On CEQA, Gov. Brown's Lessons from the Gold Rush Are All Wrong

Miners of New Almaden ca 1885
| Photo courtesy of History San José

A few weeks ago, Governor Brown told the California Chamber of Commerce (as reported in the San Jose Mercury News):

(T)he Gold Rush was the best stimulus program ever invented; 300,000 people came from every country in the world, got a shovel and pick and started picking. They got billions into the economy. Federal Reserve didn't even exist. The federal government wasn't even heard from, so far away. They dug and they got gold, they spent it and more and more people came and they haven't stopped.

There are layers of bitter irony in the governor's ode to boom times in mid-19th century California. We remain -- more than 160 years later -- inheritors of the Gold Rush to our wonder and dismay.

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As taxpayers, we've inherited the uncalculated costs of cleaning up the poisoned tailings of mining sites like New Almaden, once one of the world's largest mercury mines. (Toxic mercury was used to amalgamate the flecks of gold dredged from riverbeds or sluiced from foothills by hydraulic mining. )

We've also inherited the sterile badlands that hydraulic mining produced. More than a hundred years after hydraulic mining was outlawed in California for its environmental impacts, these badlands still leach heavy metals into the state's streams and lakes.

And we've inherited an uncounted number of other abandoned mining sites. An estimated 47,000 discarded mines litter the foothills of Northern and Southern California. At least 5,700 of them are assumed to be environmental hazards.

But pollution and abandoned mines aren't all that we've inherited from the Gold Rush. Among the tailings of unregulated exploitation are habits of seeing and using the land that began with the first gold strike on the American River. As Gray Brechin and Robert Dawson point out in "Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream", the environmental history of California has been an epic bender of boom and bust.

Lured by an intoxicating image of El Dorado, too many Californians today are still attached to the possibility that everything here might be easily gained and without any consequences.

Joel Fox, like Governor Brown an advocate of rewriting the state's Environmental Quality Act, is heartened by the lessons the governor extracted from 19th century California. Unleashing a "gold rush" of speculative real estate development immune from CEQA-based challenges probably makes sense, if your interpretation of history is as shallow and glib as the governor's.

Thomas Swain was actually there -- unlike Governor Brown -- and saw the environmental and human costs of the Gold Rush. Writing in 1851 he lamented, "Large cities have sprung into existence almost in a day ... .The people have been to each other as strangers in a strange land ... .Their hearts have been left at home."

Not many hearts had changed when Frank Norris wrote "The Octopus" at the turn of the century. "(These Californians) had no love for the land," Norris wrote. "They were not attached to the soil. They worked their ranches as a quarter of a century before they had worked their mines. To get all there was out of the land, to squeeze it dry, to exhaust it, seemed their policy. They did not care."

That's the lesson the Gold Rush should teach us as we turn away from community-based environmental review in haste to get all that we can out of the land of California

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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