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Brent Parsons
05/08/2014 2:13 PM

By Brent Parsons

ledger dispatch columnist

I moved to Sutter Creek in 1989, the same year a group of citizens from Amador and Calaveras began holding potlucks on revolving host decks. The meetings grew out of a presentation on foothill growth by Steve McNiel, a planning professor from UC Davis. After the talk, sponsored by the Amador Association of University Women, Steve Elias, a motivated attendee, asked in a letter printed in the Ledger Dispatch for others sharing his concerns to call him. Several did.

The newly formed group, The Foothill Conservancy for Responsible Growth and Development, put together a slide show at the Jackson Senior Center that fall to illustrate what good and bad growth look like. The supporting visuals were mostly from the two counties. Amador was growing much faster than the state average. The warm, Southern-accented narration coming from the darkness belonged to a woman too shy to speak in the light. Her name was Katherine Evatt.

The group shortened their cumbersome name to the Foothill Conservancy and formally incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1990. Katherine and her husband, Pete Bell, served on that first board. They are still serving after 24 years and countless hours of donated time.

An epic struggle they have spearheaded is securing the designation of Wild & Scenic for a 37-mile stretch of the Mokelume River. The effort appeared to have cleared a legislative hurdle in Sacramento last week, even without the support of the Amador Water Agency or the Amador County Board of Supervisors. I called Katherine and we sat and talked at a picnic table in Minnie Provis Park, in Sutter Creek.

Katherine developed her accent in her birth state, North Carolina. After a year studying art at Syracuse University, in upstate New York, she transferred to the small, but prestigious, San Francisco Art Institute. She married Pete in 1974 and, upon graduation two years later; she set up a painting studio in the city. Pete was a percussionist and she an artist, the perfect under-employable matched couple. But they found paying jobs, Katherine as a picture framer and Pete in a photo-supply business.

At about that time, Katherine’s high school best friend’s boyfriend flew in from North Carolina to be in his pal’s California wedding. They drove east and picked him up at the wedding site in Amador County. San Francisco lost some of its charm after the trip, as they saw more negatives where they were and potential positives where they had just been. They tracked down the Amador groom, a realtor who had attended UNC- Charlotte, to search properties. David Carlson found a couple of acres above Volcano which they liked and could afford. Pete and Katherine rented in Buckhorn until her studio was built. They lived in the studio while they constructed a house. “This was a genuine ‘owner- builder’ team operation,” Katherine remembered. “I owned three hammers, a 16-, 20-, and 22-ouncer, and I learned how to use them.” Pete picked up cabinetry and handyman jobs before transitioning into the technical fields of sound engineering and hydroelectric relicensing consulting. “He never was what you could call an employee here,” Katherine added. She found picture-framing work in the booming metropolis full of 185 interesting people, Amador City.

In 1984, Katherine changed direction by going to work for Amador County Social Services as a part-time Medi-Cal eligibility worker. Her 1982 one-woman show at a J Street gallery in Sacramento was to be her last. She had a short stint as the director of the Amador Arts Council in 1987 before taking an “intermittent account clerk” position with the Board of Equalization, in Sacramento.

Katherine thought she’d be back to work in Amador after a few months, but plans changed. She commuted and telecommuted for 20 years. Katherine became a supervisor in the department before taking a full-time position as a writer/editor for those dry BOE publications that I have received and thrown away before reading. I apologized to the author and wished I had been more attentive. She laughed. Perhaps her homey accent came through in hazardous waste and fuel tax newsletters, I’ll never know. She was responsible for editing the agency’s annual report to the governor and, when she described her talent of “being able to translate the complex writing of attorneys and accountants” into language that an 8th-grader could understand, I wondered if she meant me (who didn’t) or the governor (who might have). After helping connect the agency to the Internet, she left in the turmoil of reorganization under a new regime in an “exodus of knowledge.” “We no longer could do our work,” she lamented, “as the experts we relied on left the agency or moved to other positions. California is the only state that elects its sales tax board. The other 49 can’t be all wrong.”

Katherine went to work at the California Teachers Retirement System as a web-content editor and later, when her publication skills were needed, authoring some more publications that I thankfully was not on the mailing list for. “I can easily be the most boring person at a party if you bring up taxes or teacher retirement,” Katherine admitted. But I doubt many people ever ask her to go there and where they do ask her to go, I guarantee you, she might be a little complex, but certainly not boring. She retired a few years early from the state, in 2008, to do Conservancy work and to help care for her ailing sister.

I asked how much time she spends on Conservancy-related matters. “Quite a bit,” she replied, “maybe 40 hours a week, depending on the matters at hand.” The Wild and Scenic quest has been a “matter at hand” for almost a quarter of a century. She hadn’t given up painting for a paycheck, but for a replacement passion that she believes will benefit us all. As an artist of little promise, I know painting is a passion but it’s a pretty selfish one. Not many benefit, except those that sell me materials and the few that have bought my work. I haven’t seen an Evatt painting, but I’d like to. She said very few remember her as an artist, but many know her as a environmental activist. I asked about her organization’s legacy and image in this politically conservative county. I know that she has personally been threatened. “I’m proud of what we have done and what we hope we can do for the river,” she said.

“Can you name the accomplishments of which you are proudest?” I pressed. She organized and consolidated her thoughts. “On the land use side,” she answered, “we were able to elevate the discussion of growth and its impacts, so that people really talk about what they want our cities and county to be like in the future. There was a time here that any growth was viewed as positive. The public is much more engaged in the process now. The Conservancy was instrumental in that evolution.”

“Is that because you sued or threatened to sue?” I prodded. “There is a misconception that we are litigious,” she defended. “We have only prosecuted three suits and one was quickly settled and dropped. The only land use suit we pursued was in El Dorado County, and the City of Plymouth joined us. When we comment on a project during the review process, almost without exception, we present a constructive alternative.” I’m sure she meant more than the “no-project” alternative, which is always an option.

Katherine went on to list some more accomplishments:1) The scrapping of the Devil’s Nose project in 1995, a dam that would have submerged nine-and-a-half miles of the North Fork under an ugly bathtub-ringed unfriendly and largely inaccessible lake. Its need was based on an Amador population projection of 75,000 to 105,000 by 2020. Currently we are close to 35,000. 2) Negotiating a settlement agreement with PG&E and nine other parties in 2000 which correlated hydro-electric water flows more closely with what would have been the natural cycles, along with other project changes. That was a benefit to fish, wildlife and people. Katherine added that PG&E has been a very cooperative environmental player on the river. Pete helped negotiate the settlement and has been part of a committee that manages the adaptive plan ever since. 3) Providing public access to the Middle Bar reach of the Mokelumne in 2000. 4) Stopping the proposed Pardee expansion which would have inundated the historic Middle Bar Bridge, Middle Bar Reach and potentially part of the Electra run, above Highway 49. The Conservancy’s lawsuit pushed EBMUD to look closer to home, which resulted in a successful partnership with Contra Costa Water District and the less environmentally harmful expansion of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir. 5) A founding and active participant in the Amador-Calaveras Conservation Group, a consensus-based group with more than 31 members. The group has procured $16.8 million dollars in fuel reduction and forest restoration funds for work in local national forests.

Katherine would like to add the Wild & Scenic designation to this list. She has poured her considerable talents and energies over many years into the effort. She and Pete have put travel plans and much of life on hold to help negotiate the rapids still to come.

I asked if the Foothill Conservancy gets blamed for Amador’s now slower-than-stagnant growth with a comment like, “Are you happy now?” She said that there are some who have tried to do so, but any intelligent analysis of the slowdown identifies the underlying causes to be a stubborn recession along with a lack of jobs and an aging (and dying) population. “Studies show,” she said, “that the Baby Boomers are opting for smaller parcels to upkeep and the proximity of services. The rural migration of retirees is reversing back to the urban environment. The California Department of Finance, the most-respected demographic prognosticator, predicts Amador might gain 10,000 people in the next 45 years.” That doesn’t equate to many subdivisions, and whether that projection includes the thousands of inmates to be added in the expansion of Mule Creek, she didn’t know.

I thanked Katherine for her time and she thanked me for mine. She looked at her watch and said, “Oh-oh!” and I knew that her tightly scheduled day had just gotten tighter. She wasn’t acting retired. She isn’t. After 25 years of interruption, she is able to fully apply herself to more important work. Much of this beautiful foothill country will be preserved and shaped by her effort. Future visitors will not know who to thank.

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