Into the Valley of the Yokohl

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When John Muir, the naturalist and writer who later made Yosemite famous, stood atop the hills east of what is now Livermore in Alameda County and looked out across the great Central Valley of California for the first time, he described it as ‘one vast sea of wildflowers’ stretching to the snow-covered Sierra Nevada peaks sparkling in the sun in the distance. Those days are now long gone, of course, and the Central Valley is jam-packed with subdivisions, freeways, meth-labs and billowing clouds of dense toxic smog which more often than not obscure any view of the mountains which drew John Muir so powerfully into their charms. But pockets of unspoiled California remain, and the Yokohl Valley in Tulare County is such a place. Situated in the foothills southeast of Fresno, it is an area particularly rich not only in natural beauty and rare plant and animal habitats, but more than thirty important Native American sites, including the remains of villages, rock art, burial grounds and ceremonial locations. It has only managed to survive this long because first Spanish, then Mexican, then later Anglo-American ranchers have maintained operations in the area since Europeans first came to the valley beginning in the 18th century.

Now, however, the J.G. Boswell Company of San Diego has created The Yokohl Ranch Co. and plans to turn about 36,000 acres of the Yokohl Valley into a city of 30,000 people, to include 10,000 houses, several golf courses, a commercial center with retail stores, a new dam to create water storage with water pumped over from the Kaweah River, a waste treatment plant, new roads and major traffic corridors, police and fire stations, schools, etc. Concerned citizens, allied with members of the local Yokut tribe of American Indians and others, are seeking to block all this development through legal means. So far the whole project has been stalled for several years. But J.G. Boswell Co. has acquired the land, and most people familiar with the lamentable fate of so much of the Central Valley tend to be pessimistic about the future of such small enclaves as the Yokohl. J.G. Boswell claims that what it offers is much needed housing for Central Valley communities so that farmland can be saved for farms. Opponents say Boswell merely offers relatively affordable housing in a spectacularly beautiful area to people from other parts of the state to whom the Yokohl Valley will be a bargain. I’ll be watching developments closely.

Meanwhile, from my point of view, the millions of plants and animals who live in the Yokohl, the rocks and streams, the hills and ravines, are daily going about their joyful business just as they have been diligently doing for countless thousands, or in some cases perhaps millions of years. There is something impressively focused and even meditative about that, as if the valley and all the living things it contains, animate and inanimate alike, are ever blissfully unaware of human beings and the havoc they are quite capable of wreaking. 

And there’s one more thing: the Clarkia springvillensis. It’s a very rare species of flowering plant, a member of the evening primrose family, native to only a few scattered parts of Tulare County, where it is known from fewer than twenty occurrences around Springville and the nearby Yokohl Valley. Most of these are on private lands which, like much of the rest of the Yokohl, may soon be gobbled up by development. A large part of the tiny surviving population of Springville Clarkias was some years ago totally destroyed in the creation of a mobile home park. I am rooting for the Springville Clarkias, however. They’ve definitely got my vote, for whatever it’s worth. I believe they’ve devoted their lives to something truly essential. 

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