John Amodio, founding Executive Director of the Tuolumne River Trust, speaks about the battle to save the Tuolumne River in the Central Valley foothills of California. The battle was waged after the Stanislaus River fell to dam developers and the Tuolumne was the next target of a $1 billion dam complex. A new approach with diverse allies would be important. John shares the approach that saved the Tuolumne River.
John began his environmental activism as a student at Humboldt State University and played central role in the expansion of Redwood National Park in 1978. He spent 15 years as an environmental advocate “working on government.” During this time he was the founding Executive Director of the Tuolumne River Trust when 83 miles of the Tuolumne River were preserved as a Wild and Scenic River. He later conceived a plan to protect 300,000 acres of the Smith River, California’s only major undamned river, as a National Wild River Recreation area, which Congressionally established in 1990. He then “worked in government” in a variety of environmental positions until 2013. In retrospect, he says working “on government” was more fun and productive. He and his family live in Sacramento, where he consults on policy issues for forests and rivers.
John Amodio: Going to the Tuolumne [River], I was still living in Humboldt County. I again was not knowing what I was going to do and then I got a call out of the blue from this guy Jerry Meral in Sacramento. And you know, the river community had just suffered the just agonizing defeat by one vote in the House of Representatives, that put the kind of final nail in the coffin for the Stanislaus River. And so the New Melones Dam, which had been built, and they were trying to kind of limit to how much would be filled; so that it could still provide irrigation, hydro, but would not be so filled that it flooded–you know, probably the most beautiful limestone canyon in the West had been lost. And so, they knew that the next target for the dam builders was the river immediately to the south, the Tuolumne River. They were wanting to get organized for that but they recognized that, you know, Friends of the River, which had led that most spirited campaign was really not in a position to lead a new campaign, only because it would just immediately be typecast as a replay. You know, the agriculture community had been very effective at portraying the Stanislaw as a choice between whitewater rafting and farming, and all the other kinds of good economic benefits. So they decided that we really need to have a new organization that can take a fresh approach.
John Amodio: When we first started, it was one year away from losing this interim protection, and at which time there was already queued up, you know, San Francisco, Turlock, and Modesto Irrigation Districts with a billion dollar complex, with three dams. And in those days, I don’t know if it’s changed, they were going to need the approval of the Federal Energy [Regulatory] Commission [FERC], which at that point had never turned down a dam application. So there were reasons to be concerned. And we had started off very slow, much to the chagrin of some of our supporters. We really avoided publicity because we knew coming off the Stanislaus [River] loss, we could not afford to be seen as a replay. And so we took what we called the ecosystem approach, meaning that we figured out who are all the beneficiaries and the lovers of the–you know, remaining natural areas of the Tuolumne, and we pulled them together in an umbrella association called the Tuolumne River Trust. But then the third thing we did too was kind of the fun thing–we put together the Republican Friends of the Tuolumne–and we found legitimate Republican leaders, William Penn Mott, who had been Governor Reagan’s National Park – I mean, National Park Director, and Ike Livermore, and the head of the Republican Party. They all joined forces and we actually sent a letter to a thousand of Pete Wilson’s biggest donors, which we were able to get off of the Federal Election Commission. And we were told by his California Chief of Staff that, you know, they got so many letters supporting it that we could calculate that we got a better response on those letters than what we mailed to the Sierra Club list.
Huey Johnson: Ah, how wonderful.
John Amodio: So, and we carefully, you know, examined the facts, the issues, and then what popped out was really quite simple. Our motto became “Leave it as it is.” They are ready, or as it turns out, we ran simple math, we were not brilliant math people, but you know, these new dam complexes would not add any flood control, 100% flood control was in place. Would not add any new water supply, 100% water supply was in place. It would take the hydroelectric–it was a cash register dam, it was already tapped for 70% of its hydro potential. So we just added up those numbers and could honestly say the Tuolumne has already been harnessed for 90% of its development potential. Do we really need to sacrifice the finest whitewater run in California, the best wild trout fishery, this legacy of family camps of Berkeley, of San Jose, Camp Towanga, the Jewish Children’s Camp. And we knew that our kind of– that deadline was taking hold when it was then a statewide publication called California ran a headline that kind of played off a popular Frank Sinatra song at the time that simply said “Why not take all of me?”
Huey Johnson: What a nice story.
John Amodio: Yeah.
Huey Johnson: What is your reward now?
John Amodio: What it always was, really, was being able to personally benefit from going there, and knowing that as it’s so enriched my life. It would enrich the lives of anyone else who took the time. And we used to always use the John Muir quote, even though we were far from thinking of having families, let alone children, but for future generations. And now that I’m blessed with having a son and a daughter, you know, I can say that nothing gives me more satisfaction than seeing them fall in love with the redwoods and the rivers, and how it enriches their lives, and that they are similarly dedicated to preserving it–speaking for them.