to take a leading role, it would be seen as big government imposing itself on the locals.

Certainly, the transformation of the Goldfields into something else already has begun, if only because word is getting out, and people are showing up, a few at a time, to look around. Bill Calvert thinks a parkway and conservancy are inevitable, even if they are years away. And he’s doing everything he can to drum up support for the idea.

Surely, there are years of struggle for control over this unusual place to come. But Calvert believes the days of private companies’ dominion over the Goldfields are over. "They are definitely going to have their hands full," he said.