One Woman's Quest to 'Unite the Parks'

Deanna Lynn Wulff looks out over Bare Island Lake in the Sierra National Forest. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Deanna Lynn Wulff shoves rusty tin cans, cigarettes and beer bottles into an oversized garbage bag. She’s cleaning up a campsite in the Sierra National Forest.

“This won’t take that long,” she says. Ten minutes later and she’s still picking up trash.

“Let’s see what the magazine is? Dirt Rider!” she says, and shoves it into the bag.

It’s the same campsite where 20 years ago she pitched her tent for the entire summer.

“It’s looking good,” she says. “Somebody can come here now and feel that it’s pristine and was waiting for them, just as it was waiting for me!”

Deanna Lynn Wulff always brings trash bags to the Sierra National Forest so she can pick up litter.
Deanna Lynn Wulff always brings trash bags to the Sierra National Forest so she can pick up litter. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Wulff was working at a nearby lodge and camped out here after a rental situation turned sour. She confesses that she initially was afraid of the dark. In fact, she kept a cooking pot and a bottle of bleach nearby in case of intruders. But nothing scary happened.

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“Instead, I would wake up every morning to this, which is the sound of the water, birds singing, and the sunlight filtering through the trees,” she says.

“I never felt better in all of my life. To be in a beautiful place all of the time is an amazing experience. I’m from the suburbs of Cupertino. It’s a fine place to be and all that, but it was definitely beyond my expectation that spending time in the forest would make you feel so good.”

She says the experience altered the course of her life dramatically. “If you recognize something that brings you total joy, how can you walk away from that?”

And she hasn’t. She’s spent many summers since in the woods. She’s trekked thousands of miles, and she’s seen a lot of the forest. There are areas of great beauty here, she says, including some huge granite outcroppings and pristine mountain lakes. But she’s also seen things that upset her: trash, poorly maintained trails and the logging of large trees.

So she asked herself, “What can I do to save this place, to make sure it’s here for others?”

Her answer is a sometimes daunting project with plenty of resistance from opponents: to turn the Sierra National Forest -- that vast stretch of land between Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon national parks -- into the 1.4 million-acre Sierra National Monument.

“You connect the parks, and you create this wonderful corridor for people and wildlife,” she says.

Balloon Dome is part of the Sierra National Forest which sits between Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon national parks.

So for the past 2½ years, she’s canvassed legislative offices and area businesses to garner enthusiasm for her mission. She's calling it Unite the Parks.

An act of Congress can establish a monument, but typically what it takes is a presidential proclamation, often following a groundswell of support.

“Ultimately the entire state and the entire country are involved in these kinds of decisions,” Wulff says. “It’s just way better if you have the community support for it. My job is to get all of those pieces of the puzzle together, and then the president has to decide that this is an important thing to do.”

Monuments get more protection than national forests. “You can still do a lot of recreation in the monument,” Wulff says. “You can still mountain bike, do disperse camping, you can still hunt. But you make sure there’s a forest there to go spend time in.”

A monument designation would mean no more commercial logging, although there would be some thinning of the forests using controlled burns. Wulff would also like to phase out grazing.

“The cows that are up here are in high alpine meadows, for the most part, and they shouldn’t be there. They’re not part of nature, you know,” Wulff says. “They’re bad for the watershed.”

More than 100 area organizations and businesses support the project.

Rick Garner, owner of Yosemite Bicycle and Sport in Oakhurst, says he’s in favor because the trail system in the forest is a mess. He says motorbikes have the run of mountain biking trails and are trashing the place.

“They come up to these trails, they destroy them and they pack up their motorcycles and drive away to wherever they came from,” he says.

Three California legislators, all Democrats, are also on board: Zoe Lofgren, Mike Honda and Alan Lowenthal.

But there’s been plenty of opposition. Republican Rep. Tom McClintock’s district includes the Sierra National Forest, and he is dead set against it. He says he’s been getting phone calls from his constituents asking him to fight it.

Jim Long says he loves the forest too, but he’ll fight the monument’s creation tooth-and-nail.
Jim Long says he loves the forest, too, but he’ll fight the monument’s creation tooth and nail. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

McClintock would like to see a revival of the timber industry. “A national monument means more restrictions on public use,” he says. “We want to restore public access and sound forest management.”

There’s also a group called Stop the Sierra National Monument.  Its Facebook page has 3,000 members.

Jim Long, one of the group’s leaders, says people signed up on the Facebook page last spring when they heard that outdoors store REI had scheduled a presentation in Fresno by Wulff.

REI canceled the event when it learned there were plans for a large protest by members of the Stop the Sierra National Monument group. “They canceled it when they heard we were coming,” Long says.

Long is an avid hunter, four-wheeler and backpacker. He owns a military surplus business called G.I. Jim’s. He says the forest is his home, and he doesn’t want more restrictions.

“We don’t need a monument. A monument is a statue, OK. It’s not a forest,” says Long. “A forest is a properly managed resource.” One that he believes should have more local control, and provide more access to logging and mining.

“If this happens, I mean these communities have already had their logging and mills shut down, everything else,” he says. “What I don’t want to see is limitations on our rights.”

But Wulff sees it another way. She says a recreational wilderness is good for tourism, which helps the economy. Even some of the bumpy dirt roads we’re driving along in her Toyota Tacoma could be restored, she says, while keeping others open for wilderness access.

There are so many old logging roads that it’s easy to get lost. On this day, Wulff is trying to find the right road to get to a particular trailhead. “We’re going to find out very soon if it connects us with another road that takes us where we want to go,” she says.

It’s kind of like her Unite the Parks mission. She’s not sure how many roads she’ll have to take but, she says, even if it doesn’t happen with this president, she’s in it for the long haul.

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