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Reprinted by permission of California Fly Fisher and Tom Martens.
In this speck of a town lives Jane Baxter, a grassroots activist who has pioneered the use of videos to tell the story of how overgrazing on public lands is ruining trout water in the Sierra Nevada.
A former fund-raiser for the Channel Islands National Park, Baxter moved from Los Angeles to Posey nearly 10 years ago to enjoy the quiet rural life of running a two-room bed-and-breakfast on the banks of Poso Creek. She thought this would be a perfect spot to perfect her angling skills.
"I'm a fly fishing wannabe," she says. "I had been fishing in this creek since 1969."
But she noticed the Forest Service was engaged in practices that were harming the very amenities that drew visitors to her area. Shortly after moving to Posey, Baxter joined two long-time forestry activists from Quincy, Linda Blum and Michael Jackson, to successfully challenge 24 clear-cuts proposed for the national forest near her new home. During that legal battle she learned about the environmental damage cows were causing to high-altitude watersheds.
"A state fisheries biologist took me for a walk on my own creek and showed me how erosion from grazing was causing damage," recalls Baxter. "I was surprised to find out how many people were working to keep the trees upright, but how few worked on grazing."
Baxter started writing letters to the Forest Service about overgrazing on public land, but found her missives were rarely noticed. On an autumn day, after an intense rainstorm, she borrowed a neighbors video camera to document erosion damage to Bull Run, Frog and Tyler meadows high above her home.
"The difficulty was that I had never touched a video camera in my life," says Baxter. "My neighbors suggested that there was this sort of hermit fellow living in an apple orchard who knew a lot about videos." She walked over and knocked on the door of Rick Vinnedge, who turned out to be a self-taught expert in video, and who loved taking pictures of wildlife.
"He said he had lived in a cave deep in the backcountry and could show me all kinds of environmental damage I wouldn't believe." The two of them -- the city-slicker-turned-B&B-owner and the quiet hermit-of-the-wilderness -- teamed up to shoot tape of meadows, streams and backcountry wetlands damaged by grazing.
In so doing they created Range Watch, a nonprofit organization that seeks to change harmful grazing policies.
With the help of Bret Matzke, a California Trout staffer who lives a couple of canyons over in Camp Nelson, their first video on grazing damage landed on the desk of a high-level official in Washington, D.C.
"I had written complaint after complaint and no one noticed. I made one video and it got notoriety in Washington D.C.," she observes. "So I asked myself "What have I learned here?"
Her work was also being noticed 200 miles away in San Francisco, where a group of environmentalists were planning a major conference on the Sierra. The wanted Baxter to lead a discussion on grazing problems.
That led to Frank Wells, the late president of the Disney Corporation, giving Baxter a used but high-quality video camera. With small grants provided by Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and the Patagonia company, as well as with money from their personal bank accounts, Baxter and Vinnedge converted a three-quarter-ton truck (appropriately equipped with a mooing cow horn) into a mobile video production facility and field office. They've been able to produce hundreds of videos that depict how cattle damage streams and trout habitat on public land. Their videos have been shown in schools, at conferences, in the offices of environmental groups, on television, and in Congress.
"She has been able to explain the impact of grazing better than the Forest Service could do in 10 pages of text," says Laurel Ames, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Alliance, a coalition of grassroots groups and citizens working to protect the Sierra "She takes a Hormel Chili can and films it next to the vegetation, and people can see how little grass is left after cows have gone. She even hauled a TV around the capitol in Washington last year to show her videos. Its been very effective." The Range Watch videos recently helped kill ill-advised grazing legislation in Congress last year.
With the assistance of the technically-minded Vinnedge, backpacks have been gerry-rigged to allow the bulky camera and battery packs to be toted into the wilderness. Lately, Range Watch has been documenting the relationship between grazing and the loss of the golden trout on the Kern Plateau.
FOR THESE EFFORTS, Outside magazine a few years ago recognized Range Watch as one of a handful of conservation groups in the country where charitable donations make a real difference for the environment. The magazine noted that through Baxter's videos, thousands of people now know about the problems cattle cause in fragile mountain watersheds. According to CalTrout's Marzke, the grazing reform movement is growing thanks to Baxter's work in the Sierra.
Besides documenting grazing-damaged areas, Range Watch has plans in 1997 to push for the adoption of tougher grazing standards for wilderness areas. Building on an Oregon legal decision, Baxter will also be seeking to get state water officials to take more active role in regulating grazing under the Clean Water Act. In addition, she also wants to organize fly fishing groups to become more involved in grazing reform.
"Were going to be filming exit interviews of fishermen coming out of the wilderness areas -- to get them interested and talking about damage they've seen," she says. "You don't have the fingerprints of man in these wilderness areas, but the hoof prints of cows are up there."
YOU CAN BE SURE the videos of these interviews will wind up on some politicians desk as a reminder of the damage grazing causes. And as a reminder too of a place called Posey -- a place Baxter is putting on the map.
Does she get to enjoy the results of her work by fly fishing?
"I'm still a fly fishing wannabe," she says, ruefully shaking her head over the busy schedule she keeps. "Last year I didn't even buy a license."
For information or to make a donation, contact Range Watch at P.O. Box 450, Posey, CA 93260. Their phone number is (805) 536-8668.