Stretching from Tioga Pass south to Olancha, taking in every peak in the Sierra between, the giant Inyo National Forest pretty much dominates everything that does – and does not – happen in the southern half of the Eastern Sierra.
Last week, this land of granite peaks and mile-high meadows lost one of its most familiar and constant voices when Public Affairs Officer Nancy Upham retired Jan. 3.
For 28 years, Upham was in the middle of every single decision – beloved, hated, or often, both at once – rendered by the forest’s revolving door of supervisors.
At 200 million acres, the Inyo is one of the biggest power players in the region, along with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Even Mammoth Mountain Ski Area exists at the forest’s discretion.
It was Upham’s job to take the furious phone calls when someone’s favorite campsite was closed and soothe ruffled feathers when someone else’s favorite backcountry ski area was opened to snowmobiles.
It was her job to keep tempers in check at dozens of public meetings where hundreds of passionate advocates on both sides showed up to argue about just about everything that the forest proposed.
In her eight years as the Mono Basin Scenic Area manager and then her last 20 based in Bishop as the public affairs officer for the forest, Upham saw some big changes.
“The forest resources are in better shape in many ways than they were when I moved to the Eastern Sierra,” she said. “It’s been most dramatic in the way our meadows have recovered. We are learning a lot more about how to handle grazing allotments (so that they are sustainable), and, how to rehabilitate meadows. That’s an improvement. And although this is controversial, it’s clear the land is in better shape when illegal roads and routes are rehabilitated and erosion and damage is healed.”
Another big change is the significant increase in demand for motorized use of the forest, she said.
New technological advances for ATVs, snowmobiles, motorbikes and 4WD vehicles have allowed the machines to access more rugged landscapes, and a growing demand for motorized recreation has accompanied the advances.
Another change is the desire for more extreme adventures in the backcountry, Upham said.
“Although the demand for wilderness, for places where people can seek quiet and renewal has also increased in the last 10 years, there are a lot more people doing the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails,” she said. “There are more and more people seeing the high country as a place for high altitude training. People don’t just hike in snowshoes, they run in them.”
Her job, communicating with the public and media, also changed throughout the years.
“We used to Xerox our press releases, then mail them out, and it would take several days after the event to even reach the media,” she said. “Today, we Tweet, we use social media, we get things out immediately, we hear back from people just as immediately. It has increased both the amount of input we get from the public, and, the diversity of the voices we hear from.”
A much stronger reliance on partnerships with other agencies and nonprofits also developed.
“Twenty years ago, we took care of the land. Now, our budgets don’t allow it,” she said. “But this allowed us to tap into the energy of local communities of people who love this place, and that has its own rewards.”
Despite the changes, she saw one thing that stayed the same.
“The one thing I’ve seen no change in is people’s passion for this place,” she said Thursday, her last day at the office. “It doesn’t matter if they visit it just once, or over and over again, there is an awe of this place that I saw repeatedly. It never wavered, even after 28 years.”
Another longtime employee, Marty Hornick, took over Upham’s job Jan. 7.
“I could not have asked for a better career,” she said. “It’s been an honor to serve as a bridge between this forest and the public.”
Although Upham left her position, she is not leaving the Eastern Sierra. Though she declined to specify, she said she would continue her work communicating her love of the region and its people into the future.
“You have not seen the last of me,” she said.