Seeking a Sustainable Lode

The boom-and-bust cycle of resource addiction is old news in the Mother Lode. First gold, then timber built towns that later went into decline when each raw material started running out.

SAN ANDREAS, Calif. -- The boom-and-bust cycle of resource addiction is old news in the Mother Lode. First gold, then timber built towns that later went into decline when each raw material started running out.

Now a group of farmers, doctors and other area professionals is hoping to help the region kick the habit. The Foothill Collaborative for Sustainability (also known by the not-quite acronym FoCuS) formed in July to educate residents of Calaveras and Tuolumne counties on sustainability and to promote everything from more fuel-efficient transportation and housing to local food production and foot trails.

In a world hooked on cheap oil, it can be uncomfortable to even raise the question of sustainability, one board member said.

"On the farm where I work, we still have inputs that are from outside the farm. I don't think there's that many farming operations that could call themselves sustainable," said Christine Taylor, co-owner of the Table Mountain organic produce farm near Murphys and a member of the FoCuS board. "A lot of it has to do with energy equations. And it is something we haven't really thought about."

The Mother Lode's present real estate boom, of course, is fueled by the cheap gasoline that allows city dwellers with money to come here and buy homes and ranches.

FoCuS may form a biodiesel cooperative that would allow members to power their vehicles with fuel made from vegetable oil, said Josh Bridges, a student at University of California, Santa Cruz, who is devoting a six-month internship to helping FoCuS get organized.

"A lot of what we do is kind of challenging people's values that may not be so beneficial to the future of mankind or the future of the planet," Bridges said. "Primarily, we hope to educate people on these issues."

Other projects already under way include creating a network of foot trails around the Arnold area and organizing events at which area residents can learn about energy-efficient transportation, housing and food production. Many supporters of FoCuS already do things that reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

Christopher Bey, 46, lives in an off-the-grid, straw-bale house in Vallecito. His photovoltaic panels are even hooked to his water heater. Once the system's batteries are full, the extra energy flows to a heating element, thus reducing the amount of propane he needs to heat his water.

Wherever possible, Bey avoided building materials such as concrete or plastics, whose manufacture requires a high input of fossil fuels. He used local clay for the plaster on his walls, for example.

"Most of the lighting fixtures in the house are handmade out of rice paper and leaves, ... like sycamore leaves and ferns and pieces of other leaves that have a distinctive look," Bey said.

His home will be one of several included on a "Sustainable Living Tour" the organization will host on Oct. 29.

Although the Mother Lode has many people who live in superinsulated homes, eat organic food and drive hybrid cars, they didn't necessarily know each other, Taylor said. She said the new group is allowing people concerned about assuring the region's future to find each other. It already has 1,000 names on its e-mail list.

"Those kind of things have happened independent of an organization," she said of grass-roots efforts to secure alternative fuel supplies and build hiking trails. "But now that we have an organization that has nonprofit status, we hope to assist some of those community groups to actually be successful."

Taylor said the group also will be involved in the effort to revise Calaveras County's General Plan, the county's basic land-use document.

"There are ways we can preserve open space and develop at the same time," Taylor said. "Some of it seems to be common sense. But some of it is introducing new ideas."

Contact Mother Lode reporter Dana M. Nichols at (209) 754-9534 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Copyright © 2006, The Record, Stockton, Calif.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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