Fiercely determined to protect his family's ranch and the ancestral lands of neighboring Native American ranchers from being inundated by one of the largest dam projects ever proposed in California, Richard Wilson found himself at the center of the Dos Rios dam controversy. Richard's story tells about how this proposal and his fight awakened his inner warrior as he successfully fought off the Dos Rios dam.
Richard Wilson was raised in Los Angeles and is the son of a compassionate orthopedic surgeon known for providing free services to the poor and crippled. He attended Dartmouth and Columbia Universities. In the 1960s, Richard and his wife settled on a remote ranch in Northern California, when he learned of a plan to flood the valley under a massive reservoir on the Middle Fork of the Eel River. The Wilson family ranch would have been submerged under 300 feet of water if the proposed dam were constructed. This was not to happen under Richard’s watch. He mobilized and became the iconic figure credited with ultimately stopping the dam. The 1994 book, The River Stops Here, is about the Dos Rios dam battle.
A cattle rancher who became director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in the 1990s, Richard is known as one of California’s leading conservationists. He has been actively involved in helping shape policy in the area of environmental protection and rural planning for more than 30 years and is well known in his work in devising a sustained yield plan that became part of the Headwater’s agreement with Pacific Lumber. Later when suspecting fraud on behalf of Pacific Lumber’s sustainable yield actions, he filed a whistleblower lawsuit.
Richard is past president of the Planning and Conservation League, a member of the Board of Directors of California Environmental Trust, and a past board member of California Tomorrow. He continues to support local organizations as well. Mr. Wilson has served as chairman and member of the Round Valley Unified School District. Richard restored and operated the Round Valley Inn for over 20 years and has served as president of the Mendocino County Cattlemen’s Association. He was president of the Round Valley Conservation League and is a member of the local Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Wilson has also served as a member of the Mendocino Forest Advisory Committee to the Board of Supervisors, and well as many other local positions.
If you are interested in learning more about Richard Wilson, the Bancroft Library has a Richard Wilson collection.
Note: Statements in the brackets are for clarification purposes and not part of the spoken transcript.
[In 1967 a plan was proposed to construct a massive dam in the remote Coast Range of the Pacific Northwest, the Dos Rios dam was to be one of the largest in the United States, flooding an area greater than the Shasta and Oroville reservoirs combined.
Richard Wilson, a local rancher, became a fierce leader against the dam and was instrumental to its ultimate defeat. Governor Reagan rejected the Dos Rios dam proposal in 1969.]
Huey Johnson: Welcome Richard Wilson. You are a long time friend and an environmental leader in the state, and most of all I remember you from your persistence and blocking that dam on the Eel River.
Richard Wilson: We had the big flood, the Eel River flood that flooded the whole country up, that was the big one. It was more than the 100-year flood; it was the 1,000-year flood for sure. Most of the water that came from that flood was up at my neck of the woods in the upper ridges of the middle fork of the Eel and over on the south fork by Branscomb where these waters came together.
Well, after that the drums were really beating because [California governor 1959-1967] Pat Brown, had passed the water plan in 1960, and of course this goes back to the old California story about let’s make the desert bloom. And the Pat Brown water plan was the way of moving that water from the north to the south. And when we had the flood, immediately the powers that be were looking at the North Coast Rivers, the Klamath, the Smith, the Trinity, the Eel. This was the second stage of the California water plan and we were going to get these rivers set up, not just at Dos Rios but down river and up north of me.
Somebody said – you know we have some of the oldest oak trees in this state, somebody said “Well, what do you do about all of this vegetation on the valley floor?” And the engineer said “Well, it’s real simple. We just come in with bulldozers and pile them up and burn them.” And that snapped my chain right there. I said “No, I don’t think so.” And I didn’t have a clue what the next move, but all I knew was “no, I don’t think so.” Because I would have been under 300 of water under this, my place in the valley, it was going to be 300 feet under water on this plan.
This was a big secret between the state, the Corps of Engineers, the water establishment of the AMWD and nobody else except the local people because it was blacked out. Nobody was talking much about it and there were troubles with soils and there were just so many things in this. But the one that caught my eye was that in the [U.S. Army] Corps [of Engineers] report that was made for this dam, one of the benefits they claimed was that Round Valley wouldn’t be flooded anymore. And I found this, I found this written in the report and I called them up in San Francisco and I said “Well I don’t understand how you’re claiming this benefit of this dam.” “Well,” he said “That’s easy. You won’t be having any floods anymore because it’ll all be underwater so therefore it was a benefit.” So it was part of the benefit [cost] ratio that didn’t add up.
The conclusion that I reached is that well, we better get this thing out and around because this is a secret that nobody knows about and they’re just going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. Well, I got a hold of Curtis Roberts, he was a fly fisherman, Cal Trout and that whole bunch of people and those kind of people that were vitally interested then, began to, you know learn something about it. In the process of this, Curtis Roberts, he was brilliant and this is why. He said “I’m going to start writing press releases and every single press release is always going to start, ‘The controversial Dos Rios Project’.” And the courts said, “No, no, it’s not controversial.” And [William R.] Gianelli [Director California Department of Water Resources 1967-1973] said “No, it’s not controversial.” And every time they started trying to explain why it wasn’t controversial, they were just digging a hole deeper.
One of the fascinating things the Ellsberg Papers where there were these revelations about the Pentagon, well there was an Ellsberg in this story that worked for the Department of Water resources in Los Angeles. And this character came up to me and he said “There’s a report in our office done by the Department of Water Resources, but fundamentally” he says, “we don’t need this dam.” And I said, “Well can you get it to me?” And at this hearing we dropped this on the table; Gianelli was not in the hearing room. When that report hit the desk, you never saw people run outdoors that fast in a legislative hearing in Sacramento. Gianelli came back screaming, “I didn’t lie. I didn’t lie. It’s not true.” And he was just out beside himself, but the report was the report. So the sum of that, with [Ronald] Reagan [California governor 1967-1975], all the facts, this report that he turned it [the Dos Rios dam] down.