The Battle Over Fish Check Dams in the Emigrant Wilderness
For the past three decades the Emigrant Wilderness, situated just north of Yosemite National Park, has been the setting for a dispute over 18 small, stone “check dams” constructed during the first half of the twentieth century. On one side in favor of the dams dam construction Mornington peninsula have been anglers, wilderness campers, and advocates seeking to preserve local history. Arguing against them have been environmentalists who believe a wilderness area should not contain any man-made structures, except perhaps foot paths and an occasional trail sign.
The Emigrant Wilderness, part of the Stanislaus National Forest, encompasses 100 named lakes and about 500 smaller, unnamed lakes. It contains miles and miles of streams, the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. But it wasn’t always the fishing paradise that it is today.
Soon after the last emigrant wagons rolled out of the mountains near Sonora Pass in the 1850s, cattlemen and sheep herders began to graze their animals in high meadowlands that are now is part of the Emigrant Wilderness Area. Finding a dearth of fish in the lakes that dot the region, stockmen started hauling buckets of native fish from lower elevation lakes and streams and dumping them into the alpine lakes.
By the late 1800s large lakes like Kennedy Lake and Emigrant Lake became popular fishing destinations, attracting sportsmen from nearby gold country towns like Sonora and Columbia and from valley cities such as Modesto and Stockton. The only significant reservoir at the time was Strawberry Lake, today’s Pinecrest Lake. Most river and stream fishing was at low elevations along the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. Because the high elevation streams and some lakes tended to dry up in late summer and fall, they did not provide a habitat adequate to sustain fish populations.
Construction of the Check Dams
Around 1900 a young local man named Fred Leighton began to make his way into the high country near Sonora Pass. He soon realized that if just a few of the lakes could be regulated with what he would call “check dams”, more water could be stored in the lakes and then released at a slower rate early in the summer during the snowmelt. As a result there would still be a reserve of water in the lakes when the rainless late summer and fall arrived so an adequate stream