About 26 years ago, a group of neighbors living in Amador County were sitting on the back porch of Katherine Evatt’s home outside of Jackson. Enjoying the view of the sky, stunning mountains and endless forest life, the group wondered what exactly it would take to keep the region exactly as it was in that moment.
Since then, that group has stopped dam expansions, opened rivers and hiking areas to the public, helped restore salmon populations, and won a massive grant to restore a 250,000-acre stretch of the Central Sierra watershed.
It grew into the Foothill Conservancy, led by Evatt. She’s a meat-eating environmental activist with streaming silver hair and a penchant for moving water.
The Mokelumne River, the lifeblood of that group, also runs through Lodi’s backyard. For good or bad, everything that happens upstream on a river eventually happens downstream. The work Evatt and the conservancy accomplish in the Sierras has a definite trickle-down effect on the local stretch of river, the lake and Lodi water.
Her supporters say she is determined, devoted and persistent, qualities her husband Pete Bell says are necessary for her work as an environmental activist. Activism has been her day job for 35 years. Much of her work is in educating the public and public officials about the symbiotic relationship between human life and environmental resources.
If you ask her, she’s just living the life that she fell into.
“A lot of my life just happened to me,” she said.
The road to activism
Evatt and her husband hail from North Carolina. If the search for an ideal art school hadn’t pulled her to California, all of her conservation efforts might be going to the East Coast today.
Evatt met Bell during a craft fair at a city park in Greensboro, North Carolina. Evatt graduated high school at 17 and moved with Bell to California to study art at the San Francisco Art Institute. She earned a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in painting and 3D work.
After five years in San Francisco, the couple wanted to move to the country, somewhere with more seasonal variation.
So they rented a 21-foot travel trailer, packed it up with a parrot and a malamute, and drove up to the Sierra to find their home. They settled in Volcano outside of Jackson, and thought it would be their first place.
“We used to joke that we’d move when the town got a McDonald’s and a stoplight,” Evatt said.
When Evatt and Bell moved to Amador County, there was no fast food. There were only 18,000 people, with a single stoplight on Pardee Road. By the time the McDonald’s was inevitably opened, the couple decided to stay. Moving somewhere else would only cause more growth of cities, they figured.
The couple remained, and established deep roots as regional activists. A three-month temp job as a technical writer and publication manager gave her the skills to effectively get the word out for her future environmental pursuits.
Currently, Evatt is retired from working as a technical writer for the state and focuses full-time on activism. Bell is a semi-retired live sound engineer and a part-time hydroelectric re-licensing consultant.
“We do this because we love to do it, not because we have to,” Evatt said. “You can’t live here without loving the natural beauty.”
In her natural habitat
For an escape from the work of protecting and preserving river habitats, Evatt turns to the river she works for.
Evatt’s attraction to rivers is purely aesthetic. It’s the sound of the river and the songbirds. It’s the sense of the plants around her.
“There’s great beauty in moving water. People are drawn to moving water,” she observed, looking over the Electra run on the upper Mokelumne. “It’s sort of my church.”
Having natural areas near urban ones is important, said Evatt, and they’re harder and harder to find.
She hikes with her husband and dog, Cassie. She’ll jump in a raft and set off on a days-long journey.
“It’s an escape from the deadline-driven world. You’re on river time. You are not going any faster than this river,” she said.
Her work is all about following the rhythms of nature.
The conservancy is focused on sustainable land use and keeping nature as open to the public as possible, whether it’s a river with great rafting rapids or a ridge just begging for a hiking path.
Take the Electra Run of the Mokelumne River, for example.
People walk their dogs here, ride bikes and take morning jogs. A rudimentary road just wide enough for a car winds along the river’s curves.
It is among Evatt’s favorite places. She’s not an expert on songbirds or flowers, but she can name a few of the common sights and sounds while trekking along the river’s edge.
Evatt prefers to be outdoors. Long silver hair streams down over her shoulders, unless it’s warm out. Then the locks are deftly tied up in a knot on her head. Silver earrings with a simple tree design glint at her ears.
Activist doesn’t translate to vegetarian. Evatt definitely enjoys salmon (broiled, with a light sauce) and chooses to help local ranchers stay in business by eating beef.
Right now, the conservancy is working on a long-range solution to keep dams off of California rivers. Their goal is a Wild and Scenic River designation for a 37-mile stretch of the North Mokelumne River. It would take an act of Congress, but it’s the solution they need to avoid fighting off new dams every five years.
“We’re tired of having to spend our time and energy to stop something. We would much rather do something productive,” said Bell. “The primary trait for doing this work is persistence.”
Making it work
Persistence has worked so far. Evatt gets projects done through sheer determination.
“Katherine has been so dogged and committed, lifetime, to these things. I don’t think people have recognized that,” said Steve Wilensky, an Amador County Supervisor. “She’s brought a whole new vitality to the Mokelumne watershed from bottom to top.”
In 2000, the conservancy negotiated with the East Bay Municipal Utility District for public access to the Middle Bar run. It was agreed that if allowing boaters went well, hiking trails would be considered in a year. But 2001 came and went with no talk of adding trails.
Last year, Evatt got hold of EBMUD management, pulled up the minutes from a meeting 10 years ago, and convinced them it was time to plot out the trail.
EBMUD agreed, and the trails are currently being constructed as a portion of the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail.
The Independence Flat segment of the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail is being built from Middle Bar east toward Highway 49 right now. It’s a loop trail that will return users to Middle Bar largely on EBMUD fire roads.
Chris Schutes of the California Sport Fishing Association knows Evatt as the first volunteer who stepped forward to relocate 10,000 fish from Caples Lake near Kirkwood when the reservoir needed to be drained for pipe work.
It was a massive project organized by California Fish and Game made possible by working with volunteers. Officials took electro fishing boats out at night, put a probe in the water and stunned the fish. Volunteers netted them and dropped them safely into tanks to be relocated.
“Extremely thorough, well-versed in subject matter, works well with others, and is patiently persistent,” said Schutes. “She’s not just out there to challenge people — she’s out there to work with others and get things done.”
Evatt was also instrumental in blocking the planned expansion of Pardee Dam.
She helped gather 10,000 signatures against the project that would flood homes, property and Native American lands. She forced local hearings, brought out hundreds of people, and filed and ultimately won a case forcing East Bay MUD to alter their course to a cheaper solution providing as much water with less destruction, according to Wilensky.
“What’s really characterized the conservancy is the pragmatic local efforts to preserve and also to gain access for local people to use our recreational resources without wrecking them,” said Wilensky.
Even salmon are benefitting from her work. Wilensky and others attribute three years of record salmon returns to the restoration work Evatt has helped bring about.
But a crowning achievement must be winning one of 10 national Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act grants.
“This is us taking back out rightful role as stewards of the landscape,” said Wilensky.
It provides $7.8 million over 10 years that will eventually leverage over $20 million for restoration of the Central Sierra Watershed.
The list of accomplishments is daunting, but Evatt is just protecting her adopted home with her natural gusto.
“You have to stand up to criticism. You have to defend what you do,” she said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.