The Man on the White Horse who Saved the Sierra Nevada

Jesse Cassidy |
Ronald Reagan on his white horse
Ronald Reagan on his white horse

“If you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all…” is not the kind of thing you would expect to hear from someone who single handedly “saved the Sierra.” But said gentleman did in fact utter such a phrase whilst residing in the White House. Years prior however, while governor of California, said gentleman, Ronald Reagan rode out into the Sierra Nevada Mountains on a white horse and made a decision that would forever impact the Sierra Nevada Mountain range and the communities of Mammoth, Lee Vining, Bishop and more on the Eastern Side of the Sierra. 

 hypothesized route based on current roads and topography between North Fork and Mammoth
hypothesized route based on current roads and topography between North Fork and Mammoth

Back in the 1970’s there was a proposed highway that would stretch from Fresno, through Oakhurst or another Sierra foothill town, out through the San Joaquin watershed valley to the base of the Minarets, up through Devils Post Pile, and terminate in or around Mammoth, California at Highway 395. A high speed highway between the John Muir and Minarets Wilderness areas, connecting the central valley with the communities of the Eastern Sierra. The plans were in place, Caltrans surveyors were out and about, and everything was in line to create a solid link across the rugged Sierra Nevada. Prior to approval however, California Governor Ronald Reagan rode out of Reds Meadow near Devils Post Pile on a white horse with a pack train of some 100 horses and men, rode to the base of the Minaret summit, and decided to halt construction.

"Secret Yosemite"
“Secret Yosemite”

Reagan, his Resource Secretary Ike Livermore, and a handful of reporters spent the night out in the high Sierra, and explored the area beneath the Minaret Summits the next day, and it became increasingly obvious to Reagan that the area needed to be protected and conserved. Reagan persuaded the Nixon administration to halt construction on the project, and even proposed joining the John Muir Wilderness with that of the Minaret Wilderness. Soon after Congress agreed and the Sierra Nevada remains unbroken from Tioga to south of Mount Whitney and Sequoia National Park, some 250 miles.

Mammoth Pools
Mammoth Pools

The stretch of the Sierra that the John Muir Trail traverses represents a unique factor of the Sierra Nevada that very few ranges in North America can claim. Over 250 miles of unbroken wilderness, no passes over the range, and Class V protected, assuring unspoiled wilderness for generations to come. The Valley that was “saved” by Reagan is a truly unique and amazing valley that I had the opportunity of experiencing a few years back. It is referred to as “Secret Yosemite” by locals of Oakhurst and surrounding communities, and it is no wonder why. The valley is full of granite domes, rivers and streams, and amazing views of the Sierra and the origins of the San Joaquin River and watershed. The area saved from highway construction is truly a beautiful area, an area that Reagan saw as a “spectacular setting”, an area that a highway would do “irreparable harm… “

Barn outside "Secret Yosemite"
Barn outside “Secret Yosemite”

While the economic and recreational benefits of a high speed highway from the Valley to Mammoth can be debated over and over, the environmental and ascetic benefits can arguably be outweighed. Reagan, a man remembered for his negative environmental record saw something amazing in that valley, and made the conscious decision to save it despite his political beliefs. While far from an environmentalist, Reagan had a major impact on the Sierra Nevada, and the entire East Side community in turn by deciding against the proposed highway between the Central Valley and Mammoth, and in turn “Saved the Sierra”.


George Skelton, “The Man in the White Hat Who Saved the Sierra”, Los Angeles Times, (Los Angeles: July 1997).

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3 thoughts on “The Man on the White Horse who Saved the Sierra Nevada

  1. The California Environmental Quality Act which has implications for Squaws proposed village development plans was also signed into law by Govenor Reagan.

    Though his tenure as president had less than stellar environmental protection and signed laws that altered environmental protection, CEQA was one of the best bills he signed into law for California.

  2. Although Reagan made lots of suspect environmental moves – including the criminal tenures of both Interior Secretary James Watt and his first head of EPA Anne Gorsuch – defeating the Trans-Sierra Highway is a strong example that environmentalism and conservation used to be a bipartisan priority. In comparison to today’s politicos, Reagan was virtually Trostky-esque.

    That said, the LAT article completely ignores the many East Side locals and others who fought tirelessly to prevent the extension of the road and who goaded Reagan into action. Hats off to all involved for preserving the wilds of the Sierra.

    OG article:

    1. Thanks for the link

      “What environmental protections now exist at Tahoe–and they’re among the nation’s toughest–were initiated by Reagan and Laxalt.”

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