Magazine article Sunset


Magazine article Sunset


Article excerpt

Say it slowly: Too-all-uh-me. With practice, the name rolls over the tongue the way a river rolls over smooth rocks--effortlessly, musically. It is a name you'll be hearing more often in the near future, for the fate of California's Tuolumne River is the focus of the state's hottest environmental battle.

The issues are all too familiar on major Sierra rivers. Utilities want to build more dams and water-diversion projects to generate more electricity. Outdoor recreationists want to preserve what's left of the rivers' diverse scenic and recreational resources.

The stakes are high: an 83-mile stretch of the Tuolumne has been proposed as a National Wild and Scenic River. Without federal protection, whitewater stretches may become more domesticated. Congress could decide the river's fate as early as this summer.

This month is a good time to take a firsthand look at the river in question. The map on page 60 can help you plan a visit. State Highway 120, the main north access road to Yosemite National Park, crosses this area after it leaves State 49. The map shows a drive that can be the nucleus of a day's outing from either the gold rush town of Sonora or from Yosemite Valley. Campers can make a weekend of it.

Spring has already come to the low Sierra foothills surrounding the controversial 30-mile stretch of the Tuolumne that flows west from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to Don Pedro Reservoir. All roads and most lower-elevation trails should be open by now. Mild spring weather is just right for hiking (summer brings fierce heat). Later this month, wildflowers should be near their peak along the lower river and near Groveland. Fishing in most area streams can be good; trout season opens April 28. It's also time to make reservations at three city-run family camps.

But for many people the big attraction will be the chance to take an early-season rafting trip down the Tuolumne. The lower 18-mile stretch is ranked among the Wests's top whitewater runs. Ten companies offer one- to three-day trips from now through October; at our deadline, some early-season trips were still open. A question of delicate balance

The Tuolumne has been the focus of some of the state's oldest and longest-running environmental questions, and they have often been answered with dams. Back in 1906, a proposal to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley grew into a landmark conservation battle, pitting John Muir and the Sierra Club against San Francisco water interests. By 1934, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was filled and Tuolumne water was flowing to San Francisco.

Today the river has five dams and reservoirs for flood control and water storage and five powerhouses for hydroelectric generation.

Yet, between the two largest reservoirs, Hetch Hetchy and Don Pedro, the Tuolumne still bucks and churns. Fed by four major tributaries--Clavey River, Cherry Creek, and the Middle and South forks--the Tuolumne roars through open, oakclad canyons. This is prime recreation country, and several large tracts of Stanislaus National Forest are proposed wilderness areas.

"We have a balance on the Tuolumne that is rare in California," states the river's first commercial river-runner, Marty McDonnell, "a system that supplies water and electricity to millions of people, yet still allows intense recreation. Any of the major new proposals would irrevocably upset that balance." Loop drive through Tuolumne country

For a remote area, Tuolumne country is surprisingly accessible. Although the river below Lumsden Campground runs through virtual wilderness, you can float through the heart of it on one of the rafting trips outlined on page 62. The upper part of the river and several tributaries are accessible, in places, from paved roads that make a good loop drive through some of the most scenic parts of this area.

Starting in Sonora (a good place to stock up on picnic supplies and fill up with gas), it's about 10 miles south on State 49 to where the highway merges with State 120. …

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