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A push to gain National Monument status for the Bodie Hills is underway, led by a 52-year-old veteran in environment and trails conservation.
Jeff Hunter, whose work in conservation has been primarily in the American southeast, said his work in the Eastern Sierra, which is backed by the 14 partner groups that include the Sierra Alliance, the Sierra Club and the Colorado-based Conservation Lands Foundation, would give an economic jolt to Bridgeport and Lee Vining, while protecting the Bodie Hills “as they are.”
“Folks hear the word ‘monument’ and then they ask, first of all, who is this guy, and is he going to take the traditional uses of this land and change that?
“The answer is no, absolutely not,” Hunter said. “We’re looking to protect those values and we feel it’s vitally important that the community knows that. We don’t have, or profess to have, all the answers, or a final plan. This is a process that’s going to happen from the ground up.”
Hunter, who began his career in telecommunications with Verizon but made a career switch to the American Hiking Society, said the 2009 National Conservation Land System federal legislation changes the paradigm of how national monuments work.
“Typically, national monuments, prior to the 1990s, if they were on Bureau of Land Management lands, those lands were taken away from the BLM and they usually were given to the National Park Service to manage.
“With this legislation, that’s changed.
“The BLM is now administering national monuments and other national conservation lands as a system. The BLM, instead of being a land disposal agency, is becoming a land conservation agency for the 21st Century. The BLM doesn’t build Visitor Centers.”
“It provides opportunities for gateway communities—in this case, Bridgeport north and west of the Bodie Hills, and Lee Vining south of the Bodie Hills. Those are the two gateway communities.”
Should Hunter’s work succeed, he said visitors to the Bodie Hills would experience nothing new, except for, perhaps, more visitors.
“What’s important is our desire to honor tradition,” he said. “It’s a working landscape, and that’s important to Mono County, and especially to Bridgeport. Cattle have been grazing on that land since the 1850s and that’s important to continue.
“In the Bodie Hills you have tremendous cultural values,” Hunter said. “The thing about our public lands, our parks, forests, our undeveloped open spaces, is that they go a long way toward forging the American character.
“The American identity comes from these treasured landscapes and I can think of few communities that embody that more than Bridgeport.
“Bridgeport’s identity comes from the association with that land, and that’s important. It’s something we don’t want to lose—the connection to our heritage.”
Hunter said this effort toward protecting the “working landscape” is just one of several conservation ideas he wants to bring.
“Beyond contemporary cultural values, what that town is today and how that relates to the landscape, you also have more ancient cultural values. That place has been peopled for a very long time and there are sacred values out there.
“Certainly the wildlife is another value, whether you’re into wildlife watching or whether you’re a sportsman and like to hunt, and that’s a value that should be protected—opportunities to continue to hunt that landscape or, like I did, as a birdwatcher, I had an encounter up there with a gull and an eagle that I’ll remember the rest of my life.”
Hunter, who moved to June Lake from Chattanooga, Tenn., during the summer, is just now beginning his work, building alliances with local conservation groups such as the Friends of the Inyo and the Range of Light Chapter of the Sierra Club.
He said he also has begun to feel his way around the volatile political landscape. He made his first political contact with Supervisor Tim Fesko, whose district includes all of North County, including Bridgeport.
He said the cornerstone of his platform, thus far, is economic.
“This is an opportunity to keep [the Bodie Hills] the way it is, but use that also as a magnet for visitation.
“What a monument provides is an opportunity, not only to protect the place and all its attendant values, but also to grow the economy of North Mono County, which is something I’ve heard a number of times—that we need to have more jobs and a better economy. They’re still not out of the woods from the Recession.
“This is an opportunity moment, and that’s the discussion, to a large extent, that I’ll be having with a lot of the stakeholders,” Hunter said.
“I think [a National Monument designation] offers great potential to grow the economy and to bring in more people.
“As the BLM says, ‘if you designate it, they will come,’ and economic studies of national monuments in the West have borne that out—a 30 percent boost in the economic activity associated with that designation.
“That means more people in motels; more people in the restaurants; more people in the sporting goods store; and more people filling their gas tanks.”
Hunter introduced himself to Mono County in 2008 while en route to the John Muir Trail with his daughter, traveling from San Francisco and arriving by way of Sonora Pass.
Hunter, a lifelong ice skater, snowshoer, cross-country skier and angler, said he was “blown away” by the Eastern Sierra.
“The first time I saw it, and I’d heard about it and watched videos online, but to come out and experience that, the wide-open spaces, the wind in your hair and in your ears and the smell of the sagebrush and the view of the Sierra, that’s unique.”
From a practical point of view, Hunter is in the process of building “The Bodie Hills Conservation Partnership” and working toward achieving 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for the group.
He said he and his partner have found a home on the shores of Gull Lake in June Lake, and is open to anyone who wishes to contact him through the partnership’s website at bodiehills.org.
In the meantime, he said, he is enjoying every single moment he has here.
“Every day is a ‘pinch-me’ moment,” he said.