Tennessee’s lush Smoky Mountain forests were a favorite playground for me as a boy. Trails in the rounded, green Appalachian mountains sparked my interest in the outdoors and its many mysteries. When I was twelve, my grandfather took me on a six-month trip to Germany and Switzerland. Hiking in these mountains introduced me to yet another magnificent natural world.
After my medical studies and residency, I returned as a young doctor to serve in Tennessee as a “circuit riding physician.” My days were spent driving miles of one-lane dirt roads to provide medical care to people living in small, poverty-stricken Appalachian communities. Being in these communities, one quickly realizes the connection between health and the environment. These people were the front-line victims of mountaintop and strip mining, and past generations suffered from black lung disease and other respiratory diseases and illnesses from underground mining. The beautiful, quiet mountains of their home were being forever altered by strip mining of coal. I saw forest areas destroyed by mining, streams filled with sediment and toxins, and thousands of fish that died in these polluted waters.
During my time in the Appalachians I started volunteering with Save Our Cumberland Mountains. A grassroots organization, SOCM dedicated itself to empowering local communities to fight for their right to be healthy and strong, and for their communities and environment to be free of the toxins and other pollution. Opponents of SOCM feared the group; they tried unsuccessfully to stop SOCM’s effort by acts that included burning down a community organizer’s home.
Working firsthand to serve rural mountain communities strengthened my belief that achieving community and environmental health requires grassroots, community action. Not long after my wife Mel (Welsh) and I moved to Pine Grove, we gathered in 1989 with other locals opposing a plan to build the Devil’s Nose Dam on the North Fork of the Mokelumne River. (See the 25th Anniversary article in the Spring 2015 Focus).
We called ourselves The Foothill Conservancy for Responsible Growth, and our first task was to hold a public information meeting. It was time to have discussions with local residents about threats to what we all loved: our oak-studded foothills, rivers, open spaces, and forests... and the threats to our local economy. Posting handwritten flyers, we held our first meeting in the Amador Senior Center. And then we held more meetings, and more meetings. We learned, along with our friends and neighbors, how to participate in local decision-making that could harm our natural resources and quality of life.
Organizing these meetings was a lot of hard work, but our preparations included outdoor adventures as well. One day while we were hiking with Katherine Evatt and Pete Bell (to photograph the Mokelumne River), Katherine slid down the granite at the river’s edge. Into the water she went, holding her camera high. Both Katherine and the camera escaped injury.
During those first Conservancy meetings, we trained local citizens to organize and participate in decision-making on land and water issues. No longer would the hearing rooms be empty. Communities were watching, listening, and challenging proposed projects that made no sense for the local economy or environment.
As a member of that first group of folks who organized to share a passion for this beautiful place that is our home, I felt it was time to engage, time to ensure that what we love about our towns and our natural environment is protected for now and for future generations. We needed to hold local officials’ feet to the fire, to ensure that they followed through with the law and the general plan, and that they respected the wishes of the community. We needed a watchdog that would hold on and not let go. We needed what would ultimately become the Foothill Conservancy.
The list of what makes our lives in Amador and Calaveras County so special, so rich, is a long one. Whether our passion is for preserving our unique rural towns, our economy, life-giving rivers, breathtaking vistas, or historic features, we will always need the Foothill Conservancy. I invite you to join me in supporting Foothill Conservancy during its next 25 years.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Bob Hartmann was the first president of the Foothill Conservancy and served in that capacity for a number of years. He is also a founding member and past director of what is now the Mother Lode Land Trust.