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On Sunday, March 4, the Eastern Sierra lost a lifelong champion with the passing of writer and conservationist Genny Smith at age 96.
Genny played a key role in protecting Mono Lake, getting involved in 1982 as a Board member of the young Mono Lake Committee at a time when court battles with the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power were heating up. She was a strong advocate for protecting the special wild places that make California so wonderful, and she had the determination and strategic thinking to turn such lofty goals into real accomplishments. She helped hone the strategy of recruiting members to the cause, making sure that the Committee was building a coalition of people who cared about Mono Lake for the long haul. In later years as a Board Member Emeritus she was always available to give advice—and inspiration—on the continuing efforts to protect this place.
Among Genny’s many conservation achievements in the Eastern Sierra, her most famous was the successful effort to stop a trans-Sierra highway from being built from Mammoth Lakes to Fresno. In the 1950s she organized a group of activists who persisted for 27 years to stop the highway—the idea was officially quashed in 1972 when then-Governor Ronald Reagan announced that the road would not be built.
Many people were introduced to the Eastern Sierra through Genny’s guidebooks, including Mammoth Lakes Sierra (1959), Deepest Valley (1962), Sierra East: Edge of the Great Basin (2000). These popular guides were updated many times and have remained in print for years. Though a great writer of guidebooks, Genny also encouraged people to wander—to discover for themselves the treasures off the beaten path. In an essay for the 1993 Mono Lake Calendar she wrote, “Most important of all, [this calendar] invites you to leave the roads and trails behind and wander—wander away, anywhere up, north or south or any direction in between. Much of the Mono Basin remains wild; with just a little effort you can discover some of its wild places and the wild things that live there. Not that we can supply you with a map and say, ‘Go west two miles and then turn north…’ No, wildness just doesn’t appear that easily, on command. The thrill of wildness comes from those rare, unforeseen encounters when you happen upon the unexpected.”
We were fortunate to be able honor Genny’s dedicated efforts to protect Mono Lake and the Eastern Sierra at last year’s Andrea Lawrence Award Dinner. If ever there was someone who embodied “passionate engagement in community and the land,” as the award she received says, it was Genny Smith. The weekend after the dinner became a reunion of sorts, with friends gathering from all over the Eastside to visit and reminisce. She is very much missed.
Top photo by Antonia Chihuahua.